From the Desk of Barbara Robertson

The U.S. economy is rebounding sharply from its lockdown-induced malaise, but it may be years before some sectors fully recover, if at all. Among those that survive, some will emerge from the pandemic fundamentally changed. The nation’s postsecondary education system would appear destined for this latter category.

We can see this most clearly in the waning influence of standardized testing in college admissions. The SAT and ACT have been pillars of the admissions process – and cultural touchstones in their own right – for well over half a century. (The SAT was first administered to high school students in 1926; the ACT was introduced in 1959.) Both may now become operational casualties of the coronavirus pandemic.

Opposition to the SAT and ACT has been growing for some time. Detractors claim the tests are unfair to minority and low-income students. The cause seemed to gain momentum in the wake of the 2019 college admissions scandal, which saw wealthy parents bribe exam proctors and hire professionals to take the tests for their children, among other schemes.

Then the pandemic roared to life, disrupting just about every aspect of daily living.

Amid lockdown orders, and with testing sites shuttered, colleges and universities prudently decided last spring to suspend SAT and ACT requirements for 2020 applicants. Given the austere restrictions in place at the time, students were literally unable to take the tests.

Interestingly, this seemed to trigger a broad movement away from the continued use of standardized testing in admissions.

Last May, UC Berkeley announced it would disregard SAT and ACT test scores for some applicants in a pilot study. That very same day, UC regents unanimously voted to phase out the tests over five years. In an admissions lawsuit settlement announced earlier this month, the University of California agreed to no longer consider even voluntarily submitted SAT or ACT scores.

According to the Los Angeles Times, given the outsize influence of California’s higher education institutions, some believe the SAT and ACT could be headed for obsolescence nationally as a result of these developments, though it should be noted that the massive California State University system has yet to decide one way or another. Like three-fourths U.S. colleges and universities, CSU has suspended testing requirements for fall 2021 applicants.

The College Board, which oversees SAT testing throughout the country, insists the exam remains popular, though even before the pandemic the test’s essay and subject portions had fallen into disfavor at many universities. In January, the College Board announced it was discontinuing both the subject tests and the optional essay section.

We have already glimpsed what will happen should a sizable number of colleges and universities do away with standardized testing permanently. College admissions offices, particularly at top schools, have reported record-shattering increases in applications this year. This may be a good thing for colleges that collect application fees, but for students not so much. Experts say the application process has become more confusing and opaque, precisely because admissions decisions are now more subjective in the absence of test scores.

This is a dramatic sea change, and there are bound to be more growing pains. One thing is certain not to change: the importance of academic achievement in college admissions. Students should apply themselves accordingly.

A version of this commentary appeared in the Santa Maria Times.