by Neil Chyten
The world of college admissions is changing faster than a chicken being chased by a coyote, and the reshaping of each college’s freshman class, and the characteristics used in evaluating candidates in the wake of COVID-19, has been just about as chaotic. On August 31, 2020, a California state judge ruled that the University of California system must stop using standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT in their admissions decisions. Previously, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, UC had decided on a test optional policy for students applying to UC in 2020 and 2021, meaning that the tests would be considered if submitted. However, this court ruling tightens the leash on UC admissions, stating that they cannot use standardized test scores, even if submitted, in making admissions or scholarship decisions.
Not only is this huge news in the state of California, it is quite possible that similar lawsuits will have similar outcomes in states across the country. What that means is that it the use of standardized tests in admission decisions across the US may be prohibited, at least while the pandemic is still raging across the country and across the world. Of course, it is still too early to predict the full range of consequences wrought by this ruling. This is especially true since the University of California is considering appealing this landmark decision. Indeed, this fight could go on for years.
The nature of the court’s decision has its roots in the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. The judge ruled that it was unreasonably difficult, if not impossible, for students with disabilities to take standardized tests, which placed them in an unfairly disadvantaged position. It is hard to argue with that logic, which is undoubtedly true. It is difficult enough for US students without disabilities to find places to take the SAT or ACT one, two, or even three times. It is even more difficult for students around the world, in places such as China and Central America, to find places to take standardized tests for college. The difficulty for students with disabilities is exponentially more pronounced. The COVID-19 pandemic has further widened the opportunity gap inherent in the current college admission system, so it is hard to argue with the validity of the judge’s ruling.
And as impactful as this decision is for students applying to the University of California system, the implications may be far more reaching in both space and time. It is very likely that state institutions of higher education beyond California will follow the judge’s guidance, and from there it is merely a short leap to thousands of private post-secondary institutions across the country. Further, it is predictable that, for some colleges across America, the shift to a test-blind admission policy will become permanent. As I said earlier, this is a chaotic time for college admissions. It is a dance without steps. It is a movie without a script. However, it also leads to predictable outcomes. In periods of uncertainty, we cling to logic and reality. Without test scores, we know that colleges will be looking more at other factors. As counselors, we will guide our students up the steep and rugged terrain of the black diamond trails to college, since the bunny slopes we are accustomed to may no longer be an option.
Superficial logic might tell you that without a test-score requirement, the path to college may be easier and more equitable for all. No longer will high-priced test preparation programs pave the way for wealthy students at the expense of those who do not have the ways or means to afford such advantages. This may turn out to be true. But it is more likely that the remaining college admission characteristics might be equally (or more) unreachable for most students. In order to pad their college activities lists, students pay to take courses from prestigious colleges, pay huge amounts of money ($20,000 or more) for internships proffered by unscrupulous companies, or pay for expensive pre-college programs at elite college campuses around the country. While there definitely are low-cost and no-cost opportunities, they are not always easy to find without extensive research or access to the Rolodexes of independent college counselors such as myself.
Some say, “The devil you know may be better than the one you don’t.” When it comes to the possibility of ending the use of standardized test scores in college admission, students may find that the new landscape is far more difficult to navigate then the one they had come to know and hate. I say, “Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.” Before you do a happy dance at the thought of not having to take standardized tests, you might want to look out over that landscape in order to identify the five, six, seven, or more things you will need to do to replace them. As for me, my left hand is holding an umbrella to shield me from the fallout of this decision. My right hand is firmly fixed on the dial of my Rolodex.