EDITORIAL

Suspend tests and rankings

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Science  22 May 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6493, pp. 797
DOI: 10.1126/science.abc8654

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PHOTO: CAMERON DAVIDSON

The notion that U.S. colleges and universities will open this fall in “normal” mode should not be in any forecast. As Dr. Anthony Fauci (of the White House's coronavirus task force) testified last week before the Senate, it's unlikely that a vaccine or treatments for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) will be available by the time students return to campus. I sympathize with the predicament of college and university administrators who need to reopen in ways that are safe and supportive for all their students while also planning for the possibility that they won't be able to reopen in-person classes. To help them grapple with this, let's suspend two things, at least temporarily—test scores and rankings.

Although universities that support research, graduate, and postgraduate training have struggled during the pandemic with the shuttering of labs, clinics, and academic programs, these functions seem to be on their way back and probably can restart safely. I worry less about the recovery of this sector of higher education than I do about undergraduate students, of which there are an estimated 20 million in the United States. We know that their success, on multiple fronts, is enhanced by completing college.

Recent statements by a few U.S. college and university presidents about the coming fall semester range from the bullish announcement that Purdue University will open with in-person classes to the cautious decision that the California State University system will be all-virtual. My guess is that there will be a messy, hybrid solution involving mainly virtual instruction, for most institutions. In-person classes will require new configurations for housing and dining, smaller lectures, and more instructors. Student health centers need to prepare for testing, isolation, and mental health support. And those are just the most obvious needs to be addressed, quickly. The chaotic move to virtual classes this spring demonstrated that this approach needs to be executed much more deliberately in the fall, which will require resources to help faculty prepare for a new mode of teaching.

My biggest worry is that certain students may get lost in the planning debates and that COVID-19 health and economic impacts may further exacerbate inequities in higher education. The spring semester showed us that students had to make quick arrangements to continue their education online—a path that was easier for some than others. And the large number of students who already lived off campus—particularly those enrolled in community colleges and big urban public universities—were in the same situation as they were in the prepandemic era, but without adequate recognition. Shutting down in-person classes and campuses all together compounded student insecurities—from food, shelter, and medical to financial and technological. A major concern is whether these students will be able to continue (or even begin) their higher education in the fall.

For institutional leaders strategizing to reopen, addressing the imbalances in college access, enrollment, and completion of undergraduate education should be a priority. High scores in admissions tests and high ability to pay tuition are already given too much weight by American academic institutions when it comes to undergraduate admissions. This inequitable behavior is further reinforced by the yearly rankings assigned to colleges and universities, most notoriously by U.S. News and World Report (since 1983), which university donors and political stakeholders study more than they should. To any logical scientific observer, the fine distinctions of where schools show up on this list are statistically meaningless—but try telling that to a roomful of alumni or parents. Countless hours of trustee meetings are spent going over the minute details of the formula and setting institutional goals. Achieving these goals usually means doing things that make the college or university less accessible, like admitting more students with high standardized test scores.

A truly transformative move in this moment of crisis would be to suspend testing requirements and college rankings. This is not a time for undergraduate institutions to be using precious resources to chase these numbers. Rather, they need to support struggling students and other members of the academic community so that education can resume this fall in a manner that is fair to all. Some schools are already making test scores optional for the time being, and hopefully that requirement will never return. Ranking colleges and universities changed higher education, mostly for the worse. Now is the time for institutions to suspend those rankings and, when the crisis is over, bring them back in a more progressive form.

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