As schools and universities across the country closed their campuses at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, students struggled to adapt to a remote learning format, including standardized test preparation. Now two years later, while COVID-19 continues to complicate how schools approach education, students, teachers, and parents are questioning the necessity of standardized tests. As the pandemic exacerbates many inequities in education, more educators and parents seem to finally be turning their attention to an issue that BIPOC students have long suspected: the only standard thing in standardized testing is bias.
For most students, standardized testing requirements often carry intense pressure and expectations because of their value to U.S. college admissions. Tests like the SAT, ACT, and GRE are designed to measure a student’s aptitude in critical areas like math and English and can influence the decisions institutions make regarding applications and admittance. Although each test has the same questions and timing limit for “standardized” results, education experts and advocates have been increasingly critical about how the tests can be biased against students of color.
The presence of COVID-19 has only heightened the stakes for BIPOC students, whose communities continue to disproportionately suffer the effects of the pandemic and the further erosion of already inadequate systems of social, economic, health care, and educational support. Although then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos provided waivers from testing in 2020, President Joe Biden’s decision to put them back in place the following year saw millions of students return to test-taking. With the added pressures of surviving a pandemic with no end in sight, many are now questioning whether the stress over scores from tests that are already weighted against BIPOC is worth it to gain admittance to the universities and colleges that require them.
Standardized tests are stressful for students under normal circumstances, and the unpredictability introduced by the pandemic only made it worse. Athena Murray, a 19-year-old first-year student at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, took both the ACT and SAT in high school before the pandemic began and recalls feeling frustrated because of the intense pressure to do well and get into a great college.
“I think they aren’t effective because they are created purely to get metrics,” she said. “You can’t measure intelligence, but because our society is well stuck on that, we have students jump through all kinds of hoops to do well.”
Teachers are also worried about the heavy personal toll the pandemic has taken on students on top of their studies, testing, and college applications. Yvette Peña, a ninth grade English teacher at an international school in San Antonio, has felt increasingly conflicted about the pressure students are under to succeed academically and achieve high test scores, especially when many are struggling under the weight of uncertain futures and trying to protect the health of their families and friends, as well as their own.
“COVID-19 continued to prove that students are carrying heavy loads outside of the classroom, and as teachers, it’s difficult to ask them to do too much apart from class,” she said.
Ziaire Beckham, 19, now a first-year college student at SUNY Oswego in New York, first took the SAT at the end of his junior year in 2020, a month before pandemic lockdowns officially began. He didn’t get the score he hoped for, and when he re-took it seven months later, it was right in the middle of rising COVID-19 cases. Even though Beckham scored higher the second time, he said taking the test was a daunting experience. On top of the normal pressure of taking the SAT, he was worried about contracting the virus despite the safety precautions that were in place.
“The pandemic added fuel to the fire for the idea that SATs are not an indicator of success, especially because people were juggling so many different problems,” he said.
It’s a perspective that Peña is starting to share. Part of her job is to prepare students for standardized tests, and she’s used to students asking why those tests matter. But when students questioned her about why they needed to take them this year, she found herself agreeing with their skepticism. Peña never strongly believed in the effectiveness of the tests, but with what students have experienced since the pandemic began, she now thinks that the system should be re-evaluated.
“The pandemic showed us that we have to adapt to students’ needs and the way that students are able to show that they have mastered something,” she said.
The truth is that standardized tests have been less about proving students’ mastery over subject matter and more about enforcing social hierarchies based in white supremacy. Their origin is rooted in the early 20th century xenophobia, racism, and class anxiety of white America. Leading social scientists feared that an increase in immigrants attending public schools would lead to the decline of the overall education system. As a result, the tests aimed to show how white people were intellectually and culturally superior when they scored higher than their marginalized counterparts. Almost a century later, research ranging from academic papers to think tanks have revealed how that original goal continues to affect non-white students: by routinely scoring lower on standardized tests, BIPOC students face significantly reduced chances of higher education and having access to a better quality of life.
These lower scores are due to a few factors. Standardized test questions don’t account for the different cultural experiences of marginalized communities. A 2015 study argues that individuals interpret test questions based on their values, beliefs, and experiences; for example, Asian and Native American students use different English sentence structures than those found in school textbooks and some standardized tests. As a result, they interpret questions differently and score lower. Additionally, standardized test scores have been shown to correlate with family income, indicating that when a student belongs to a lower-income household, they tend to score lower than their wealthier counterparts. As a result, BIPOC students are impacted the most because of the racial wage gap that continues to persist. Despite these findings, most colleges still required students to submit scores for admission.
As a young Black man, Beckham experienced the financial hurdles around standardized test preparation and test-taking that exist in many marginalized communities. With the price for books and tutoring set beyond what he could afford, Beckham couldn’t prepare much for either of the tests. Instead, he took the free online courses and materials that his high school gave him. He still had to take the test twice—incurring additional financial costs—to get a score he felt would help his chances at getting into the college he wanted. Beckham also saw how students in similar situations were beginning to shift their priorities as the pandemic wore on.
“I’ve seen people who have struggled with prep for the SAT focus more on building themselves up personally and improving their GPA [instead of test prep]. I think that’s the shift that happened for most people in the pandemic,” he said.
Like Beckham, Murray’s experiences with standardized testing were affected by economic disadvantages, which crystallized the hypocrisy of how students are expected to succeed at those tests to “prove” they’re ready for higher education when those same tests are tilted against students like her in multiple ways.
“A lot of the skills that [standardized tests] track are not necessarily taught in lower-income schools,” making them biased against people of color, Murray said.
Komalpreet Kaur, 17, a senior at Olathe East High School in Kansas who took the ACT multiple times during lockdown, said that the pandemic showed her just how ineffective the tests are. She said that prepping for these tests takes up most of the day and with students already facing the unique situation of remote learning during a pandemic, schools should even the odds by removing requirements like standardized test-taking.
“Standardized tests don’t actually reflect what we learn, and this past year has shown us that we don’t need it, especially with so many schools becoming test-optional,” she said.
Kaur, who is applying to colleges now, has chosen not to submit any of her test scores, believing that her coursework and extracurriculars are enough for showing her potential as a college student. Some parents are coming around to feeling the same way. Washington, D.C., resident Quiana Shaw said that she never felt like standardized tests were representative of a student’s knowledge, especially because of how scores differ based on where a student lives. A few years ago, she entered 17-year-old son Aya and 15-year-old daughter Ayanna in the public school system lottery so they could have the chance to be placed into better schools.
“When you look at the demographics of neighborhoods that have schools with higher test scores, they are majority white,” Shaw said. “You have an advantage there because by living in that neighborhood, you’re going to get a better education.”
Sam Ritter, director at the Davis New Mexico Scholarship, confirmed that since the pandemic, students making decisions similar to Kaur aren’t outliers. His program works to award full cost of attendance scholarships to first-generation college students, and standardized test scores are a part of the program’s application process. Ritter works closely with students and said that he’s seen more of them asking about and applying to test-optional schools during the pandemic.
“More people realize now that these tests were not designed to help historically underrepresented students stand out in an applicant pool and that it’s working against them,” he said.
Ritter hopes this trend continues, especially since it could have long-term effects on the standardized testing industry as a whole. Students and their families could force some much needed change in how standardized tests are approached if there’s a real threat of taking their money elsewhere. According to a Brookings Institution study conducted 10 years ago, the testing industry for K-12 assessments is worth a little more than $1.7 billion per year, a small but significant portion of the approximate $1.41 trillion education system in the US. The College Board, which administers the SAT, also sees more than $1 billion in annual revenue.
“Students are the consumers in higher education, so if they start saying that they don’t want to be evaluated based on test scores and want to be surrounded by those that feel similarly, then that’s the kind of revenue-driven pressure that will make colleges change,” he said.
As the pandemic continues to upend the ways public education has traditionally operated, the sentiment that standardized tests aren’t worth the cost, time, or stress is growing among students, families, and educators. Instead of reforming the tests to adjust for racial bias, many believe that the tests should be discontinued altogether. As a parent, Shaw said her stance that these tests should be eliminated was reaffirmed during the lockdown because she had more time to read about the racist origins of standardized testing and how it doesn’t offer any unique information about a student’s capabilities.
“The pandemic showed me that the system is broken and needs to be fixed,” she said. “Just do away with standardized tests.”
Kaur agrees, adding how economic barriers make it harder for students from low-income families and underserved neighborhoods to achieve higher scores, regardless of their actual level of mastery over the material.
“Tutoring and textbooks to prep for these tests cost money, which some students, especially immigrants, don’t have,” Kaur pointed out.
In the meantime, Kaur noted that schools should also address a problem that existed even before the pandemic: the prep time allotted during the school day. According to her, some students have personal obligations like caretaking or jobs when they aren’t in school, leaving them little time to study for the test or attend a tutoring session. Restructuring the junior and senior students’ school days to allow more prep time could help solve this problem.
Ashley Young, a college counselor at the Drew Charter School in Atlanta, is also in favor of eliminating standardized tests, but for now, she is addressing the bias more subtly. Young explains that her students are encouraged to take the ACT since recent data shows students of color get better scores compared to the SAT. Her school also offers an “SAT School Day” where all juniors are registered, and tests are paid for by the school, eliminating the cost barrier to the test itself for those who otherwise might not have been able to afford it. However, during COVID-19, she saw how much students struggled with the virtual prep and said there is no better time to eliminate the tests than now.
“No one is learning from this kind of test infrastructure,” Young said. “It’s keeping the most marginalized students from being able to make a change.”
Still, students like Beckham are more cautious about how much of a difference eliminating the tests would have. While standardized testing is a common barrier to higher education for nonwhite students, it’s only a single branch of a tree that’s rotting at the roots.
“No matter what system is in place, people of color like me will struggle the most,” he said.
Although standardized tests have discriminated against students of color since their conception, the pandemic has caused an unprecedented rift in the college admission process. For some, the growing number of colleges becoming test-optional made them re-evaluate the necessity of taking standardized tests, while others who had to take the tests during lockdown became more vocal in their belief that the tests are unnecessary. Regardless of whether standardized tests will stick around, be reformed, or eliminated, it’s clear that the fabric of U.S. education has been permanently impacted, and there’s no going back.