The days of optional SAT scores may be coming to an end

Are standardized tests poised for a comeback?

Dartmouth College announced this week it would be reinstating its requirement for applicants to submit scores from the SAT or ACT, a mandate that it and hundreds of other U.S. schools had dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the celebration from some students and academics when schools nixed required SAT scores, Dartmouth says the results of an internal study showed they were actually helpful for constructing the best incoming class.

Experts are divided on whether the Ivy League member’s decision could have a domino effect on other elite institutions — as well as if these scores are a good indicator for matriculating students. Critics say requiring the scores offers an advantage to students who already have others.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University have also brought back testing requirements.

Allen Koh, founder and CEO of Cardinal Education, thinks there will be a “gradual” transition to requiring test scores again.

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“Given everything about the equity reasons for why they made the test optional, frankly, many of these institutions can’t go back on immediately,” Koh said.

“It will take some time, but I believe that the overall trend over the next several years will move towards more and more schools,” he added.

As Dartmouth said in its statement, many schools switched to optional test scores during the pandemic because it was difficult for students to go to a testing site at the height of COVID.

The college said its internal study found “that our holistic admissions approach to identifying the most promising students, regardless of their background, benefits from a careful consideration of testing information as part of their application package.”

“In particular, SAT/ACTs can be especially helpful in identifying students from less-resourced backgrounds who would succeed at Dartmouth but might otherwise be missed in a test-optional environment,” the statement said.

Some experts, however, are skeptical of the results of that study, and the value of standardized tests for college applications in general.

Josef Durand, an expert admissions consultant at Quad Education Group, said SAT scores “are a notoriously poor predictor of student success and student potential in college.”

“It is well known by this point that GPA is a five times better — or at least a five times better — predictor of student success and student potential in terms of college and post-collegiate success,” Durand said.

FairTest, an organization aimed at equitable assessments of schools and students, reports that more than 2,000 U.S. colleges are test-optional or test-free when it comes to SAT or ACT scores.

“I hope that others don’t follow [Dartmouth] but, you know, there is a chance that other institutions that fancy themselves elite institutions might,” said Harry Feder, executive director of FairTest.

Experts against required test scores say the tests only benefit wealthier students who can take it multiple times and that abandoning the results in admissions makes the process more equitable.

“All of the studies have looked at the policy over the past 20 years show that it does increase the number of applications from disadvantaged, marginalized students,” Feder said when speaking of test-optional schools.

But others argue even in test-optional situations, including the scores on an application gives you an edge, and many admissions officers prefer to see the results of a standardized test.

“The reality is — and all admissions officers will admit this off the record, only some will admit it on the record — the reality is test scores even when they were optional were factored in heavily,” Koh said, arguing test-optional “really handicaps a lot of students.”

“Rich kids and poor kids do not compete against each other when it comes to elite university admissions, believe it or not. Rich kids are competing against rich kids. Poor kids are competing against poor kids,” Koh said. “And so when kids opt out of the test, they were at a disadvantage against their peers who are in similar situations. And so that is the greater injustice.”

A third option that is not as commonly used in higher education is test-free admissions, where standardized test scores are not even allowed to be submitted on an application.

The biggest example of a test-free school is the University of California system, which said in 2021 it will not be changing back to test-optional or requiring the test.

“I mean, [the University of California] said that they were gonna invest a billion dollars to develop their own version of a standardized test, but they’ve ended that effort,” Koh said. “And so they seem to be happy with test optional. But most other state schools have been test-score mandatory for quite a while, because fellowships especially, a lot of them are driven by the scores.”

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