Graphic by Catherine Buchaniec
On April 4, Evanston Township High School junior Ellie Gavelek was scheduled to take the ACT for the first time. Ten days later, on April 14, Gavelek and hundreds of other ETHS juniors were supposed to take a state-sponsored SAT. But following statewide school closures, neither test happened.
Now, Gavelek is in limbo as she figures out her next steps. Both tests have been rescheduled to June and August, respectively, but there is no guarantee either will happen. As fall creeps closer, she — along with millions of other rising high school seniors — will have to prepare her college applications, unsure when she might get the chance to take her tests.
President Donald Trump announced on March 20 that states could cancel standardized tests for the rest of the school year, as a preventative health measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19. ACT, Inc. and College Board quickly followed suit, postponing their college admissions test dates. Additionally, College Board shifted its 2020 Advanced Placement tests to an online format, shortening the typically hours-long exams to 45 minutes.
Gavelek said she, like many of her peers, was originally thankful for the cancellations, because she felt like she could have been more prepared to sit for the exams. However, she said she soon realized the delays came at a cost.
“It’s hard to stay motivated to study right now, because I don’t know if I’m actually going to take it in June,” Gavelek said. “But I am going to continue to study — I am going to still take the tests, regardless of when they are.”
To counteract the delay in testing, many colleges are announcing test-optional policies for the 2021 admissions cycle, including Boston University and Northeastern University — two colleges on Gavelek’s application list. On the West Coast, the University of California system also announced it has suspended testing requirements across all nine of its campuses.
Gavelek said she appreciates the flexibility test-optional admissions policies provide. With such a limited testing window, she said she might not have time to retake either test to achieve her goal score. Even if testing companies announce additional dates, she said the shortened timeline will affect her ability to test again, so choosing not to submit scores could benefit her.
David Montesano, an admissions strategist for College Match US, said he predicts many other schools will go test-optional for the upcoming admissions cycle. He said testing companies may also be forced to shift to online tests in the fall, depending on how long social distancing measures last.
Montesano said online tests bring their own socio-economic challenges, as lower-income students may not always have consistent access to technology or to take tests, and may not have a quiet space to take the tests. According to researchers at Georgia Tech, income and standardized test scores are already positively correlated without this additional variable, as access to tutors and private schools could allow wealthier students to earn higher scores.
“For high-income kids, having a test canceled is a barrier — basically, it’s like, ‘Oh, man, I have to keep staying vigilant and go to the next test and the next test,’ and it’s wearing down the top 10 percent kids,” Montesano said. “For (lower-income kids), if the test is canceled, they may not even follow through with the next one.”
However, for many schools, the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 means it may be difficult to make decisions in advance. The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign — one of the most highly attended colleges among the ETHS class of 2019 — has not yet altered its testing policy.
The school’s director of undergraduate admissions, Andy Borst, said many factors, including deferrals from the class of 2020, may complicate the admissions process next fall, but he doesn’t yet know what that would look like.
“There’s so many unknowns related to COVID, especially with regard to time, and time is our biggest commodity,” Borst said. “We have been communicating with students about COVID since about late February, and the realities have shifted with steel like a large amount of time, but in reality it’s just a few weeks.”
Borst said the school, like many other universities across the nation, will continue to communicate testing updates with potential students as the situation changes over the coming months.
Gavelek’s mother, Jen, said she worries about these uncertainties as the new school year approaches. With so many changing variables, she said navigating college applications will present challenges for the class of 2021.
“With all the tests being pushed back to late summer and early fall, it is a little concerning because Ellie will be starting her senior year at that time, and that’s also the time at which the application process is underway,” Jen said. “It adds a lot of student stress, having to do it all at the same time.”
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