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Using Market Research to Shape the Assessment Landscape: What We Know About COVID-19’s Effect on Test Optional

By ACT CEO Janet Godwin

It’s hard to believe that one year ago, we were entering into the pandemic lockdowns that rippled across our country and the world, upending our normal routines in irreparable ways. It feels like just yesterday, but also like a lifetime. The ensuing year has presented us great challenges and has tested ACT’s mettle. We know we need to lean into this moment and learn from it so that we can evolve into the most effective partner, provider, and resource we can possibly be. As part of our continued efforts to grow and serve the needs of our many stakeholders, ACT has undertaken several efforts to engage with and listen to leaders across the education spectrum.

Recently, we engaged with EY-Parthenon, a market research firm, to understand the implications of COVID-19 and test optional on the assessment landscape. We wanted to learn from our colleagues in higher education about how they are using ACT test data for admissions, what they value as they seek to evaluate applicants, and how ACT can better work alongside them to ensure a fair and equitable testing and admissions process. Here’s what we heard:

  • Test optional pre & post COVID: Test optional growth was steady prior to March 2020, though the global pandemic resulted in an abrupt and significant spike in test optional policy adoption.
  • Abrupt rather than deliberate: The temporary COVID-driven policy changes were most often made abruptly and in response to the immediate pressures presented by the pandemic. These adoptions were much less deliberate than test optional policy adoptions seen before March of 2020.
  • The future of test use policies: It is somewhat unlikely that institutions who adopted temporary or pilot test use policies in response to COVID will return to test-required in the near term.
  • Test blind growth unlikely: The research suggests that rapid test blind expansion is quite unlikely. Schools regard test score data as too useful to abandon altogether, and they report that they feel students should be allowed to submit test scores if they wish to do so.
  • COVID-effects on enrollment varied: COVID-19 has differentially affected application volume across the higher education landscape. Selective institutions report increases while less selective institutions have seen declines.
  • Extensive test data use continues: Four-year higher education institutions report significant use of testing data in almost every aspect of the enrollment process, despite the 20-30% decrease in students sending test scores.
  • Process challenges: Schools report increased difficulty in evaluating entering students, though the most pronounced pain point relates to scholarship awarding processes.
  • Student sourcing, top of funnel & student success impacts: Future related challenges are anticipated in the areas of sourcing students for recruitment outreach efforts and around student success and retention.
This information gives me hope. Our data is needed, and we have the opportunity to work alongside our colleagues to address their most important concerns. While the past year has tested us all, I am committed to using what we’ve learned through these many challenges to empower the evolution and growth of ACT in service to our stakeholders: higher education leaders, school counselors, families, and most importantly the students we all serve. The Biden Administration has announced that they will move forward with assessment this year, while allowing flexibility around federal mandates, and ACT stands ready to help states and districts assess their students so we know the true effect of the pandemic on learning (and learning loss). We know we can’t go back to the way we did things before the pandemic. We must learn from this watershed moment, and we must all come together to fight for fairness for all students, to give them a world where they can realize their full potential. I’m looking forward to the work we will do together.

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