Dive Brief:

  • The SAT and ACT exams could be taken online in students’ homes this fall should the coronavirus pandemic keep schools closed, according to admissions testing providers.

  • The spread of the virus in the U.S. already forced the two organizations that run the high-stakes exams to cancel several spring test dates.

  • Critics have raised concerns about access and privacy should the crisis persist and the tests need to be administered remotely.

Dive Insight:

The coronavirus rapidly shut down colleges’ and K-12 schools’ operations in the past month or so, leading the College Board and the ACT, the nonprofits that organize the two main admissions tests, to postpone exam dates this spring. An estimated one million high school juniors are losing out on taking the SAT in the spring.

In response, dozens of colleges suspended their requirements that applicants submit SAT and ACT scores, a move that advocates for test-optional policies cheered. The exams have long been viewed as a cumbersome step in the college application process for disadvantaged students who cannot afford the same extensive tutoring as their wealthier peers. 

The College Board canceled its June SAT testing date on Wednesday, announcing that with most secondary schools — which serve as exam sites — shuttered through the academic year, it could not offer the test until August. It also added a new test date in September.

If schools remain closed this fall, an “unlikely event,” the College Board said in a statement, then it would develop a digital, at-home version of the SAT for students. It assured that the test would be “simple; secure and fair; accessible to all,” and would count toward college admissions.

The ACT followed suit hours after the College Board, saying it would launch a remote form of the ACT test in the late fall or early winter.

Criticism of the exams going digital arose immediately. Admissions professionals publicly shared concerns similar to those aired after the College Board said it would deliver truncated, online versions of the Advanced Placement exams in May. 

Observers have questioned whether a take-home test would infringe on student privacy, as the College Board said it would impose stringent anti-cheating measures for the open-book AP tests, including “a range of digital security tools and techniques” to detect plagiarism. 

The coronavirus has renewed interest in online proctoring services that tap into students’ devices during a test — some of them go so far as to use students’ computer cameras to track their faces and eye movements. The Faculty Association at University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote to its chancellor last month out of concern that one of these prominent services could be a “surveillance tool” for the institution.

The College Board hasn’t proven it can secure on-site tests, Andrew Palumbo, assistant vice president for enrollment management and dean of admissions and financial aid at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), told Education Dive. Leaks of SAT answers have forced the College Board to nullify test scores of entire countries, Palumbo noted. And last year’s Varsity Blues scandal revealed an extreme weakness in college admissions testing, he said.

Many students also don’t have adequate internet access, Palumbo said, an inequity exacerbated by the economic turmoil the virus has caused. A 2018 Pew Research Center analysis found that about 15% of U.S. households with school-aged children lacked a high-speed connection.

Palumbo said many students WPI hears from apply to college using a library computer. If K-12 schools and libraries are closed, “will they sit in a library terminal and take the ACT?” he asked

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