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Major counseling group says it’s time to reconsider standardized testing in college admissions


By 

Valerie Strauss

May 2, 2020 at 10:43 a.m. MDT

For the first time, the country’s largest membership organization of college admissions professionals has sharply distanced itself from the admissions testing industry, saying it is time to “rethink” whether it is fair to require students to submit standardized test scores on applications.

Jayne Caflin Fonash, president of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), published a statement that also slammed the College Board and ACT Inc. for not consulting with its members before deciding to offer at-home versions of their exams during the covid-19 epidemic. The College Board owns the SAT and the Advanced Placement (AP) program, and ACT Inc. owns the ACT exam. (You can see the full statement below.)

Fonash said many members of NACAC — a nonprofit group with more than 15,000 high school counselors, college admissions officers, tutors and others around the world — “have raised legitimate questions” about how valid and reliable such exams will be, and how fair the new plan is to students from low-income and rural areas who cannot take online tests while at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Concerns voiced by our members include the persistent and well-documented digital divide between low-income and upper-income students as well as their access to safe and quiet rooms; unprecedented challenges faced by students with documented disabilities in participating in standardized tests; and uneven access faced by students throughout the world to online infrastructure across various nations and impractical testing hours,” she wrote.

With K-12 and colleges and universities closed this spring because of the coronavirus crisis, the normal admissions process has been upended not only for graduating high school seniors but for juniors as well. The College Board and ACT have canceled a number of testing dates this year, prompting scores of schools to say they would drop the requirement for a test score on an application for fall 2020, and some for longer than that.

As the number of schools going test-optional kept rising, with no date certain as to when normal testing practices will resume, both of the testing organizations announced they would offer shortened exams online to students at home. The College Board is also giving shortened versions of AP tests to high school students at home; many colleges give credit for high scores on these exams in numerous subjects.

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Educators and researchers have long debated the ability of SAT and ACT scores to predict how well a student will do in college. The College Board and ACT both say their tests are strongly predictive of college performance. But many researchers say evidence shows the strongest predictive measures are family income, race and the mother’s education level. The covid-19 crisis has spurred what was a growing test-optional movement in higher education, with more than 1,100 colleges and universities adopting such policies.

University of California academics at odds with each other over using SAT/ACT scores to admit students

Fonash is the first leader of NACAC to criticize the testing industry in such a public way, with her statement available for broad consumption and not intended for the profession’s private communications.

“The absence of prior communication with the very professionals vital to the administration of these tests clearly flies in the face of professional respect,” she wrote, “not to mention a disregard for the best interests of students who have been told in a recent video that it is their ‘responsibility’ to take AP tests regardless of their concerns regarding test environments and lack of clarity regarding college credit.”

College Board spokesman Zachary Goldberg said in an email the organization has “sought the input of our members and regularly [has] communicated with them about how we will advance our mission in response to the spread of the coronavirus.” He also said the College Board has set up a 100-person customer service team to help more than 10,000 AP students have access to technology.

“During this challenging time, our first priority is to keep families and students safe,” he said. “Our second priority is to make Advanced Placement Exams and the SAT as widely available as possible for students who wish to test, regardless of the economic or public health circumstances.”

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said in an email his organization’s “goal is to provide students with as many opportunities to earn a college-reportable score as possible, as we believe that more options will increase access and equity.” He said ACT is addressing issues of test security, access to technology and availability of test accommodations in regard to the test-at-home option.

“We are still evaluating options and planning for multiple contingencies and scenarios, and we would welcome collaboration with NACAC and other testing organizations on solutions designed to help students,” he said. “Testing at home will provide another viable and proven option for students to earn an ACT score.”

But Fonash said it is time to reconsider whether standardized test scores should continue to be a part of the college admissions process.

“NACAC is asking its member colleges and universities to reassess their admission criteria in light of the overwhelming challenges faced by many students,” she said. “Do the criteria―test scores, grades in college prep courses, strength of curriculum, and the like―stand up to educational scrutiny? Are they reliable? And perhaps most important of all, do they preserve access for all students, including low-income, first-generation, and other vulnerable students who are already facing increased threats to their physical, emotional, and economic well-being amid this global health crisis? And ultimately, is the current testing flawed?”

An open letter to the College Board about online, at-home AP tests

A number of NACAC members praised her stance on the NACAC email message system.

Joanne Lewis, director of the College & Career Center at Palos Verdes High School in California, wrote: “Thanks, NACAC leadership for taking a stand. If this is not the moment for a shift in the college testing and admissions paradigm, then I sincerely don’t know when (or if) that day will ever come. Now is the time to do something more than TALK about access and equity … now is the time to WALK THE WALK!”

Fonash said: “If we consider equity and fairness to be the cornerstone of all of our decision-making and our work on behalf of all students, then WE ARE RESPONSIBLE to advance the conversation about the value and ethical use of ‘standardized testing’ in college admission, to bring this incredibly important matter to center stage among all college admission professionals, and truly to rethink the role of testing in the college admission process in partnership with institutions that have our students’ well-being at heart."

Bob Schaeffer, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit organization known as FairTest, which works to end the misuse of standardized tests, said: “The association’s critique of the severe equity and security concerns related to possible at-home versions of the tests is compelling. NACAC officials deserve credit for following the lead of their many college and university member organizations that already have put ACT/SAT optional policies in place. It’s time for institutions that still require standardized exam scores to eliminate that mandate, at least for fall 2021 applicants.”

Here is the complete statement from the NACAC website:

By Jayne Caflin Fonash, NACAC President

In almost every conversation these past two months with students, families, counselors, admission professionals, and the media, I have been asked, “What gives you hope for the future?”.

My response? Along with thousands of you around the world, I chose this profession because I believe in the power and ethical provision of access, equity, and transparency in the college admission process. Knowing that, I trust that many of you are guided every day as I am by our commitment to act in the best interests of students―particularly those underserved students at greatest risk―while being mindful of our institutional responsibilities.

I applaud our college and university leaders who acted swiftly in the interest of student and staff safety while quickly stepping up to provide virtual tours and admitted student events. Not every institution has been able to make changes in official deposit dates or amounts, but as I talk with students and colleagues at colleges and universities around the country I hear stories every day about efforts to ensure flexibility and transparency for students challenged in their current decisions.

One day K-12 students were in brick-and-mortar schools, and the next morning we were all at home. Home schooling will be a way of life for the near future. Counselors have embraced virtual delivery of counseling and mental health programs, welcoming their students into a new type of “office.” Schools and districts prioritized food availability and delivery for students who depend on those two meals a day.

Many of these same admission professionals on all sides of the desk have raised legitimate questions about plans announced by the College Board and ACT concerning testing opportunities for students during the coming months, which is the subject of a letter being sent this week by NACAC to the leadership of those organizations. We believe standardized testing at its most useful needs to be standard and not dependent upon a student’s homelife, access to technology, and time zone.

Concerns voiced by our members include the persistent and well-documented digital divide between low-income and upper-income students as well as their access to safe and quiet rooms; unprecedented challenges faced by students with documented disabilities in participating in standardized tests; and uneven access faced by students throughout the world to online infrastructure across various nations and impractical testing hours. Little is known about the reliability of admission test scores taken in a home setting. In addition, college admission officers do not have specific information from the testing agencies, aside from general assurances, regarding the extent to which home-administered tests will maintain validity and comparability with other test administrations.

The absence of prior communication with the very professionals vital to the administration of these tests clearly flies in the face of professional respect, not to mention a disregard for the best interests of students who have been told in a recent video that it is their “responsibility” to take AP tests regardless of their concerns regarding test environments and lack of clarity regarding college credit.

Additional announcements concerning test administration are resulting in both counselors and students being forced to choose between administering the September tests, college fairs, and professional development. The recently announced September 26th SAT test date coincides with the 41st Annual USA College Day Fair in London, and the 76th Annual NACAC National Conference in Minneapolis. Thousands of students in Europe attend USA College Day to meet with several hundred US college representatives, and thousands of high school counselors attend NACAC to participate in the most important professional development opportunity of the year. Had appropriate conversations taken place before announcing this date, counselors being forced to choose among multiple crucial events might have been avoided. While being respectful of Jewish holidays that occur in the fall, other possible dates do exist if the goal was to provide additional testing opportunities for the Class of 2021 to submit test scores for early deadlines.

NACAC is asking its member colleges and universities to reassess their admission criteria in light of the overwhelming challenges faced by many students. Do the criteria―test scores, grades in college prep courses, strength of curriculum, and the like―stand up to educational scrutiny? Are they reliable? And perhaps most important of all, do they preserve access for all students, including low-income, first-generation, and other vulnerable students who are already facing increased threats to their physical, emotional, and economic well-being amid this global health crisis? And ultimately, is the current testing flawed?

This message is consistent with the recommendations of the 2008 NACAC Commission on the Use of Standardized Testing in Undergraduate Admission, which included statements about the utility of standardized tests in admission, recommendations for action against test score misuse and encouraged institutions to consider dropping the requirement that students submit test scores as a condition for admission. The current NACAC Task Force on Standardized Testing for International and US Students is wrestling with issues of cheating, test re-use, and other issues related to the globally expanding administration of tests. Testing has certainly been part of international conversations, as over 1,100 institutions have gone to a test optional policy in their admission review. As a result of the challenges posed by the current pandemic, almost 70 additional institutions have announced test optional policies for the next 1-3 years.

The world is forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our niche in this crisis is access to higher education. What do we do next? We question accepted realities, we seek solutions that may well be found outside the usual compass, and we embrace the opportunity to do things that we could not have done before. If we consider equity and fairness to be the cornerstone of all of our decision-making and our work on behalf of all students, then WE ARE RESPONSIBLE to advance the conversation about the value and ethical use of “standardized testing” in college admission, to bring this incredibly important matter to center stage among all college admission professionals, and truly to rethink the role of testing in the college admission process in partnership with institutions that have our students’ well-being at heart.

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