Paul L. Caron

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Harvard Fires ‘A Shot Across the Bow’ Of Higher Ed With Test-Optional Policy

Chronicle of Higher Education, Extension of Harvard’s Test-Optional Policy Fires ‘a Shot Across the Bow’ of Higher Ed:

Harvard 1The latest news about changes in standardized-testing policies tends to pique people’s interest. But the latest news about changes in standardized-testing policies at Harvard University? That sends folks into breathless fits of joy or despair, depending on their view of the universe and the rightful place of the ACT and SAT within it. Because, you know, Harvard.

On Thursday The Washington Post first reported that the nation’s oldest university, which temporarily suspended its ACT and SAT requirement due to Covid-19, would extend its test-optional policy for four years, through 2026. Why? Harvard cited just one reason: concerns about how the pandemic might continue to limit high-school students’ access to testing centers. The bottom line is significant: The granddaddy of the Ivy League, which played a huge role in popularizing the SAT, just told the world it would forgo its testing requirements until today’s eighth graders finish high school.

The news caused a social-media tizzy. Some observers rejoiced on Twitter: “A tremendous step”; “This should be permanent. SAT/ACT were used to exclude Black and Brown students from colleges.” Others, such as Andrew Sullivan, the political commentator, saw a falling sky: “Abolishing objective standards to enable more aggressive race discrimination. … American higher education is committing suicide.”

The strong reactions reflected the fact that, whether you like it or not, Harvard casts an extra-long shadow. What the university does has long influenced other institutions, as well as the public’s thinking about admissions. And what Harvard seems to be doing now is slow-marching the ACT and SAT into decline and diminished relevance. It’s hard to imagine the university would end up rolling back its test-optional policy after so many years on the books.

Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment at Oregon State University, which adopted a permanent test-optional policy in 2020, said on Thursday that Harvard’s announcement “does fire a shot across the bow of everyone down the food chain — which is everyone.” ...

Perhaps it’s tempting to view the recent rise in test-optional policies as a high-minded revolution in which college officials searched their souls and decided that, by gosh, requiring tests that disproportionately disadvantage low-income and underrepresented-minority students really was a harmful and inequitable thing to do. Sure, on some campuses over the last few decades, that’s kind of what happened.

But the truth is, colleges are businesses. The pandemic disrupted the admissions business model that relied heavily on testing. And after the admissions process didn’t grind to a halt, and application totals soared far and wide, many colleges made the business decision — for competitive reasons, if nothing else — that tests are no longer necessary. That leaves more applicants to decide whether submitting a score might help or hurt them, a business decision in its own right — and often a difficult one. ...

Recently, the University of California decided to go test-free, removing the ACT and SAT from the admissions process altogether. In other words, the history of standardized testing is being rewritten, and the lead authors are large, diverse institutions out West.

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