Widespread exam cancellations and postponements since mid-March have left many would-be test-takers in limbo. The next testing dates for the SAT and ACT, in June, could be in doubt. By the end of the school year, the two tests are likely to have reached far fewer students than they ordinarily would, creating massive uncertainty for students and colleges.
The situation is so severe that a growing number of colleges are suspending or ending test-score requirements for applicants. Officials also are considering unusual measures to preserve testing if high school campuses and other venues for proctored exams remain off-limits because of the pandemic.
“We will need an at-home-style solution for the SAT if schools are out this fall,” David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, which owns the test, said in a discussion last week with online educator Sal Khan on YouTube. Coleman promised more details on contingency plans in coming days.
The College Board will offer at-home testing in May for its Advanced Placement program, which aims to give students a chance to earn college credit. But an abrupt shift to at-home testing for the SAT, which still seems an unlikely scenario, would raise questions about testing access and security.
For generations of students, getting tested in 11th grade has been a milestone in their path to college. The top SAT mark is 1600; for the ACT, it is 36. Many students take a test once. Others try twice or more in hopes of raising their chances for admissions or scholarships tied to benchmark scores.
The shutdown of schools and testing sites has derailed that process for students such as Anna Gerardy, a high school junior in Yale, Mich. Her first SAT, originally scheduled for this month, was scratched after Michigan closed public school campuses. The test will be rescheduled for the fall.
Gerardy, the daughter of an English teacher and a firefighter, wants to take the test at least twice to ensure she gets a score in line with her strong grades. The 16-year-old worries about staying sharp in her test preparation and squeezing in enough testing sessions before application deadlines.
“I want to look the best I can for college admission,” she said. When students hit testing obstacles, Gerardy said, she hopes colleges and universities will understand — “so we’re not punished for that.”
In Nebraska, the pandemic upended Alie Hausmann’s ACT schedule. The 17-year-old from Lincoln wants to compete for a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Nebraska. That depends on her ACT score. Hausmann was unsatisfied with her first test result in December and was planning to try again this spring until school closures got in the way. Now, she wonders when she can retake it.
“There are so many unknowns,” Hausmann said. “You don’t know when this is going to end.”
In the Class of 2019, 2.2 million students took the SAT and nearly 1.8 million took the ACT. For the Class of 2020, which is about to graduate, most admission testing is finished. The issue now is how many from the Class of 2021 will participate.
Responding to questions from The Washington Post, the College Board said more than 760,000 students in that class have taken the SAT as of early April. ACT officials said about 800,000 have an ACT score.
The untested pool is huge.
About 1 million 11th-graders who were scheduled to take the SAT for the first time will remain untested by the end of May, according to the College Board. More than 70 percent of those students would have received free testing during school hours through programs funded by states or school systems. The rest were the victims of cancellations of national sessions held on Saturdays.
In the Washington region, students in Prince George’s County, Md., and D.C. Public Schools were able to take the SAT during school in early March. But those in Montgomery County, Md., lost an SAT testing date in late March.
Many states and school systems are seeking to reschedule school-day tests. The College Board said it would also expand Saturday testing “as the public health situation allows.”
The ACT refused to provide details on how many 11th-graders remain untested. But it acknowledged that testing was disrupted for about a third of the students it had scheduled for school-day testing in states such as Montana and Nebraska and cities such as Memphis.
The organization said it is “working hard to ensure that every student in next year’s 2021 graduating class who wants to take the ACT has the opportunity to do so.”
Admissions-test scores are required for applicants to many public flagship universities and prominent private universities in the Ivy League and elsewhere.
But some colleges and universities are going test-optional, fearful that testing turmoil will hinder recruiting. The University of California suspended for one year its requirement for SAT or ACT scores. So have liberal arts schools in the Northeast including Williams, Amherst and Hamilton colleges.
“I’m not anti-testing,” said Monica Inzer, vice president for enrollment management at Hamilton in Clinton, N.Y. “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do in this moment. These students have so much anxiety. It’s just one less thing for them to have to stress about.”
Vermont’s Middlebury College went a step further, announcing a three-year test-optional experiment. “As we continue to work towards a more equitable admissions process, we seek to clear obstacles that might prevent students from applying, especially right now when students face other hurdles in their home community due to the pandemic,” said Nicole Curvin, Middlebury’s dean of admissions.
The upending of this spring’s tests is fueling an already-roiling debate about the value of test scores. Some admissions leaders at competitive universities find them a useful reality check against grade inflation. Others say cumulative high school grades and the rigor of courses matter far more than scores.
Testing disruptions pose unique problems for students who seek to be the first in their families to go to college. Getting a score often kick-starts their college search process, helping them envision where they might want to apply.
“It’s one of the gateways,” said Nicole Hurd, founder and chief executive of College Advising Corps, a national network that aims to connect disadvantaged students with college. “The idea is, I get a score and then I know the range of my schools.”
Scores don’t define an applicant, experts say, but they can catalyze thinking. Now, Hurd fears students may fall off the college track amid the educational and economic chaos the pandemic has unleashed. “I don’t want students to lose the opportunities they’ve earned,” she said.