Coronavirus Is Accelerating Colleges' Retreat From SAT, ACT Scores The SAT and ACT's reach beyond college admissions is pervasive, with many states requiring students take one or the other in order to graduate high school.

Colleges Are Backing Off SAT, ACT Scores — But The Exams Will Be Hard To Shake

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At more than half of all four-year colleges in the U.S., students next year can apply without submitting scores from the SAT or ACT. Harvard and Stanford are on that list, plus quite a few large state universities, including the University of Virginia. The schools say they're being flexible to accommodate for testing disruptions caused by the coronavirus. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Cornell University in upstate New York made the decision to forego test scores back in April.

JONATHAN BURDICK: There was just no way that testing this year was going to be business as usual.

NADWORNY: That's Jonathan Burdick, the university's vice provost for enrollment. Many high school students were unable to take the high-stakes tests this spring and summer amid the pandemic. And fall testing dates are filling up fast due to high demand and a decreased capacity because of social distancing. Cornell's policy change, like that at many colleges, only applies to next year's application cycle.

Is there a chance that this temporary policy could become permanent?

BURDICK: I believe it's going to be possible to change our way of reading at Cornell in a way that might allow us to not return to using the SAT or the SAT, but we're sort of leaving the door open.

NADWORNY: Even if it's not permanent, the change has some prospective students excited. Sadie Bograd from Lexington, Ky., is one of them.

SADIE BOGRAD: I think sort of announcing that schools are going test-optional felt like a sign that they really cared about what students were going through.

NADWORNY: She's a rising high school senior. And over the last few weeks, she's been impressed by schools dropping the test requirements. But she's not convinced going test-optional will shake the power of the SAT and ACT from students' lives. For as long as Bograd can remember, standardized tests have been ingrained in the fabric of her schools.

BOGRAD: So I guess it's just been part of my educational experience pretty much since middle school.

NADWORNY: The SAT and ACT have a reach far beyond admissions. Twenty-five states, including Kentucky, where Bograd lives, require high school students to take them. Often, high schools give the exams during the weekday free of cost. Bograd says students have mixed relationships with these tests.

BOGRAD: Among my peers, a lot of us really care about our standardized test scores because we think that schools and that our teachers really care about our standardized test scores.

NADWORNY: Outside of college admissions or graduations, she says...

BOGRAD: If you asked a student whether they really wanted to do well on a standardized test because they thought it was an important measure of their intelligence, I think most of them would say no.

DHANFU ELSTON: You know, this has been a conversation for a really long time.

NADWORNY: Dhanfu Elston is with Complete College America, an organization focused on closing equity gaps in higher education.

ELSTON: It took COVID-19 for us to recognize that standardized test scores may not be the best indicator of student success when the research and the data has told us that for decades.

NADWORNY: It's unclear how many students will enroll in college for the fall, and that makes colleges desperate for students. Elston says colleges can't sit on their laurels. They need to embrace change. But it's far bigger than just test optional. The pandemic, he says, provides an opportunity to reimagine the college experience - things like moving office hours to the evening to accommodate for different schedules, making policies like how a student can withdraw from a course more flexible, even the way teaching happens, like finally abandoning huge lecture halls.

ELSTON: This is a moment, and we need to utilize it to figure out how we become a more equitable society.

NADWORNY: If colleges think about long-term changes instead of just short-term ones, Elston says they could open the door to many more students. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

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