COVID-19 Causes Virginia Colleges to Go ‘Test Blind’
By Erica Turman
September 25, 2020

With high schools unable to hold SAT and ACT tests, Virginia colleges and universities consider a long-term change.

LEXINGTON-This summer has been a season of tests or lack thereof. In between checking for COVID-19, many high school seniors also experienced a test of their patience. With no in-person classes, they couldn’t take the SAT or ACT tests.

As a result, college admission offices across the country changed course to accommodate a lack of standardized college admission testing. That includes colleges in Virginia, as they went “test-optional or “test blind” due to a shortage of testing availability.

In addition to registration sites going down, many students found the testing centers closed. Students also couldn’t guarantee a spot at open centers, as COVID-19 restrictions called for limited seating. The College Board, which administers the SAT and other standardized tests, announced that 46% of testing centers closed this fall as reported by Inside Higher Ed in late August.  

Virtual Tests Aren’t An Option

Why isn’t it an option to go with virtual tests? With high schools and colleges holding online classes and Zoom meetings, students and parents questioned why the same couldn’t happen here. But this isn’t a take-home test. Under the nationwide rules, it has to be administered in person. A further complication is that testing centers can decide to close right up until the day of the test. The College Board’s website makes that pretty clear.

“Test centers make individual decisions about whether to administer the SAT, and they may close before the administration, right up until test day,” the statement reads. “We are asking test centers to report closures to College Board as soon as possible in order to help ensure students are informed and to reduce stress and uncertainty ahead of test day.”

There is also some confusion behind the difference between the test-blind and test-optional. Many colleges and universities across Virginia have gone to optional testing. Some people see it as a gray area because students can choose to take the ACT or SAT before applying but are not required to do so. College acceptance, in that case, is not entirely dependent on those scores. However, test blind means the college does not factor test scores into admission decisions even if students submit the scores.

Some Virginia schools have been test-optional long before the pandemic, including Old Dominion University , James Madison UniversityChristopher Newport UniversityGeorge Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Virginia Colleges Make The Change

However, many have made the change recently, including the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. The institute chose to go test-optional for the incoming class this year. Cadets for the class of 2025 will also not have to take these types of tests when they apply.

“The decision to not require the SAT or ACT this year was based on the availability of the test for all of our applicants,” said Col. Bill Wyatt, VMI’s director of marketing and communications. “We are still evaluating whether to require the tests in the future.”

Other universities in Virginia who also chose to go test-optional due to COVID-19 include the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech

“We realize these are challenging times for everyone, including students who’ve been offered admission and prospective students considering applying to the university,” said Juan Espinoza, director of undergraduate admissions. “We don’t want to add any more stress to an already difficult situation.”

UVa took a similar stance. 

“This change in our admission system during a year in which all applicants might not have the same access to testing will remove at least one obstacle that might otherwise discourage a student from pursuing her higher education aspirations,” UVa’s President Jim Ryan said. “At the same time, this will give us an extraordinary opportunity to explore the utility of tests in our overall admissions process going forward.”

What Are Virginia Colleges Looking For?

So, with testing-optioning becoming the new trend, what are schools looking for in their applications? At VMI, the school considers a range of factors. That includes a student’s GPA in college prep courses, overall GPA, extracurricular activities, service and evidence of motivation. The school also looks at personal character, leadership, physical fitness and a desire for a military career.

While the very nature of an optional test sounds appealing, there are some issues. When testing is off the table, that means other parts of the application get a deeper look. Some test-optional schools are starting to ask for letters of recommendation or research examples.

However, more institutes are moving away from testing, and not just because of COVID-19. Studies show optional testing may be a benefit. As a story from CNBC covered in 2019, scores are correlated with income. Some students can afford to prepare for tests with tutors. Others don’t have that luxury. Removing the test levels the playing field in a way.

For the time being, though, most colleges and universities in Virginia are just trying to get through the fall semester without a skyrocket of positive COVID-19 cases. Still, talks around the nation are happening to suspend college admissions testing permanently, and the chances are good that tests may only be optional moving forward.

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