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  • Michelle Silbernagel

How to Approach Standardized Testing During Covid-19

Updated: May 31




If you are the parent of a junior, chances are you spent some time:

a) Camped out on the College Board’s website trying to register for an exam

b) Scouring your email for word from the ACT about the June test status


In either case, you are likely frustrated and wondering if any tests will ever happen and how your teen should proceed given all this uncertainty.


If you are the parent of a sophomore, you’ve probably been sitting on the sidelines observing and assessing how the situation plays out. The sidelines are a great place to be when it comes to creating a strategy. But as sophomores become rising juniors, they will need to get up and get in the game. The current test cancelations will have a trickle-down effect on sophomore-rising junior test plans. You may be wondering how your teen should prepare.


Recently, I talked about these very topics with my colleague and friend, Sarah Leonard, founder of Seven Points Prep, a local company that provides a full suite of in-person (when possible) and virtual academic tutoring and advising services. In this article, I share our combined perspective on how rising juniors and seniors can approach standardized testing during these uncertain times.


But first, let's get everyone up to speed about where the testing situation stands right now.


ACT

Many (most) of the June ACT tests have been canceled. Cancelations were made at the test site level, rather than across the board. Registered students should have received direct emails regarding their site’s status. Here’s the FAQ with details and a link to the canceled sites. For the super curious, check out this chart which lists the percent of open sites, by state.


Previously, the ACT had said they would offer a June 20th make up test -- no surprise, their website no longer references this content.


The ACT has plans to roll out a new registration system in July for the September and beyond tests. This rollout will include Section Retesting, Superscoring, and Faster Results.


SAT

On May 28th, the College Board opened priority registration for the fall SAT dates. This priority registration gives students in the class of 2021 who do not have SAT scores or students who registered for a canceled June test date first shot at registering for the August, September (new this year), and October tests. Priority registration ends on June 3rd, at which time anyone can register for the tests. Note, the November and December dates are open to anyone at any time. Here are the details.


Colleges

In response to the cancellations and the uncertainty surrounding future dates, many colleges have implemented test-optional policies - some permanently, some on a trial basis and some just for the class of 2021. Here’s the running list.



How to Approach Standardized Testing During Covid-19

Suggestions by Sarah and Michelle

Keep in mind that the advice expressed here carries a caveat-- it is general guidance provided during a time of quickly changing circumstances. As in any situation, there may be nuances and considerations specific to an individual student and their particular college list which merit alternative approaches. When I chatted with Sarah, we spoke about how we’d advise “most” juniors and sophomores during this unprecedented time. Here’s a summary of what we talked about -- inspired by the questions we've heard from families -- and based on the assumption that someday, sometime this summer and fall, standardized testing opportunities will resume.

Some Juniors are wondering -- Do we even need to test?


Getting a test date feels a lot like playing a game of whack-a-mole. So many colleges are on the test-optional list. Can we just opt-out?


Sarah: I suggest that if students had originally planned to take a test, they should stick with that plan. I tell my students to make a plan based on a former reality and then if that reality changes they at least have a strong foundation for the new reality.


Michelle’s perspective on the former/new reality:

While many colleges have eliminated the standardized test requirement for admissions, implementing a test-optional policy, this does not mean test-blind. In most cases, test-optional means that if scores are submitted they will be considered (and very likely welcomed).


There’s been a lot of debate about the equity and usefulness of standardized test scores in college admissions. Setting that aside for the moment, I encourage students to consider how test scores can be used to support their applications in our current situation.


Admissions officers typically use test scores to add context to a student’s application. In a normal year, there is a great deal of variance in GPAs among the high schools across the country. Some inflate grades, some weight grades, some do neither. To admissions officers, a standardized test score represents a universal understanding of academic ability. The scores provide another data point to evaluate an applicant.


A solid score might set you apart

This year, the test-optional status of many colleges may mean that more students will apply to certain colleges than would have in a typical “test-required” year. Admissions officers may be flooded with applications, all of which have a second-semester asterisk on their applications. A solid test score will provide some context to that "A" on the "A or Incomplete" transcript.


What if a student doesn't score well?

If a student finds their score is well below the average for the college, they have two choices -- they can invoke the test-optional policy and not submit the score to the college when they apply, or they can use it as a data point for themselves to consider if the school is a good academic fit.


Scores are needed for Scholarships & Athletics

Another tally in favor of standardized tests is that many colleges use test scores in the determination of merit aid, even during a test-optional year.


Aspiring collegiate athletes should also be aware that NCAA guidelines still require standardized tests for the class of 2021 athletic eligibility, though the NCAA will continue to monitor the situation.


Summary: A solid test score will support a rising senior’s application.

This is the year of Test Possible? - - with a question mark. If taking a test is possible (physically, mentally, and geographically), and if it’s possible for a student to obtain a score that will support their application, then we recommend they test.

How should Sophomores (rising Juniors) approach standardized tests right now?


Michelle: Rising juniors, like rising seniors, should plan to take the SAT or ACT.

These tests are still relevant, even at colleges that will remain test-optional after 2021. As mentioned, standardized tests can provide merit scholarships and may be required to gain entry into honors programs and into some degree programs, such as engineering or nursing. Test optional does not mean test blind.


Sarah: It’s important for students to have the academic foundation to take the tests.

Normally, we advise students to take the ACT or SAT after they have taken Algebra 2. For many students, this will be during the spring of their Junior year. They may take another exam late spring/early summer and a third in the fall if they want to improve their score. Students typically take the ACT or SAT 2-3 times.


Most colleges will accept tests through December of a student’s senior year, though it depends on the college and if the student is applying early decision vs. regular decision.


For rising juniors who will be in pre-calc, we usually suggest they take their first test in December. But this year, given the scarcity and uncertainty of test dates and locations, we recommend rising juniors hold off on registering for Fall dates to give the rising seniors priority.

Which test should students take? The SAT or the ACT?


Sarah: Colleges don’t prioritize one over the other.

It’s up to the student. Some students do better on one test versus the other. Taking a practice test of each and comparing the scores will provide this information. If they score the same on both, they can pick the one they like the best.


Some students pick their test based on when they are offered during the year and how specific dates correspond with the student's individual schedule (sports, competitions, etc.). The ACT and SAT are not offered on the same dates or months (e.g., the ACT is offered in February, while the SAT is offered in March). Once students select their tests and dates, they can back out and plan their study schedule. We recommend 2-3 months of study, depending on the student.


Summary: Create your testing strategy. Rising juniors, plan to test after December, if possible.

What about SAT II tests -- aka subject tests?


Sarah: For the class of 2021, we advise students to prioritize the SAT or ACT over subject tests. Colleges really are flexible about subject tests this year because of the scarcity of test dates. Plus, so few colleges require them anymore. Of course, it is always best to check a college’s specific subject test policy, particularly for the highly selective schools.


In normal years and for the class of 2022 and beyond, we suggest taking subject tests in the spring of the school year in which the student took the corresponding course. So, if a student is taking AP Chem, they can take the chemistry subject test in May or June. Note, SAT subject tests are typically not offered in March. Students may take up to three subject tests in one day, but not the same day as the SAT.


Summary: For the class of 2021, these tests truly are optional this year. For the class of 2022 and beyond, whether to take the subject tests is a nuanced and individual decision based on a student’s college list. They are not necessary for the majority of students applying to the majority of colleges.

What about the ACT Writing and SAT Essay Requirements?


Michelle: The vast majority of colleges do not require the SAT or writing portion of the ACT. The UC system eliminated them for admission considerations beginning with the class of 2021. This will likely be the death knell for the essay. In the meantime, some selective colleges (e.g, Duke) may consider the essay, and several list it as an optional requirement. Unless a student has plans to apply to the US Military Academy, the typical student doesn’t need to take the essay.

How should rising Seniors and Juniors study for the standardized tests?

Sarah: This has been tough on our students who have been preparing for months only to have their tests canceled. For our juniors who’ve been studying for the canceled spring tests, we’ve elongated our prep curriculum -- stretched it out to be less frequent and we’ve advised them to take full-length practice tests every three to four weeks to maintain their current knowledge.


In general, this summer is a great time to prepare for the standardized exams, even if students are unsure of the exact test date. This summer is likely to be "slower" activity-wise.


Many students do well with self-study, making use of test preps books and/or the Khan Academy resources. At Seven Points Prep, we provide group and individualized tutoring to students who benefit from more structured guidance that includes both content and strategy instruction.


Sarah's Standardized Prep recommendations

Rising juniors can do the diagnostic leg work and build foundational knowledge even if they plan to take the tests next spring. Rising seniors who have been studying can maintain their knowledge by taking a full-length practice test every three to four weeks. Students just starting to prepare can make use of the following suggestions and resources:


Study tips

  • Read, read, read -- particularly non-fiction, and read on paper, not electronically. Why? Because the test is on paper and studies show that students recalled key points linked to the main idea and other relevant information better when engaged with print.

  • Work on math skills - geometry and algebra in particular.

  • Allow for two to three months of study prior to the exam.

Study Resources

Michelle’s add: Grammar rules can be tricky and rarely taught in high school, check out

The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation.


A final note.

The standardized testing foothold within college admissions is shifting. The testing suggestions presented here apply to the current situation. It may well be that sometime in the future test-optional will carry a different meaning than it does currently. One can hope. In the meantime, I advise families to consider whether the tests are possible, to start with their teen’s college goals, and to work within the current situation. And above all, to focus on what they can control and let go of the rest.


If you have remaining questions, need personalized advice based on your teen, their list, and/or goals please reach out. Michelle@touchstoneadvising.com


For all your tutoring needs

Sarah has twenty years of experience in tutoring and test prep. She and her team of tutors at Seven Points Prep have been adeptly guiding their students through the current test cancelations, providing support, and modifying their curriculum accordingly. They also provide tutoring instruction beyond test prep, in all subject areas from language arts to physics. Contact Seven Points Prep for all your tutoring needs from test prep to specific academic subject instruction.

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© Touchstone College Advising 2020

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