Testing in a Pandemic

“Optional” is not a trick word. It is not a wink that signals a continued institutional preference for the upcoming admissions cycle. This is not a moment for euphemisms or gimmicks; there should be no parsing of intent with this amended testing policy. It is a clear response to an unprecedented moment that requires admission officers to reimagine some of the elements we have historically required as we reassure anxious students about their upcoming applications. Worries about oversubscribed test sites, anxiety regarding limited registration access and the incongruity of test prep during a quarantine can be set aside.”

~Lee Coffin

Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid

Dartmouth College

I love my work and I get great satisfaction in guiding families through the college admission journey. But I have always thought it was a shame that the entire system is so complicated: Common App/Coalition App, ED/EA, FAFSA/CSS-Profile, ACT/SAT/Test-Optional, Merit Scholarships/Need-Based Aid and the list goes on. It is no wonder that people need help. 

There is no layer of the college admissions world that is more fraught with tension than testing and what scores mean. There is substantial data that confirms that standardized tests reflect the socioeconomic background of a student, not their intelligence or aptitude. Many in this field would love to see the testing machine eliminated from consideration and some schools have gone as far as to label themselves test-blind-they will not even look at your test scores. But the reality is that good scores can enhance a profile and I have always encouraged my students (and my biological children) to put their best foot forward with testing. Strong scores will not necessarily get you in but weak scores can keep you out; they are a little bit like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. And they can definitely open doors to merit scholarships. As a result I always encourage my students not to be stressed, but to give the test their best possible effort and let the chips land where they land. I also show them the lengthy list of incredible test-optional schools just in case their numbers aren’t what they had hoped, just to assuage any anxiety they may have. 

This year has been no different and I have encouraged my seniors to test this fall, to either establish their first set of scores or improve on what they have already done. I have also pushed my rising juniors to test if they can get a seat in case next spring follows the course that testing took the first half of this year, with multiple cancellations due to COVID-19. 

But I am watching the news carefully and reconsidering my advice. Taking a standardized test indoors, in a mask, over a four hour period, with breaks for snacks is the definition of a congregate setting where the virus can spread. The testing environment plays a role in how students score (imagine testing in a classroom when the marching band is practicing right outside!) and the current environment is more stressful than normal.

I wanted to share a piece from the Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University, Jon Boeckenstedt. You have likely never heard of him, but in my field, he is a lion; well-regarded, deeply admired and his word carries great weight. His piece, Please Don’t Test is here. In it, he says that his school does not care if you test. He also cites Lee Coffin, from Dartmouth, who I quote at the beginning of this piece. Lee Coffin has an excellent podcast to demystify college admissions here

A few weeks ago securing a seat at a test site seemed like a good opportunity. But we are in a dynamic world and things change by the day. Now a standardized test might feel like a level of risk that isn’t prudent. Each family must carefully weigh their decision. 

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