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Testing — whether for COVID-19 or for college admissions — has been a hotly debated topic over the past few weeks. This spring’s SAT and ACT testing sessions have been canceled because of the pandemic, and many colleges, including the University of California system, have announced that the tests will be optional for this year’s high school juniors.
Earlier in April, the College Board and ACT announced that in light of the session cancellations, they are developing online tests that may be taken at home this fall. Online testing at this scale is an unprecedented venture.
We must put the needs of students — particularly students of color, those who might be the first in their families to apply for college admission, and those from low-income families — at the center of these monumental decisions.
Critics already deride standardized test scores as little more than a measure of parents’ income: the more money your parents make, the higher you are likely to score on the SAT. The spillover effects of the coronavirus pandemic could compound this problem unless we take steps to make it possible for all students to succeed on the SAT.
How do we ensure we are creating equitable conditions for all students as we learn more each day about the digital divide and the uneven access to internet technology low-income families experience? According to a 2018 federal government report on a study conducted in 2015 and 2016, 26% of students living below the poverty line did not have access to high-speed internet at home. Access to electronic devices is similarly uneven.
Low-income students may face additional challenges when it comes to at-home academic testing, such as finding a quiet, controlled testing space in a cramped apartment, much less the kind of low-distraction environment students with autism or other disabilities may need. If that weren’t enough, the 30 million jobs (and counting) lost to the effects of the pandemic could mean that many students already in precarious financial circumstances now will face the fear of losing their housing in coming months.
So what can we do to ensure that the testing conditions and the college admissions process will be more equitable for students from low-income backgrounds who could benefit from doing well on this test?
To start, we can make it easier for students to take the test when schools reopen. The College Board has announced two new sessions of the SAT this fall. These sessions will help students make up the SAT and perhaps retake it, a simple opportunity that has been shown to close income-related score gaps by 9%. Offering extra sessions of the test during the school day instead of on Saturdays, as the state of Colorado hopes to do, would also increase access for students who need to work or help at home outside of school hours. If the test must be given online, it could help students with jammed schedules if they were allowed to take one section at a time, rather than the entire three-hour test.
It will also be vital for the College Board and ACT to help both students and universities contextualize their scores. If two students get the same score, but one took the test online and one did it with paper and pencil, do their scores mean the same thing? Virtual proctoring is a huge unknown, and it can hardly be expected to offer test-takers the same quiet, dedicated space that in-person testing does, especially if test-takers are from low-income families. Will the College Board and ACT offer guidance on how scores received in these highly unusual circumstances compare to scores taken in a typical year?
While no one knows what the college admissions process will look like after the pandemic abates, our new normal must not be the same. The College Board, the ACT, and the University of California, among many others, are making accommodations suited to these extraordinary times. If we take steps to ensure that all students can still take college admissions tests and understand how to use their scores, then we can help rebuild a college admissions system that will be more inclusive and fairer for all students regardless of their backgrounds.
Yoon S. Choi is CEO of CollegeSpring, a national nonprofit that trains schools and teachers to provide SAT prep to students from low-income backgrounds.
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