Admissions group asks colleges to rethink role of SAT, ACT

Dive Brief:

  • Higher education’s admissions industry group wants colleges to reevaluate the role of entrance exams and is calling for administrators to be more transparent in how they are used

  • The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) released a report this week detailing flaws with the SAT and ACT, some of which have worsened during the pandemic. 

  • NACAC’s recommendations come as a record number of institutions move to test-optional admissions policies for students entering college in the fall of 2021, citing barriers in taking the exams. 

Dive Insight:

Even before the health crisis, colleges were eliminating standardized testing requirements at a record pace, as 2019 saw the most colleges in a single year shift to test-flexible rules, according to FairTest, a group that advocates for equitable uses of college entrance exams. 

But as the coronavirus shut down K-12 schools throughout the U.S. this spring, the most common testing sites, many colleges abandoned the SAT and ACT — though some did so only temporarily. Administrators said they recognized the difficulties in students sitting for the exams. 

That includes all of the Ivy League schools, as well as the University of California System, one of the largest testing markets in the country. As of mid-August, more than 60% of all four-year schools went test-optional for fall 2021, FairTest found

Student-athletes who plan to play Division I or II sports and are enrolling full time in the 2021-22 academic year also won’t be asked to take standardized tests to meet the NCAA’s eligibility requirements, the association announced recently

Though leaders of the College Board and ACT haven’t released exact figures, they’ve acknowledged the pandemic’s toll on their finances. More than 2 million students who graduated in 2019 took the SAT and nearly 1.8 million took the ACT, according to NACAC’s report, which outlines the “symbiotic” relationship between the two nonprofits and colleges.

The tests came to be because institutions needed a “common yardstick” for measuring applicants, the report explains. However, their reliance on the testing duopoly has grown considerably since the SAT debuted in the mid-1920s and college enrollment swelled.

But as a more diverse group of applicants became interested in postsecondary education, the report continues, testing groups failed to “ensure that the access to and availability of test administrations, the quality of the testing experience, and the integrity and validity of test scores are preserved consistently.”

The exams’ cost falls onto students and families, the report notes, adding that such tests primarily benefit institutions, which can be problematic “when viewed through an equity and access lens.”

Low-income students also can’t often access intensive tutoring, which buoys their wealthier counterparts in admissions decisions, testing critics have said. 

Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s interim executive director, said in an emailed statement that the testing industry and colleges that require scores should have to justify that the exams are “fair, accurate and useful.” But based on NACAC’s report, he continued, “current undergraduate admissions tests fail to meet these basic standards.”

Despite the significant number of institutions going test-optional, some high school counselors and students are wary of the new policies because the exams are so ingrained in admissions culture, NACAC’s new CEO, Angel Pérez, said in an interview Monday. To ease those concerns, the group recently asked its member institutions to affirm their test-optional approach won’t penalize students who don’t submit scores. As of Tuesday morning, 500 colleges signed the statement.

NACAC is also calling for test-optional colleges to explain the rationale behind their policies and note whether they include exceptions, such as that students need to take the SAT or ACT for admission to certain programs or to receive some types of financial aid. Admissions officials have criticized colleges that transition to test-optional rules but require the scores for institutional aid.

The group suggests institutions that require the tests publicly report the middle 50th percentile of scores for admitted students along with other metrics that allow applicants to judge their admissions prospects. 

NACAC also suggests regular studies that review and refine colleges’ processes. And it advises institutions to carefully consider whether their policies encourage students to try the tests more than once, when some struggle to take them at all

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