Test Prep

COVID-19 Derails Standardized Testing

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The effects of the pandemic this fall have worsened since spring and summer. The fallout has been increasingly hard on the standardized testing industry. The companies that market and implement the SAT and ACT are in turmoil and colleges that still require test scores have been hit with fewer applications and, in some cases, falling enrollment.


Florida's higher education system schools, which still require applicants to take either the SAT or ACT, are seeing losses in applications for the fall that are up to 50 percent lower than last year's totals, system administrators announced last month. This drop is easy to understand in light of the difficulties testing organizations are facing.

Things have been bad so far, but SAT and ACT cancellations may get even worse in the coming weeks due to the surging coronavirus. The massive increase in infections has prompted the closure of many testing centers, thus preventing aspiring college applicants from getting the testing required by states like Florida. The consequence for Florida system schools is seeing prospective applicants apply to other schools that have currently dropped their SAT or ACT requirements.

The effect of COVID-19 severity on testing centers can be seen on this ACT information page:

December 2020 ACT Test Center Cancellations

Unfortunately, it's clear the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us into the fall. This means continued limitations in test center capacity and inevitable cancellations throughout the remainder of our 2020-2021 test dates. Decisions to close test centers are made by test center staff, following CDC and local public health guidelines to ensure your safety.

Now through your test day, ACT will be sending email updates Monday through Friday by 6:00 p.m. CT to notify you if there has been a change in your registration. Please know that changes in COVID-19 may affect your ability to test on your scheduled test day. We're committed to helping you navigate your path forward, no matter the bumps in the road, and will send you updates if/when your registration changes. Below, you'll find a list of cancelled test centers.

Information will be updated at the bottom of this page for Rescheduled December National ACT Test Centers as it becomes available

What follows is a huge list of those closed test centers. One has to wonder what the financial impact of all that lost test registration revenue is on both the ACT organization and the College Board. Test revenue isn't the only COVID-19 casualty. As I have written before, the drop in enrollment, nationally, has put some small colleges in danger of closing due to the current amplification of their pre-pandemic financial difficulties.

As Inside Higher Ed notes, despite the majority of colleges going test optional this year, demand for the SAT and ACT remains high. Many students are convinced that their chances of admissions will be better if they have good scores, regardless of what the colleges say. Many financial aid programs still require test scores. And, as I mentioned, some colleges — especially the public universities in Florida — still require tests for admission.

This year, most colleges and universities that previously required the SAT or ACT for admission have dropped that requirement. Some place high value on the tests for admissions but are making an exception, in many cases only for this year, because of the pandemic. However, in light of the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus' surges, there may be another long period of test requirement suspension. The uncertainty is what makes this so difficult.

Many Test Centers Shutter

Test centers are located chiefly in high schools, and many of those are either closed or have rigid restrictions on outsiders entering their buildings. Early in November, the College Board announced that of 312,000 students registered for the Nov. 7 SAT and SAT Subject Tests, 96,000 registered students were unable to take the test because of testing center limits or closings.

Of test centers initially scheduled to administer the tests, 70 percent were open for November, though some chose to reduce capacity. Fifteen percent of open centers were at full capacity and 30 percent were closed. The fallout has affected a huge number of students and their application plans.

I have always been an advocate of and written about so-called "holistic" admissions policies, which tend to de-emphasize test scores as a main gate to being accepted. The caveat associated with the word "tend" is that many colleges promoting their holistic approach stealthily continue to give test scores strong influence when submitted by applicants.

This presents a conundrum for those applying to test-optional schools, raising the question, "Should I or should I not send in my scores?" An additional query might be, " Where's the tipping point for my score to make either a positive or negative influence on my application?" The correct answers to these questions aren't available, obviously, which makes the already complex college process even harder to negotiate.

Looking at the issue of standardized tests in a broader perspective, even during our current bizarro world situation, it appears as though not even a worldwide pandemic can completely shake their place in college admissions. Also, their fearsome, generations-old perceived reputation may be undergoing some watering down, thanks to COVID Effect.

NPR's Elissa Nadworny, in her article Colleges Are Backing Off SAT, ACT Scores — But The Exams Will Be Hard To Shake, notes that perception is everything:

In all the debate over exam scores, it's worth remembering that only a handful of schools in the U.S. are actually highly selective. Just under 50 schools have acceptance rates less than 20 percent.

These schools represent about 3 percent of U.S. colleges and universities, according to the Pew Research Center. More than half of U.S. colleges admit two-thirds or more of students who apply. Many public four-year and community colleges are open access, meaning they don't have competitive admissions. No exams required.

Community colleges have long been without these tests in the admissions process, says Laurie Franklin, who oversees enrollment and student financial services at Everett Community College in Washington State. To schools that are announcing test-optional policies, she has this message: "Welcome to the club."

At Everett, they do not use ACT and SAT for admissions, but in other areas the exams *are* used to determine what class level an incoming student will place into. Using the SAT or ACT for this purpose is "a budget-neutral solution for students."

While high schools may not pay for one of their graduates to take a placement exam at a college or university, in many states, they will pay for a student to take the SAT or ACT. In fact, 25 states require high school students to take the SAT or ACT, offering the exams during the school day, free of cost. In some states, like Tennessee and Idaho, taking a college entrance exam is baked into high school graduation requirements.

"The tests are widespread in high schools," says Franklin, "so it's only natural for colleges to use them — at least until the next, better thing comes up."

The SAT and ACT also play a role at many colleges and universities in awarding scholarships, especially merit scholarships that are not based on a student's financial need. State scholarships, like Florida's Bright Futures, also use the scores for eligibility

What a challenging list of ingredients this year's (and likely next year's) applicants will face: test center closings, cancelled test administrations, test-optional colleges, virtual classes, reduced on-campus student bodies, ongoing COVID testing … and swirling among all these: heightened stress. It's an agonizing recipe.

Prioritize Areas of Importance

The apparent hub of the college admissions wheel, though, continues to be standardized testing. The pandemic has thrown a major roadblock in front of the SAT/ACT Express, but, as a spokeswoman for the College Board said:

"This is a unique year. There are more important things than tests right now. Colleges and universities understand that due to COVID there are limited opportunities for students to take the SAT. Most aren't requiring test scores for the upcoming admissions cycle, and they're extending deadlines and/or accepting scores after deadlines pass for students who choose to submit them."

It's heartening to read that a representative of the College Board acknowledges, "There are more important things than tests right now." Indeed. Our "normal" world has dramatically changed and, in many cases, there's no more business as usual. Maybe that's a good thing. As for the changing dominance of the SAT and ACT in young people's lives, perhaps that may be one of the few silver linings of this "unique year" of 2020.