To Test or Not to Test: The August Edition

By Casey Near


testing august

A note: One month ago, I wrote a piece about the guidance I’d give three sample high school seniors around standardized testing. With the pace of change these days, I’ll be updating my advice for those three students every month. Here’s how my thinking evolved for our sample seniors.

If you’re a college counselor, giving guidance about standardized testing right now feels pretty much like pointing into an apocalyptic abyss full of “if/then” scenarios mixed with an actual contagion. With reports of students testing positive for COVID-19 after the July ACT, making recommendations about sitting for an ACT or SAT doesn’t just feel like a question about what’s a good use of your time this fall. It’s increasingly a question of what’s a risk you’re willing to take.

With that in mind, I wanted to share some updated guidance, as well as a fair share of context and caveats before I dig into those sample scenarios.

This is an international pandemic with very different local (and individual) realities. If your counselor has recommended that you take an SAT or ACT based on your college list or your geography (many places outside the US are resuming standardized testing), absolutely forge ahead. And, if you score relatively well on standardized tests (more on what “well” means in Student A below), there are decreasing COVID cases in your area, and/or you are not putting yourself and others at risk by taking a test, go for it. Otherwise, for the rest of the class of 2021, this is a moment to consider not testing.

Let me be clear: there are still a handful of colleges in America that are not test-optional. And, student-athletes being recruited are still being asked by NCAA to submit scores even to schools that are test-optional. As of this post, colleges that are not yet test-optional include the service academies (i.e. Air Force, Coast Guard, and Naval), and the public universities of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. But with a recent swell of public institutions finally becoming test optional – Clemson and Wisconsin being the latest – and the growing pressure from students and counselors, it is likely some of those schools above will follow.

There’s also a movement within our profession, fueled by school counselors, asking colleges to directly state that test-optional means test-optional – that it won’t negatively impact a student to apply without testing, and it won’t impact eligibility for merit scholarships. But until that movement catches hold at all institutions, the lack of clarity from schools puts counselors and students in a tricky position. If your colleges are on the list of schools above where test-optional means test-optional, you’re done with testing. Focus on the things left in your control with a much greater impact in admission (more on that here).

But if you are in one of those categories where taking a test might still make sense (given your own background or the school’s requriements), you now have three options ahead of you:

  • Path #1: Register and plan to take a standardized test
  • Path #2: Apply and hope the school changes their policy
  • Path #3: Apply to a different school

If you test well relative to a school’s median score range and it’s safe to test, go for it with Path #1. But, that population seems like an outlier these days in the US. And with my experience seeing how colleges adapt in times of crisis, I feel confident that if it becomes increasingly difficult to take an SAT or ACT this fall, colleges will change their minds (Path #2). Otherwise, I come back to Path #3 here: if a college hasn’t gone test optional, amidst a pandemic, is that a place you’d want to go to school? Some people may not have that privilege if they’re in a state where that choice is being forced (see public institutions above). But if you do have the privilege of choice, it’s essential to consider what’s the best use of your time, and what’s a risk you’re willing to take. For many students right now, that may not be taking a standardized test.

Case Studies

If you want a more granular look at how I’d recommend proceeding with our sample high school seniors, read on:

Student A

This student is a relatively good test taker (scoring at or slightly above the median 50% range of their schools) and is thinking of applying Early Decision to Cornell.

Advice: Advice: If cases are going down in your area and you can test safely before November, this is the only scenario I would consider doing some prep and taking a test (based on Cornell’s somewhat fuzzy test optional policy here, and more on that in my original post here). But it needs to come second to your schoolwork and (most importantly) your health. If you could benefit from some consolidated prep before an upcoming test, we’re running Advanced Refresher courses through August here.

Student B

This student hasn't yet taken a standardized test. They are hoping to take the SAT in the fall and will not be applying Early Decision anywhere. Their list includes the UC system in California, as well as private colleges that are a mix of historically test-optional schools and some newly test-optional. And, they are hoping to qualify for merit scholarships. 

Advice: As long as all schools on your list have signed onto the commitment that test-optional means test-optional, don’t test. If they haven’t, refer to the logic of Paths 1, 2, and 3 above.

Student C

This student hasn't taken a standardized test yet and has a list of historically test-optional schools, as well as truly test-optional schools for this year (meaning, no caveats like Cornell above). They are very anxious about testing, practice tests are coming in below that middle 50% of scores, and their grades and schoolwork are strong. They don't need merit scholarships, and the stress of testing this fall would likely impact their school performance and/or mental health.

Advice: Stays the same. Don’t test.

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