I wish I wasn’t writing another article dealing with the COVID-19 impact on school, testing, and college admission. But as the situation continues to develop, we need to adjust and make plans.

Today I’m going to focus on testing advice for rising juniors.

Seniors are in a different position, dealing with a shortened timeframe and specific university requirements. Some seniors will want to take the ACT/SAT this fall before submitting applications; other seniors will accept the test-optional approach offered by most every school.

What about juniors? How should they plan? When should they take the SAT/ACT?

Advice I’d Give My Own Son

My son will be in 8th grade this year, not yet ready for the ACT/SAT. As a parent, I’m shaping my advice based on what I would tell my own child.Throughout this article, I will try to point out any personal biases or factors that are significantly influenced by my geography. (I’m in the suburban Houston area and you can tell from the news that Texas has had a rising number of positive cases in recent weeks.)

As with all college planning advice, your mileage may vary. You may have different priorities and opinions. I’m offering my opinion on testing and you can decide if the advice is right for your family.

Quick Summary

I won’t make you read through the entire article to get to my point. If my son was a junior this year, I’d advise him to WAIT to take the ACT/ SAT.

In recent years I’ve encouraged many students, particularly high scoring students, to prep for tests in the fall. My daughter, heading into her sophomore year in college, took the August and October SATs her junior year. (Funny story, her August SAT was delayed by Hurricane Harvey.)

This year is different. I would not start prepping my son for early fall tests. We would take a wait and see approach until I saw certain milestones had been met. Keep reading to get those details.

Summer Testing Problems 

The last time an ACT or SAT national test date happened as planned was back in February. The SAT canceled March, May, and June test dates. ACT canceled the April exam, but allowed the June and July exams to be given at the discretion of individual test centers.

At first I thought the ACT policy was good. Some students could get an opportunity to take their exams. The reality was much worse. I’ve worked with clients who put their studies on hold when the April test was canceled. They geared up again for June only to have test centers cancel or fail to respond at all, leaving families questioning whether to prepare or assume the worst.

July was no better. I had some clients who heard from their test centers 2-3 weeks prior to the exam— canceled. Here’s where it gets truly heartbreaking. A few students did not receive cancelation notices. They kept studying. They devoted significant time and effort to homework and practice tests. They were ready. Then Thursday morning, less than 48 hours before the start of the July 18 ACT, they got emails that their testing centers were closing. All that work and they couldn’t take the exam.

I feel so many emotions for all the students who have been caught in the anticipation – preparation – cancelation cycle:

  • Everything going on right now feels stressful before we add college admissions tests.
  • The test themselves are challenging enough without adding the worry of cancelations.
  • Students have a limited amount of energy and focus when it comes to test prep and I hate seeing it wasted each time they are asked to delay.
  • How can the student who has been canceled on twice, put 100% of his or her effort into studying for the next test date?

Ask anyone who has dealt with these issues; it has been awful. As a parent, you would want to spare your child this type of stress and disappointment.

ACT / SAT Business Model

Before I explain the milestones I want to see before I encourage students to go back to testing, it might be helpful to understand the ACT and College Board business models.

Both exam companies have built thriving businesses without having to invest heavily in rent or employees. They pay a counselor and a few teachers from your local high school to administer the exam on Saturday morning. The counselor and teachers earn a little pocket money, students get to take a test at a nearby school, and ACT / College Board don’t have to pay rent.

However, the pandemic is challenging this business model. Do schools and districts want to take on the liability of inviting students from the community onto campus for a college admission exam? Teachers and counselors who didn’t mind giving up a Saturday morning for some extra spending money are now questioning whether it is worth it. ACT and SAT would love to sell more exams, but they are facing a breakdown in their distribution model.

What We’ve Been Promised

ACT and College Board are eager to get back to testing, just like many of your local businesses were eager to open after the stay at home orders. They have promised additional test dates throughout the fall and hinted at the possibility of at-home testing. (After at-home Advanced Placement exams last spring, SAT walked back their plans for an online SAT for fall.)

College Board has been accepting registration for fall testing dates and ACT indicates they will open registration “towards the end of July.” Both are looking to offer extra testing opportunities.

No Guarantees

While College Board and ACT make plans for this fall, they cannot guarantee students will be able to test. This spring, many students found that schools that usually offered the SAT / ACT were limiting the number of seats or choosing not to give the test at all. Even if you are successfully able to register for your test of choice, you face possible cancelation.

Here are some of the issues:
  • Local governments may limit in-person gatherings
  • Individual schools or districts may decide to limit in-person meetings
  • Even schools that offer face-to-face instruction during the week may opt to limit meetings and activities that take place outside of regular school hours
  • The counselors and teachers who traditionally administer these exams may decide they don’t want to take on any additional risks

Why Not Wait

With an uncertain fall testing calendar, why not wait?

No, it wouldn’t have been my advice last fall, but we are in the middle of a pandemic.

Most juniors can simply wait to test. Start the school year. Continue to build skills in math, vocabulary, grammar, critical thinking, and reading. Work on other aspects of college planning such as researching schools or developing activities, service, or interests. Keep doing all of the other “normal” high school junior things, just wait to test.

There is only one group who might need to think through plans to wait— the ultra-high scoring students who were planning to take the PSAT in October for National Merit recognition. More about National Merit here and here.

I’d love to say the PSAT will happen on schedule this year, but I don’t know if it will. I do know that every year provisions are made for students who miss the October PSAT. If it were my son, we’d be looking at those alternatives (assuming College Board and National Merit don’t come out with another testing alternative.) You can read about National Merit policies here.

Milestones to See Before Testing

Before I would start my own son on a program of test prep, I would want to see the following milestones:

  • I want to see all the large school districts in my area offering face-to-face instruction. (Currently all the big Houston area districts are planning to start the school year online.) Keep in mind that larger districts are often the ones offering the SAT and ACT; many smaller schools and homeschool groups are not set up to give the ACT / SAT.
  • Schools should be operating without “shut downs” for at least a few weeks. If schools are closing or switching to limited or hybrid instructional models, they are less likely to host Saturday exams.
  • Extracurriculars and sports should be meeting in person inside the campus buildings. If schools won’t allow after school meetings or inside sports practice, they may not permit four hour exams on Saturdays.
  • I want to see at least one successful test administration at the same location. Right now I have my eye on the August 29 SAT and the September 12 ACT. I have seniors working towards those exams. I wouldn’t encourage a junior to begin serious test prep until we see area schools actually give the test instead of cancel.

Because it will impact all of the above factors, I want to see reduced community transmission of COVID-19. Different communities will have different definitions of “acceptable numbers” but I don’t want to see my area in any raised alert status.

Here’s where I am clearly biased by my geography (higher case counts in the greater Houston area) and the recent cancelations my local clients have experienced. Your town may be different. I had some clients successfully take the July ACT, but all of them tested in different states.

You can easily apply the above milestones to your local situation. If school is meeting like normal and you see the ACT and SAT given as scheduled, you can jump into serious test prep.

Put My Money Where My Mouth Is

If I had a high school junior, I would wait to start test prep.

I believe this so strongly I am going to put my money where my mouth is. I am not starting any of my fall classes in August. I am waiting. Yes, I could use the money. Fall is my busy season, like tax time for an accountant. I have a kid who is attending a private university and I need to work to cover tuition. But I don’t want to waste your time and money preparing for exams that may not happen.

I will be monitoring schools in the area and paying close attention to upcoming exam dates. Maybe we can start after Labor Day with a slightly accelerated schedule for the October test dates. If school opening doesn’t go as well, maybe I will begin classes for the November or December exams.

My goal is to see my students succeed. We are working through less than ideal conditions this fall. Let’s keep our priorities straight: stay safe, keep learning, remain flexible.

I remain available to assist students with private tutoring and I will announce in my newsletter when I am ready to move forward with ACT and SAT classes.