COVID-19 has made signing up for standardized tests a difficult process. Because both the ACT and SAT are now enforcing capacity restrictions, it is harder for students to find an opportunity to test. Some students might have to travel out of their hometowns to take these high-stakes exams. However, not everyone has that privilege.
Due to these complications, the University of Utah has switched to a test optional policy for Fall 2021 to Fall 2023 admission — but standardized test scores are still required for merit scholarships. The U’s decision to not adopt a test optional scholarship policy will ultimately hurt prospective and incoming students from racially diverse and low-income backgrounds.
The lack of access to standardized testing disproportionally hurts low-income and marginalized students. Young people from these demographics often struggle to afford college, which leads them to take out loans and graduate with debt. By the same token, these students are suffering academically because of COVID-19. Registration processes for the ACT and SAT take place almost entirely online, therefore hindering students without constant internet access. And the academic challenges of the pandemic are exacerbated by new family responsibilities like helping with younger siblings and family economic struggles.
Students clearly have enough going on, so why worsen their load by throwing standardized testing into the mix? Academic performance, especially test scores, should not be held against students who are disadvantaged by the disproportionate impact of this year’s extenuating circumstances. Colleges and universities have an obligation to academically support prospective and current students, and traveling to attain a test score or waiting online for two hours to register isn’t possible for the students who need these scholarships most.
Low-income and minoritized students need scholarships in order to level the playing field of college affordability. Scholarships boost enrollment among low-income students, which is critical for a host of reasons. For one thing, exposure to students with different backgrounds helps us build empathy and learn from each other. But most importantly, all young people, regardless of skin color or socioeconomic status, should have access to higher education and the economic, civic and health-related advantages that come with it.
Because these advantages should not be exclusive, low-income students and students of color should be prioritized in the admissions process and incentivized to attend the U through its scholarship process. Applying to college is difficult enough for students lacking academic support. A test optional policy may appear helpful on the surface level, but it could lead many prospective applicants to forego more research to understand that a standardized test score must be submitted for scholarship consideration. This application process is made more complicated at the U because scholarship consideration is automatic if students apply by the Feb. 1st deadline.
It’s also important to consider that a test optional policy for admissions and even scholarships can still perpetuate academic inequality. Those reviewing the applications may consciously or subconsciously favor people with scores or without scores, even as certain colleges are claiming that test optional really does mean test optional. Nonetheless, it appears that the test optional admissions process at the U is working against students without access to strong college application support.
To benefit prospective low-income students and students of color, the U and other universities should consider using a holistic approach to admissions and scholarship awards that does not include test scores. This process would take into account all aspects of what shapes a student, from after-school jobs, looking after siblings and involvement in school clubs, to the amount of support that their high school was able to offer them. This approach would serve diverse and low-income students better — since standardized tests were literally designed with racist intentions and, as a result, put these students at a disadvantage.
A holistic approach to admissions and scholarship consideration would emphasize that students are more than a test score. It would accept and reward students for what makes them unique as opposed to what a number reflects. The inclusivity that would result from holistic admissions would not only expand opportunities for students excluded from higher education because of a standardized testing requirement, but it would also benefit the college through a diverse student body.
The U’s current admissions system is hurting students of color and those of lower socioeconomic status. Not only is requiring test scores for scholarship consideration unfair, the whole test optional system still allows for an uneven playing field. If the U is truly invested in diversity, inclusion and equity, it must change its policies and practice to better serve historically disadvantaged students.