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Last Updated On: March 4th, 2024

The NY Times recently published an article on how yet another college, Dartmouth, is eliminating a test-optional policy and reverting to requiring the SAT or ACT. During the pandemic Dartmouth, like most schools, dropped their test requirement. However, after some unintended consequences of the policy and an internal review, Dartmouth found compelling evidence that their test-optional policy was having the opposite of its desired effect. There were a number of findings that were quite striking and are worth considering for both parents and students. Additionally, we expect an influential school like Dartmouth (and the favorable press they received in the NY Times) to sway other schools to make similar policies, although the exact reach and impact on other peer institutions remains to be seen.

Dartmouth’s Reasoning

Dartmouth found, as have other researchers, that test scores were a stronger indicator of college grades and academic success than simply looking at high school GPA. They also found that, contrary to earlier hopes and expectations, their test-optional policies had not led to a more diverse group of applicants. These two factors alone would have been enough to make the school reconsider their policy, but they also found a piece of information that was even more striking: their test-optional policy had convinced students with strong scores to leave their test information off their applications, leading to rejections for qualified students who would’ve otherwise been admitted.

Issues With the Test-Optional System

This striking finding speaks to an issue we’ve long had with test-optional policies: they benefit students with the resources and know-how to understand how to use the system to their advantage. After all, no school with a test-optional policy releases the cutoff below which a student is best served omitting their SAT scores, even though such a cutoff would most likely exist. Therefore students are left to guess if they should include their test scores, a high-risk and confounding decision that is made more difficult in the absence of a savvy guidance counselor or private college consultant. The more opaque the process is, the more it benefits families with means, cultural capital, and prior experience with the American college application process. The very students who would ostensibly benefit from a test-optional program, strong applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds without exceptional scores, were putting themselves out of the running for spots at an Ivy League school by not submitting test scores. Even though their scores might not have been in the upper echelon of applicants (or students may have wrongly perceived their scores as such), they still would have helped round out their application and demonstrate math and reading proficiency to the school.

Another significant issue with test-free or test-optional policies is that it limits students by sequestering them into tiers of applicants: the test-takers and the non-test-takers. If a student knows they are applying to test-free or test-optional schools, then they are more likely to skip the SAT or ACT altogether, and potentially preclude themselves from applying to an elite school where they would otherwise have every chance of getting in (and potentially receiving more generous financial aid). Many students from high schools or backgrounds where the typical option is a state school or less competitive program would, under the previous system, have an opportunity to demonstrate high achievement on a standardized test and open themselves to the possibility of applying to more “reach” options as well. That same pool of students, faced with the likelihood that a test will not matter for them, may now never realize how strong of an applicant they are.

Will Other Schools Follow Suit?

While some of our readers are doubtless considering applying to Dartmouth, the more significant question for most of you has to be whether or not other colleges will follow in their footsteps. A number of similar schools, such as Georgetown and MIT, have already announced a return to mandatory testing. Dartmouth’s findings are compelling, however, and the school’s positive press around the decision will no doubt be noticed as well. It would not be surprising if other schools followed their lead, particularly other highly selective schools where the sheer number and quality of applicants make having another rigorous and easily-comparable sorting method particularly useful.

As for schools with profiles further from Dartmouth’s, we still believe the benefits of testing outweigh the drawbacks, but it remains to be seen whether the schools will see it the same way. After all, it is a far different task sorting through an applicant pool where you accept 70% of applicants than one where you accept less than 10%. Test scores largely correlate with grades, so at a less competitive school, the stronger half of the applicants will most likely be the group with higher grades as well as higher test scores, and losing the test scores may not change your admitted student profile as much. At an elite school, where far more students have excellent GPAs than are admitted, having an additional metric is more useful. Another question to consider is how state school policies will differ from those at private institutions. Dartmouth is free to act independently as soon as they find compelling reason to switch their test policy. The UC system is not quite as nimble.

What this Means for You

While the exact ways in which this decision by a prominent school, and the research they have released supporting this decision, will impact the admissions process for most institutions is not yet clear, we do see signs that there is a trend back towards standardized tests having renewed import for colleges. If you are late in the process and know that the schools to which you are applying have confirmed test-free or test-optional policies, then it may not make sense for you to devote time and energy to test preparation. However, if you are a student or the parent of a student just entering high school, then it seems safe to expect a reasonable number of schools will or might expect test scores from you in the future, and thus it may be worth considering your test preparation options.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of both the SAT and the ACT, but we also now have compelling evidence that the alternatives create problems that are just as bad if not worse. It also now seems clear that test-optional policies, with the heightened potential for confusion and the large number of students who underestimate their score’s value, are just as bad if not worse than test-free admissions systems.

Things to Keep an Eye on

Of course, trends and research in this area can and do change rapidly, so it is worth continuing to follow news about this space and checking the websites and policies of your potential schools. The SAT and ACT also tend to respond to challenges to their utility or criticism by revamping their test formats, so it is also worth keeping abreast of their current policies to ensure you are preparing for the most current format of the test most suited to your skills and learning style.

Photo by William Fortunato

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