College hopefuls, administrators facing unprecedented challenges due to coronavirus outbreak

College hopefuls, administrators facing unprecedented challenges due to coronavirus outbreak
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The coronavirus pandemic has severely disrupted the college admissions process, vexing students and admission programs alike.

Public and private schools across the country have shuttered to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 disease, shifting students to online classes and complicating how colleges accept new students for the fall.

Students are applying to schools with a wide variation of grading policies for the second semester of their junior year, including pass/fail marks instead of traditional grades.

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“We’re all going to have to anticipate [pass/fail] classes and since these grades cannot be factored into a GPA calculation, we’ll rely in what grades we do have on a transcript. That means decisions and even scholarship decisions will be based on fewer grades but that is not the fault of any student,” said Greg Zaiser, vice president of admissions at Elon University, a private university in North Carolina.

“We’ll use what we have,” he added.

Students are feeling extra pressure in an unprecedented situation.

“They can’t be with their friends, and they’re at home with their biggest pressure-cooker, their parents,” said Gil Gibori, CEO of tutoring company The House. “Our mission is we get to September and everyone just survives.”

The decisions by the College Board and ACT organizations to postpone or cancel this spring's SAT and ACT testing dates has only further compounded that stress, he added.

“Kids design their study patterns for tests months in advance,” Gibori told The Hill, adding that the average high-schooler takes college placement tests roughly two to three times.

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“[They] probably started studying in January for tests in March, April,” which have since been canceled, he added.

Officials with the two organizations announced this week that they were exploring the possibility of moving SAT and ACT tests to take-home versions should schools remain closed in the fall, an unprecedented step that Gibori argued would blur the ethical safeguards put in place to ensure fair testing in a physical setting. The College Board previously announced in March that advanced placement testing would occur at home this year, a move that means students will have minimal oversight over tests that often determine whether they will receive valuable college credit for high school classes.

“It’s kind of like doing your taxes without a tax return. Just ‘trust me,’” Gibori said. “If I can google an equation, I don’t know how College Board gets around that.”

Gibori predicted that the result of such complications would be college administrators giving more leniency to students applying to college.

“You have two elements in play: possibly less accurate tests, and more lenient admissions counselors,” Gibori said. 

“I think they’re going to be lenient for the sake of filling their quotas,” he added, referring to the overall number of students a university can accept.

“A lot of students are changing their choice, and choosing to be less far from home,” due to fears of the coronavirus outbreak, he added. “I think [college admissions staff] are going to do everything they need to do to keep their quotas filled.”

Zaiser seemingly confirmed this potential leniency, agreeing that many students were facing disruptions in their SAT and ACT test preparations due to the outbreak.

“Another thing to consider is students’ preparation for the SAT or ACT when some material on the exams would have been covered in a physical class that might be diminished in an alternate setting,” he said. “Fundamentally, we’re all going to continue to advocate for students. As an admissions office, we are focused on admitting students – and that will continue to be our goal as their education is especially impacted by the pandemic.”

Whether those students would be prepared for a return to normalcy and the rigors of a traditional college education was more important, Zaiser added.

“The bigger question to me is students’ preparation for the rigors of the traditional classroom after virtual learning. That’s not to say virtual can’t be or isn’t challenging — but some things can’t be replicated in a virtual space,” he said.

ACT officials confirmed to The Hill that the future for testing remains uncertain in the months ahead, explaining that the organization was exploring “multiple” modes of testing for future dates.

“We are exploring opportunities to offer additional testing experiences in multiple modes for the late summer and into the fall to supplement our national test dates and support students’ needs for obtaining an ACT score to complete their admissions processes," an ACT official said.

“We know students and educators are worried about how the coronavirus may disrupt the college admissions process, and we want to do all we can to help alleviate that anxiety during this very demanding time,” added the CEO of the College Board, David Coleman, in a statement this week.

“Our first principle with the SAT and all our work must be to keep families and students safe. The second principle is to make the SAT as widely available as possible for students who wish to test, regardless of the economic or public health circumstances,” he added, while pledging that any take-home SAT test made available would be “simple; secure and fair; accessible to all.”