Iowa universities waive ACT, SAT mandate for applicants during 'unprecedented time'

(File photo) Curtiss Hall (left) and the Campanile (right) on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Friday, July 3
(File photo) Curtiss Hall (left) and the Campanile (right) on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Friday, July 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Standardized testing, while always a challenge for some, has become historically — and in some cases insurmountably — difficult for many during this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, prompting Iowa’s Board of Regents on Thursday to temporarily nix ACT and SAT scores from its application requirements.

The board’s emergency waiver of standardized test scores pertains to students applying to University of Iowa, Iowa State University, or University or Northern Iowa for the 2021-22 academic year.

Board President Michael Richards signed the waiver as part of his authority under a State of Emergency declaration, which he issued March 18 — precipitating the campus’ rushed closures, swift shift to virtual instruction, and curtailed sponsored travel.

In line with board directives, the universities in the spring raced to repatriate study abroad students, halt athletics events and practices, swap in-person commencement ceremonies with virtual versions, and direct employees to work from home.

Many of those changes persisted into summer, but — also following regent prescription — all three campuses are reopening this fall for a novel hybrid learning experience that will prioritize in-person learning but will keep larger courses online.

The campuses are using classrooms, lecture halls, and laboratories at half capacity — making courses with more than 50 enrolled not only ill-advised but much more difficult to accommodate, given space limitations. Similar room constraints have beleaguered standardized test centers this summer — including those with ACT, which is based in Iowa City.

Back in May, ACT dropped more than 2,600 test sites for June and operated the rest at half capacity. Although it promised online testing would begin in September, the entity has postponed that launch and redirected its focus on adding in-person capacity — even as it last month had to apologize to about 1,400 students who couldn’t take their test as planned.


Iowa’s Board of Regents around that time announced it would offer on-campus ACT testing for any Iowans graduating high school in 2020 or 2021 who want to apply to UI, ISU, or UNI. Students taking the regent-administered ACTs only can use their scores to apply to one of Iowa’s public universities, meaning they can’t share results with their high school or use them to apply to another college.

Those tests, continuing through the end of this month, are being held at UI, ISU, and UNI — plus regent sites in Des Moines, Sioux City, and Council Bluffs.

But for applicants coming from out of state or who can’t make one of this month’s on-site tests, the regents are shelving for now the requirement in board policy and Iowa Administrative Code mandating standardized test scores from applicants to any of its universities.

“In this unprecedented time, we want to ensure that all students have the best opportunity to pursue higher education,” Richards said in a statement. “We know that many students have had difficulty taking a standardized test due to cancellations. This action will eliminate a potential barrier.”

All three universities have lost tens of millions from COVID-19 and been forced to split an $8 million state funding cut, compounding projected enrollment declines — which are expected to deprive the campuses of much needed tuition revenue that already was curtailed after regents froze rates in another attempt to remove enrollment barriers.

Still, despite all the COVID-19 concessions being employed across Iowa’s regent system, the board’s Chief Academic Officer Rachel Boon said the universities still encourage applicants to take the ACT or SAT “if they are able.”

“But our universities are comfortable in making admissions decisions using all the other information available for this upcoming cycle, if students cannot submit a standardized test score,” she said in a statement. “We hope this waiver will be helpful to students in this cohort.”

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