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‘I want to cry because they are affected so much’: Pandemic widens divide over standardized tests

Beatriz Holzbach drove to Bath, Maine, in September to take the ACTs. Holzbach, who is home-schooled, was hoping to get scholarships for college.
Beatriz Holzbach drove to Bath, Maine, in September to take the ACTs. Holzbach, who is home-schooled, was hoping to get scholarships for college.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Thousands of students nationwide are traveling hundreds of miles and leaning on their in-the-know private tutors and guidance counselors to get them a seat for entrance exams that many colleges have said will not be required during this pandemic.

Meanwhile, for high school seniors with less financial means, the SATs and ACTs have never been further out of reach. Their school districts, hard-hit by the coronavirus, have been closed for longer and many were forced at the last minute to cancel fall test dates due to a community resurgence in COVID-19 cases.

As with much of life, the pandemic has swelled the disparities in standardized testing, with the winners hoping to use their test scores to land seats at top schools and earn big-dollar scholarships.

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More than 1,650 colleges across the country have announced they would not require SAT or ACT scores for this year’s high school seniors, up from 1,050 test-optional schools before the pandemic, but students and families remain deeply skeptical. Many still believe taking the tests will give them an edge not just for admissions, but for merit aid and scholarships.

“They don’t believe optional is optional,” said Bob Bardwell, director of school counseling at Monson High School and executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association. “They don’t trust the process.”

And the limited number of testing sites — due to school closings and capacity limitations meant to curb the spread of the virus — has further fueled anxiety about the already stressful tests. Some families have driven hundreds of miles and crossed state lines for a coveted testing spot. Savvy test prep tutors and school guidance counselors have been able to score students open seats or pass along tips about “pop-up” sites, such as hotels, where the ACT is being administered.

Students who can afford to travel and those in suburban districts that have more staff to help administer a test with new safety requirements are more likely to have access, Bardwell said.

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Meanwhile, school districts hit hard by the pandemic in the spring and summer are more reluctant to open buildings for standardized tests. And many of their students are dealing with sick family members or job losses due to the virus, he said.

"It depends on the school and the community and how cautious they are,” Bardwell said.

That has added to fears that standardized tests, long criticized for disadvantaging poor and minority students who don’t have the money or the time to hire private tutors and retake exams multiple times, have become even more inaccessible.

Boston Public Schools had planned to offer two school-day SATs in October. Eleven high schools, including two of the three exam schools, administered the test on Oct. 14. Another 18 high schools had to cancel the testing planned for Oct. 27 after the school district returned to fully remote instruction because of the rising coronavirus positivity rate.

With more than a third of testing centers closed nationwide, the College Board, which administers the SAT, said it expects only about 1 million students to take the the exam in early fall. Typically, more than 2 million high school seniors take the SAT.

“We’re working to provide opportunities to take the SAT for as many students who wish to test as possible,” said Jerome White, a spokesman for the College Board, in a statement.

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The ACT, taken by 1.7 million students in the 2020 graduating class, did not respond to requests for comment but said on its website that it has added more test dates to accommodate high school seniors this fall.

For Beatriz Holzbach, a 17-year-old senior from Winthrop, a chance to improve her ACT scores before applying to college was worth the trip to Bath, Maine, in September. She, her younger sister, and her father made the 140-mile drive after taking tests for COVID-19 and abiding by Maine’s out-of-state travel rules.

The experience was far from ideal: Holzbach wore a mask and sat at a table 6 feet from the next student in a cold high-school gymnasium.

Still, Holzbach is home-schooled and having a standardized test score is a chance to show her academic aptitude and stand out among other applicants with more traditional grades and experiences.

Several weeks ago, Holzbach was offered a full tuition scholarship that significantly weighed standardized test scores. “So yeah, it’s worth a drive,” said her father, Robert Holzbach.

Many students at Charlestown High School can’t afford to travel to take the test. But when the Boston school district offered an in-school testing day, Josette Teneus, the school guidance counselor, didn’t want her seniors to lose out.

To qualify for some university scholarships and college admissions programs aimed at high-achieving, low-income students, those applicants have traditionally needed good SAT scores. With little guidance about how those programs will evaluate applicants without test scores this year, Teneus said, she wanted her students to still have a shot.

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“It’s unfair that they would be at a disadvantage right now,” she said.

But she also knows that the pandemic has upended many of her students’ lives. Some took jobs to help pay family expenses, cutting into their study time. Others have been looking after younger siblings and helping them with remote learning. Only 47 seniors out of the nearly 90 with top GPAs that Teneus had initially targeted took the SAT in October.

“I’m scared [whether] they did well. I don’t know,” Teneus said. “I want to cry because they are affected so much. I’m hoping that the admissions officers will be fair and understand that these kids are in a vulnerable position.”

Cordell Givens, 17, from Dorchester, was among the Charlestown High seniors who took the SAT in mid-October, hoping to improve on his previous score. He spent his summer working at the Boys & Girls Club, but on weekends, he studied for the test online. The free, after-school test preparation program that helped him last fall wasn’t available this year.

“I studied hard, but I felt that I could have studied harder,” Givens said.

Many college admissions officers said they know that high school seniors are under tremendous strain and won’t penalize students who don’t submit SAT or ACT scores. But officials also acknowledge that getting the message out has been challenging.

“One of the concerns . . . is that the students who are in the worst situation to manage this stuff would have this compounded,” said James Roche, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The ones who had a chance to make it work, could make it work.”

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UMass Amherst announced in late July a three-year trial of test-optional admissions but only after administrators spent months reviewing past data to determine how to best substitute the test scores.

“We are curious to see how this will all play out,” Roche said.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.