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Will the SAT/ACT Be Online?

MAY 11, 2020 • 7 min read

A pivotal part of the US admissions process is having a great score in one of the standardised tests - either the SAT or ACT. But recently the public health risk of COVID-19 (aka. coronavirus) has closed testing centers and forced CollegeBoard and the ACT to postpone administrations of the exams. In light of this, what are the test administrators doing to ensure that students are able to sit the exams? Will they have more administrations later in the year, or might they be online so that students can sit them at home? Will you even need the SAT/ACT this year? Check out the answers for all of these questions below.

The situation

In our last blog post covering US standardised test cancellations we outlined the situation as it was about a month ago, but there have been further developments and updates. CollegeBoard just cancelled their SAT and SAT subject test administration planned for June 6 (see the updates here), and the next exams scheduled are therefore August 29. Previously the ACT postponed their April administration to June, which for now, is going ahead as planned (see the updates here).

Both CollegeBoard and the ACT have raised the necessity of providing additional administrations of the examinations later in the year to compensate. CollegeBoard in particular has committed to having an administration of the SAT every month from August to December if by then the situation is safe from a public health standpoint. Students will be able to register for these exams very soon, and they will be able to have priority registration if they were registered for the cancelled June administration.

But what if COVID-19 keeps testing centers closed into the fall? It is important to consider that the exams are held globally, and while some regions around the world may be safe for physical exams, some may not. The administrators will not want to disadvantage any of their students based on where they live and the cancellation of local centres.

The solution may be online exams that students can sit at home. Both CollegeBoard and the ACT have made some indication that they intend to develop the exams in an online format as a backup plan if the test-center cancellations continue.

Can the tests be conducted properly online?

Even if this is only developed as a backup plan, it would be a revolutionary development, and may answer the calls of many to make the exams more convenient and accessible for students into the future. But others have doubts about whether moving the exams to an online format is viable, safe and fair.

Firstly, there are matters of access. The exam will most likely require the use of a computer and internet, and one of the biggest concerns of the CollegeBoard and the ACT is that some students may be unable to afford or have access to a device or connection. In the United States the administrators hope to collaborate with local schools, to provide laptops which students can take home and use. Internationally the solution to this problem is more complicated.

There are also concerns for security and privacy. To maintain the security of the exam, the students may need to submit to remote proctoring and give exam monitors access to their computer's camera and microphone. Privacy is an understandable concern, but it is also a concern that students may go to extraordinary lengths to cheat in these exams. Be assured that both CollegeBoard and the ACT will not allow online testing to go ahead if they believe that privacy could be compromised, and they will do everything they can to protect your privacy and data. The exam will also likely require the use of software that blocks the users access to other internet sites during the testing.

Another problem is that online exams introduce a range of computer-specific things that can go wrong. For example they can crash, the internet can go offline, and there are even concerns that the entire system might be shut down by hackers. How will CollegeBoard or the ACT deal with students who have completed most of their test, but then encounter such a problem? It is likely that in the interests of security their test will be void, but if the problem wasn’t the students fault, this may not be fair.

College Board is going to use the upcoming online AP exams for 3 million students as a trial for the viability of online SAT exams. In doing so, they want to test if they can assure online exams will be secure, fair and accessible. However, with many more students and a much longer exam, the SAT or ACT would be a much bigger task than the AP. What is certain is that if they want to be able to conduct online exams as needed by the fall, CollegeBoard and the ACT have a monumental task on their hands.

Will colleges drop the tests this year?

Because of the current difficulties in sitting these tests, and the perceived problems with online testing, some colleges are making the standardised tests optional for 2020-21 admissions. As of now, about 50 of America’s universities have dropped the requirement for the SAT and ACT, and this number seems to be rising each week. Included among these universities is the University of California system, Boston University, Williams College, Amherst College, Tufts University - and the Ivy League’s Cornell University (the first Ivy to go test-optional). There were rumours that many of these universities were wanting a long-term shift away from the standardised tests altogether, and some have extended this suspension beyond 2021 admissions.

On the other hand, some of the most competitive universities think that not being able to use scores isn’t really an option, since it is so important in differentiating thousands of students. One such university leading this argument is Yale, which has made a statement hoping that the tests will still go ahead.

From the standpoint of a student, it is imperative that you do not disadvantage yourself and that you keep studying during this time. Not studying for the standardised tests in the hope that your dream college drops the exam, is an incredible risk to take. It is still likely that the exams will go ahead later in the year, perhaps in an online format, and your dream university will continue to need your score. At the end of the day, if you study really hard and you don’t end up needing the score, this is a far better outcome!

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