COVID-19 Presents an Opportunity for Higher Education Student Equity: Test-Optional Policies for all Colleges

By: Daniel Lopez

Blog_Daniel Lopez_HigherEd Testing

COVID-19 has left high schools and colleges across the country scrambling to support seniors with their college decision, without the possibility of visiting their future school. Though much of the conversation for high schools and colleges has focused on senior matriculation, the pandemic also brings many unanswered questions for the Class of 2021.

With many school districts closed until at least May, many educators would like to know how the class of 2021 will be evaluated in the admissions process, especially first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students who may experience a stronger impact from COVID-19 without a brick and mortar school to attend. The spring semester serves as a prime window for high school juniors to take standardized tests, and many FGLI students will be left with minimal opportunities to attain a competitive score. Districts with gaps in virtual academic instruction and students who have limited resources will be left further behind.

In response to this, as many as a dozen colleges and universities, including Boston University and the University of California system, have already begun to address the shortage of testing opportunities by implementing test-optional policies for the class of 2021, which allows students to submit college applications without the consideration of an SAT or ACT score for admission. Some selective schools, like Tufts University and Trinity University in San Antonio, have even gone as far as announcing three-year pilots to determine the efficacy of test-optional policies in their institution’s admissions process. 

While many schools have implemented these policies in response to an event affecting all of us, this is a step in the right direction in creating long-term equitable policies, which uplift the most vulnerable populations long after we return to normalcy.  In the study “Defining Access: How test-optional works” published in 2018 by Steven Syverson, Valerie Franks, and William Hiss, it found the implementation of a well-executed test-optional policy can lead to an increase in the representation of underrepresented minorities, FGLI students on selective college campuses. Students’ voices in the aforementioned groups are minimal or absent on many selective college campuses. They also found the difference in graduation rates between test submitters and non-submitters was less than 1%.

While some argue test scores may serve as a useful data point for some students in admission evaluation, many studies have shown high school GPAs are stronger predictors for six-year graduation rates. A standardized test score is clearly not a helpful indicator for all students, especially for students with tremendous academic potential who are living in challenging socio-economic environments, which requires them to express their aptitude in other ways, not in spending time and money to strategically code break standardized tests.     

Anecdotally, I have also found standardized tests to be a weak indicator for predicting success while supporting students in the EMERGE program. EMERGE is a program in the Houston area supporting more than a thousand high school students from underserved communities with applying to our nation’s top colleges and universities. EMERGE also continues to support students when they matriculate to college.

For example a student I supported, Jane*, was the valedictorian at a Houston ISD high school with an impeccable academic transcript. Jane served as the President of the debate club and many other clubs, was the only high school intern ever selected to work at the Texas Heart institute, and appeared on Good Morning America for being one of 100 students selected for the Disney Dreamers Academy. She also managed all of this while overcoming chronic health setbacks and supporting her family with health concerns, which frequently caused her to be absent from school. Jane aspires to be a doctor and support underserved communities, and I have no doubt she will accomplish this goal. I knew this the first day I met her as a sophomore when she introduced herself after an EMERGE recruitment session and laid out her master career plan, all while displaying a radiant smile and impressive presence for a 15-year-old. On paper, Jane would have been perceived as not a good fit for some of her top choices because her SAT score was well below the average accepted score, though everything else about her application screamed elite. Fortunately, she was accepted to and is now attending one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country, Bowdoin College, which, ironically, was the first school to eliminate testing requirements more than 50 years ago. At Bowdoin, Jane continues to maintain a tremendous leadership presence like in high school, made the Dean’s list as a freshman, and is on track to graduate in four years. 

Let’s use this time to reflect, innovate, and advocate for the needs of everyone in our community, not just a lucky few. The reality is, this pandemic has served as a reminder to all of us on what it feels like to struggle. Many students, however, have personal pandemics they face every single day in the form of food insecurity, limited technology access, language barriers, and other systemic challenges. When we finally return to normalcy, let us not forget our most vulnerable populations and what this pandemic felt like. Let’s continue to fight for policies and practices which will benefit our students, families, and communities.

A phone call or email to your alma mater’s admissions office or standing in solidarity with students and educators advocating for test-optional policies at all colleges and universities would be a great start.

 *Name has been changed to protect individual’s privacy.

About Daniel Lopez

Daniel Lopez is a 2019 Aspiring Latino Leader Fellow with Latinos for Education. As a Senior Manager for the EMERGE program within Houston ISD, he is tasked with leading the selective college advising and coaching efforts for high school seniors across 43 high schools. EMERGE empowers and prepares high-performing youth from underserved communities to attend and graduate from the nation’s top colleges and universities.

Daniel’s journey into the education space began with his service as a Teach For America corps member where he served as a 8th grade English teacher in Spring Branch ISD. His professional growth and perspective on school district functions also grew with his election and service as the at-large representative for the Spring Branch District Improvement Team.