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How the Pandemic Has Affected College Admissions

The pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives. For those considering higher education, that includes getting into college.

The process is now much more than test scores, meaning more schools are not requiring the SAT or ACT.

"They get more applicants. They get better academically qualified applicants. They get more diversity in the applicant pool. It’s a win for them and it's also a win for high school students and their families," explained Bob Schaeffer the executive director of Fairtest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

The University of Scranton has been test-optional since 2008.

"We dig deeper. We look at letters of recommendation and college essays. What were they involved in their local community?" said Joseph Roback the Associate Vice President of Admission and Enrollment.

Roback refers to that as a holistic approach.

The pandemic has kept many students from taking the exams in person. As a result, more colleges and universities have pivoted to this approach.

Fairtest, a non-profit, has been pushing for test-optional since the 1980s. According to their data: prior to the pandemic, 1,070 schools were test-optional. For this upcoming fall, 1,820 schools are ACT or SAT optional or test blind.

That means that 80 percent of U.S. four-year colleges and universities are not requiring the tests. Schaeffer believes the change is breaking barriers.

"They say heck I can’t get in. Well, half the students who got into the school did have scores below 1,200, but kids don’t understand that..." Schaeffer said. "It’s a psychological barrier, but there is also a real barrier because test scores correlate so strongly with race and socioeconomic status."

Local high school counselors are already seeing a difference.

"I think it opened the door for students to actually apply to schools that they wouldn’t have even thought of," said Hanover Area School District counselor Nicole Hummer.

High school leaders say it does change things, both in how colleges admit and how high schools market their students

"Character combined with academics," Hanover Area School District Superintendent Nathan Barrett said when asked about how they market their students.

"In the last few weeks alone at Hanover we have been working to change and add programs to our school," said Hummer.

A concern for some with a test-optional approach could be that schools are lowering standards by not requiring these tests for admission.

Barrett says within the halls of his schools there is no room for that.

"I know we are not accepting a subpar average. We aren’t going to accept that. We are still striving to be the best. We still have pinpoint precision on how we are handling student growth."

We asked how students are being analyzed without the test.

"Good admission officers know the research, which shows that high school records, students grades, extracurricular activities, the rigor of courses, and leadership are stronger predictors of undergraduate success," said Schaeffer.

"Each school will give you a school profile. You’re looking at what type of programs are offered, maybe a rural school doesn’t have the robust AP program that another school may have, however you can't penalize that student for that," said Roback.

Since every school district is different and every teacher has their own way of grading, we wondered, what’s the guarantee the best students are being admitted without having a standard test?

"You’re right that grades are inconsistent. Some have tough grading policies others have more lenient ones. Even within the school, a student can take rigorous college courses or the equivalent of basket weaving. Despite all that, research shows high school grades are better predictors than the tests are, which shows how lousy of a predictor the ACT or SAT is," said Schaeffer.

ACT said last February that they enlisted a market research firm to understand the impact covid had on testing.

They found that it's unlikely that schools that adopted a test-optional approach will return to test-required in the near term.

They also said that extensive test data use continues in almost every aspect of the enrollment process.

Meanwhile, SAT is making changes. The test is going digital beginning in 2023 for international students and for all students in 2024.


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