The Current and Future Landscape of Standardized Testing
The college application process seemingly shifted overnight with the onset of the pandemic, pivoting in order to meet the needs of students and admission offices alike. Schools increased their online capabilities, offering more content and upgraded their virtual experiences. While a good number of schools were test-optional before COVID-19, almost all had to follow suit in order to ensure the safety of their applicants. As a result, there was a record number of applications at many schools, some seeing increases of over 70% from the previous year. It certainly has been eye-opening, and many high school students are wondering what will the testing landscape look like moving forward. In order to get the scoop on the new trends in standardized testing, I spoke to Whitney Longworth, an industry expert who is the Director of Business Development for Summit Educational Group, a test prep company based out of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York.
Recap of What Happened With Testing
If we first review the college testing landscape prior to the pandemic, colleges were in one of three categories. Test-Required schools were where students were required to submit test scores as part of their application for admission. These were generally some of the most selective schools, but also many large state schools. Test-Optional schools were where students had the option as to whether or not to submit test scores as part of their application for admission. Certainly, test-optional has been a trend for a while now and there have always been several schools that make the shift to test-optional every admission cycle. In the third category are the Test-Blind schools – this has traditionally been a very short list of schools, where test scores are not considered during the application process and so students do not send scores to the school.
Certainly, more and more schools have shifted to test-optional over the past few years, including many highly competitive schools. It is sort of a win-win situation for the school and for the students because if students tested well and feel that their test scores are supportive of their application they can submit them and if a student struggled with testing or did not have the opportunity to test, they can apply to the school without test scores. I think where test-optional can be complicated to navigate is when a student has tested and needs to evaluate whether or not they should submit their scores to specific test-optional schools. That is very nuanced and is probably the most complicated piece.
With this background in mind, COVID-19 dramatically impacted the testing landscape because all of a sudden, test sites could not run and the tests were being canceled. Students were panicked about trying to be able to get a spot to test. Eventually, almost every college had to move to temporary test-optional because there were just not enough safe opportunities for students to test. What this has done has really sped up the test-optional movement because many schools may have been considering it for the future, but this forced them to adapt quickly. It was certainly also the case that there were schools that were test-required who had to do this very reluctantly and really needed to overhaul their traditional admission process of using test scores as required criteria.
What Did This End Up Looking Like?
Some competitive schools have reported that they have admitted their most diverse classes to date as a result of not having the testing requirement be a barrier to entry. On the flip side, we saw huge spikes in total applications to schools and, as a result, some of the smallest acceptance rates schools have ever reported. For example, MIT had a 66% increase in applications this cycle and their admit rate ended up being 4%. Colgate University reported a 104% increase in applications from the previous year, an astounding number, and only 41% of those applicants submitted test scores.
Changes to the Tests
The SAT no longer has an optional essay section. It will be interesting to see if the ACT also drops their optional essay section since very few schools require or recommend the essay. The sooner they discontinue it, the sooner students will have one less piece of the puzzle to work through.
The ACT had been planning on rolling out individual section retesting, but put those plans on hold with the onset of COVID and there have been no formal announcements about when they plan on trying to roll it out. I would caution students to assume that they will not have this option any time soon and that they should not choose the ACT simply for the possibility of individual section retesting without knowing when it will be available. The ACT did release a new super score report so that students can send one main score report to schools that do super score instead of having to send each individual score report that makes up their super score.
What Does it Mean With Subject Tests Going Away? Impact of AP Scores
The College Board discontinued SAT Subject Tests this year and also dropped the optional essay section of the SAT. Fewer and fewer schools were requiring SAT Subject Tests so I think in the end it will reduce the stress that students were feeling in trying to determine if they should take them and, if so, which subjects. The thinking is that since SAT Subject Tests are no longer an option, more emphasis might be placed on AP test scores. I think that will vary from school to school. While colleges have always valued rigor and in seeing students challenging themselves as much academically as possible, the grades in those courses have always carried much more weight than the AP test score in the admissions process. It will be interesting to see how this evolves. Since many schools do not offer AP curriculum, colleges need to continue to navigate this in a way that does not advantage those students in the admissions process.
Pilot Test-Optional Decisions by Universities and Its Impact on Applications and Admission Moving Forward
Several schools have decided to run a 3-year pilot for test-optional to evaluate the impact, including Tufts University, The University of Connecticut, and Colgate University. It will be very interesting to see what their pilot shows because we have a combination of the schools moving to test-optional admissions and students navigating learning and living through a pandemic. Beyond the tests, I am curious to see how the incoming freshmen navigate the college transition, coming out of learning disruptions with remote and hybrid models, as well as the emotional impact that the pandemic has had on them and their mental health as they make the transition.
Testing Recommendations Now
I always advise that students try a full practice SAT and ACT first so that they can determine if they are showing a preference to one test over the other. I do not advise that students prepare for both tests, as that requires unnecessary time and energy since the tests have differing content and strategies. In the end, colleges that want to see a test score only want to see one test score - they don’t have a preference for one test over the other.
Once you have a sense of which test to focus on, you can map out a sensible timeline working backward from an ideal test date for your schedule without having test prep overwhelm your time or take away from other commitments.
What the Future Looks Like
With all of the shifts to remote learning and the use of technology, the question keeps coming up about whether the SAT and ACT will be available in-home online. While the technology exists, I don’t anticipate that happening anytime soon. There are just too many potential issues with access and also with security. The ACT does currently offer international students an online test run through Prometric centers so something more along those lines could potentially be done in the future, but I believe it’s a ways off. The SAT does offer the option of district-testing with a digital test, which Rhode Island opted to do for their state SAT test last year and Connecticut public high schools will run this coming spring. We will definitely learn more about how digital test administration and technology works through that roll-out. While an online test for a national test date at test sites is much more likely than in-home in the near future, this would still cause issues as it would require schools to have the necessary technology to administer it.
Many schools have announced whether they will remain test-optional for the fall 2021 admission cycle or revert back to test-required, such as the University of Georgia system. I think the big question is what schools will choose to do for the fall 2022 admission cycle, but we may not know that until next summer. Everyone is definitely keeping their eyes on the Ivy League to see if any will permanently move to test-optional.
Students should feel that the shift to test-optional provides them with more control over their own applications. Students who struggle with testing can still apply to test-optional institutions without worrying that their test scores will negatively impact their application. Conversely, students who perform well on the tests can choose to send them as a supportive piece of their application.
At the time of writing this, COVID-19 cases are spiking in every state now that the highly contagious Delta is the dominant strain in the country. Positive cases are surfacing, forcing some students into quarantine once again. As a result, many colleges are remaining test-optional, with a few exceptions. While some are still in the midst of short-term test-optional pilots, it will be interesting to see who adopts the policy in the long term. One thing is for certain - the landscape of standardized testing has changed, and for some, there is no looking back.
About Whitney Longworth
Whitney graduated cum laude from Connecticut College where she majored in Film in Contemporary Social and Political Context, minored in Economics and was a selected scholar for the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy. Her early career focused on client relations in the luxury retail and entertainment fields. She started as a test prep tutor with Summit Educational Group before joining the team full-time in 2015. Whitney enjoys collaborating with school and independent counselor partners in her role at Summit. She is a frequent expert panelist and guest speaker at industry conferences.