Florida universities won’t waive SAT/ACT requirement despite pandemic

In September, 60 percent of high school seniors in Florida did not have a test score, according to the state university system. Unlike most other states, Florida has refused to back away from requiring test scores for admission.
Students arrive for classes at Mast Academy, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Miami.
Students arrive for classes at Mast Academy, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Miami. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Oct. 15, 2020|Updated Oct. 16, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Many high school seniors are facing a pandemic-induced hurdle as they prepare to apply to college: They’ve not been able to take the required standardized tests.

The virus forced many schools to cancel SAT and ACT tests, and Florida public universities require those test scores for admissions. Unlike most other states, Florida has refused to back away from that requirement.

As a result, parents and students have been anxious as the Nov. 1 deadline to apply approaches.

“There’s been very limited opportunities for students to take the test. So the anxiety level was really high with our families,” said Sharon Krantz, the executive director of Miami-Dade County Public Schools' division of student services.

In South Florida, where schools shut down for a longer period of time, fewer tests were available to students than in other parts of the state. Some students traveled out-of-county to take tests. Meanwhile, school counselors worry that low-income families could be disproportionately and negatively affected.

“I feel like there’s a lot of equity issues here,” said Gisela Feild, a testing assessment coordinator with Miami-Dade Schools. “Those kids who have parents who are savvy enough and who can make sure their kids are going to another county, have the transportation and a hotel for the night before, those kids have an advantage over other kids.”

Board of Governors' decision

Changing the testing requirement is up to the state university system’s Board of Governors. School counselors and students have asked the board to consider making the tests optional amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the calls have gone unanswered.

Ally Schneider, the current chair of the Florida Student Association and a student at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, told her fellow board members last month that students really wanted to move to a test-optional model of admissions due to the pandemic.

“I understand that there are a lot of reservations surrounding that and that there are people who aren’t supportive of that measure ... But I think that the COVID-19 pandemic has really brought this issue to the forefront of people’s minds and it is something that students are passionate about,” Schneider said during a Sept. 16 board meeting.

Her suggestion was met with silence.

Since then, Board Chairman Syd Kitson and Chancellor Marshall M. Criser both have declined interviews about the policy. And in a prepared statement issued this week, the board’s message to students was to keep trying.

“Students who have not yet been able to take either the SAT or ACT may still apply and continue to attempt to take one of the exams this fall,” said spokeswoman Renee Fargason.

Fargason acknowledged testing dates and times “may fluctuate daily in these difficult times,” and said while test scores are required, all public universities look at more than “test scores in determining admission decisions.”

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The board’s inaction has baffled many observers, who note many other states have done what Florida has refused to do.

“It becomes more and more bizarre that Florida continues to hold out. Florida is the only state in the country where all of the state’s universities are insisting on test scores. There are no visible signs of movement,” said Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a group that opposes high-stakes testing.

Universities across the nation have abandoned their testing requirement for the coming enrollment cycle, noting how difficult it has become for students to access tests. In Texas, the governing body left the decision to individual campuses — which is not an option in Florida — and several decided to do so.

California State University officials in April suspended the use of test scores out of concern that students would not be treated fairly.

“This was an equity issue — due to the pandemic, students no longer had the ability to take the tests and we wanted to do our part to ensure that students still had opportunities to receive a high-quality education at one of the 23 (California State University) campuses,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for the state system.

Students at a disadvantage

The National Association for College Admission Counseling on Oct. 8 asked the board of governors to waive the testing requirement because it “creates an outsized burden for all families” that falls disproportionately on low-income families, first-generation students, and students of color.

“The existence of public universities is predicated on their ability to serve all the citizens in their respective states, not just those with means or privilege,” the association wrote.

Meanwhile, Florida’s top education officials say students still have enough time to take the tests this fall and apply for college.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, the chair of the Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said she supports the board’s decision to keep the requirement in place because she has been reassured that officials are working with test administrators to make sure plenty of tests are available for students to apply to universities.

Test scores, she added, are important to ensure incoming students have the necessary skill sets to thrive at a university and that universities maintain a “standard.”

“I want to make sure that we maintain quality and that students who are prepared to get into the universities are going to be successful when they are there. That’s the purpose for a lot of those tests,” said Stargel, a Republican from Lakeland.

Krantz, however, pointed out that hundreds of universities across the country, including Ivy League schools and the University of Miami, have temporarily moved to a test-optional model.

“I think there’s a lot of evidence that you can look more holistically at the students considering the situation,” she said.

Some testing is still happening

In parts of the state, high school seniors have had an easier time taking the tests.

Kevin Hendrick, Pinellas County assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said his district is administering in-school daytime SAT tests this week “free of charge to all students.”

The district also has kept open 12 testing sites this fall.

“All of our testing sites are open and have been testing since July,” Hendrick said.

In addition to providing tests for college admissions, schools also are offering the in-school non-college reporting version of the SAT and ACT this month. Those can be used to help seniors who need a passing score on the state Algebra I and 10th-grade English-language arts exams that are graduation requirements. They are state-approved alternatives to the other tests.

But in South Florida, it wasn’t until schools reopened in early October that testing became more readily available.

“More recently, as October approached, some of the centers started to open. As that happened, we made sure to communicate with families about the opportunities that they had,” Krantz said.

Admissions directors from all of the state’s 12 universities on Thursday planned to talk to parents and students about what to do in the wake of limited tests and how to improve their applications as they prepare to apply.

60 percent of high school seniors haven’t tested

In September, 60 percent of high school seniors in the state did not have a test score, according to data the state university system shared with Krantz. Fargason did not immediately respond to requests for the latest statistics.

In October, SAT tests were still being canceled.

The College Board administered a test on Oct. 3, but 53 centers in Florida canceled the test. That included 31 centers in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

“Those are the students who are going to be hurt by this situation,” said Susan Groden, a college counselor in Plantation who has repeatedly asked the board of governors to reconsider its testing policy to no avail.

The College Board plans to administer two more SAT tests this year, one on Nov. 7 and another on Dec. 5. Meanwhile, ACT Inc., will offer three more tests in October, and one test in each November and December.

If centers in the state cancel a test, Fargason said, students should contact The College Board or ACT Inc. to figure out a new date or time, or to get a refund.

Groden said it’s “really good news” that several public universities — such as the University of Florida, Florida State University and Florida International University — are extending their test score submission dates until December. The Board of Governors advised universities they had the option to extend the due dates.

“Still, that doesn’t mean every student will be able to test,” Groden said. “I’m worried about the kids who won’t be able to take the test in our state. Our public universities are so valuable to helping kids get out of their low-income lives.”

Feild from Miami-Dade Schools has similar concerns. Attending a public university is important for families who may not be able to afford out-of-state tuition, or who are financially strained in the pandemic, she said.

“This elevated the need for kids to stay home and not be able to go away,” Feild said. “For us, Miami-Dade College and FIU, these are going to be critical universities for our kids to apply and more importantly, to be able to garner some financial support.”

Some universities are already seeing a drop in applications for 2021, and students are using social media to express their frustrations with the testing requirement.

Krantz said the Miami-Dade district is devoting resources to make sure seniors can access the test, and said universities extending due dates for test scores has helped reduce anxiety.

“Miami Dade has been very proactive about trying to provide additional opportunities for kids in the next couple of months in anticipation that Florida won’t waive that requirement,” Feild said.