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More Colleges Making Standardized Test Scores Optional For Upcoming School Year


It's been a rocky ride for college admissions testing during the pandemic. Canceled spring testing dates have turned into canceled summer testing dates. And it's unclear if there will be a chance for students to take these exams in the fall. In response, more and more schools are making the SAT and the ACT optional for next year. Here's NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Like many high school counselors, Crys Latham has been paying close attention to the schools announcing these test optional admissions policies. She directs college counseling at Washington Latin Public Charter School in the nation's capital. And she's long been a big fan of schools that don't require the SAT and the ACT.

CRYS LATHAM: A student's test scores are not indicative of their potential or ability to be successful.

NADWORNY: Over the last several weeks, she's been updating her juniors on which colleges have made the changes regarding tests. The list is growing every day - University of Virginia, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, California Institute of Technology to name a few.

LATHAM: I now have kids who would never have considered those schools seriously before, even if I would have put them on their list. But now the kids are like, maybe I have a shot. Maybe it is possible for me.

NADWORNY: She says her students give admissions test scores outsized power, helped along by a society that's obsessed with competition.

LATHAM: I think that's so unfortunate when you have just one tiny - in my mind - insignificant factor that is making a decision for a kid about, like, what their dreams are.

NADWORNY: It's not just students and educators that are taking note of the growing number of colleges deemphasizing these tests. Other universities are watching and learning.

CHRISTINE HARPER: We saw the writing on the wall.

NADWORNY: That's Christine Harper, who oversees admissions at the University of Kentucky. She says she's long talked about being test flexible, giving students the option to submit their scores. And the pandemic offered the school a way to do that at a minimum for next year and perhaps beyond.

HARPER: Going to be an interesting year - this whole year has been an interesting year. Why stop now?

NADWORNY: The school hasn't made a formal announcement yet. They're hoping to let students know the details by mid-July. But Harper says there's just no way in the midst of this pandemic to hold up strict testing standards, even for prospective students that squeezed in a test in March before the shutdown.

HARPER: They were taking this exam when everything was changing around them. Tests are stressful to begin with, but then when everybody is like, my sports are canceled, what's going to happen, that just adds another layer.

NADWORNY: For now, the emphasis will be on expanding a holistic review of applicants where a number of factors, including leadership and grades, contribute to admission. The question for many admissions offices - are the other elements of the application also free of bias?

ANDREW HO: There is a healthy growing skepticism about standardized test scores, but there is a way in which that sort of oversells how weighty they are in a selective admissions process.

NADWORNY: Andrew Ho is an expert in educational testing at Harvard, and he says it's important to remember that one of the reasons standardized testing in college admissions came about in the first place was an attempt to make fair comparisons because other measures of college admissions, grades, essays, extracurricular activities, they can be rife with inequities. And the more weight we put on one thing, maybe a GPA or an essay, the more at risk that is to manipulation and inflation.

HO: Once you realize that they care about this one thing, what do we do? Oh, we game it (laughter). We try as hard as we can to inflate that one thing such that it no longer actually indicates what I'm capable of doing.

NADWORNY: Ho says just because we're rethinking these admissions tests, it doesn't mean we've rooted out inequities in our pathways to higher education. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "GARAGE SHOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.