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People at desks wearing face masks.
Many people are wondering if COVID-19 could spell the end of university admission testing. Young people at the Autonomous University of Barcelona on July 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

University admissions tests like the SAT are under scrutiny especially in the age of COVID-19

Many Grade 12 high school students are now looking ahead to post-secondary studies next fall. Those wishing to attend universities in the United States will see that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the growing shift to test-optional university admissions policies — or scrapping entrance tests altogether.

Due to COVID-19, many U.S. universities, including Yale, Cornell, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania have announced they won’t require applicants for fall 2021 to write either the SAT or ACT.

But even before the pandemic, entrance examinations were under scrutiny. The University of California voted in May to phase out both the SAT and the ACT as requirements for university admissions, largely due to concerns over racial and cultural bias. Other universities have made similar pronouncements.

Many people are wondering if the COVID-19 pandemic will spell the end of university admission testing altogether, and what the implications are for Canadian universities and the approximately 25,000 Canadian students that attend post-secondary institutions in the United States each year.

History of admissions testing

In England, some universities first adopted examinations as the basis for admission in the 1800s. It was not long until university admission testing spread to other parts of the world. A large number of countries now use some form of testing for admission to undergraduate education.

In the United Kingdom, A-level exams across subjects are administered by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulations. In New Zealand, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) uses internal and external assessments to determine students’ achievement of standards, and subsequent admission to post-secondary education and employment.

In Canada, several provinces including Alberta and British Columbia have used senior level subject exams as indicators for university entrance, and often in conjunction with teacher grades. In Australia, universities may ask some applicants to write the STAT, a scholastic aptitude test. However, many people are beginning to question the appropriateness of testing for equitable admissions decisions, particularly now in the COVID-19 era.

Students writing an exam.
Many people are beginning to question the appropriateness of testing for equitable admissions decisions, particularly now in the COVID-19 era. (Shutterstock)

A common metric?

Advocates of admissions testing say there is a need to compare students using a common metric. Their chief rationale for using a common benchmark to make admittance decisions is wanting reliable and valid assessments, rather than depending on the idiosyncratic nature of classroom teachers’ assessment practices.

Supporters of admissions testing argue that these external examinations provide an objective metric that may help disadvantaged pupils.

Well before the pandemic, some argued that admissions testing at some of Canada’s universities would help ensure students have the necessary abilities for post-secondary success in their targeted programs.

Digital companies are beginning to take a vested interested in testing — particularly in light of COVID-19, which has forced several assessments into remote proctored environments. Some companies have advanced new technologies that enable responsive test questions, secure online test distribution and administration. Some are currently integrating virtual and alternative digital realities to create more authentic testing environments.

What opponents say

Opponents of admissions testing argue that using external exams for high-stakes decisions creates pressure to raise test scores and degrades rather than improves instruction and learning in schools.

Although this criticism is most often made in relation to high-stakes secondary school testing, the pressure to teach to the test also applies when governments track students’ admissions testing performance from year to year.

Last year’s college admissions scandal in the U.S. highlighted how high-stakes admissions exams can lead to improper and even illegal actions that impact the legitimacy of testing.

Read more: U.S. college admissions scandal means more skepticism of genuine invisible disabilities

Critics have also suggested tests have racial, gender and economic biases as different groups may interact with specific test items in different ways, putting them at an unfair disadvantage. Allegations of bias have sparked legal action against some testing organizations.

As with any high-stakes tests, admissions testing can provoke anxiety, worry and concern in students, leading to significant well-being and wellness challenges. Admission tests reflect broad skills, competencies and aptitudes for higher education, yet are not directly aligned to standards where student applicants may be studying. Hence students may have different levels of preparation for such tests.

Similarly, coaching and preparatory courses can help boost performance for people who can afford such services.

Collectively, these points underscore critical equity concerns related to admission testing and suggest an unequal playing field.

Levelling the field

Testing organizations have increasingly focused their efforts on methods to account for social and economic background characteristics (known as an adversity score) to address bias.

The SAT adversity score includes 15 variables in three different areas: family environment, neighbourhood environment and secondary school environment. Characterized as a poor fix, the adversity score has been criticized for not accounting for unique student circumstances.

Moving tests into online platforms has enabled more responsive question formats, additional accommodations for students with disabilities and, most recently, remote invigilation practices.

In the absence of external admissions exams, universities are turning towards alternative metrics. Some universities look at test results students have written throughout their formal schooling. There have been calls for professional development to ensure teacher grades lead to reliable and valid information about students’ achievement, and many American colleges and universities are exploring ways to develop their own admissions tests.

Students sit in an outdoor stadium writing entrance exams.
Prospective students wear face masks and shields as they take the entrance exam for Mexico’s National Autonomous University in the University Olympic Stadium in Mexico City, Aug. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Perhaps the ultimate arbitrator of the use of admission tests is whether students’ test performances actually predict student success. Unfortunately, the research about this is somewhat mixed and suggests students’ first-year university grades may be both over- and under-predicted by test scores.

Regardless of whether or not universities rely on entrance exams, admissions decisions are supplemented by students’ activities, such as completion of specific programs like the International Baccalaureate. At least one Canadian university has adjusted student grades depending on the high school students attended.

The fact that some students will access more “enriched” secondary opportunities will do little to address concerns of cultural bias and the fact that COVID-19 may have further exacerbated school-based inequities.

Read more: School fees undermine public education’s commitment to equity

With more and more institutions phasing out admission testing, there will be an increasing need to rely on teachers’ judgements to make university admissions decisions.

Accordingly, it will become even more important that teachers have sound assessment skills to provide valid judgements of their students’ achievement of learning. With the increasing shift to online learning environments, teachers will need expanded competencies in assessing students. Teachers’ assessment literacy is key and must be a critical focus of what teachers need to learn in their university education and in professional development.

This is an updated version of a story originally published on Nov. 9. It clarifies that in Australia writing the STAT isn’t a mainstream requirement for all university applicants.

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