Since March, Jim O’Hara has been closely watching the parade of test-optional announcements. One by one, dozens of selective colleges have said that they would drop their ACT and SAT requirements for fall-2021 applicants because of the widespread disruptions caused by Covid-19.
O’Hara, director of guidance at Rye High School, in New York, was especially eager to see what the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor would do. After all, it’s been the most sought-after out-of-state public university among his students for the past few years.
But when Michigan finally published changes in its testing policy online last week, O’Hara didn’t like what he saw. “Just horribly disappointing,” he wrote in one tweet. “Talk about sending the wrong message,” he wrote in another, “just brutal.” Several other high-school counselors and college advisers around the nation also panned the university’s new “test-flexible” policy, calling it confusing, unrealistic, and unfair.
Kim Broekhuizen, a spokeswoman for Michigan, said the revised policy is meant to provide flexibility to students whose lives have been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Applicants would not be “held accountable,” as she put it, for what they’re unable to include in their applications.
Let’s read over the policy together, shall we?It’s important to keep in mind that during these tumultuous times, any message a college publishes, especially one regarding changes in admissions requirements, will be scrutinized —and then some — by anxious teenagers and parents. Clarity matters more than ever.
First, some context: After months of canceled exam dates, many students throughout the nation have no college-entrance scores to send. A recent national survey by the Art & Science Group, a higher-ed consultancy, found that two-thirds of rising seniors have yet to take the SAT, and nearly three-quarters have yet to take the ACT. And with Covid-19 cases rising in many states, uncertainty looms over scheduled testing dates this summer and fall.
Michigan’s new testing policy begins with a statement about the benefits of standardized tests, which, it says, “provide valuable nationally normed information that helps us to understand academic performance and the environmental context of that performance so that we can best identify and support talented students to admit to our class.” Longtime observers willnotice that “nationally normed” and “environmental context” sound like the kinds of phrases testing companies use.
Anyway, a teenager just wants to know: Will Michigan still require ACT/SAT scores?
“Test scores are required (SAT I or ACT),” the first line of the first bullet-point statement says.
But wait — the same sentence mentions a “test flexible” option.” What does that mean?
Hold on. The next sentence acknowledges that students’ access to testing may be limited right now.
Given that reality, the next bullet-point statement explains, the university will consider “any impacted student, regardless of ability to test.” Those who can’t take the ACT or SAT before the application deadline may apply under the test-flexible policy, as follows: “We encourage them to submit any standardized testing result (PSAT, PLAN, Pre-ACT, AP’s etc.) they may have taken.”
In other words, if applicants can’t send Michigan scores from college-entrance exams, they should send … scores from other standardized tests. (For the record: PLAN, one of those listed as an option, was discontinued in 2014.)
There’s more. An applicant can answer questions about Covid-19 on his or her application, the policy says, to “share specific information regarding how the pandemic impacted your ability to sit for a standardized test.” Michigan, the statement says, will check with early-action applicants who haven’t submitted scores by the deadline to ensure that they intend to apply without those scores. “All applicants otherwise completing their applications for the regular admissions deadlines will be reviewed without scores if none are submitted.”
In the span of eight sentences, students are told that ACT or SAT scores are required; that they can send other exam scores if necessary; that those without ACT or SAT scores must explain why they don’t have them; and that their applications will be reviewed without ACT or SAT scores anyway.
“This is a lot to unpack for a high-school student getting a whole lot of info at once,” O’Hara told The Chronicle. “They’re getting these mixed messages here.”
‘That Is a Red Flag’
Eva Dodds, a counselor in Detroit at Collegewise, a college-advising company, agreed. “U of M’s 680-word testing policy exceeds the word limit for the Common Application essay,” she wrote in a message to The Chronicle. “If it takes more words to explain the Class of 2021’s testing policy than applicants are allowed to explain themselves, then that is a red flag.”
Dodds, a past president of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling, said she worried that the message would cause more stress among applicants — and that the policy would favor students who already had an ACT or SAT score. The Art & Science Group’s survey, conducted in June, found that students who were low-income, first-generation, or from underrepresented minorities were less likely than their peers to have taken the exams.
“If my students have Michigan on their lists,” Dodds wrote, “I will be strongly suggesting that they secure an ACT or SAT testing option for fall.”
The problem, she acknowledged, is that some prospective applicants might not be able to snag a seat for either exam before the university’s November 15 early-application deadline: “If they had written a shorter statement asking for test scores as soon as students have them, even if it is not until December, students could have exhaled and had the space to sit with the rest of the country and watch the impact of Covid,” she wrote. “Instead their wordy and defensive statement about why they value test scores adds even more angst to the application process for the Class of 2021.”
Until last week, Michigan had been among the most prominent institutions that had yet to announce how, or if, its ACT/SAT requirement would change as a result of continuing disruptions. Several other Big Ten institutions, including Ohio State University have adopted test-optional policy for the next admissions cycle because of Covid-19. Indiana University at Bloomington adopted a permanent test-optional policy in February.
In short, “test-optional” is a familiar phrase, and its meaning is clear: Applicants may submit ACT or SAT scores, or not.
Why didn’t Michigan adopt such a policy?
In response to that question, Broekhuizen, the spokeswoman, wrote the following in an email to The Chronicle: “The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted students and the high school experience in unprecedented ways. We encourage students to utilize the application, including writing opportunities, to provide clarity regarding their experiences in high school, in their personal lives, and in their academic and personal pursuits, both successes and challenges, before and/or during Covid-19. As always, they will not be held accountable for what they cannot present; we will only consider what they can.”
Michigan, she wrote, would take an array of possible circumstances into account, including the inability to sit for exams “where testing is limited or not available,” high-school grades that were changed to pass/fail this spring, disruption fo extracurricular activities, and the personal impact of recent months on applicants: “We know their lives have been disrupted and will review their materials with compassion.”
How might the lack of an ACT or SAT score affect an applicant’s chances? “Students may receive consideration without submitting any test scores,” she wrote. “Students will be assessed holistically utilizing all information submitted in their application.”
Broekhuizen did not respond to a question about whether applicants who don’t submit an ACT or SAT score would be eligible for institutional scholarships. The list of changes in Michigan’s admissions policies — which includes information about deadlines, high-school transcripts, teacher recommendations, and financial aid — doesn’t mention scholarship eligibility.
“This is a lot to unpack for a high-school student getting a whole lot of info at once.”
For comparison, let’s look at how Ohio State’s list of “Testing FAQs” deals with the same question:
“Do I need to submit a test score to be considered for Honors and Scholars Programs, merit scholarships, or the Morrill Scholarship Program?”
“No. You will receive full consideration for these programs and scholarships even if you are unable or choose not to submit a test score.”
Robert A. Schaeffer, interim executive director at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, described Michigan’s new policy as “only a minor change” from the university’s previous testing requirements.
“The announcement starts off with a full-throated endorsement of the value of standardized exam scores, contradicting the strong statements (and experiences) of many peer institutions,” he wrote in an email message to The Chronicle. “It then grudgingly allows applicants who can prove that they could not take the ACT or SAT due to COVID-19 test-site closures to submit results from other tests.”
Those exams, as Schaeffer notes, have not been validated as admissions tools. That means that they shouldn’t be used for that purpose, he said. (Broekhuizen said that scores from other tests “will help us understand student support needs.”)
Sometimes words clarify. Sometimes words confuse.
“Hopefully, implementation will be better than it initially sounds,” Schaeffer wrote. “But, despite its title, the policy comes across as anything but ‘flexible.’”
Eric Hoover writes about the challenges of getting to, and through, college. Follow him on Twitter @erichoov, or email him, at firstname.lastname@example.org.