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Is this the end for college admissions tests?

With testing sites closed this spring and more colleges dropping their requirements for the SAT and ACT, longtime frustrations with their makers are simmering.
Photo illustration by Danielle Ternes/Education Dive; photograph by Damircudic/E+ and Radila Radilova/iStock via Getty Images

It took hours of debate in front of their computers, but as their day-long virtual meeting in late May wound to a close, the University of California System regents were ready to vote.

One by one, they unanimously greenlit one of the country's biggest and most influential public higher education systems to largely drop SAT and ACT scores as an admissions requirement. By the view of most observers, the governing board's decision fundamentally altered the role of standardized tests among colleges, with the assumption that many institutions would follow suit.

The Twittersphere celebrated the system rejecting the tests, which opponents have deemed racist and skewed to favor the wealthy. One consultant tweeted that she "cried tears of joy" as she watched the votes be counted.

Not so joyous were the testing agencies, for which the devastating blow compounded weeks of bad news.

The coronavirus has shifted the already accelerating test-optional movement into warp speed. It is also making test-taking more challenging for students, a situation the College Board tried to anticipate.

The nonprofit came under a torrent of criticism last month for its administration of at-home Advanced Placement exams, which resulted in a class-action lawsuit. Only a fraction of students reported issues submitting their answers, according to the College Board. But the problems were amplified on social media by students who lamented the glitches and the prospect of retaking the hours-long tests for which they prepared all year.

The College Board later had to nix its at-home SAT, citing a lack of high-quality internet for all test-takers. Students also encountered bugs on the website to register for the fall and summer SAT.

Meanwhile, the ACT's chief executive, Marten Roorda, stepped down abruptly after the UC vote. The organization also announced rounds of furloughs and other staff reductions. And it released a single-spaced, 57-page list of exam sites that would be closed for June, indicating the pandemic's effect on testing access.

These episodes suggest trouble for the testing duopoly, which is financially pinched because of the pandemic, industry experts say. But the fumbles are unlikely to completely erode testing providers' relationships with colleges, some of which still rely on the tests and other services they offer.

Momentum building

The testing business may have already peaked. The supply of high school graduates is expected to shrink in the coming years, meaning fewer students will be taking college-entrance exams.

Even before the coronavirus shuttered campuses in the U.S., colleges were transitioning to test-optional policies at a record pace. More than 50 institutions in 2019 — the most in a single year — decided they would no longer require applicants to submit scores, according to FairTest, a group that advocates for controlled use of standardized assessments.

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Experts say the pandemic may lead more schools to give up standardized tests altogether.

Each college that changes its admissions practices to deemphasize the tests corrodes the testing providers' business models.

And many institutions are.

More than half of four-year colleges in the U.S. — at least 1,270 institutions — won't require scores from students seeking to enroll in fall 2021, according to FairTest. That count includes colleges that haven't historically required scores. According to one industry group, around three-quarters of colleges required the tests as of 2016.

Among the colleges to not require scores next fall are high-profile institutions such as Texas Tech University and the California Institute of Technology, as well as the entire Ivy League. The Ivy League universities' move to test-optional, along with CalTech's decision to stop using the tests entirely for two admissions cycles, significantly shakes up the testing status quo, as experts have said elite institutions would be the most reluctant to drop them.

Many colleges to make the switch this spring say they are doing so temporarily and because of the pandemic. But previous experiments with test-optional policies have seen few schools return to their previous admissions standards, said Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, which helps underserved students prepare for standardized exams. Rosner is aware of only a handful of colleges that started asking for scores again after a test-flexible pilot.

"A lot of the younger admissions professionals will experience test-optional and they will like it," he said.

The test-flexible movement was gaining steam before the pandemic

Number of colleges going test-optional or test-blind for some or all students in each year

'An inflection point'

The recent test cancelations, which led many colleges to take up test-optional admissions, threaten an important income stream for the companies that make them.

The SAT represents a considerable chunk of the College Board's revenue, which topped $1 billion in 2018, experts say, though the agency has not historically disclosed how much it makes off the exam. The group lists a $68 registration fee for the SAT with the essay, and an estimated 1 million high school juniors missed out on the test this spring. The base ACT costs $42.50, with $16 more for the writing portion, according to its website.

Publicly, the College Board and ACT have tried to show sensitivity to students in light of the pandemic. In announcing it wouldn't offer the at-home, online SAT this fall, the College Board urged colleges to accommodate applicants who were unable to take the test.

"We know demand is very high and the registration process for students and families under this kind of pressure is extremely stressful," College Board CEO David Coleman said in a statement. "There are more important things than tests right now. In making these difficult decisions we focused on reducing the anxiety that students and families are experiencing this year."

Still, the agencies' missteps have done little to endear them to their consumers: students, parents, high school teachers and counselors, and college admissions professionals, many of whom have united in their frustration, said Jon Boeckenstedt, Oregon State University's vice provost for enrollment management.

The disapproval seems much more intense than in previous years, said Boeckenstedt, a vocal critic of admissions exams who wrote a lengthy blog post (which he has since taken down) calling for Coleman's resignation.

"The colleges have been passively endorsing the work of the College Board by requiring the tests," he added. "But I'm hearing personally an increasing level of dissatisfaction among college (administrators)."

The University of California System voted in May to phase out the SAT and ACT as a requirement for admissions, citing barriers for disadvantaged students.
The image by Charlie Nguyen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One reason many institutions are "unenthusiastic partners" with the College Board is because admissions professionals are aware of the tests' biases, Boeckenstedt said. A significant body of research supports claims that the tests favor rich, white students. A lawsuit filed last year against the UC System argues test questions are racially biased and that lower-income students can't afford the same extensive prep and tutoring as their more affluent peers.

Yet testing inequities are reaching the greater national consciousness, and it shows, said Bob Schaeffer, FairTest's interim executive director. He points to a leadership change at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

Angel Pérez, currently the vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College, in Connecticut, will replace Joyce Smith as the group's CEO in July. Pérez is a self-identified proponent of test-optional admissions. Smith, meanwhile, worked for the College Board early in her career.

In an interview, Pérez painted himself as a "uniter" who would seek to work with the testing agencies, rather than as an outright opponent of them or their products.

"It's an inflection point. So much of what we do is being disrupted, it's the perfect storm for reinvention," Pérez said. While he has never seen so much public backlash against the College Board and ACT, he said the companies are "key" in the college admissions pipeline.

"There have been some very serious logistical issues that have not been managed well," he said, noting that the organizations have been perceived to "lack empathy" for their customers. "We are really at a moment in our nation's history where equity and access, which always has been a priority, must be the No. 1 priority."

Hard 'to untangle'

But many admissions professionals say the two testing giants have been more concerned with preserving their revenue streams than with students who are wrestling with how to apply for and afford college.

The College Board's statement asking colleges to be lenient with test scores came "eight weeks too late," said Christopher Lydon, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.

Lydon argued the pandemic exacerbated the focus on money, though he added that the College Board has attempted to improve college access.

The group tried to introduce a metric that would signal whether a student hailed from an impoverished neighborhood or school. The so-called "adversity score" would have been provided to admissions professionals, but it was scrapped last year amid heavy criticism that a student's challenges with inequity and poverty could be boiled down to one number. The College Board kept the information it used to calculate the score at admissions professionals' disposal.

But the perception that the College Board wasn't responsive to students' needs this spring has strained its relationships with campus officials, said Scott Steinberg, vice president of university admissions at the University of New England, in Maine.

"It's hard for me to untangle their stated mission of putting students first and promoting access, with their status as a nonprofit organization with a billion dollars in revenue," Steinberg said.

A dozen College Board trustees Education Dive contacted did not respond to a request for comment, and two press representatives did not grant Education Dive's request for interviews.

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Janet Godwin responds to criticism that the nonprofit left students short and explains how the pandemic is affecting operations.

Janet Godwin, the ACT's interim CEO, said the organization "100%" supports colleges choosing to go test-optional because of the pandemic, which added stress for students and their families and closed down ACT and SAT testing sites.

But the situation highlights one argument for standardized test scores, Godwin said. The pandemic scrambled transcripts, with some high schools moving to pass/fail grading or waiving graduation requirements, she said, noting that a test offers a consistent measure by which colleges can judge students.

She waived away criticism that the tests are biased against needy students, pinning the blame on underfunded school districts that can't help students prepare.

"I think that argument is a little confounding and not completely accurate," Godwin said.

Why use the providers at all?

Colleges don't rely on the College Board and ACT only for their tests. Institutions, including some that don't review scores, buy student data from the College Board and other sources. The College Board gets its information from SAT test-takers, who provide personal details about where they are located and their academic interests.

With the facts they've purchased, colleges target students who fit their academic profiles. The data collection has come under fire over privacy concerns. And The Wall Street Journal last year detailed how colleges use the information to artificially inflate their exclusivity rates, which helps them rise in national rankings. Colleges deliberately market to applicants they know won't make the cut, the Journal reported. But those students likely would not have applied had the institution not reached out.

Still, colleges maintain the information is vital for helping them conduct searches and diversify their student bodies. Administrators such as Boeckenstedt see room for other companies to break up the College Board's large hold on the data collection. He argued in a 2014 essay that Google could manage the student data and the college application process.

ACT and other services such as Niche offer student data, but not at the same scale as the College Board. One admissions professional described the College Board's hold on the data as a "quasi-monopoly."

Its data is arguably more valuable than the test scores, Schaeffer said, because of how that information shapes colleges' ability to recruit. If fewer students took the SAT, the data resulting from the exam would be less rich and therefore less valuable to colleges.

Still, the College Board has found some success, particularly during Coleman's tenure. As states looked for standardized tests that could help them meet state and federal accountability benchmarks, the College Board marketed them the SAT. The College Board doubled its lobbying expenses under Coleman, think tank New America detailed, which resulted in decisions like Colorado flipping from the ACT to the SAT as a statewide assessment.

The colleges have been passively endorsing the work of the College Board by requiring the tests. But I'm hearing personally an increasing level of dissatisfaction among college (administrators).

Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice provost for enrollment management, Oregon State University

ACT has also tried to expand its business, in its case by offering ed tech services.

Under Roorda in 2017, ACT invested $10.5 million in New Markets Venture Partners, a venture capital fund that invests in workforce and ed tech companies. About two years later, it acquired Mawi Learning, a company that makes professional development materials for teachers and social and emotional learning curriculum. Just last month, it snapped up ScootPad, an adaptive learning platform.

These purchases didn't vault ACT over the College Board in the market, said Adam Ingersoll, co-founder and principal of Compass Education, a company that helps students prepare for standardized tests. While the ACT test briefly surpassed the SAT in popularity between 2012 and 2018, the SAT has largely been the dominating force.

And not just in test-takers. Compared to the College Board's $1 billion in revenue for the 2018 calendar year, ACT brought in just $350 million in revenue for the year ending August 2018, according to tax records.

But ACT's investments under Roorda weren't meant to compete with the College Board, Godwin said. Rather, they aimed to reinforce ACT's position as a multifaceted organization that helps transition students from secondary school to college. She believes they have panned out and said ACT will continue that approach.

Roorda, for his part, was more candid and aggressive than his predecessors, Ingersoll said, an approach that may have ultimately harmed him. In discussions over whether the University of California System would continue to accept test scores, Roorda took a sharp-elbowed approach to lobbying, said Schaeffer, whose organization also was advocating to UC.

Prior to their vote, Roorda sent the UC regents a strongly worded statement, saying their decision would exacerbate anxiety among students during an already stressful period.

The system's decision to eventually drop the tests, and its likely impact on ACT's business, was ultimately viewed "as the final straw" in Roorda's tenure, according to Ingersoll, who is based in ACT's hometown of Iowa City, Iowa, and others familiar with the matter.

Godwin declined to discuss personnel changes within the organization.

Common criticisms of the test providers linger. ACT squandered goodwill in the past decade through several unforced errors, Ingersoll said. Neither group has generously compensated their testing supervisors or proctors, and their public communications "are comically inept," he said, pointing to their recent mishaps as evidence.

Godwin said she understands that the last-minute testing cancelations frustrated students, families and counselors. In some cases, an unexpected problem, such as a lack of hand sanitizer, meant sites couldn't open.

"Our goal is to be as proactive in our communication as possible and give students as much time and information as soon as we have it so they can plan their next steps," Godwin. "That's something we intend to improve on."

The University of California System board of regents debated for hours at its virtual meeting in May before eliminating admissions tests.
Screenshot taken by Jeremy Bauer-Wolf/Education Dive

Not all on testing providers

Even the most ardent critics of the two organizations don't consider them all bad.

Colleges, too, play a role in tackling the inequity issues the tests embody. And in a way, institutions have failed to do so completely, Ingersoll said. If colleges truly wanted to hold the College Board accountable, they would stop using their other products, including the recruitment data, he added.

But many college officials and students find value in the tests. For one, institutions need an objective measure to gauge a student's academic performance, which is not always high school grades, said Jed Applerouth, president and founder of test-prep company Applerouth Tutoring. Some research supports rampant grade inflation, he said, citing accusations that high school GPAs have risen with little change in academic performance.

"At least to me, there's something comfortable about a standardized measure," Applerouth said. "That students can demonstrate their knowledge instead of (that) their teacher liked them and gave them a pass."

Most high-performing high school students will still take the SAT and ACT in order to be competitive when seeking out colleges, Ingersoll said. In response to the UC vote, the College Board pointed out that California students tend to apply to private colleges in the state as well as out-of-state schools. And many still require an SAT or ACT score.

Colleges, meanwhile, will likely continue to find value in the College Board's data, Catholic University's Lydon said.

"I can't see anyone stop working with them completely," he added.

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