Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, universities had begun to broach the uncomfortable question of whether standardized tests are needed to make sound admissions decisions.
At this moment, 55 percent of all four-year colleges now are test-optional, an 37 percent increase in the past year. It is only one step toward greater social mobility for young people in America and abroad.
We must question the status quo — our reliance on third parties to certify students’ qualifications for admission —and thoroughly evaluate the authority with which we have entrusted the College Board, administrator of the SAT and ACT.
We have built a system where colleges outsource the evaluation of their students to testing agencies, then pay them for the names of the students who took the exam. Most of the financial obligation is on students, and test proctoring is an extraordinary burden on secondary schools. The prevalence of testing is so deeply tied to our culture that legislatures in states such as Georgia and Colorado must approve whether their public institutions can join the test-optional movement.
Every year, school districts and state governments in America pay millions to the College Board and ACT to cover the cost of the tests for their students. When the average high school counselor-to-student ratio in America is one to 470 — nearly double the recommended ratio — what if we used those funds to hire, train and support more counselors?
Each year, rankings agencies evaluate institutions of higher education based partially on how well their incoming students do on standardized testing. What if ranking organizations based their results on universities moving students up the social-mobility ladder and how much they learn along the way?
Think of it this way: Hospitals are evaluated on how much stronger their patients are when they’re discharged, not on how healthy they are when they arrive.
Recently, my organization, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, created an online petition for institutions to sign because high school counselors were telling us that their students don’t believe that schools that have gone test-optional really mean it. In fact, students are so afraid they will be disadvantaged without a test score, that several risked their lives and contracted COVID while sitting for the ACT recently.
Enough is enough.
Once the pandemic restrictions are lifted, we still will have serious reckoning to do. A report released recently by NACAC introduces a host of new questions that colleges must consider: Do colleges derive enough benefits from receiving students’ test scores to justify the multibillion-dollar testing enterprise? More important, on whose shoulders does this burden fall most heavily? In light of racial-justice concerns that dominated this year’s news as a result of police violence, the demands for equity and fairness in college admission take on even greater urgency.
Our admission processes afford us only the briefest of windows during which to evaluate four years’ worth of work, not to mention the intangible or as-yet undocumented traits that can propel individuals to success in life, which is why test scores are so convenient. Testing offers an efficient and expedient tool to assist decision making.
However, just because something is convenient doesn’t mean it is good. We must do a better job of accessing the breadth of experiences and skills students demonstrate during their K-12 education.
Decades ago, higher education adopted college entrance exams because they believed it put every student on a level playing field. That wasn’t true then, and it certainly isn’t now.
After we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions, we cannot simply “go back to normal.” We must find the courage to examine our habits and policies, and we must adapt if we are to continue to fulfill our duty to the public good. Complacency is not an option.
Angel B. Perez is CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
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