Standardized testing for college admissions just came back — and it already looks like a coronavirus super-spreader

Without the proper precautions, standardized tests can turn into super-spreading events.Photo by Bodo Schackow/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
  • When the ACT, a standardized test for college admissions, offered one of its first test dates since March on July 18, exams at 21 sites were canceled, leaving around 1,400 students unable to take them. Some say the cancellation happened without warning.
  • But for those who did take the test, there were other concerns. One Wisconsin ACT tutor told Business Insider her client was the only masked test taker in his classroom on Saturday, making him too nervous over health risks to concentrate.
  • Poorly handled standardized tests may end up spreading the coronavirus. Six people tested positive after recently sitting for the MCAT, for medical school admissions, per an open letter written by test takers.
  • Some colleges have waived the need for standardized test scores, but the 2020 testing season is under way.
  • The ACT told Business Insider by email that sites that couldn't follow social distancing guidelines had canceled tests, and that students should provide feedback if they encounter 'incidents' on test days.

In-person standardized testing is back amid the coronavirus pandemic, and it's already proving to be a nightmare.

Many teenagers drove hours to sit for the ACT on July 18 — and more than 1,000 high school students who signed up for it were unable take the standardized test for college admissions. Some found completely shuttered test centers and said they weren't notified of cancellations until they arrived at their testing sites.

The ACT, which is also the name of the organization that administers the exams, released a statement apologizing for the "unfortunate situation" in which 1,400 students across 21 sites were unable to take the test. The organization said it is investigating what happened and is following up directly with students impacted by same-day cancellations.Advertisement

However, it looks like it was still an unfortunate situation for the 88,000 that were able to take the exam on Saturday.

Emily Brookhyser, a tutor who runs a test prep center in Wisconsin, told Business Insider she has been preparing students to take the ACT for months on end as their summer test dates were rescheduled multiple times due to the pandemic.

In the days leading up to the test, she said she went through the ACT's safety guidelines with her clients, including considerations like packing a mask and hand sanitizer. Those guidelines, rooted in CDC recommendations, delineated what test centers should do amid the pandemic, such as disinfecting facilities and asking examinees about their health symptoms.
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Brookhyser said one of her clients went to take the exam on Saturday and was the only one wearing a mask in his test room, including the proctor. "He was so upset" about the potential health risks "that he found it very difficult to concentrate on the test."

A choice between potentially unsafe and stressful testing environments or no test score at all

In an email to Business Insider, a spokesperson for the ACT wrote that test centers that couldn't comply with public health guidelines canceled their scheduled exams. "Our teams performed a massive manual outreach campaign to thousands of test site administrators to better understand which sites were open and prepared to administer the test in a COVID-19 environment in line with local public health guidelines," the email read. "If a site could not follow the recommended guidelines or didn't feel comfortable testing students, they were canceled."Advertisement

"ACT test center coordinators agree to abide by ACT policies, including our recommended social distancing and safety guidelines added this year in light of COVID-19," the email continued. "Test center staff can remove students who are noncompliant with these policies from the test center."

Additionally, the ACT said, "students and parents are encouraged to submit a test center feedback form if they wish to inform us of incidents that occur on test day, including those related to social distancing."

Standardized testing is already hard enough without adding a layer of anxiety that sitting for one could compromise your health.Advertisement

A group of students sitting for the MCAT found similar conditions recently. In a July open letter to medical schools regarding the safety of the exam, students wrote that at least six examinees have tested positive for the coronavirus after sitting for the MCAT, and hundreds of others noted they were not screened for health concerns at their testing sites.

Research suggests that indoor gatherings — in conditions just like the ones for these standardized tests — are most responsible for coronavirus transmission. A lack of masks, health screeners, and other precautions make it easier for such events to become super-spreaders.

That knowledge can foster additional test anxiety. One MCAT examinee told the Chicago Tribune that the surge in coronavirus cases "puts another level of stress on people," resulting in a score that "might not accurately reflect the capabilities of the person taking the test."Advertisement

While a handful of medical schools are assessing applications without MCAT scores, more undergraduate institutions are starting to waive SAT and ACT requirements. More than 1,240 colleges won't require a standardized test score for college admissions this coming application cycle, including the entire Ivy League.
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