Education

Colleges dump online SAT and ACT, fueling anti-testing movement

The University of California system is the latest, voting Thursday to suspend the test mandate through 2024.

Students walk on the University of California, Berkeley campus

The coronavirus has conquered even the SAT.

Colleges uneasy about standardized tests taken online from home this fall are dropping their requirements for the exams, fueling a movement to eliminate the high-stakes tests from admissions decisions altogether.

The latest was the huge University of California system, where regents voted Thursday to suspend the SAT and ACT mandate through 2024 as the school attempts to develop its own test. Standardized admissions exams will be completely eliminated in 2025 in the elite public system that enrolls 291,000 students.

UC joins some 80 colleges and universities that have announced just this year they will not require standardized test scores this fall, either permanently or temporarily, as the testmakers prepare for online exams if high schools remain closed. Cornell University suspended its test requirement for fall 2021 and so have all public universities in Oregon, and colleges including Washington and Lee University, Davidson College, Fordham University, Vassar College and Tufts University. Altogether, more than 1,200 schools say applicants can skip the tests, including those who made the move before the pandemic.

The shift away from standardized tests has produced fierce pushback from the testmakers, who hold a multimillion-dollar dominance in the admissions process, and pleas to colleges to hang on to the exams. It means more colleges could base admissions on students' GPA, high school courses and personal essays, and ease what advocates see as longtime barriers for low-income and first-generation applicants. But the heads of the ACT and SAT warn an emphasis on GPAs could lead to grade inflation in well-to-do high schools, where parents can lobby teachers for better marks.

Testmakers insist online exams will be secure, but colleges and counselors fear widespread cheating, a year after the "Varsity Blues" scandal revealed wealthy parents paid to boost their kids' scores. Technical glitches plagued some online Advanced Placement exams last week and parents and students have sued challenging the results.

The National Association for College Admissions Counseling has emerged as a prominent critic of the push for online ACT and SAT tests. “It was the last straw,” said Jayne Fonash, president of the group of counselors who advise college applicants.

“Many of us have had concerns about this testing for a long time, but we don't seem to be making any progress,” she said. “What precipitated doing this right now, is it was another example of students being disadvantaged in access to higher education.” Counselors are worried about students without high-speed internet access at home trying to take the tests, and how to make the tests available for students with disabilities.

Fonash said her organization has encouraged college officials who are among its more than 15,000 members to reassess their admission criteria for students applying for the 2020-21 academic year, especially standardized test scores. The counselors' group says it felt “blindsided” by the testmakers’ decisions this spring to put the tests online and charged that details regarding security, content, scoring or validity have not been adequately addressed.

Cheating is also a potential issue, and could be exacerbated by the online at-home exams. A 2019 POLITICO review found that the College Board and ACT have virtually no oversight of many individuals proctoring the exams.

Before the coronavirus upended the traditional college admissions process that includes deadlines and standardized tests, institutions had long stayed faithful in using the SAT and ACT as indicators of first-year college success. Their trust continued despite bruises inflicted by the admissions scandal and a civil rights lawsuit filed against the UC system over its use of the exams in admissions decisions.

The College Board, which administers the SAT and AP, brings in more than $1 billion a year in revenue, according to 2018 tax documents. The ACT, founded in 1959, brought in about $349 million that year.

Both The College Board and ACT dispute that the digital delivery of the exams is a new, untested concept. The ACT has offered online exams overseas for prospective international students, and had planned to further roll out online testing in the U.S. this year.

The testmakers say they are moving the tests online as a way to ensure students have access to the high stakes admissions exams. They also say they’ve been working with colleges and have been relying on their guidance during the development of the new options.

“We would much prefer the schools reopened,” College Board CEO David Coleman said on a call with reporters. “But we are ready to innovate and deliver in the unlikely case we need to.”

The testmakers resist the possibility of cheating and College Board President Jeremy Singer described what the remote proctoring for the SAT could look like when a student sits in front of a computer to take the exam.

“The software locks down everything else on their computer so they can't open any other program, other than the proctoring software which would also have the testing software,” Singer told reporters. “Then their camera and microphone are on, so you can detect any movement in the room. There's all these mechanisms, and again, I think has been quite standard.”

The ACT said in a statement that it respects colleges' decisions on their admissions policies, especially in the middle of a crisis, but defended the test's value as consistent across districts and states, and predictive of a student's college success.

If exams are de-emphasized, grade inflation will ensue, "particularly in wealthy districts and private schools where college counselors are provided, custom learning resources are offered, and assertive parents are willing to negotiate with teachers," Marten Roorda, the head of the ACT, wrote in a letter to the University of California system.

But if the Advanced Placement exams taken last week by high school students for college credit are any indication of what fall online testing could look like, it’s fair to say online ACTs and SATs will not go off without a hitch.

Brittanie Davis, a counselor at Kokomo High School in Indiana, said some of her students faced technical glitches while trying to submit their AP exams, and the experience shook their confidence for the rest of the exam period, let alone the SAT or ACT in the fall.

“They've never seen the new format, they don't know what it's like,” Davis said. “To ask them at the beginning of their senior year — when they're supposed to be submitting their college applications — to try to take a test online with technology that is new to them and a test that is new to them when they already have access issues is really concerning.”

“The thing about moving tests online is that it should be an option," Davis said, "not the only choice.”

The College Board has said about 3.4 million students are registered to take AP Exams this year, and that less than 1 percent of the first more than 1 million students who tested encountered technical difficulties. But students along with test opponents are suing The College Board, claiming it rolled out the “untested” online exams to pad its pockets amid hundreds of thousands canceled spring SAT administrations. Peter Schwartz, College Board chief risk officer and general counsel, called the suit "wrong factually and baseless legally."

As for this fall, the testmakers have tried to assure colleges that the online tests will be "secure and fair; accessible to all; and valid for use in college admissions,” according to The College Board.

“The facts are that we've been working with digital testing on the SAT for approximately five years,” Coleman said. “So, as a question of science and psychometric validity, we can absolutely do an apples-to-apples comparison between the at home test, and the digital test and those taken within a school.”

Yet colleges remain skeptical and that has encouraged longtime test opponents.

“This cancellation of tests this spring and all the other disruptions in the admissions process has been a catalyst for more schools to go test-optional,” said Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director at FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which has led the test-optional admissions movement since the late 1980s.

Some institutions have committed to one-year, two- year or three-year pilot programs. Others are doing away with the requirement indefinitely. “What we've seen is that once schools go test-optional, they very rarely go back to requiring tests," Schaeffer said.

Claremont McKenna College in California is one institution that has said it would not use scores from the fall tests as a replacement for the traditional SAT or ACT exams. "Although both the College Board and the ACT have introduced the concept of an at-home version of the exams, details regarding security, content, scoring, or validity have not been addressed," the college said in a statement.

Fonash said there's just not been enough preparation for an online shift. “There are several layers of not only inequity, but lack of information to make decisions about counseling students or awarding credits to students,” she said.

“It's no one's fault that the test could not be administered in person this year,” she added. “But their solution was to roll out an online platform without significant beta testing, significant input from stakeholders or some conversations from professional groups about a plan. There could have been a much more responsible way to look at this.”

The UC system made its decision after President Janet Napolitano advocated to push testing requirements off until 2024 and asked her Board of Regents to create a new admissions exam for California students. The regents cited the coronavirus upheaval as an opportunity to implement the new policy.

The change didn't come easily, though. Earlier this year, the UC faculty task force recommended the system should retain its SAT or ACT admissions requirement, despite pressure to get rid of it.

Many have viewed this as a potential turning point for whether standardized tests will continue to play a role in admissions, saying if the UC, one of the largest public university systems in the country, decides to go test-optional, more will follow suit.

"Regardless of what happens with such policies, our mission remains the same: to give all students, and especially low-income and first generation students, opportunities to show their strength," The College Board said in a statement. "We must also address the disparities in coursework and classrooms that the evidence shows most drive inequity in California."

Yet even test opponents admit that while the coronavirus may have thrown some punches with the sudden upheaval of the school year, it won’t be the complete end of the test, Schaeffer said.

“There will always be a few schools for whatever reason that will continue having testing requirements — both hyper selective institutions, like the Ivy Leagues and many public universities,” he said. “FairTest is about giving kids choices, not telling them what they have to do or not.”