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Admissions requirements changed abruptly early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when colleges adopted test-optional policies en masse. But testing policies at some schools aren’t as optional as advertised when it comes to certain cohorts—particularly homeschooled students.

Likewise, international students may still see testing requirements, particularly to gauge English language abilities, and prospective NCAA athletes are also required to submit ACT and SAT scores for now. But domestic homeschooled students occupy a unique spot in the testing landscape, one where admissions standards applied to them don’t match what’s required of many other applicants.

The challenge in evaluating homeschooled applicants, college officials say, is that no two students have the exact same preparation for college. Nearly every homeschooled student is unique in terms of curriculum, grading and coursework that takes place in or outside the home. And while some families enroll their students in rigorous community college classes, others prefer less structured independent study.

“Trying to figure out how a particular family grades, how they build their curriculum and what that looks like is tough,” says Liam Dailey, regional associate director of admissions at Beloit College.

An ACT or SAT score, admissions experts say, gives colleges a known and familiar metric to use when gauging a homeschooled applicant. Such scores can also supplement the transcript provided by families, which can vary greatly in terms of the information presented.

Changes in Testing Policies

Even before the pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, some colleges that were already test optional still required homeschooled students to submit test scores. Such was the case at Beloit College, which went test optional—except for homeschooled students—back in 2014.

“Prior to my arrival at Beloit in the summer of 2020, we were still requiring testing for homeschoolers,” says Dailey, who was homeschooled through eighth grade.

Ditto for Bowdoin College, which has been test optional since 1969.

“For homeschool students, we did require that they submit either the SAT or ACT,” says Claudia Marroquin, senior vice president and dean of admissions and student aid at Bowdoin. “That policy was changed last year. Given everything that was happening nationally and internationally, with access to test sittings, we realized that we were holding on to this requirement that no longer made sense for students who fell into the homeschool category.”

Colorado College went test optional in 2019, a year ahead of the major pandemic shift, but retained ACT and SAT requirements for homeschooled students before dropping those in 2020.

“When that policy was implemented, there were some concerns about particular cohorts of our pool that are more challenging [to evaluate] without standardized testing. One of those was homeschooled applicants,” says Karen Kristof, assistant vice president and dean of admission at Colorado College. “It’s my understanding that it still felt like, to many on the admission staff, that because sometimes information is a little bit harder to obtain and contextualize with homeschooled students, that standardized testing gave us another metric.”

Though some colleges may have gone test optional for homeschooled students later than for other applicants, it’s the schools that retain those requirements that are frustrating to the homeschool community, says Rebecca Stuart-Orlowski, an independent educational consultant.

Based in California, Stuart-Orlowski works with numerous homeschool families to help their students apply to college. The challenge, she says, isn’t typically with smaller, more selective colleges but often with large state schools that refuse to budge on testing requirements for homeschooled students, even when the ACT and SAT are optional for other applicants.

“There are some cases where we’re really having to advocate and say, ‘Either take the school off the list, because they’re not willing to bend’ or just keep hammering away,” she says, adding that sometimes she contacts admissions offices to advocate for her students. In other cases, however, clients have given up on schools that remain insistent on receiving test scores.

“These are not students who haven’t done outside work, so that’s really frustrating,” she adds, noting that some of her students supplement their transcripts with community college classes.

She points to challenges for her students when applying to schools such as the University of Oregon and the University of Utah, among others, that still require homeschooled students to submit ACT or SAT scores. That inflexibility, she says, will lead to students going elsewhere.

Neither Oregon nor Utah provided a response to questions from Inside Higher Ed.

One particular group that Stuart-Orlowski says suffers at the hands of inflexible testing policies is homeschooled students who require special accommodations, who often “cannot even find a high school willing to proctor that exam,” leaving them with little to no option to take the ACT or SAT when required.

Evaluation Challenges

Dailey says that colleges often overlook homeschooled applicants as a cohort. He worries that required testing holds the homeschooled population to a different standard than other applicants and sends a message that colleges don’t trust those students.

“It feels really inequitable to single out homeschoolers as the group that needs to test,” he says, adding that it isn’t uncommon to see unique transcripts from students who attend unfamiliar high schools. Admissions officers do their research when evaluating an applicant with an unusual high school transcript, he says; they should do the same for homeschooled students. “You’ve got to try and figure out exactly what their experience was and then how to evaluate that within their context,” he says.

Though colleges may struggle to evaluate homeschooled students, such applicants make up a fairly small percentage of their pools, admissions officials say. But that may change in the future, as more families turned to homeschooling amid academic disruptions driven by COVID-19.

According to U.S. Census data, homeschooling spiked from spring to fall of 2020. While 5.4 percent of U.S. households with school-aged children reported homeschooling their students in the spring of 2020, that number jumped to 11.1 percent by fall, doubling that population.

And while homeschooling jumped across all households, it practically skyrocketed for families identifying as Black or African American. Census data indicate that only 3.3 percent of such households homeschooled in spring 2020, a number that rose to 16.1 percent in the fall.

The ever-evolving face of the homeschool community is something that Stuart-Orlowski feels is often overlooked. She notes that the diversity of the homeschool population stretches across racial and political lines, with families making that educational choice for a multitude of reasons.

Dailey says that colleges are seeing a new kind of homeschooled student, one who made the move to homeschooling as a result of the pandemic and may have more traditional classroom experience in their earlier academic life. Such applicants may submit blended transcripts to colleges, which include time spent in a traditional classroom as well as homeschooling.

Kristof suggests that the challenges of evaluating students during the pandemic may bode well in the long term for the homeschool population. “I would say that homeschooled students might have a more receptive audience in some admission offices these days, because we’ve had to figure out how to do this with less information, or with less traditional information,” Kristof says.

Colleges that have dropped testing for homeschooled students now have to look at other metrics. In addition to transcripts, some ask that students submit graded papers or projects. Nonparent letters of recommendation are also valued. Some colleges also recommend that students take part in admissions interviews, while others make this a requirement.

Essentially, admissions officials say, colleges want to see what homeschooled students have learned outside the traditional classroom experience.

With FairTest counting more than 1,815 test-optional four-year colleges, that trend seems unlikely to reverse. And as testing requirements are dropped for homeschooled students, colleges have to devise new ways to evaluate those applicants. The answers, admissions officials suggest, will be as varied as the applicants and the colleges themselves.

“I think very few schools will return to the testing requirements that they had pre-pandemic,” Marroquin says. “I think the question of how to assess [homeschooled students] is going to vary by each institution. Everyone has different expectations. Every institution is going to be different in the amount of support [they provide] and what students are required to do once they get onto their campus.”

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