This isn’t the week to be a high school student. Statewide assessment is going on across the country, and thanks to social distancing policies, at least some students are taking the ACT on gym bleachers, six feet apart, straddling a wooden plank across their legs and using it as a desk. Among other things, the results of this ACT will be used in some states to decide which students get merit scholarship money.
Students in Michigan are about a month away from likely doing the same thing. State officials reached out to the US Department of Education and asked for a waiver from the required testing in this year of COVID mayhem. Apparently the request got there when Betsy Devos was still in charge, because it was denied.
School counselors really thought we had won the day when over 1350 colleges decided to continue their test-optional admission policies for this year’s juniors—in fact, many colleges have extended this policy for an additional two years. This kind of extension takes a little bit of courage, since it was made before colleges finished the current admissions cycle. Either they’re hoping for the best, or they’re seeing what so many colleges have long known—testing doesn’t mean all that much, and once you no longer have it,
In our delirium, it seems we forgot to talk to government officials, who are asking for test results that are sure to disappoint. Early test results in the last year show student achievement is down. That may be for all kinds of reasons, but when you make a student take the ACT on their lap, it’s pretty likely that’s not going to show their best effort—so we can expect to see more of the same.
School counselors aren’t a greedy bunch by nature, but there are more than a few that look at the adoption of test optional policies and sigh. It was just a year ago when more than a few college admissions wonks—deans and directors included—were truly excited at the prospect of creating a brand new admissions system that was cleaner, fairer, and easier. Ample articles are out there showing how wealth skews every single tool used in the current system, from grades to test scores to essays to letters of recommendation to extra curriculars. When the COVID quarantine came along, veteran admission watchers thought “At last! Here’s the big thing that’s going to require us to rethink the whole process.”
That didn’t exactly happen. Since many of the changes affecting admissions also affected campus life and methods of instruction, college administrators were too concerned with keeping beds full and classrooms open to consider changing most admissions policies. Figuring out how to build a class without test scores proved to be challenging enough; changing anything else was perceived to be a dice roll no one could take right now, unless they were willing to risk the college’s entire future on it.
There’s still a lot to do to bring in this fall’s class, but it isn’t too early for colleges to hunker down now and think about The Big Move they didn’t have time for this year. Understanding that most admission changes are glacial, admission offices can use the lessons they learned from the quick change to test optional and build on them with a more strategic approach for other changes. This could lead to a new model of admission for this year’s high school sophomores. It’s already clear most colleges that went test-optional aren’t going to go back. Top that decision off with some strategic planning, and careful study of some schools who did make huge strides this year (I’m looking at you, UCLA), and there’s still a chance to either even the playing field of admission, or openly admit it isn’t even, and develop the protocols needed to create the exceptions that will make it more fair.
Meanwhile, if someone could just tell government policy makers why they went test optional, and why it makes sense for states to do so as well? They might as well make the students complete the tests with quill pens.