May 11, 2020
Each year during the month of February, I undergo the painstaking process of assisting my students with course selection for the next year. I’m a college counselor at Nashville’s Harpeth Hall School, a private school for girls, working primarily with juniors and seniors, but our office advises all upper school students on course selection. Over the last decade, this has become the most tedious aspect of my job. Rather than reading our beautifully curated course catalog with curiosity and excitement over what they might learn, too often my students agonize over whether they should take three or four AP classes, which classes are more or less likely to boost their GPA, and whether they should take the study hall they so desperately need or jam in another academic elective, and another hour of homework, on top of the (sometimes) five they are already doing.
This pandemic might just permanently tip the scales back toward school/life balance. Consider COVID-19’s potential effect on two of the pillars of college admission: standardized tests (SAT/ACT) and AP classes.
Here are some remarkable numbers: In 2019, the College Board administered over five million Advanced Placement (AP) exams. Over two million students took at least one SAT, with many students taking the test multiple times. When you consider the full suite of College Board assessments including the PSAT, over eight million students took a College Board test during the 2018-2019 school year. As of this writing, it costs $94 to take an AP exam, $49.50 to take an SAT, and $12 to send a test score report to an individual college. The College Board posts an annual revenue of over a billion dollars. And this is just the College Board. Add in the ACT and these figures double, not to mention the time and resources spent on hired test prep tutors. It is possible to raise one’s scores with tutoring, so families pay, students toil, and the bottom line of the test industry floats ever upward.
This brings us to a second pillar of admissions: the AP class. Selective college admission is a complex beast of competing priorities, and it cannot be distilled to a GPA and a test score, but in most cases, those two numbers are what students have been told to chase, so they do. Students who take an AP class at schools like mine get an additional weight added to their GPA, so taking an AP class not only shows you are taking the “most rigorous” course available in an already rigorous school but it can raise your cumulative average as well. The drawback of AP courses, however, is a rigid curricular structure that inhibits the freedom of otherwise innovative teachers, as well as a false promise of college credit that rarely comes to fruition in the volume anticipated by students and parents.
Additionally, every May, when it’s time for AP exams, our teachers lose at least two weeks, sometimes three, of classroom instruction. AP exam administrations take over the entire upper school, sophomores through seniors are pulled out of classes at an exponential rate depending on their grade level, and the real school year effectively ends. What if we got that time back? What could the teachers do with that freedom?
Some schools have already dropped the AP curriculum prior to this year, but many have been nervous to do so. The thing holding them back is the college process. The touted AP label. The SAT. The ACT. ADMISSION. Until COVID-19, I didn’t see changes ever really happening in such a deeply entrenched system. Schools are slow to change and cross-institutional educational systems even slower.
Now consider the pandemic’s potential impact on business-as-usual in college admission
What happens when you can’t gather more than ten people together? Not only is school canceled, but so is the SAT, the ACT, and AP exams. In the last two months, standardized test administrations have been canceled, postponed, and bent into shapes I never thought I would see. AP exams, which are normally three-hour marathons of hand-cramping and hunger pains have been reduced to forty-five minute at-home, open book/open note online exams. Students can take the exams from their cell phones if they choose and send pics of their essays as a means of submission. The ways in which the College Board has altered the exams in order to still administer them has been rapid, desperate, and in some cases, just funny. One piece of widely disseminated advice was to make sure no one else is in your home is playing Fortnite while your AP exam is being administered because it can compromise internet access for other users. (“Sorry, little brother, no Fortnite for you during AP Calc.”) The absurdity of COVID-style AP test administration is building the conversation around the validity of these exams from a low hum to a rumble.
In addition to unrecognizable, and arguably compromised, AP exams, the even larger change is the sweeping adaptation of test-optional admission policies for the upcoming 2021 college admission cycle. Test-optional admission has been gaining traction for years, but in the last two months, massive college entities that are normally slow to change have turned on a dime to drop the SAT and ACT as requirements for college admission. The University of California system was a major player who made the call in early April, and a wide variety of highly-selective private schools have joined ranks in an endless cascade of “our response to COVID-19” emails. It has been remarkable to witness. Frankly, it’s miraculous. Every time my email pings, a junior gets her wings.
There is a long and decorated line of studies that show standardized tests do not predict college success, nor are they equitable, and college admission works just fine without them. Ask any of the hundreds of test-optional colleges that were humming along before this year (Wake Forest, Dickinson, and Pitzer, to name just a few). But the problem was that the majority of schools—and among them, many of the most visible schools—still required the SAT or ACT. So students took the exams, and took them again, and took them again, and spent their Saturdays and their lifeforce on tests that are really only best at predicting family income. The system needed a knock in the gut to really change, and while I wouldn’t have asked for a global pandemic to make it happen, I’ll take the change. Many of the newly test-optional schools are hedging their bets and saying the policy is only a pilot for one or a few years, but I feel confident and hopeful that many will never go back.
I’m not writing anything that my colleagues on either side of the admission desk would not immediately recognize. The inequity of standardized testing and its outdated use in education has been expressed far more eloquently and authoritatively than what I have written here. In fact, on April 29, a statement was issued by our professional organization, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, that called testing agencies and colleges to the mat on these issues. The content of the statement did not surprise me, but the tone did. It was emphatic, angry even, and a louder call than what I have previously seen from that public platform. It, too, gave me hope.
Like so many flawed systems that have been even further exposed by COVID-19, what I offer is a simple hope that this particular one finally falls.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Evans’s contribution will be directed to Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.