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Francesco Ciccolella for Money

When the SAT was canceled for the third time, Bellingham, Wash. high school senior Hazel Stoyka gave up. August’s exam was her final straw. The test site reduced the number allowed in for social distancing, and Stoyka was one of the booted students. She found out by chance the night before when her mom heard the news from another parent, later discovering a notice buried in her email spam folder.

With the coronavirus pandemic and wildfires wreaking havoc on testing, her experience probably sounds familiar to many high schoolers this year. Of 334,000 students registered for September’s SAT, 183,000 were barred due to site closures, leaving frustrated students and parents weighing whether SAT and ACT scores are worth the effort in a year when many colleges aren't requiring them.

Two-thirds of all colleges and universities in the US — more than 1600 schools — have shifted to test-optional policies, and the list continues to grow, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest). Some colleges are piloting multi-year policies, while others have implemented the change for 2021 only.

But the details of college policies vary. In fact, some test-optional schools still encourage testing, even moving application deadlines to accommodate changing test schedules, says Lisa Marker-Robbins, founder of Learning Enrichment & Assistance Program (LEAP), a national test prep program.

It’s this messaging that’s creating confusion for families, she says. If most students submit scores anyway, families worry their student will be disadvantaged if they don’t.

And it’s not just admissions decisions on the line: Standardized test scores typically play a significant role in how colleges hand out merit scholarships. Not all colleges award merit (or non-need based) aid. But among those that do, the per-college total averages above $5 million a year, according to data reported by more than 1,400 colleges to Peterson’s, which publishes college information.

How can families decide whether to scramble to take the SAT or ACT if thousands of dollars in scholarships are at stake? Here’s what this year’s high school seniors should understand.

Does Test Optional Really Mean Colleges Don't Care About Test Scores?

According to college experts and the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), test optional really means test optional. You won’t be penalized for not submitting a score even if other students submit them.

However, every policy will look a little different, says Mary Tipton Woolley, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Institute of Technology.

“Doing research and asking questions of colleges that you’re considering is really important,” she says. For example, test-optional colleges might still require a score for a specific program such as nursing or a specific type of student, like homeschooled or international students. Make sure “test-optional” applies to you specifically.

Fifty-seven colleges have gone test blind in response to the pandemic, according to FairTest, up from just two as of May (for a total of 59). That means they won’t consider scores even if you submit them. Others have opted to be test flexible, which means they’ll consider a different test taken earlier in high school such as the PSAT or the PreACT.

To learn about policies, Marker-Robbins suggests going directly to a college’s website because anything published there is official. You should also call or email the admissions office to discuss your particular situation.

Woolley suggests asking these questions:

  • How are you going to make admissions decisions?
  • Will a test score impact scholarship consideration or other type of program?
  • How late will you accept test scores? Are they needed for admission or for enrollment?
  • Will you consider a replacement for a test score?
  • Will you consider when I tested?

If I Don't Submit Scores, How Will That Affect Merit Aid Awards?

Most test-optional colleges are also not requiring test scores to receive merit aid but be sure to confirm that with each college you apply to, experts say. Boise State University, for example, now relies solely on applicants’ GPAs for awarding automatic scholarships.

“If students submit scores, we won’t consider them in the process for either admissions or scholarships for fall of 2021,” says Kelly Talbert, director of admissions. Ohio’s Miami University, on the other hand, says it considers students holistically when awarding financial aid, but the university also allows students to submit scores for scholarship consideration later in the year if they want.

The University of Alabama Birmingham includes test scores as part of its merit scholarship rubric for in-state freshmen, but it will consider students without test scores, according to Bradley Barnes, vice provost of enrollment management.

“We encourage students who are unable to take an ACT or SAT due to the impact of COVID-19 to contact one of our admissions counselors to discuss options,” he says.

Not all schools offer automatic scholarships, but Jeffrey Selingo, author of Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, thinks colleges may increase merit awards due to enrollment shortfalls. For insights into a particular college, he recommends looking at the school’s “common data set” (search the school name + common data set) to explore whether non-need-based awards have increased recently.

“That’s a clue they’ve been putting more money to tuition discounts,” he says.

Some states, like Georgia and Florida, offer lottery-funded state merit scholarships requiring test scores — at least for now.

“For these scholarships, students are likely going to have to make the effort, but I think it’s going to depend on September,” Selingo says. If only 50% of exams are given, states may decide to change their policies. The Georgia Student Finance Commission extended the deadline to submit scores for Georgia’s Zell Miller and Hope scholarships, and told students to continue watching for updates about requirements for the scholarships. If test access remains difficult, Marker-Robbins recommends families contact a scholarship organization, state legislator, governor, and state colleges to lobby for a test-optional policy.

What Can I Do If I Still Want to Take an Exam?

If specific academic programs or scholarships do require scores, one option is to look for “ACT on Campus,” also known as “residual” testing. About 700 colleges (including UAB) participate, proctoring the ACT on their campus for students who missed national test dates. Scores are only good for that particular campus, however. Check a school’s website or contact the admissions office to find out if that college participates.

ACT has also been scheduling pop-up sites, such as hotels or conference centers, so if a regular test site closes, students may get redirected to the new site. But whether these sites can accommodate enough students remains to be seen. Marker-Robbins also suggests talking to your high school about hosting an exam for your school’s students only.

If testing proves impossible, discuss alternatives with admissions counselors at your colleges. Make sure to add colleges to your list that don’t require scores for scholarships, and most of all, experts say, trust the schools when they say they’re test optional.

Washington state senior Liam Reynolds is taking them at their word and dumping testing, despite the prep he completed for the canceled Sept. 26 test.

“I feel like I’ll get more out of my time if I devote my energy to studying for my classes and working on applications,” he says.

Even before the coronavirus, colleges looked much more at grades and high school curriculum than they did anything else, including test scores, Selingo says. “If there’s any year students should worry less about test scores, this is the year.”

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