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Despite a national move away from standardized testing amid the pandemic, experts from the Harvard Graduate School of Education are divided over the future of testing in college admissions and K-12 education.
After initially lifting its testing requirement in June 2020 due to Covid-19, Harvard announced in December 2021 it would allow applicants through the Class of 2030 to forgo ACT and SAT score submissions.
The move comes amid a trend toward test-optional or test-blind admissions, with colleges across the country, such as the University of California system, taking similar measures. The College Board also decided in 2021 it would permanently discontinue its SAT subject tests, as well as the SAT essay component.
Education experts are divided on whether the changes would move the college admissions process towards equity or away from it.
HGSE graduate Toby N. Romer ’94, who is the assistant superintendent of Newton Public Schools, noted that the shift away from standardized testing may “level the playing field” among high school students.
“In fact, the college admissions testing industry was created to disadvantage certain groups of students intentionally,” he said. “So moving away from that is nothing but good news.”
Romer added he believes “a diverse cross section” of students within Newton Public Schools have benefited from test-optional or test-blind policies.
“I think there’s not a lot of good data to show that college admissions tests have been a good predictor of student success at selective colleges,” he said.
But two HGSE professors pointed out that a lack of standardized test scores will lead admissions officers to place more emphasis on other parts of the application.
HGSE professor Andrew D. Ho said a student’s letters of recommendation, personal essays, extracurriculars, and academic record may be weighed more heavily in the absence of test scores.
“If you imagine a five-legged stool, or a five-legged table, and you take out one of the legs, well then, everything just rests on the remaining four,” he said.
HGSE professor Thomas J. Kane said other application components, such as extracurriculars, may result in more inequity and depend heavily on the resources available to students. He added elite high schools may be able to provide more opportunities for student leadership positions.
“Even though SAT scores are correlated with family background, family income, they may be less correlated with family background than some of these other measures that colleges would have to rely on in a world with no test scores,” Kane said.
The debate over the future of standardized testing extends beyond the college admissions process. The effects of Covid-19 on learning loss in elementary and middle schools remain somewhat unknown, creating a demand from educators and government officials for testing data.
“There is a continuing need to have some sort of comparative indicators that tell policymakers – and taxpayers for that matter – whether or not students in different districts across the state are learning at a level that prepares them to enter society as workers and citizens successfully,” HGSE professor Paul Reville said.
Reville also said the costs of scrapping standardized testing altogether could impact underprivileged students heavily, pointing to “horribly inequitable outcomes” before schools began administering standardized tests.
“We know who loses in that,” he said. “Poor kids lose. Special needs kids lose. English language learners lose. Students of color lose.”
Despite the potential pitfalls of revising current standardized testing practices, Ho said he was optimistic about its future.
“I do think this reckoning for educational testing will, on average, improve equity in education,” he said. “But it will take a long time, and meantime, results will vary.”
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