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The Impact of Covid-19 on Testing and College Admissions

Updated: May 8, 2020

At the time of the writing of this blog, much remains to be seen about how Covid-19 will impact testing and admissions. Will most universities go test-optional? If they do, will they ever go back? Who does that help and who does that hurt?

It is best to look at colleges as businesses. Colleges want as many students to apply as possible so they have the biggest applicant pool to choose from and the best "yield," the number of students who accept versus the number of students who are invited. Yield is one of the more important factors in college rankings, which colleges care a great deal about. With many ACT and SAT test dates being cancelled, colleges will have to either postpone deadlines, allow students to submit incomplete applications and then supplement them later, or go test-optional (not require testing at all). While it is hard to predict what option most will choose, there is already a growing trend of colleges going test-optional. Of course, many are celebrating this as a victory over "high stakes" testing, but those celebrations may be premature.

The thinking behind eliminating testing goes something like this: testing advantages students who can afford to hire tutors and learn the best strategies and tips. As such, by eliminating these tests, the admissions process is more equitable. Unfortunately, eliminating testing will only do the opposite. As of right now, testing is the only factor in admissions that gives all students a relatively level playing field. Here's why.

Grades differ greatly from school to school. Many schools, particularly private schools, are notorious for grade inflation, although public schools are not immune to the pressure of giving out as many A's as possible either (Churchill's average accepted WGPA into UMD College Park is now above a 4.5). But that about resumes and extracurricular activities? Unfortunately, those are even easier to "game." While we strongly frown upon the practice of having college consultant write the essays for students because doing so does an immense disservice to the students, it is no secret that some college consultants will do just that, as well as make up extracurricular activities. When the admissions decision comes down to these factors, the lower income students are at an even bigger disadvantage.

On the other hand, when it comes to testing, the strategies and tips that students learn for the ACT/SAT can only get student so far. At the end of the day, it comes down to the students' inherent reading, writing and math skills. This is exactly why exactly the children of immigrant parents who can barely speak English but who force their children to read outside of school, compete on math teams, etc. consistently outperform the students who took the easy way out by pushing themselves. In short, the ACT and the SAT are the great equalizers. It is the only thing that money can't buy and why colleges rely so heavily on them.

Going test-optional will also have other unintended consequences. First,we expect the average accepted WGPAs to rise significantly for all colleges. With less ways to differentiate students, students are going to need better than ever grades to get into the same schools. Second, I personally predict that the average accepted test scores will decrease for the same reason. Accepting someone with a slightly lower test score is less of a gamble for a college than accepting someone with no test scores at all. Lastly, I believe that properly conducting interviews and verifying resumes will become more commonplace. Right now, many colleges don't place an enormous amount of weight on interviews. Similarly, few admissions officers take the time to verify the organizations the students have listed on their resumes. In short, as colleges go test-optional, I believe they'll have to find more ways to differentiate students, and that means more in-depth interviews and more resume scrutiny.

Till next time,


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