Axing admissions tests avoids real solutions, ACT argues

Head of major standardised test sees bans as excuse for income-related gaps

September 9, 2020
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The abandoning of standardised admissions tests by US universities is an ineffective political feel-good tactic that many institutions ultimately will reconsider, the head of the ACT exam said.

Colleges are adopting test-optional admissions policies rather than attacking more fundamental “root problems” that harm low-income and minority students, said Janet Godwin, the interim chief executive officer at ACT.

“It feels good to go test-optional, in a way, because you’re doing something,” Ms Godwin told Times Higher Education. “Institutions are taking action, and it feels good to take action.”

The ACT and the SAT – the other major admissions test?– have now been dropped by a majority of US colleges, with?longstanding concerns?about their?race- and wealth-based inequities?compounded by test-taking difficulties during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 10-campus University of California system?made standardised admissions tests optional?in May, then was told this month by a state judge?not to use them at all, due to Covid-related access issues facing poorer and disabled students.

Ms Godwin said she understood the pandemic has meant cancelled tests and complicated logistics, and she promised that the ACT will address such problems.

“But the larger political test-optional movement, I believe, is more convenient than solving the?root problems that we’re facing?in?our educational system,” she said.

The leading group of US admissions advisers rejected such talk. Members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) have recognised equity problems in standardised admissions tests for more than decade, and believe that colleges now adopting test-optional policies still may not be going far enough, said David Hawkins, the executive director for educational content and policy at NACAC.

Dismissing concerns over standardised admissions tests as more about politics than substance “is indicative of just how out of touch the testing agencies have become with the reality that we all face”, Mr Hawkins said.

“To characterise public health and equity concerns overall as ‘politics’ is to avoid confronting the reality before us,” he said.

Ms Godwin, a 30-year veteran of the ACT, was named interim leader in May as the non-profit organisation announced staff reductions and the departure of Marten Roorda as chief executive.

The ACT under Mr Roorda made?11 major acquisitions and investments?to diversity the organisation and embed it more deeply into the process of students choosing colleges.

The advantages of that growth, Ms Godwin said, included?finding new ways to help students?from challenging backgrounds realise that they have unappreciated potential to succeed in college and “to help educators know how to help their students”.

“I think some probably will go back and require it,” she said of universities that have dropped standardised admissions test requirements.

Despite the logistical problems that Covid has created for administering the test, Ms Godwin saw the pandemic as illustrating the ACT’s overall value by giving colleges a clear nationwide yardstick for students facing even wider variations in their high school circumstances.

“And because many colleges say: ‘Yeah, if you provide them, we’ll look at them,’ students are looking for every possible way to show off and demonstrate what they’ve accomplished and put them on a good position,” she said.

That increase in test-optional colleges, however, may further disadvantage students whose families can’t afford them, Mr Hawkins said. NACAC is beginning “to open the door?to these very questions”, he said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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