Ethical College Admissions: Testing’s Existential Crisis, or Blanche Du Bois, Confederate Statues and Admission Tests

Jim Jump writes that the problems facing the SAT and ACT go beyond the usual complaints.

August 3, 2020

Depending on your perspective, the college admission testing industry either can’t catch a break or is finally getting its due.

In 2020 the testing industry has been -- well, tested. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed hairline cracks in a number of areas of American life, from public health to political leadership to our national will to sacrifice. It has brought to the surface similar vulnerabilities in the testing industry.

The pandemic wiped out spring test dates for both the SAT and ACT, with the July 18 ACT administration being the first time since March that students have been able to take either test. That should have been a positive step toward a return to normalcy, whatever normal means in the world we inhabit, but was overshadowed by news reports that 1,400 students who had registered to take the ACT showed up on July 18 to find a test center not open. Some of those test centers had canceled late the night before without even informing ACT.

The College Board’s attempt to salvage the Advanced Placement program by moving to 45-minute exams taken online and at home led to some students being unable to upload their completed exams, resulting in widespread criticism and a class action lawsuit. In the aftermath, both the College Board and ACT rescinded plans to introduce online versions of their exams in the coming year.

Then last week, on the day that registration opened up for the next round of ACT testing, the ACT website crashed and frustrated students received a message to try again, at first the next day and ultimately this week. That may foreshadow deeper issues for testing this fall.

It is certainly not the College Board’s or ACT’s fault that the coronavirus shut down schools and the economy this spring and summer, but the repeated technology glitches that marked both the AP administration and the registration process for both tests do not inspire confidence in the testing industry’s commitment or ability to provide customer service.

The spring has also revealed infrastructure and supply chain issues with the testing companies’ business models. Like Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire, both testing agencies have always relied on the kindness of strangers, or at least the tolerance of strangers. They have relied on high schools and high school counselors as essential cogs in delivering the tests, relieving the testing companies of the need to set up their own supply chain.

That may need to change. With many public school systems likely to start the year virtually amid concern about ongoing spread of COVID-19, the number of test centers (the vast majority of which are public high schools) available this fall may be few and far between. It’s not clear that there is any kind of backup plan.

That may not matter because of the large and growing number of colleges and universities that have decided to go test optional for the coming admissions cycle. The worry for the ACT and SAT is that those colleges may find that they can get along perfectly fine without the tests.

The year 2020 has brought a deeper, more existential threat to the test industry, however. The events of this year have revealed deep and vehement anger and distrust about the role that standardized tests play in college admission and in American society.

The most recent example of that occurred several weeks ago when the National Association of Basketball Coaches called on the National Collegiate Athletic Association to abolish the use of test scores in determining academic eligibility for athletes, calling the tests “longstanding forces of institutional racism.” That’s a discussion for another day, but it revealed the passions associated with testing and the evolution of attitudes toward the tests.

That evolution is not all that different from the change in attitudes toward other “longstanding forces of institutional racism,” namely Confederate statues. Both have moved from being worshipped (by a few) to being tolerated to being seen as anachronistic and evil.

But might there be a further linkage between the two? We will probably not see people taking to the streets to protest the SAT and ACT, but are we seeing the beginning of a movement to end the use of, or at least the influence of, testing in college admission?

I wondered about that last week when I saw references to a blog post from Jon Boeckenstedt at Oregon State University with the title “Please Don’t Test.” I have long admired Boeckenstedt’s writing and his ability to make sense of complex data, and I know that he has been a powerful critic of the testing agencies, so my first thought was that he might be calling for a job action or sickout as a form of protest.

That wasn’t the case. The blog post was a message to rising high school seniors applying to Oregon State not to feel pressured to take further admission tests. It may not have been the call for revolution that some on the NACAC Exchange were looking for, but it was nevertheless an important message from a university to prospective students. I wish more colleges and universities would use their bully pulpits and moral authority to help students know what is and isn’t truly important.

There is one point made by Boeckenstedt, by way of quoting Lee Coffin at Dartmouth, that is particularly salient. It regards the use of the word “optional.” Students tend to interpret the word “optional” in a college admission context, whether “test optional” or “optional essay,” the way NFL players interpret “optional practice.” Optional means “expected” at the very least, and students, parents and counselors who lean toward paranoia or conspiracy theories may see “optional” as a trick question or even a backhanded test of demonstrated interest (if you are truly serious, of course you will do all of the “optional” questions).

It is one thing for colleges to tell students “Please don’t test.” But what about those of us on the high school side? Is it OK for a college counselor to advise students not to test? The answer, of course, is “it depends.”

It depends on how we define our job. Are we a trail boss or a trail guide? Are we directive, pointing out which way to go, or do we provide information and options to help our students navigate for themselves? Which approach we choose depends on our personal philosophy of counseling as well as the level of trust and respect we have for our students.

It also depends on our priorities. “Please don’t test” takes on a different meaning after the news that two students who took the ACT on July 18 at Edmond North High School in Oklahoma subsequently tested positive for the virus. Testing now carries a greater risk for students than a low score. The advice for a student who is applying only to test-optional colleges has to be different from that for a student applying to a flagship public university where test scores are both required and important.

I’m far from convinced that college admission tests are necessary, but I tend to see them as flawed rather than evil. We need to stop assigning them a precision and authority that are unwarranted. We also need to contextualize a student’s test scores, recognizing that a score earned after hours of expensive test prep isn’t the same as an identical score earned by a student without socioeconomic advantages.

Can the testing industry recover from its existential crisis? Will 2021 be a year of pro-test or protest?


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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