Thinking Twice About Testing

NACAC issues report that is highly critical of standardized testing in admissions.

August 24, 2020

Many colleges have gone test optional in admissions this year -- some because they view tests as unnecessary and some because of the difficulties of taking a test during the COVID-19 pandemic. An overwhelming majority of colleges will not require the SAT or the ACT for admission in the coming academic year.

Today, the National Association for College Admission Counseling issued a new report that reflects those changes. The report does not state definitively that colleges shouldn't require a test, but it says that the assumptions of colleges when they adopted testing requirements may no longer be true.

“Time has changed much about the founding purposes and assumptions behind these [standardized] exams,” says the report. “Indeed, the very notions of finding ‘diamonds in the rough’ and even the ‘common yardstick’ are culturally suspect. Are not all students capable of success if given equal opportunity?”

The report was originally designed to explore "the mismatch between the increasing role international students play in institutions’ enrollment planning and the level of service these students receive in test administration," amid many complaints from college counselors outside the United States about the frequent cancellations of the SAT and ACT abroad, for security reasons. But the coronavirus pandemic led NACAC to expand the report to cover students in the U.S. as well.

“After we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions, we cannot simply ‘go back to normal,’” the report says. “The tenuous grasp we hold on many of our habits and policies has been further loosened and we must adapt if we are to continue to fulfill our duty to the public good.”

The report says that colleges that may have needed tests at one point no longer do.

"Postsecondary institutions have effectively entrusted the College Board and ACT with the authority of serving as a third-party certifier of students’ qualification for admission. As the population interested in admission to college has rapidly expanded and diversified, however, testing agencies have not been able 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 report says.

"Moreover, 'test prep' -- at first scorned by the testing agencies and now embraced -- has burgeoned into a billion-dollar industry, creating added equity challenges and calling into question the reliability of test scores as true measures of student abilities."

As for international test takers, the report says that they have "for years faced significant barriers to access, creating an inequitable testing environment compared to test-takers within the United States -- the original impetus for this task force. Advocates for international test-takers have expressed disapproval over fewer test dates, greater distances traveled to a limited number of testing locations, higher fees, differing policies (e.g., fee waivers), and alternative testing formats that disadvantage students. Specialized technology requirements for the ACT have reduced the ability of some secondary schools to remain as testing sites. After years of expressing their concerns, professionals working with international students have been frustrated by limited responses from the testing organizations, minimal awareness of their challenges by higher education institutions, and the recurrence of the same issues on an annual basis."

While not urging colleges to drop testing requirements for good, the report says colleges should make their decisions about testing in the following ways:

  • Consider the public good. "Consider what admission policy decisions mean for higher education generally, and whether institutional policies and practices enable more students access to higher education," the report says.
  • Be student-centered. "Offer simplicity and clarity in a time of complexity and heightened anxiety about the college admission process. Though the COVID-19 pandemic created additional barriers to accessing standardized tests, certain populations -- including international applicants, who are critical to postsecondary institutions -- have faced barriers for decades that will remain, or even be exacerbated, if or when testing returns to pre-COVID-19 operations."
  • Focus on student success. "Review historical institutional data for enrolled students to determine the factors that contribute to student success."
  • "Be transparent and provide clearly stated explanations for all decisions related to testing … Avoid ambiguous language."
  • "Include a plan for conducting frequent reviews. Commit to regular assessment of institutional data to inform testing policy."
  • Consider unintended consequences. "Standardized tests have served a role in the evaluation process to assess cognitive characteristics of students independently of any particular secondary school curriculum. External assessments can be thought of as a counterweight to information from secondary schools that have an interest in the outcome of the selection process. When colleges and universities no longer utilize SAT or ACT scores, and other measures of academic achievement become more important in determining who is admitted, does this place new pressures on secondary schools?"

Angel B. Pérez, CEO of NACAC, said in an interview that there was one reason colleges value the tests. "Colleges and universities fear that if the rankings organizations do not change their methodology and continue to emphasize standardized tests, presidents and boards may feel the pressure to return to testing requirements."

He said he hoped that the many colleges that have gone test optional during the pandemic stay that way.

"Wouldn't it be sad if when COVID goes away we go back to doing things exactly the same way?" Pérez said. "Many admissions officers were already skeptical of the validity of the exams and whether or not they served their purposes well. I can't imagine a scenario where a year or two after being test optional, when institutions realize that the students they admitted are just as good as previous classes, that they would reverse course. It just wouldn't make sense."

As for the widely held belief that the testing organizations are big donors to NACAC, he said that was "false."

"In the past, we have received small sponsorships from College Board and ACT for conferences and events," he said. "However, I just reviewed a few NACAC reports and we currently have zero College Board or ACT sponsorships lined up for any of our forthcoming events."

FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, issued this statement: "NACAC is on target in posing the fundamental question about the ACT and SAT 'Does the value justify the costs?' Prescription drugs must demonstrate that they are safe and effective before they can be widely used. Similarly, the burden of proof should be on the testing industry and admissions offices that require scores to show that the exams are fair, accurate and useful. Based on the evidence reinforced by the new NACAC report, current undergraduate admissions tests fail to meet these basic standards."

ACT issued a statement that said in part, "While many of the claims in this report are not supported by longstanding ACT and external research, we invite an open and honest discussion with members of the NACAC task force as a next step in our continued collaboration with college admissions professionals. Our desire is to engage more closely with stakeholders who are involved in the college admission process, to honestly examine the critical issues outlined in this report. While we respect the right of institutions to turn to test optional policies in the short-term, we agree that doing so introduces risks and concerns such as those articulated by the task force. The unintended consequences of removing a valid and reliable metric like the ACT from the admissions process will undoubtedly place new burdens on secondary schools."

The College Board released this statement: "Colleges understand that due to the pandemic there are limited opportunities for students to take a college entrance exam. The College Board has urged colleges to be flexible in admissions for the upcoming admissions cycle. In the longer term, as the admissions process is able to stabilize post-covid-19, we will support our higher ed members as they transition back to requiring test scores, or as they implement permanent new policies. We have always advocated that colleges use test scores in context, as one part of a holistic admissions process, to make more equitable and inclusive admissions decisions. We support and encourage colleges that want to continuously review the way they use test scores and other factors through our validity research and our ACES service, tools which we provide for free for any interested college."


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