April 14, 2020
Math and College Admissions

Coronavirus and College Admissions: Ensuring Flexibility, Clarity and Equity

Pamela Burdman
Coronavirus and College Admissions: Ensuring Flexibility, Clarity and Equity

As students around the country face unprecedented disruptions to their high school experiences, institutions of higher education are waiving once-rigid admissions requirements, such as test scores and grades in required courses. In some respects, colleges have little choice but to be flexible in the coronavirus’ wake: No SAT or ACT tests are being administered for the foreseeable future, and many schools are adopting pass/no pass policies. Clinging to standard requirements would not just disadvantage some students through no fault of their own, it would also imperil colleges’ efforts to fill their freshman classes.

But other policy responses that could also have profound and long-term effects on equitable college opportunity may be less visible. As they strive to respond in real time to an evolving situation, college officials also must be thoughtful and deliberate in setting and communicating policy changes.

In some cases, this will require that they clarify previous announcements. Take, for example, a communiqué from the California State University about how admissions policies will change to mitigate disruptions caused by the pandemic. In addition to addressing questions like SAT requirements and pass/fail grades, it provides advice to juniors about taking mathematics in their senior year in the absence of Smarter Balanced test scores that would typically be used to guide their decisions:

The CSU system has been vocal about the importance of expanding quantitative reasoning courses to include fields like data science, mathematics modeling, computer science, and financial math. But one wouldn’t know that from the recent communiqué, which only references traditional mathematics courses. Furthermore, the document isn’t clear that, unlike in English—for which CSU mandates four years of high school coursework—students aren’t actually required to take a fourth year of math (or quantitative reasoning) to be admitted.

This is important, not only because it may confuse already stressed students, but also because the CSU is currently engaged in a two-year process to consider whether to adopt such a requirement. There are sound reasons to encourage students to add senior-year quantitative reasoning courses to their transcripts even before CSU decides whether to do so. These include the fact that impacted campuses could weigh such additional courses in their admissions decisions as well as CSU’s interest in building high school capacity to offer more such courses. Not to mention the intrinsic benefits for students of honing their quantitative skills in high quality courses.

But there is little reason to cause students additional anxiety over what remains an optional senior-year course when many are struggling to adapt to distance learning, and others are completely disconnected from their school in the absence of WiFi connections. Research among college students has shown that some students (particularly males, students of color, and students with lower levels of prior preparation) have far more difficulty with online than with face-to-face formats.

Whether current eleventh graders will complete their current math classes with the expected level of proficiency remains in doubt. Further, how they will even indicate their preference for senior-year courses is unclear—and with uncertainty around school budgets for next year, schools may not even be certain what courses they’ll be offering.

As currently written, the communiqué could give students the impression that, instead of using test scores, colleges will put greater weight on students’ senior-year math courses than in the past. A far more helpful and flexible message to students would be that, if they choose to take math or quantitative reasoning in their senior year, a range of courses will qualify them for college admissions.  

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