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What does COVID-19 mean for the future of college admissions?

Editor's Note: We asked The College Board to respond to numerous complaints about the handling of the AP exams. The Board told the PBS NewsHour that students who weren't able to successfully submit their exams will be given a personalized email address where students can email their responses following the exam. For students who had trouble between May 11-15, the Board says any student who encountered an issue with submission that week will be able to retest in June.

College Board officials also told NewsHour in a statement that no system went down and, “we want to give every student the chance to earn the college credit they’ve worked toward throughout the year. That’s why we quickly set up a process that’s simple, secure, and accessible.”

With schools closed and classes moving online, students nationwide are being forced to adapt to a new learning landscape. One challenge: standardized testing for college admissions, many of which have been canceled this spring. Although test administrators say tests will be run online by this fall, some experts worry that shift will exacerbate existing systemic inequities. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Springtime for juniors in high school usually marks the beginning of the college admissions process, with SAT and ACT tests and advanced placement exams.

    More than two million students took A.P. exams last week. But a glitch prevented thousands from submitting their exams, which were administered online for the first time this year.

    All this is raising questions about what to do with testing for the class of 2021 and beyond.

    Stephanie Sy looks at how the coronavirus is changing the calculus for college hopefuls.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Schools are closed. Classes are online. Students around the country have been forced to make adjustments. One unanticipated change during this pandemic? Canceled college admissions tests.

  • Bridgette Adu-Wadier:

    It's given me a lot of anxiety, not knowing that I can take this test or when I will be able to take it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In Alexandria, Virginia, Bridgette Adu-Wadier had planned to take the SAT for the first time this spring at her high school. Now she worries rescheduling the test won't be easy.

  • Bridgette Adu-Wadier:

    My family doesn't have a car, so figuring out public transportation and bus routes and train routes, especially when the testing location is in a different city several miles away, it's really complicated, and the costs do add up.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Annette Rooney, from Salt Lake City, was hoping to take the ACT a second time to improve on her score and have a better shot at top-tier schools.

  • Annette Rooney:

    I am a person that likes to get things done ahead of time. And so I wanted to get my college applications done by the end of summer. And now that I don't have scores that I feel good about, it's like, when am I going to be able to send in my applications?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    New SAT testing dates and sites have been added in the fall, according to David Coleman, CEO of The College Board, which administers the test.

  • David Coleman:

    Many students today take the SAT during the spring during the school day. That's about 700,000 students who missed that chance.

    We have also said, if school doesn't reopen, that we will provide an SAT at home, just as we're providing the A.P. exams at home.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The College Board redesigned its advanced placements tests so students could take them online this month, but critics argue that an online format for the A.P.s and SATs will only exacerbate inequalities.

    David Coleman acknowledges the challenges.

  • David Coleman:

    Some students have lost family members. Some students are in crowded homes. This is not a time to simply look at a measure and judge someone. It's only part of the puzzle.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tamir Harper founded the nonprofit UrbEd in Philadelphia, and says schools should stop relying on the SAT altogether.

  • Tamir Harper:

    The test was not made for black and brown students and students of local — lower economic status. It is 100 percent unfair.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Do you view this pandemic, in a way, as a wakeup call to these institutions of higher learning to see the inequities that have been laid bare?

  • Tamir Harper:

    I think it's highlighting inequities across the board, from health care, to work, even to education. While it's very tragic, it's doing something that will hopefully change the way we look at education.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Now dozens of colleges and universities, like Cornell, Williams, and the entire University of California system, are going test-optional for the first time.

    Michelle McAnaney is a college admissions specialist and founder of The College Spy.

  • Michelle McAnaney:

    A test-optional admissions policy allows a student to apply to a college without submitting their ACT or SAT scores. And the way that works is, the college looks at the other parts of their application to evaluate whether they'd be a good fit for campus.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    She says going test-optional can also be beneficial for the schools.

  • Michelle McAnaney:

    They get a lot more applications. So then they reject more students, because they have a certain number of places in the freshman class. And then they also appear more selective because they have a high rate of rejection.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Seattle University provost Shane Martin says the school was already considering going test-optional, but the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated their decision.

    What reasons drove your college's decision to go test optional in these times?

  • Shane Martin:

    There's evidence that suggests that these tests are biased towards certain groups and that they're not entirely predictive of success in college for high school students.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Martin believes test-optional schools will eventually be in the majority.

  • Shane Martin:

    When you see institutions with strong reputations, like the University of Chicago, moved to test-optional, that's a game-changer for higher education. And we're going to see more institutions following suit.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For now, McAnaney says the tests are still critical for many students, including those that are hoping for scholarships.

  • Michelle McAnaney:

    Students really shouldn't be saying, I don't have to worry about this because the schools I'm interested in are test-optional. If your schools are test-optional, and your scores are great for that college, you should be submitting your scores. It could help you get in. And it could help you get merit aid.

  • John Barnes:

    So many people are smart or they have the grades that they are comfortable with because they work hard. And just one test that you take on a Saturday doesn't really measure that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    John Barnes of Arlington, Virginia, says the tests are an unreliable indicator of student achievement and create too much pressure on students.

  • John Barnes:

    I got my score back and it, like, went down 20 points. So I just started freaking out. And then this security guard comes out.

    This test has driven me to go this insane that a library security guard could come out of the library while I'm having a nervous breakdown.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    David Kang, a junior in Austin, Texas, feels the opposite.

  • David Kang:

    I moved here from Korea like right before high school started. So I just jumped right in here. And I really had a rocky start. So my GPA isn't all that great compared to my SAT scores.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Coleman says the evidence in favor of the SAT is overwhelming.

  • David Coleman:

    If you put a strong score together with strong grades, admissions officers have more confidence about your background. So it is a good thing to have a measure that allows you to better compare people, if used humanely in the context in which people live and learn.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And while some students disagree with the emphasis on testing, they recognize the importance of a good score in the current system, whether to get into their dream school.

  • Annette Rooney:

    A number does not determine your future, which is something that I have tried to accept. But it's hard, because it still determines your future, kind of.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Or to earn financial aid.

  • Bridgette Adu-Wadier:

    My parents are not at the highest income. And I'm really worried about them taking on debt.

    I want to make sure that it's not as big of a burden for me. And the SAT was really something that I was counting on to help me.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The class of 2021 looking for clarity for their future in the chaos of a pandemic.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And a postscript to Stephanie's report.

    There is more criticism of how The College Board has handled the A.P. exams taken at home. The Board says less than 1 percent students were not able to submit their exams. Students can take a makeup next month.

    The Board also says that it tried to lay out specific guidance before the exams began. But some parents and critics have said the Board has not been transparent enough about just how many students were affected.

    Some are angry about students having to take a makeup exam.

    We are posting a fuller response from The College Board on our Web site.

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