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Coronavirus in Texas

Texas universities are shelving SAT and ACT requirements as coronavirus scrambles admissions process

Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin are the latest schools to announce a temporary suspension of test requirements. Others already had doubts about how well standardized tests predict student performance, and the pandemic has them rethinking their admissions approach.

An exam answer sheet.

High school students with dreams of attending college would typically be gearing up to take standardized admissions tests this time of year. But that’s not happening.

The new coronavirus pandemic has thrown the regular cycle of SAT and ACT exams into question. Test days have been canceled, test sites temporarily shuttered and concerns raised about ensuring that all students have equal access when tests are administered.

In response, many Texas universities are becoming “test-optional” through 2021, waiving the traditional requirement for test scores to gain admission. The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, Baylor University, Texas Tech University, Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University have all temporarily scrapped their testing requirements through 2021.

Some universities that were doubting the value of test scores even before the pandemic see an opportunity to change the admissions process altogether. In Austin, St. Edward's University had been planning to permanently waive ACT and SAT requirements for months, said Dean of Admissions Drew Nichols.

“We have come to find out the SAT is not exactly predictive of whether or not a student is successful on our campus,” Nichols said, adding that students with low scores often have a stellar first semester and vice versa.

Advocates say going test-optional will remove barriers imposed by COVID-19 and ultimately boost a college’s racial and socioeconomic diversity. Nichols himself sees it as a way to “invite more students into the pool.”

Across the country, many other colleges are following a similar path. Most of the eight Ivy League colleges have already announced test-optional policies through 2021. The University of California system made headlines last month when it announced its campuses would begin phasing out the ACT and SAT immediately. By 2025, university officials hope to make both exams obsolete.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, has faced criticism for canceling spring test dates with short notice, leaving thousands of high school students in the lurch. Test dates are now being rescheduled for August and beyond, which will likely cause many high school seniors to scramble to take the test before college applications are due. And the ACT recently closed hundreds of testing centers before a June 13 test day, rescheduling exams for July and beyond.

Texas A&M and UT-Austin are the latest universities in Texas to go test-optional, citing increased student difficulties with test access and preparation. As of now, UT-Austin plans on reinstating the test score requirement for fall 2022 admissions.

At test-optional universities, admissions officials say applicants will be judged more holistically, with added emphasis on factors like high school grades and curriculum, letters of recommendation and extended resumes. Baylor University’s own test-optional policy is prompting a “total restructuring” of the scholarship and admissions process, said Admissions Vice President Jessica King Gereghty.

“We’re calibrating for different academic standards at high schools around the U.S. and Texas, studying transcripts really closely,” Gereghty said. “We just take a deeper dive into all the nuances of an application.”

Some higher education experts are cautious. Allen Koh, chief executive officer of college prep company Cardinal Education, advises against banishing test requirements completely. In the absence of scores, school performance will disproportionately count towards an application, he said.

“(Colleges) need some level of standardization; it’s only fair,” Koh said. “The SAT allowed the late bloomers, people who had different talents not necessarily measured in classrooms, to compensate. This decision is actually devastating to a lot of people.”

John Thompson, a Dallas resident and physical education instructor at Comstock Middle School, worries that his son Rodney, a high school junior, will not get the chance to improve his ACT scores in time for college applications.

Thompson has spent the past year attending college preparation seminars and enrolling his son in ACT classes so he could score higher. On his teacher’s salary, he said it’s especially important that Rodney get scholarships, which often judge applicants based on exam scores.

So “if they’re not going by these scores, how do they choose?” Thompson asked. As a solid B-honor roll student, “my son worked hard to get ahead of things. My goal is to get him to college, however that happens.”

Disclosure: Baylor University, College Board, Texas Tech University, Texas Christian University, Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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