Is it Time to Rethink Standardized Testing in College Admission?

By Jayne Caflin Fonash, NACAC President

Headshot of Jayne Caflin Fonash, NACAC President

In almost every conversation these past two months with students, families, counselors, admission professionals, and the media, I have been asked, “What gives you hope for the future?”.

My response? Along with thousands of you around the world, I chose this profession because I believe in the power and ethical provision of access, equity, and transparency in the college admission process. Knowing that, I trust that many of you are guided every day as I am by our commitment to act in the best interests of studentsparticularly those underserved students at greatest riskwhile being mindful of our institutional responsibilities. 

I applaud our college and university leaders who acted swiftly in the interest of student and staff safety while quickly stepping up to provide virtual tours and admitted student events. Not every institution has been able to make changes in official deposit dates or amounts, but as I talk with students and  colleagues at colleges and universities around the country I hear stories every day about efforts to ensure flexibility and transparency for students challenged in their current decisions. 

One day K-12 students were in brick-and-mortar schools, and the next morning we were all at home. Home schooling will be a way of life for the near future. Counselors have embraced virtual delivery of counseling and mental health programs, welcoming their students into a new type of “office.” Schools and districts prioritized food availability and delivery for students who depend on those two meals a day.

Many of these same admission professionals on all sides of the desk have raised legitimate questions about plans announced by the College Board and ACT concerning testing opportunities for students during the coming months, which is the subject of a letter being sent this week by NACAC to the leadership of those organizations. We believe standardized testing at its most useful needs to be standard and not dependent upon a student’s homelife, access to technology, and time zone.

Concerns voiced by our members include the persistent and well-documented digital divide between low-income and upper-income students as well as their access to safe and quiet rooms; unprecedented challenges faced by students with documented disabilities in participating in standardized tests; and uneven access faced by students throughout the world to online infrastructure across various nations and impractical testing hours. Little is known about the reliability of admission test scores taken in a home setting. In addition, college admission officers do not have specific information from the testing agencies, aside from general assurances, regarding the extent to which home-administered tests will maintain validity and comparability with other test administrations.

The absence of prior communication with the very professionals vital to the administration of these tests clearly flies in the face of professional respect, not to mention a disregard for the best interests of students who have been told in a recent video that it is their “responsibility” to take AP tests regardless of their concerns regarding test environments and lack of clarity regarding college credit.  

Additional announcements concerning test administration are resulting in both counselors and students being forced to choose between administering the September tests, college fairs, and professional development. The recently announced September 26th SAT test date coincides with the 41st Annual USA College Day Fair in London, and the 76th Annual NACAC National Conference in Minneapolis. Thousands of students in Europe attend USA College Day to meet with several hundred US college representatives, and thousands of high school counselors attend NACAC to participate in the most important professional development opportunity of the year. Had appropriate conversations taken place before announcing this date, counselors being forced to choose among multiple crucial events might have been avoided. While being respectful of Jewish holidays that occur in the fall, other possible dates do exist if the goal was to provide additional testing opportunities for the Class of 2021 to submit test scores for early deadlines.

NACAC is asking its member colleges and universities to reassess their admission criteria in light of the overwhelming challenges faced by many students. Do the criteria―test scores, grades in college prep courses, strength of curriculum, and the like―stand up to educational scrutiny? Are they reliable? And perhaps most important of all, do they preserve access for all students, including low-income, first-generation, and other vulnerable students who are already facing increased threats to their physical, emotional, and economic well-being amid this global health crisis? And ultimately, is the current testing flawed?

This message is consistent with the recommendations of the 2008 NACAC Commission on the Use of Standardized Testing in Undergraduate Admission, which included statements about the utility of standardized tests in admission, recommendations for action against test score misuse and encouraged institutions to consider dropping the requirement that students submit test scores as a condition for admission. The current NACAC Task Force on Standardized Testing for International and US Students is wrestling with issues of cheating, test re-use, and other issues related to the globally expanding administration of tests. Testing has certainly been part of international conversations, as over 1,100 institutions have gone to a test optional policy in their admission review. As a result of the challenges posed by the current pandemic, almost 70 additional institutions have announced test optional policies for the next 1-3 years.

The world is forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our niche in this crisis is access to higher education. What do we do next? We question accepted realities, we seek solutions that may well be found outside the usual compass, and we embrace the opportunity to do things that we could not have done before. If we consider equity and fairness to be the cornerstone of all of our decision-making and our work on behalf of all students, then WE ARE RESPONSIBLE to advance the conversation about the value and ethical use of “standardized testing” in college admission, to bring this incredibly important matter to center stage among all college admission professionals, and truly to rethink the role of testing in the college admission process in partnership with institutions that have our students’ well-being at heart.

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