Everything is Up for Debate

This pandemic is making us question all sorts of things.

Is homework for second graders a good idea? What about keeping elderly people in prison? Or carrying liquids on airplanes? (Dan Kois had a great piece about this in Slate last month with the provocative headline: “America Is a Sham.”)

When everything is crumbling we suddenly decide a lot of things we were doing just may not matter as much as we thought. In our world that’s meant everything about standardized tests is now up for debate.

We reached out to Akil Bello to talk about how the pandemic is changing that conversation. Bello, senior director of advocacy and advancement at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, has long advocated for colleges to reconsider how they use standardized tests in admissions.

There are strong correlations between income and test scores. And Bello has encouraged colleges to do more to scrutinize what useful or valuable information they actually get from tests.

Now, suddenly, the pandemic has pushed more colleges — places like Northeastern University and the University of California system — to adopt policies for the coming admissions cycle that deemphasize tests and make them optional.

What does Bello see right now?

The pandemic, he says, is highlighting inequities in access to standardized tests that many people have overlooked until now. The disparities colleges see on the surface right now have deeper roots.

“Colleges that are at this moment going, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s difficult for students to get access to tests,’” he says, “should also concurrently be going, ‘Hey it’s more difficult for some groups, and that might be the reason that they haven’t submitted as high, as much, as frequently, or as good” of scores in the past.

At the same time the pandemic is making inequities plain, he’s worried about how it might make them worse.

When he hears the College Board talking about an at-home online SAT, he says he’s terrified. For one, he worries about whether low-income students will have access to the devices or internet connections they need to take the SAT (or other standardized tests like AP exams). Also, he thinks of the Varsity Blues scandal: “Who do we think is going to be most prepared, most equipped to cheat in the online, at-home SAT?”

But rather than inform the conversation about standardized tests, he worries the pandemic has derailed it.

Ideally, he says, the conversation about the use of tests would be a policy discussion about their value: Are they doing what they were designed to do in an effective and useful way?

“It comes back for me to research and predictive validity,” he says. We should be talking about things like whether test scores can predict success to anything near the extent that grade-point averages can. And, if not, then we should talk about why those factors are often given equal weight.

What’s driving colleges’ decision-making now is a nuts-and-bolts question about whether students can actually take the test.

“I completely understand the practical necessity of doing that,” he says, “but as a person who cares about education policy, I would like educational decisions to drive that policy. I would like institutions to evaluate that test and say, ‘We realize this test has provided very little value to us in determining who’s going to graduate from our institution, therefore we want a test-optional policy.’”

— Andrea Klick

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What’s Happening in the States

Utah’s State Capitol (Photo by Zac Nielson on Unsplash)

States are entering this new period of uncertainty from different starting points. In plenty of places, spending on colleges hasn’t recovered from the Recession. In our new tracker, we’re putting the outlook for public higher-ed budgets in context and will be continually updating developments in the states.

Here are some of the latest:

Over time we’ll add new information as states make mid-year cuts and the effects on universities become clearer. We want your feedback. Tell us what else would be helpful to know. Send us ideas, comments, and updates you think we should include in our table.

Where the Federal Relief Money Is Going

Where the money is headed, by state and type of institution

The federal relief package passed by Congress last month will send about $14-billion directly to colleges and universities. The Department of Education released details on Thursday about how those dollars will be allocated.

We put together an interactive chart that shows where the money is going by state and by type of institution. (You can also search by college here.)

The law split the money based on how many students a college has, favoring those that enroll more Pell Grant recipients. Half of each institution’s money is earmarked for emergency financial aid grants for students.

After the Affirmative-Action Bans

The major state bans on race-based affirmative action are now a generation old (the ones in Florida, Texas, and California all took place in the 1990s). So what shift have we seen in college enrollment for underrepresented minorities over that time? At least at public flagships, according to a study published this week, eliminating race-based admissions led to declines — and other strategies, like guaranteeing admission to top high-school graduates, haven’t closed the gap.

Immediately following the California ban, for instance, the University of California at Berkeley’s admission rate for underrepresented minority students went down, and among those who enrolled the gap grew from 11 percentage points in 1995 to 25 percentage points in 1998. By 2015, that enrollment gap grew to 34 percentage points.

One more takeaway from the study: Schools that have seen improvements in minority students’ enrollment can more so attribute their success to demographic changes rather than positive actions on a university’s part.

+ The paper: Long-Run Changes in Underrepresentation After Affirmative Action Bans in Public Universities by Mark C. Long and Nicole A. Bateman

Our First Local Reporter

Jason Gonzales started this week as a higher-ed reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado. We’ll be working with Jason through our partnership with Chalkbeat, helping them expand their coverage into colleges.

Jason has spent the past five years reporting on colleges and schools for The Tennessean, writing stories about the role of historically black colleges in Nashville, the growth of Vanderbilt University, and colleges’ struggles to better serve minority and low-income students.

He was drawn to covering higher ed, he says, because of how difficult it was for him to navigate the system. A graduate of the state’s flagship — the University of Colorado at Boulder — he was the first man from his family to go to college. He says he had little familiarity with the college experience and once he got to campus he didn’t end up even meeting his advisor until sophomore year. At one point he worked three jobs to ensure he could stay. Now, like many Americans, he’s still paying off student loans.

“The experience really has made me ask how it can be better for others,” Jason says, “because I’ve seen the kind of opportunities that can follow from furthering your education.”


Colleges With Empty Campuses Face an Uncertain Financial Future

Endowments are under pressure, and schools don’t know how many freshmen will come to campus in autumn. (Bloomberg)

For First-Generation Students, Getting To College Is Hard As It Is. Now Add In Coronavirus. (Chalkbeat)

“When this pandemic hit we were very, very concerned … that we’re going to see a huge drop in students who are prepared for and successfully transition into college, We knew the need was already recognized. It’s an emergency now.”

Choosing Pass/Fail Grades May Help College Students Now, But Could Cost Them Later

The biggest impact will be on undergraduates who want to transfer, a proportion already much larger than is widely understood and likely to get bigger in the wake of the pandemic. (The Hechinger Report)

Keep in Touch

We love hearing from you, especially now. Send us your feedback and ideas. Let us know what kinds of stories, data, and information would help you navigate this time.

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