Most facilities that offer standardized tests have canceled test dates or offered remote testing as COVID-19 cases rise. But two major tests are still offered only in-person.
The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and some states’ bar exams require sit-down testing in rooms that can have hundreds of people, even in coronavirus hot spots.
The exams serve as high-stakes gateways for two of the country’s most prestigious, highest-pressure and lucrative fields: They determine who gets into medical school and whether law school graduates can be cleared to become attorneys.
Tests are typically held in-person to prevent cheating and protect the integrity of the exams. For test takers, in-person exams mean a decision between caution, as coronavirus cases in the USA surpass 4.1 million, and achieving what for some has been a lifelong dream.
During the pandemic, the American Association of Medical Colleges canceled MCATs scheduled for March, April and most of May. For tests since then, including one scheduled for Thursday, the AAMC shortened the test, making it available three times on each scheduled day, instead of once per day. This allows increased capacity and ensures that test centers will follow social distancing practices, the association said.
“Starting a test at 6 a.m., meaning one might have had to travel the night before or start driving very early in the morning, does not seem right,” said ArghavanSalles, a resident at Stanford University School of Medicine. “On the other hand, the last administration of the day ends at midnight, which is later than anyone should have to be taking a high-stakes exam.”
Many students have little choice or recourse. The MCAT is used as the primary indicator for somebody’s readiness for medical school, said Sahil Mehta, a radiologist at Harvard Medical School and founder of MedSchoolCoach, a medical school admissions consultancy.
“It’s nearly impossible for the AAMC to shift to an online test on the fly” because it’s long – more than seven hours compared with a typical Graduate Record Exam’s four hours – and has difficult material, Mehta said.
The solution, he said, lies in medical schools, which must strongly consider making the MCAT optional in this years’ admissions.
Stanford Medical School and University of Minnesota Medical School won’t require fall applicants to submit a score until after interviews. At the University of Washington School of Medicine, the MCAT exam will be optional for the remainder of 2020 for those who have not taken the exam. At the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, MCAT exam waivers will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Students said the AAMC should do more to protect them.
“How is it that the pandemic that required mass cancellations back in March is smaller than the pandemic that current test takers are facing?” wrote Students for Ethical Admissions, an organization founded to address MCAT takers’ coronavirus concerns, in a letter to the AAMC and medical colleges.
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Dr. Karen Mitchell, AAMC senior director of admissions testing services, said the group made changes to address the pandemic’s disruption.
“We developed our health and safety standards … in consultation with epidemiology and immunology experts and following evidence-based CDC guidelines,” she said in a statement to USA TODAY.
The student group said some test sites didn’t follow all the safety measures outlined by the AAMC.In some cases, testing sites didn’t sanitize materials frequently used by test takers, require mask-wearing or take applicants’ temperature, the group alleged.
The student group said on Twitter it received seven positive reports of COVID-19 in students who took their MCAT. These students could have either transmitted or contracted the virus at the testing center, the group said.
Some students live or are in close contact with others who would be at high risk for complications from COVID-19, Salles said. These students have to risk not only exposing themselves but their families and loved ones.
“These pressures likely disproportionately affect applicants in rural settings or with fewer resources – exactly the type of applicant we need in medicine,” she said.
In-person bar exams are moving ahead in nearly half of states, despite concerns from law school students, who said the planned administration is uncertain and unsafe given states’ rapid increases in COVID-19 cases.
One such state is Arizona, whose highest court denied a petition July 1 to allow first-time test takers to skip the exam. The exam will proceed as scheduled July 28 and 29 at the Phoenix Convention Center.
Alexis Boumstein, one of three law school graduates who petitioned the court to amend its rules, told the Arizona Republic, a USA TODAY Network newspaper, that some graduates worry about catching the virus during the state’s exam. Typically, more than 500 people take the Arizona bar over two days.
Others fear that weeks of intensive study could be ruined if they get sick and cannot take the high-stakes test.
“Applicants should not be asked to choose between their health or sitting for the exam to receive their licensure,” the petition said.
Other states changed their testing structures. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners canceled the state’s bar exam at the end of July, replacing it with an online test Aug. 18.
Moving the test online is “one less health risk,” Cathren Page, a professor at Mercer University School of Law in Macon, Georgia, told the Tallahassee Democrat, a USA TODAY Network paper.
“I felt certain that someone I knew was probably going to die or become disabled as a result of this process … or they would have to forgo the bar,” she said.
Contributing: Anne Ryman, Arizona Republic; CD Davidson-Hiers, Tallahassee Democrat