How K-12 schools are switching gears on college prep as test-optional admissions grow

by Joseph K. Clark

As more colleges remove SAT and ACT score requirements from the application process, the School District of University City in Missouri sees how its students can still stand out. That may mean allowing high-schoolers to take virtual courses so their schedule is more open for a college-level class or offering more field trips to expand students’ experiences during their day.

“All those little tweaks can help students look a little different on paper,” said Robert Dillon, director of innovative learning for the district. “Initially, for equity reasons, schools closed that experience gap. But now they see the secondary benefit, which can be a part of the college process.”

Over two-thirds of four-year colleges and universities in the U.S., from the University of California at Berkeley to Harvard College, won’t require prospective students to submit an SAT or ACT score for the fall 2022 admission process. These scores have long been considered one of the tent poles in the college admissions process, where students sit for hours filling in multiple-choice questions to achieve a score that pops their application to the top of the pile. But now, K-12 school officials are looking at how they can support high-schoolers applications in other ways so they still catch the eye of admissions directors. For some, that may mean offering more help with writing skills. In contrast, others may encourage students to build online portfolios — professional-looking portals that can be submitted with a college application in a single click.


Closing the experience gap to expand early college options

Even as the momentum to de-emphasize test scores appears to be building among colleges and universities, Dillon said his districts are still watching. They want to ensure this downshift on requiring SAT and ACT scores is not a temporary change propelled by the pandemic but one that will stick.

A recent move by 11 educational groups may be a signal toward the latter. Organizations ranging from the National Association for College Admission Counseling to FairTest recently penned a letter to U.S. News & World Report, requesting the publication drop both SAT and ACT scores from its process for building its well-known college ranking report.

And Dillon admits his district is still making some changes — and eyeing others — to help high schoolers bolster their applications. One potential pathway is the chance for students to earn an associate degree before they finish high school by opening the school schedule so they can enroll in college-level classes during the day.

In doing so, students can often start their college career with up to two years’ worth of credits, saving them money on their road to a bachelor’s degree and signaling their readiness for and mastery of college-level work.

“Some would call that an a la carte high school experience,” he said. “You can start to craft a schedule for your circumstances.”

Another focus is offering students more experiences outside of regular work while they are in school. Perhaps that’s adding more field trips outside the classroom, inviting more experts into schools to speak, or partnering with programs to allow students to have internships during the school day. Dillon refers to this as “closing the experience gap,” he said, a direction gaining momentum in his district.

“Not only is the experience gap important to close, to help students expand their background knowledge and keep them engaged, now it can also help them when applying for college,” he said. “That’s further ammunition to keep this option in curriculum and instructional programming.”

Writing and recommendation pressures

While writing has also been a core skill woven throughout K-12 curricula, Jayne Caflin Fonash, immediate past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said this tool has grown more critical. With scores not always required, schools must help students find ways to discuss themselves persuasively. Teachers, too, will need to craft compelling letters of recommendation for their pupils.

COVID-19 has only made both more difficult, Fonash noted. With students more isolated and working from home to varying degrees over the past 17 months, they’ve had fewer opportunities to connect closely with their teachers and may have also had fewer opportunities to have experiences like internships or a job.

She knows school counselors are already reaching out to teachers, especially those tasked with crafting recommendations for seniors this fall, to help them provide enough context in their letters about their students, especially if their only contact with them was through distance learning avenues this past year.

As for students, she believes educators should assure them it’s OK if they didn’t have a fantastic summer job or volunteer opportunity in the past year. She said that an essay doesn’t have to be about an extraordinary experience but can be written thoughtfully about something they’ve learned — and genuinely.

“Essays don’t need to be about solving third-world problems,” she said. “Students have supported their communities in many ways in the past year. We need, though, to be helping students not trivialize or use COVID-19 as an excuse, but instead talk about how they made decisions based on that and their goals moving forward.”

Building portfolios to showcase knowledge

Stephen Himes, a co-founder of college coaching firm Storyboards College Admission Portfolios and a former literature teacher at St. Teresa’s Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, agrees schools need to help students create more written materials that can “help tell the story of why a student is a perfect fit.”

He has also watched as K-12 schools beefed up STEM programming and expanded study abroad programs, all in a bid to help students strengthen college applications.

“These give students the ability to show they can learn in the field,” he said. “That can help them distinguish themselves in test-optional admissions.”

He said some private and public schools are also using online portfolios, helping to push out everything from grades to schoolwork with one click. Students can build their online site or portfolio using tools like Squarespace or YouTube.

“If colleges and universities continue to shift away from testing metrics, then K-12 policy is going to need to adapt to that,” Himes said. One platform, the Mastery Transcript Consortium, has attracted more than 400 private and public high schools by allowing students to add online portfolios and their transcripts and even essays or research papers. The entire package can then be submitted to a college.

Related Posts