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ACT, SAT results will be optional in applying to the University of Utah for fall 2021

COVID-19 pandemic has limited students’ access to testing centers

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Students walk through the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for fall 2021 admission under a two-year pilot program announced Thursday.

Steve Robinson, the U.’s senior associate vice president for enrollment management, said the COVID-19 pandemic has limited high school students’ access to testing centers. Even as testing has resumed, there has been reduced capacity resulting in backlogs of students who want to take the tests.

“So we’re seeing student anxiety really spike, that students are worried that they would be able to get access to the examinations themselves in time to meet deadlines for applications for fall of ’21. As we looked at that we wanted to make sure that we could ensure access to the University of Utah’s admissions process for all students,” Robinson said.

The U. joins some 1,240 four-year colleges and universities nationally that will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for fall 2021 admission, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing also known as FairTest.

“Our goal is always to make applying to the U. as accessible as possible. We know students may be having a difficult time taking the standardized tests due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and even before that, we were looking at this as a way to decrease some of the costs and complexities associated with applying to the U.,” said Robinson in a statement.

Some applicants will still need to submit their scores such as students who do not earn a GPA that is comparable to other high school students, such as students who have GEDs or attended a nonaccredited high school.

Robinson said the U. has long had a holistic review process for applications “where we try to make sure we weren’t too wedded to the numbers solely. GPA and the test scores have historically been very important for our admissions process but not the sole determinants. We’ve always looked at things like a student’s extracurricular activities, their personal statement and things they want us to know about them as people when they apply, as well as anything else that might be in their file,” he said.

Also, students seeking direct admission to select programs or who are applying for merit scholarships will need to submit test scores. However, deadlines for those required to submit test scores will likely be pushed back due to limited testing opportunities during the pandemic.

Robinson said student safety and accessibility are top of mind for instituting the pilot.

“We will be implementing new methods and technology over the next two years to ensure the admissions process remains comprehensive despite no longer receiving standardized test scores, and we look forward to the results of the pilot to determine whether this may be a permanent change for the U.,” he said.

Between 15,000 and 17,000 Utah students apply to the U. annually, with about 70% of the admitted class coming from graduates of Utah high schools. Class sizes range from about 4,200 to 4,400 students, Robinson said.

Students still have the option of submitting their test scores to the university, Robinson said. That way, a student with a weaker GPA but solid test score would have an opportunity to be considered for admission.

Robinson said the U.’s decision to make testing optional was due to the pandemic, but critics in the long-running debate nationally have argued the tests are biased against low-income and minority students, and some colleges and universities moved away from test results in their application processes as early as 2004.

In May, the University of California board of regents voted unanimously to phase out use of the SAT and ACT over five years and to replace them with a new test to be developed by University of California faculty members.

FairTest officials say the ACT/SAT-optional wave has become a “tsunami.”

According to its website, FairTest “works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial.”

FairTest’s interim executive director Bob Schaeffer said the organization is pleased that a growing number of public universities and private colleges have determined that test scores are not necessary to make sound admissions decisions.

“By going test-optional, all types of schools can increase diversity without any loss of academic quality. Eliminating ACT/SAT requirements is a ‘win-win’ for students and schools,” Schaeffer said in a news release.

Meanwhile, ACT cautions against the unintended consequences of reducing or eliminating the role of standardized test scores.

“Such a move could increase grade inflation. Grade inflation is already a problem, particularly in wealthy districts that provide college counselors and offer tailored learning resources, and where assertive parents are often willing to negotiate with teachers. Relying more heavily on grade point averages will put more pressure on schools to give students good grades, making admission decisions more subjective and less fair,” ACT said on its website.

Robinson said University of Utah admission officials hope every year to enhance the diversity of its freshman class “so it looks like not just Utah but the nation.”

But that wasn’t the primary driver behind going test-optional, he said.

“We were hearing this very heightened anxiety from students already that they could not get to the exams themselves, and this was across the board. ... So, if we were to increase our diversity at the end of two years I think that would be a wonderful byproduct. But that is not why we made this decision, first and foremost.”