End to standardized testing nightmares in sight?


photo via The Epic

Standardized testing. These two words alone send shockwaves of anxiety and evoke moans and groans within the average high school student. For nearly a century, the infamous ACT, SAT and AP examinations have caused months of preparation, stress and anticipation over scores that many view as the defining factor in the college admission process. However, this once critical requirement may soon become obsolete.

In the immediate aftermath of COVID-19 shutdowns, CollegeBoard and ACT Inc. found themselves in a disastrous situation. Forced to cancel nationwide test dates and find alternatives to end-of-term examinations, the two non-profit organizations not only created an overwhelming amount of stress but left thousands of college-hopeful students without this crucial entry requirement. 

Making matters worse, testing that has occurred presents its own pitfalls. The Washington Post cites that CollegeBoard’s online, hastily-organized AP Exams left some 21,860 students unable to submit their exams, forcing them to retake the test in June. 

“I hit submit multiple times and nothing happened. I felt like my work was all for nothing,” said junior Ellie Hardman, who faced her own difficulties submitting the exam. “Although I didn’t have to pay to retake the test, it was frustrating to think my work and stress on the original exam was meaningless.”

Further implications arose during the July 18 ACT as Business Insider cites over 21 testing locations were cancelled. ACT Inc, facing issues with their website, failed to notify some 1,400 students of test-site cancellations. 

“I was scheduled to take the Apr. 4 test. When it was cancelled because of the virus I rescheduled for Jul. 18,” junior Lauren Davis said. “My testing center was changed twice and the day of the test I learned my location had cancelled. I still haven’t been refunded by ACT Inc. for the cancellation.”

Those able to take the test found poor application of CDC COVID-19 recommendations, adding to the stress-level of some test takers. In an interview with Business Insider, tutor Emily Brookhyser claims one of her clients was “so upset about the potential health risk that he found it very difficult to concentrate on the test.”

To relieve students of this added anxiety, colleges across the US have made exams scores optional in the 2021 admissions process. However, this ‘temporary fix’ could become a permanent change. 

“Some schools are running an experimental pilot program to evaluate the effectiveness of test-optional,” said independent educational consultant Ginger Fay in an interview with U.S. News. “Other schools are taking this moment to announce a full transition to test-optional.”

The movement away from test scores in the admissions cycle was an ongoing process before the COVID-19 pandemic—with 1,450 colleges already implementing this test-optional policy. In the wake of 2020 test complications, the University of California announced on May 21 their plan to eliminate the ACT and SAT requirement by 2025. 

But just how much will test-optional policies affect the college admissions process? 

Advocates of test-optional argue this change would level the playing field for applicants whose scores do not reflect their entire academic prowess. This would overwhelmingly change the perspective of admissions officers who would devote more focus to high school achievements and recommendations.

“For teenagers, you know you’ll be judged as more than a score,” said Robert Schaeffer, an interim executive director of FairTest, in an interview with U.S.News. “What you’ve done in your classes over several years of high school will mean more than how well you filled in bubbles on Saturday morning.”

Others cite decreased stress as a means to justify test-optional initiatives. Harvard’s Graduate School of Education cites a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research on the stress-level of New Orleans students prior to standardized testing, finding an increase of 15 percent in the students’ cortisol levels. While more research is required to verify these findings, the stress induced by these examinations cannot go unnoticed. 

“It calls into question what we’re really measuring,” said Jennifer Heissel, head of the New Orleans study.

However, those opposed to a full, test-optional crossover believe eliminating ACT and SAT requirements will disproportionately affect lower-income students and perpetuate the high-class atmosphere of prestigious academic institutions. InsideHigherEd claims that a number of colleges have become more selective since adopting the test-optional approach. They find that discouraged students with lower test scores who opted out of submission are time and time again denied acceptance in comparison to those submitting scores.

Furthermore, EdSource criticized UC’s plan for phasing out the submission requirement, citing it would “deny automatic admission to 40 percent of African American students and more than 25 percent of low-income and first-generation students.”

What is the best option for prospective juniors and seniors facing the fallout of the pandemic? While scores may be optional this application cycle, the boost they can provide may be the difference-maker in possible acceptance. Taking the test, if circumstances permit, is still the ideal and safest way to go—added COVID-19 stress or not.

Although tedious and anxiety-ridden, standardized testing has been able to stand the test of time in its crucial college-admissions role. Some truly believe it to be an integral part of the process or else students’ tiresome efforts wouldn’t be for nothing.