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College Admissions in an Era of School Closures

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April 22nd, 2020

COVID-19-related school closures are impacting 55.1 million students nationwide. Widespread school closures create challenges for every student, including the 2.9 million high school juniors who are still planning to attend college in the fall of 2021. 

For many juniors, spring of 2020 was to be a critical window for college admissions. Many 11th graders have been focused on the ACT or the SAT, the two leading college entrance exams. With testing dates canceled and admission deadlines looming, students and families are asking, “What now?”

Colleges and universities are starting to release their accommodations for admissions standards for the graduating class of 2021. 

For instance, the University of California system announced that they will not require a standardized test score for admission to the freshmen class of 2021. Additionally, they will accept “Pass” or “Credit” grades for winter, spring, and summer of 2020 (normally, the UC system requires a letter grade in all required coursework). The UC system uses 14 criteria when evaluating a student application. Additionally, the UC system is relaxing application, registration, and deposit deadlines. This means that for one year, the UC system will join a growing list of colleges that have made standardized testing an optional part of the admissions process. 

Other colleges and universities are committing to a three-year test-optional period, including Tufts University. Several colleges and universities see this as an opportunity to learn about the ramifications of a test-optional admissions criteria. 

Colleges and universities have been committed to breaking down barriers to the admissions process caused by school closures. As David Coleman, CEO of College Board discussed, colleges are interested in a bright, engaged, and diverse student community. Additionally, colleges are concerned about their post-COVID enrollment numbers; they rely on student enrollment to keep their school open. Colleges and universities are still invested in attracting a well-rounded student population and the new admission standards create new opportunities for students.  For some students, the opportunity to submit a test-optional application means they can skip hours of test prep. But is test-optional admissions an advantage to every student? 

What Does “Test Optional” Really Mean for Equity?

Test-optional admissions comes at a cost. A college must now measure a student’s academic potential by how they did in the past. The avenues and opportunities that students have been working through and planning around have been shifted overnight. What are some of the different scenarios this might impact students?

First, without a standardized test score, other components such as GPA and rigor of coursework become more important. This may be an advantage to a student who has a solid transcript of high marks and AP/IB courses, but this may disadvantage students who have an inconsistent grade point average, students who moved schools several times, or students who did not attempt AP/Honors classes.  

Second, some schools are grading coursework as planned, while others have stated that AP/Honors coursework during the spring 2020 semester is no longer eligible for a GPA bump. If a school decides to issue Pass/Credit grades instead of letter grades, the coursework will count, but will not factor into a student’s GPA. For students who are working hard to raise their GPA for college admissions, they may be at a grading disadvantage right at a time when grading practices matter more.  

Third, most students have no control over grading practices, grading policies, and course offerings at their current high school. Moving schools, participating in arts or athletics, and family obligations sometimes interfere with advanced coursework. Some students may need a standardized test score to demonstrate future potential if their academic past doesn’t match the student they could be. 

Additionally, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (as well as many states and a majority of colleges and universities) offers merit-based scholarship money. For some states and most major colleges, merit is assessed based on standardized test scores and high school GPA. Merit-based scholarships may still require an SAT or ACT score. If students do not take a standardized test, they may be leaving thousands of dollars on the table; possibly thousands of dollars per term. A standardized test score may be a key component for any student trying to minimize the out-of-pocket cost of college. 

Waiving the ACT and SAT testing requirements was an acknowledgement to how normalcy has been upended. Many students were issued stay-in-place orders by their governor, creating a literal barrier to taking the exam at a brick and mortar institution. Even if stay-in-place orders had not been issued, students may be needed at home to care for younger siblings—or feel personally obligated to stay home to prevent the spread of the pandemic. 

These realities exist at the same time as the reality that students’ pathways to college acceptance have been unexpectedly changed—with no change in the timeline to when they will need to show college readiness. The ACT and SAT exam offers an avenue to students who are working tirelessly to change their trajectories and demonstrate abilities that aren’t shown in their past work. By enabling students to safely and/or remotely opt-in to take the ACT or SAT, districts are re-opening avenue to students who were relying on it and make a more equitable opportunity for all.


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