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A new option allowing students to take the ACT college-entrance test online this fall is causing educators to worry about fairness, test security and even the validity of the high-stakes exam.

“We’ve used ‘standardized testing’ to describe the SAT or ACT,” said Phil Trout, college counselor at Minnetonka High School. “But let’s be fair — there’s nothing standard about a testing situation that’s dependent on a student’s home life.”

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Officials with Iowa City-based ACT said they are shifting to online test-taking as the deadly coronavirus pandemic has shut down schools and threatens to greatly limit the public’s ability to gather in testing facilities this fall.

The company said it would first provide the at-home format to students who have no other way to take the test and then expand the option as needed. SAT officials said students will take the test online only if high schools don’t reopen this fall.

ACT and SAT produce widely used multiple-choice tests that have long been an essential tool for college admissions. Nearly 2 million students in 2018 took the three-hour ACT, a test that also helps colleges place students in appropriate courses and may qualify them for scholarships.

Chief operating officer Janet Godwin said ACT has been moving toward online testing for years. International tests and tests given at district and state levels are already done on computers.

But the public health issues raised by the coronavirus and the threat of numerous canceled testing dates has sped the debut of the at-home option, she said.

“We believe remote proctoring, or at-home testing, will help us reach more students,” Godwin said.

ACT scores may be the one constant in a student’s academic record this spring, while the rest — particularly grades — may be irregular because of COVID-19 complications, she said.

“We actually think our scores are more important than ever,” she said.

But college admissions officials and school counselors point out the vast differences in students’ home environments, depending on income levels and where they live.

Those disparities will affect results, they said, since standardized tests require not only a compatible computer with a camera but also a reliable internet connection and a quiet place to work.

These factors can deepen the same digital divide that has emerged as students learn from home — or try to — during the pandemic.

“The biggest thing that’s going to be a barrier … is just the internet access,” said Laurie Sandness-Boeshans, a school counselor with the Hawley Public Schools, a largely rural district east of Moorhead. “We don’t have high-speed internet in many places out here.”

The online at-home version of the ACT is nearly identical to the paper-and-pencil variety, Godwin said, including cost, presentation and number of questions.

ACT, which has piloted the at-home test, will ensure security through an online proctor who uses the camera on the student’s computer to verify credentials and monitor the student while taking the test.

The exam will be outfitted with a feature that blocks attempts to navigate to other websites while testing, Godwin said, and ACT also has ways to check for cheating after the test.

“We feel confident that we’ve got the test security angles well-covered,” she said.

SAT and ACT’s debut of digital, at-home formats comes at a time when the value of the tests are under scrutiny. In recent years, motivated by an awareness that test-takers from higher-income families have advantages such as prep classes and tutors, hundreds of colleges have stopped requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT test scores.

Nearly 1,100 four-year institutions made tests optional before COVID-19 hit, according to Fairtest.org, which advocates for racial and socioeconomic fairness in standardized tests. The coronavirus has prompted 150 more to make them optional on a temporary basis, with many schools committing only to do so for the high school class of ’21.

The testing companies likely are offering at-home exams in an effort to stay relevant, said Ellen Johnson, vice president for enrollment management at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

“Likely once schools go test-optional, it will be hard to roll back,” she said.

Several educators said they think the move to home testing make sense. Some students may be more comfortable testing at home and won’t have to struggle to find a ride to the test site, said Geoff Wilson, executive director of College Possible Minnesota, a program to make college accessible for low-income students.

Another advantage, he said, is that scores would be available in 48 hours rather than weeks later. “The faster they get their scores, the more time they’re going to have to study up on the areas they want to improve on,” he said.

For the first time this spring, high school students will take their Advanced Placement (AP) tests at home. The College Board administers both AP and SAT tests.

Michael Rodriguez, the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development’s associate dean, said equity issues will exist with the SAT and ACT regardless of where the tests are taken. U officials are monitoring whether other colleges are requiring standardized tests for admission next year, he said, and haven’t yet decided what to do.

But Rodriguez said he thinks that ACT and SAT scores have value and are “very likely the least biased piece of information in students’ files.” GPA and class rank come from the school the student attended and thus can reflect disparities, he said.

But Rodriguez said he hopes students can take the ACT in a more standardized setting than their homes. While ACT proctors have many strategies to prevent cheating, he said, “there’s just no way to absolutely, 100 percent” prevent students from recording test questions and sharing them with others.

Other educators voiced concerns about taking the ACT at home.

Rich Aune, associate vice president for enrollment and dean of admission at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., said that offering the ACT at home is “the right thing to do” but that cheating remains an issue, especially in terms of a student taking the test for someone else.

Though standardized tests have been optional at Gustavus for 14 years, the school encourages students to take them since certain scholarships require the scores.

Peggy Zimmer, a counselor at Wayzata High School, said she sees more negatives than positives to at-home testing. She asked whether a test can be fair when one student must take it in a one-bedroom apartment rife with distractions, while another can test in a peaceful family room. “Does it widen that gap between the haves and the have-nots?” she said.

ACT officials know educators have equity concerns, Godwin said, so they’re planning to partner with community organizations and companies to provide safe, quiet testing spaces.

“We feel pretty confident that we’ve done all the legwork to be able to launch this,” she said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781