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U-Md. suspends requirement for SAT or ACT scores, joining test-optional movement for one year because of pandemic

The campus of the University of Maryland at College Park. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The University of Maryland at College Park declared Friday it will suspend its requirement for SAT or ACT scores for next year’s applicants, joining a test-optional movement that has exploded nationwide during the coronavirus pandemic.

With the announcement, U-Md. became the latest state flagship to set aside its admission test mandate. In recent weeks, the University of Virginia, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Delaware, among others, also became temporarily test optional. So have selective private colleges in the Ivy League and elsewhere.

Colleges and universities across the country have been forced to rethink their policies since the novel coronavirus emergency began disrupting admission tests last March. Hundreds of thousands of college-bound students in the high school Class of 2021 have encountered huge troubles finding a place to take the SAT or ACT. Testing organizations have said they plan to expand capacity in the fall, but it’s unclear how many students they will be able to serve as the virus continues to rage in many states.

Without test scores, many students might cross off their list colleges that require them. That worried U-Md. officials.

“We didn’t want to prevent students who wanted to come to the University of Maryland from being able to apply,” said Shannon Gundy, the university’s executive director of undergraduate admissions. Gundy said consideration for merit scholarships and other special programs would also be test-optional next year.

The new policy only affects next year’s applicants. But Gundy said it is too early to know what the testing policy will be in future years. She said the university conducted a study in 2019 that verified the validity of admission test scores in helping to predict success for entering students. About 32,000 students a year apply for freshman admission to College Park.

“The SAT and ACT are one factor among many in our holistic review to help us make decisions,” Gundy said. “We’re pretty confident that those tests, when used appropriately, really can help us.”

U-Md. is relatively late to the test-optional movement. The University of California system, with nine undergraduate campuses, suspended its admission testing requirement in April, and in May it decided to phase out the SAT and ACT for in-state applicants. That may have helped spur other prominent colleges to drop, or at least halt, testing requirements.

Gundy said U-Md.'s policy needed clearance from the University System of Maryland. She also said U-Md. wanted to make its decision on the merits, regardless of the actions of other schools. “I don’t like the idea of hopping on the bandwagon because it’s convenient,” she said.

Thirty thousand applicants, one flagship: Inside admissions at U-Md.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, a group that advocates and tracks test-optional policies, said many flagships are reluctant to make the switch.

“The decision to go test-optional is often most difficult at public flagships because admissions testing policies are not made by senior on-campus officials, based on data and the school’s mission, but by boards of governors and the like, who are political appointees or otherwise driven by ideological considerations,” said Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest.

FairTest’s lists show that more than half of state flagships have adopted some form of a test-optional policy for at least 2021. Among those holding onto admission test requirements, according to FairTest, are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Madison at Wisconsin, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the universities of Florida, Georgia and Iowa.

Harvard University, among other top-ranked private schools, suspended its testing requirement last month.