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All, Testing

Accommodations for the ACT Test

Students with an IEP or 504 Plan

In the past, students had to request accommodations and prove that they had a qualifying need. But in July 2021, the ACT organization announced they would accept school-issued Individualized Education Plans (IEP) or 504 plans as sufficient evidence of eligibility. As a result, they will automatically allow the same accommodations on the ACT test that appear in the IEP or 504 plans.

Apply through the ACT website.

Homeschoolers and Students without an IEP or 504 Plan

Homeschoolers and students not currently enrolled can still get accommodations. In these situations, the ACT organization will review the request and then determine what assistance is reasonable. Students with short-term needs, like a broken arm, can request temporary accommodations.

Possible Accommodations on the ACT

Extra time
Breaks as needed
Wheelchair accessibility
Large print test booklet
A writer or scribe
Sign language interpreter
Authorized bilingual dictionary or translated written test directions (for English Language Learners)
Alternate test formats.

Students interested in using accommodations on the ACT test should start the process as soon as possible. By starting the request process early, you give yourself time to answer any requests for additional information. National Testing Centers provide most types of accommodations, but some accommodations may require testing at a Special Testing Center. Students who need accommodations should try to register for the ACT as soon as accommodations are approved. This will allow time to find testing centers that offer the needed assistance.

Students may also want to consider if applying through test optional admissions is a good choice. Test optional policies vary from college to college, but generally allow students to apply without submitting test scores.

All, Homeschooling, Testing

Advanced Placement for Homeschoolers

Last week, I dropped my youngest kid at his last Advanced Placement exam. For me as a homeschool parent, this is the eighth year of navigating Advanced Placement as a homeschooler. My kids have studied a bunch of AP courses, some with amazing online providers, one in a coop class I taught and some at home with me. I even learned to navigate the Course Audit process.

We had a couple mid-year moves, which made exam registration fun, “Hi, I’d like to register my kids to take AP tests at your school. No, I don’t know what district we are going to live in.” One exam coincided with the outbreak of California wildfire season. I could smell one fire while waiting at a coffee shop during the first exam, and the second exam was rescheduled when the high school holding the exam became an emergency shelter.

We were also the beneficiaries of the kindness of strangers. Public and private school counselors and AP coordinators helped us find test spots (even when our closest local school barred the door). Other homeschoolers shared their insights about the Course Audit, creating a syllabus, and finding test spots (though I won’t miss the annual “AP Exam Commiseration” thread on my favorite homeschool boards). I wrote most of this post in the car after dropping the youngest off for his Calculus test. I hope it offers some help to those who are following behind us.

What Is Advanced Placement?

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are college-level courses taught to high school students. Students take an exam at the end of the course and can receive college credit based on their score. Advanced Placement is a specific brand name, not just shorthand for high level or advanced work. College Board (the same organization that does the SAT and PSAT) controls the course content, exam content, and scoring. A course cannot be listed as AP on a transcript unless the teacher has submitted their syllabus for approval through the CB Course Audit (more on that later). However, students can register to sit for an AP exam without taking an approved AP course. They might have taken another high-level course that covers similar content, or they might have self-studied for the exam. Since college credit is based on the exam score, this is a way for students to get credit for work they did during high school.

Can Homeschoolers Do Advanced Placement?

There are currently 37 different AP courses in seven categories, including art, English, history and social science, math and computer science, world languages, and science. Homeschoolers can sit for these AP exams (with two exceptions) This means there are lots of options for homeschool students to use Advanced Placement to dig into a subject area they are interested in.

The exceptions are the two courses in the AP Capstone Diploma program, AP Research and AP Seminar. Schools must apply for and be approved for the AP Capstone Diploma program. Students can only enroll in AP Research and AP Seminar (and complete the end of course tasks and exam) if they attend an approved school.  Homeschool students and online providers are specifically not eligible for these courses, by College Board policy for the program.

How Do Homeschoolers Register for the Exams?

There is no centralized, online registration for the exams. Instead registration is done by the high school offering the exams. Not all schools offer all exams, and some schools do not welcome outside students to their test administrations. This might mean as a homeschooler you will need to contact many schools to find one that is willing to register your student. It helps to first find schools you know are offering the course. Sometimes this is listed on the high school or school district website. You can also check the AP Course Ledger to find schools in your area that are authorized by College Board to offer each AP course this year. The Course Ledger is a good search starting point, but in my experience wasn’t always current on course offerings and was no guarantee that a specific high school would welcome a homeschooler for the exam.

Once you’ve located area schools that are offering a specific AP course, you will need to contact each school to ask about exam registration for homeschoolers. It is best to contact the school’s AP Coordinator. If this position isn’t listed on the school website, call the Counseling Center or Main Office and ask for the AP Coordinator. Once you get ahold of them, ask if they will be allowing homeschooled students to test there that year and what the registration process is. My experience was that the first person to answer the phone might not be well informed about registration for outside students, so it was better to hold off on a detailed explanation until I was talking to the AP Coordinator.

Some states’ homeschool laws require public schools to accommodate homeschoolers for testing (ex. Virginia), but this is the exception rather than the rule. It’s very possible that your local public school will not allow homeschoolers to test on campus. If this is the case, you will need to continue contacting schools until you find one that is willing to register homeschoolers. In some cases, private schools were more willing to offer a seat than local public schools were.

College Board has a fee for AP exams ($95 in 2021) that homeschoolers should expect to pay at registration, even if the district does not charge its own students to take the test. College Board also allows schools to charge administrative fees when registering outside students. The schools we used did not have additional charges, but I’ve heard this is common in other areas. If you are looking for an exam that the school doesn’t normally offer, some schools will coordinate proctoring if you pay for the cost of the proctor in addition to the test fee. This can get expensive, but might be less than the cost of traveling to a more distant site that doesn’t charge. If you do end up in the position of paying for a proctor, it may be worth putting the word out on boards and email lists for homeschoolers; you may find other interested students who would be willing to split the cost.

A couple years ago, College Board changed the exam registration deadline for schools to the fall. There is some leeway to allow homeschoolers to register later, but high schools might be reluctant to open registration a second time in the spring. My suggestion is to be in touch with high schools early in the fall, so you have time to call around.

Keep in mind that College Board has specific requirements for how far apart students sit during the exam, how seating is arranged, and even the shape of the tables. The closest high school might not have space available for many outside students, especially in commonly taken exams. Know your state law (to know if you should have access). If they say they aren’t offering that exam or are out of space, ask if they can suggest another school that might be able to accommodate your student.

One year, we moved to a new state and I was scrambling to find seats for AP European History, which no public school in the area was offering. I ended up on the phone with the AP Coordinator for the state Department of Education, who was trying to help me find a test location. Finally, she gave me contact info for a local private school I would never have called on my own, with a personal referral to their Dean of Students. In this case, it paid off to stay calm and polite while asking for assistance.

When the pandemic forced schools to close in 2020, College Board created digital exams that were administered at home. In 2021, there was a mix of traditional paper-based exams and digital exams, depending on the choice of individual schools. It’s possible that future years will make it easier for homeschoolers to register for and take AP exams.

How to Take Advanced Placement Courses

There are lots of ways for homeschoolers to prepare for an AP exam. The most direct is to take a course that has gone through a Course Audit and been authorized as an official AP course. Many online homeschool curriculum providers offer authorized courses. There are also providers who create curriculum for students who attend schools without official AP courses or who might not be able to fit an AP course into their schedule. Remember that the online course will not be in a position to coordinate exam registration. You will need to do that yourself.

It is also possible for a homeschool coop instructor or an individual homeschool parent to create a syllabus the follows official course guidelines and submit it for approval. This is a process I went through for AP English Literature and Composition, AP US Government and Politics, AP Comparative Politics, and AP European History. These were content areas I knew well and felt comfortable teaching. I created the AP US Government and Politics syllabus for a coop I was teaching; the others were just for my own kids.

Some students sit for an AP exam without taking an official course. This lets them demonstrate mastery that comes from other courses or self-study. This might be a good option for students who use classical education styles or a chronological study of history, or who have a subject area of deep personal interest. Remember that the exams are designed to test understanding at the end of a course with specific guidelines and learning objectives. It’s wise to spend some time with a course study guide and understand how free response sections are scored.

It is also common for native and heritage language speakers who are well prepared in a world language to take an AP exam for that language early in high school (or even in middle school). This gives them a way of demonstrating high level ability with the language, while opening up their high school schedule for other courses. (The official policy of College Board is that courses should only be labeled AP on a transcript if they are offered in grades 9-12. World languages are the exception to this policy.)

Labeling Courses on Homeschool Transcripts

Advanced Placement courses can be an important signal of academic rigor when homeschoolers apply to college. Because Advanced Placement is a brand label and not just a description of rigorous classes, you should only call a course AP if it has been approved through the College Board Course Audit process. So what do you do if you didn’t know about Course Audit, or missed the submission deadlines, or had a vision for a course that didn’t line up with the AP course guidelines. A common work around is to label the course as Honors or Advanced and indicate that it included taking the AP exam.

For example,
Advanced German with AP Exam
Latin IV with AP Exam
Honors Calculus with AP Exam

You can also explain the course in detail in the course descriptions you prepare to submit with college applications. This is another place to explain that the class included preparation for an Advanced Placement exam.

Advanced Placement isn’t the only way for homeschoolers to demonstrate academic rigor, but it can be one tool in your toolbox. I have fond memories of doing AP Comparative Government when we spent a month on the road during a cross country move. I also really enjoyed the time discussing poetry and literature as part of AP English Lit (though my son ended up writing on The Odyssey, a book he’d read for fun as the topic of his long essay). If AP classes meet your goals, don’t be afraid of them, but do stay on top of the exam registration timeline.

All, College Admissions, College Applications, College Planning, Essay Writing, Testing, Updates

Update for February 2021


Increase in Applications for Some; Declines for Others:  As colleges release early admission decisions, it becomes apparent that the surge in applications reported by high profile colleges was not an across the board phenomenon. Not only did many smaller and regional colleges experience a drop in applications, but also applications from first generation and low-income students dropped. The Full Story on Admissions from Inside Higher Ed discusses these patterns.

Fall 2022 Test Optional Policies:  Fair Test keeps a running list of colleges with test optional admissions policies and announced that more than half of US four year colleges would be test optional for Fall 2022 admissions. Be aware of the specific details at colleges you’re interested in. Test Optional doesn’t mean Test Blind, and some colleges are using Test Flexible, but still really prefer to see scores.

A New Prompt for Common App Essays:  The Common Application announced their personal statement essay prompts for the 2021-22 application. Most of the prompts remain the same, but one new prompt on gratitude has replaced another seldom chosen prompt. However, I still advise students to start the writing process by considering what they want the admissions office to know about them rather than fixating on a specific prompt.

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‘Act Now!’ Say Hello to the New Enrollment Playbook (The Chronicle of Higher Education) Seniors may have noticed that as admissions decisions have been announced, emails from colleges have shifted to frequent entreaties to make deposits and complete enrollment. Sometimes these requests are sweetened with benefits for early commitment, like first choice dorm rooms, small scholarships, or parking passes. These policies put pressure on students to commit to colleges before they have received all of their admissions decisions and without comparing financial aid offers.

In the past, many colleges agreed to an admissions cycle in which no application deadline was earlier than October 15, Early Decision applications were binding but did not have extra perks, and students applying under Early Action, Regular Decision, and Rolling Admission options had until May 1 to make their enrollment decisions. Changes to the agreed upon ethical standards has created a situation in which a number of schools are exploring ways to get students to commit earlier or switch their enrollment choice after May 1. This article goes into detail on the how and why of these efforts.

Meanwhile, Back at the Office

February was a busy month at Admissions Decrypted. I had several opportunities to discuss college admissions, including a Service to School workshop on Writing College Essays, a presentation on service academy applications to a group of IEC colleagues, and a fun talk about the myths of college admissions to a group of local area service academy alumni. I have a few more presentations currently in the works, including my first ever appearance on a podcast.  

Meanwhile, I’ve been having a lot of fun with the sophomores of Class of 2023. We have been doing interest surveys and career explorations. They bring a lot of enthusiasm to the process, and it’s cool to watch them weighing options and considering who they are and what they want to become. I still have room in both the Class of 2022 and Class of 2023 cohorts. If you know someone who would like help in the college admissions process, I’d be delighted if you referred them to me.

All, College Planning, Financial Fit, Testing

Update for January 2021

Excited to ring in 2021 and delighted to celebrate it with virtual confetti for my seniors who have been receiving admissions decisions.


SAT Subject Tests and SAT Essay Section: One of the biggest news items this month was the announcement that College Board is eliminating the essay section on the SAT exam as well as all SAT Subject Tests. This was presented as a simplification for students, but presents complications for two groups of students. Students applying to colleges in other countries often used Subject Tests to provide a recognizable data point to colleges unfamiliar with their national curriculum. Similarly, homeschoolers often took Subject Tests, either because a college required them from homeschoolers or in order to quantify what they had achieved through home-based coursework. College Board seems hopeful that more students will turn to Advanced Placement tests, which are longer, tied to AP course guidelines, and more expensive. They can also be difficult for homeschool students to register for, since registration is administered by individual high schools who may not welcome outside students.

The elimination of the essay tests will be less noticed, since few schools used them in admissions.  University of California had been a notable holdout, and many students took the SAT with Essay only because UCs required it. With UC going test blind for the foreseeable future, College Board probably looked at the Essay section as an unwanted albatross that was costly to administer and score. Additional analysis of the changes from Compass Prep

Federal Legislation Changes FAFSA and Federal Student Aid: It’s been twelve years since the Higher Education Act was reauthorized, and Senator Lamar Alexander was focused on this issue for his last term before retirement. Two major changes are the simplification of the FAFSA questionnaire itself, reducing the number of total questions asked and changing the thresholds for qualifying for Pell Grants so that more students will be eligible. The FAFSA will also change for students with divorced parents, who will now report the income from the parent who provides the most financial support rather than the parent with whom they live the most days in the year.

A change that has gotten a lot of mention in the press is eliminating the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) in favor of a Student Aid Index (SAI). On one hand this is a positive change, in that there was frequent misunderstanding around the EFC, which many families were stunned to find did not represent the total amount college might expect them to pay. On the other hand, it’s critical to realize this is mostly a name change, not a revision in the expectation that families provide financial support for college students up to age 24.   Deep Dive Changes to Federal Methodology Other Student Aid Changes From Spending Bill National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA)

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Shopping for a major? Detailed salary info shows which majors pay off The Hechinger Report

Bonus article if you want to dig deeper into the difficulty in deciphering the financial benefits of specific colleges and majors. It’s a few years old, but the stumbling blocks to assembling useful information remain. Placement rates, other data colleges provide consumers are often alternative facts   

Meanwhile, Back at the Office

January brought some time to review and reflect on what we accomplished in 2020 at Admissions Decrypted. A major milestone was completing the University of California Irvine Certificate in Independent Educational Consulting. This certificate required seven courses and over a year of study.

The pandemic cancelled several planned college tour road trips, but not my continued engagement with colleges or other college admissions professionals.

  • Became an Associate Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA)
  • Attended Summer Institutes from both the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling (PCACAC) and Southern Association for College Admissions Counseling (SACAC)
  • Attended the Spring into Summer 2020 IECA Conference
  • Attended the Fall 2020 IECA Conference and was also a panelist and moderator for a session on college admissions for homeschoolers
  • Attended 50+ virtual college tours, info sessions, and meetings with college admissions professionals

This represents over 100 hours of professional development, but more importantly, deeper relationships with other people who spend their days focused on college admissions, fit, and affordability.

The turning of the year coincided with admissions decisions for my students in the class of 2021. I’m proud of each of them for the hard work they put into school, activities, and applications in what was not the senior year they had looked forward to. I’m excited as each admissions result comes in and cannot wait to see what they become in the coming years.

All, College Admissions, College Planning, Covid-19, Testing

Testing in the Time of Corona

Many seniors have not been able to complete the college admissions tests they hoped to do. Test dates in the spring had wholesale cancellations. Fall seats are scarce, because many sites are closed and others have lower capacity due to distancing requirements. Some families reported that test sites within 75 miles were full in the first few hours after fall registration opened.

Colleges are reconsidering whether test scores should be an admissions requirement in this environment. This is an ongoing process.  Some colleges may have hoped that testing would be available this fall, despite the spring cancellations. 

On September 1, a California judge ruled that allowing test optional admissions discriminated against students with disabilities, who were unable to take tests with approved accommodations because of the impact of coronavirus on testing sites.  The judge ruled that SAT and ACT scores could NOT be considered as part of University of California admissions, even if used as part of a test optional review.  It’s not clear if the UC system will contest this ruling.  It had previously been announced that UC would take the next several years to phase out the SAT and ACT while working to develop their own admissions exam.

Colleges that are part of a wider state system may have to wait for decisions to be made by the state governing body.  For example, the University System of Georgia just announced that applications for Fall 2021 would be test optional, but that this is a temporary waiver of the requirement.  This affects University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, as well as other public Georgia colleges and universities.

Test optional for admissions might not change the requirements for scholarships, which might be controlled by state legislatures or the organization that funds the scholarship.  For example, at the moment, the Zell Miller Scholarship – highest level of the Hope Scholarship in Georgia, still requires test scores for qualification. The commission that manages the scholarship can change the deadline for test scores, but cannot waive the requirement entirely, because that is under the authority of the Georgia legislature.

Some students still need to double check testing requirements.  Some colleges that are test optional for general admissions purposes are still asking for test scores for programs like engineering and nursing.  They may also still list test scores as a requirement for homeschool students.  For example, last week University of Hawaii Mānoa was still listing a requirement for homeschool students to submit one of the following: SAT Subject Test scores or ACT scores or a GED. 

Students applying for Fall 2021 need to keep an eye on the policies at the schools they are interested in.  They should determine of the college is test optional or test blind and also consider program and scholarship requirements.  If they do have test scores, they should consider if those scores would be a positive factor in the context of the rest of their application. If you’d like help with this process, contact me at

All, College Admissions, College Applications, Covid-19, Testing

What is Test Optional?

What is test optional for college admissions and when should a student take advantage of this?

Test Optional vs Test Blind

First, realize that test optional does not mean that admissions decisions are test blind.  A test blind policy means that SAT or ACT scores are not used at all for admissions. For example, the University of California will not use test scores to make admissions decisions or award scholarships. However, test blind admissions is rare. 

Test optional means that the college will consider an application complete with or without test scores. Students who do submit scores will still have those scores considered as part of their application.

In 2020, most colleges used some kind of test optional practice, because students simply didn’t have the chance to take tests because of Covid-19. Most colleges discovered that their incoming class was still highly qualified. Some schools had huge increases in numbers of applications because students didn’t feel held back by lower scores.

Colleges put greater weight on factors such as GPA and course rigor, class rank, essays, extracurricular activities, and recommendations.  They may also consider state of residence, legacy status, first generation college status, demonstrated interest, and if a student is likely to need financial aid. 

Who Should Consider Applying Test Optional

Students who do not have SAT or ACT test scores.  Obviously, you can’t submit scores from tests you couldn’t take. 

Students with test scores that are not a good reflection of their ability.  For these students a review of GPA and other factors may better represent their potential for college work. Students with special needs may also want to consider requesting accommodations during testing. Approval is now automatic for students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan.

Who Should Submit Test Scores?

Students might want to submit test scores if they have strong scores that add to the strength of their application. This would include scores above the average score for the college. Students applying to competitive direct entry programs may find strong scores help their application.

Some programs still use scores for eligibility. This may include programs like nursing or education with a state requirement for testing. It can also include competitive scholarships like the Georgia Hope/Zell Miller scholarship or the Florida Bright Futures scholarship.

Some colleges prefer to get test scores for students with less traditional academic records. This can include homeschoolers, students from schools that use evaluations other than grades, and international students.

Keep in mind that a test optional or even test blind policy does not mean a college will increase the size of the next freshman class.  It shifts the emphasis of the application to other factors.  You can’t control the availability of seats at an exam, but you can control the time and effort that goes into creating a thoughtful college list, into writing essays and writing supplements, and into timely and complete application submissions.