SATs and ACTs Amid Coronavirus

Coronavirus has not only disrupted lives but it’s also wreaked havoc with SATs and ACTs, a rite of passage for teenagers aiming to go to college. Standardized tests are used to decide entry to many universities but the scores are also important to qualify for many scholarship programs.

Parents (and students) are scrambling like maniacs to figure out how to take standardized tests as they’re being cancelled due to coronavirus. Finding availability at test centers is like stumbling upon white gold. Test dates have been cancelled over and over again as coronavirus roils across the country. Last spring, approximately 770,000 high schoolers weren’t able to sit the SATs.

On-Going Confusion

Not only has the pandemic shuttered high schools, which have typically hosted standardized exams, but test locations that are open have had to adhere to new protocols. The centers need to ensure a six-foot distance between test-takers, which means there are fewer seats available. Screening procedures have been put in place to provide a safe test environment, which means that testing centers have to physically test the student for coronavirus as well as mentally test the student for their aptitude. This double burden means that capacity at test centers have been greatly reduced so getting a seat at your closest test center is like playing a game of roulette.

Fortunately, colleges and universities have been acutely aware of the challenges that teenagers are encountering. In response, more schools have made the standardized tests optional for college applications. However, even this policy change is controversial. 

Other Collegiate Happenings

My Ivy League alma mater, Cornell University, is one of the universities who decided to suspend testing requirements in light of the pandemic. However, many of my fellow alumni with children now applying for college will not be foregoing their attempts to submit standardized test scores. The scores will only enhance college applications if students do well. In other words, don’t believe the hype that test scores won’t count.  

The University of California (UC) school system, which encompasses 10 universities, is the largest market for the SAT and ACT test. In May, the UC system declared that the admissions policy will be test optional for the Class of 2020 and 2021 and test blind in 2023 and 2024. But a judge has prohibited the UC colleges from accepting any standardized test scores at all. The UC system has appealed the decision.

That’s not the end of the story though because the UC system had been planning to create their own testing system by 2024. However, a new testing metric could potentially recreate the same issues as the SAT and ACT, which is that wealthier families will have a greater advantage since they can afford oodles of test preparation. Other colleges and universities also are reconsidering requirements for SAT and ACT scores in their admission decision-making process.

Background of SAT

Historically, the SAT was first distributed in 1926 as an aptitude test, hence the name Scholastic Aptitude Test. The original intent of the test was to broaden the applicant pool for universities so they could find good candidates from outside the elite East Coast boarding schools. However, a hundred years later, educational inequity is still an ongoing battle. Studies show that SAT scores correlate with family income. Not only do wealthier families have expendable funds for tutors and test prep classes, they are networked with other like-minded parents who will go to great lengths to support their kids in acing the standardized tests.

Opting not to take standardized tests in the age of a pandemic may be a mistake. Additional test dates for both the SATs and ACTs have been offered to make it easier for students. 

Even though talk of phasing out standardized tests have been discussed for years, the tests remain a criteria for many college admissions policies. In the class of 2019, 2.2 million students took the SATs and 1.8 million took the ACTs. During the pandemic, some students who planned to take one standardized test will take the other test for the sole reason that they were able to register for an available test center so you may want to keep that option in mind. 

For the latest information, check out the following links:

Here are a few tips to guide you through the process:

  1. Don’t give up when it comes time to register. – Nightmare stories of long waits on the phone or registration queues are becoming the norm for families trying to register for the exams. Some families have started dialing in an hour before opening times of the registration only to find themselves far down the queue. But it’s important to remind yourselves not to hang up the phone and don’t log out of your computer while you’re waiting. It will be worth it in the long run.
  1. Be flexible with the location. – A year ago, it may have seemed like a crazy idea to drive an hour away to take a standardized test but that kind of grit may be required during this pandemic. Parents are booking weekends in faraway towns or even other states to find test centers for their kids. Driving a couple hours away to find a test center may not be that bad. 
  1. Stay with relatives or friends. – If you have to travel further afield to find a test center, think of relatives or close family friends where the student could stay overnight prior to the test day. Don’t hesitate to tap into the resources you have and be creative. Know anyone with an RV?
  1. Reach out to your guidance counselor. – Maybe they know of a carpool, a family driving to the same faraway test center, or a volunteer who’s willing to drive your student. Some families need additional support. My father wasn’t around when I was taking standardized tests and my mother would’ve been too afraid to drive more than 20 minutes from our home. Other kids might be in similar situations and there are adults who are willing to go out of their way to help a student.

Keep in mind that getting into college is a team effort. Not one teenager or one family can take on gargantuan projects by themselves all the time. Let’s not kid ourselves – getting a kid into college is a gargantuan project. When you reach out to others for help, they might have a brilliant idea that you never thought of. You’ll never know if you don’t ask. 

For the latest deadlines and registration dates from SAT & ACT, make sure to check the links below:

SAThttps://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/register/dates-deadlines

ACTshttps://www.act.org/content/act/en/products-and-services/the-act/registration.html

Helen Hwang
Helen I. Hwang is a freelance journalist, author and mechanical engineer. Her works have appeared in People Magazine, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia City Paper, [email protected] (Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania's online business journal), Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine, TravelSavvy.com, Jade Magazine, Hyphen Magazine, Next American City Magazine, and other publications.