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Dartmouth reinstates SAT/ACT scores, drawing attention to role of standardized tests

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(NEW YORK) — Dartmouth College announced on Monday it will reinstate the standardized testing requirement beginning with undergraduate applicants for the Class of 2029.

Dartmouth is one of hundreds of colleges and universities that stopped requiring SAT or ACT scores amid the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning in 2020.

At least 1,900 schools have made standardized testing scores optional, and more than 80 schools don’t require these scores, according to the education advocacy group FairTest.

Why were standardized tests removed from college applications?

The COVID-19 pandemic presented schools, test takers and test creators with a unique problem.

As nationwide school shutdowns and social distancing forced students and faculty out of congregate settings, standardized tests were rescheduled and later canceled.

Schools across the country announced that the logistic difficulties in getting students to take the tests forced them to change their policies regarding testing in admissions applications. However, the change in admissions led to a surge in applications for some schools amid steady drops in college enrollment rates.

For example, the total number of applications for the Harvard Class of 2025 was 57,435, an increase from 40,248 the year prior, according to the university.

“These applicants have faced and overcome unprecedented challenges over the past year,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, in a 2021 Harvard Gazette statement. “Their applications and personal stories revealed a window into their resilience, their intellectual curiosity, and their many positive contributions to family, school, and community.”

This became one of several adjustments to admissions policies that schools chose to implement, including extensions on applications deadlines. Some institutions have committed to test-free admissions in the long term — including the University of California school system.

However, test-optional policies for higher education admissions applications are nothing new. Hundreds of schools have made standardized testing optional for applicants since the early 2000s, according to FairTest.

Sarah Lawrence College, one of the earlier schools to implement this kind of policy, states that it focuses on a “holistic review process” of essays, school transcripts, recommendations, activities and interests, creative work and more in its admissions decisions.

What research shows

Research has found that standardized tests put less wealthy students at a disadvantage, inherently favoring richer, white and Asian students. However, in a statement to the New York Times, College Board, which administers the SAT, argues that the test is not at fault for the disparity, but that the test simply mirrors the inequities in education impacting these groups across the country.

Research from a Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research study found that SAT/ACT scores and academic ratings can be predictive of post-college success — defining success through monetary outcomes and “elite” employment status.

Dartmouth, which temporarily halted SAT and ACT requirements during the pandemic, said it is returning to the requirement because “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.”

However, Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock acknowledged in a statement that the SAT and ACT scores “reflect inequality in society and in educational systems.”

The university said it will also increase financial aid opportunities so admitted students can attend the university regardless of income in an effort to address discrepancies in access.

In a statement, Beilock said that many applicants don’t submit test scores in a test-optional application even though it could have been beneficial for their application.

“For example, a 1400 SAT score from an applicant whose high school has an SAT mean of 1000 gives us valuable information about that applicant’s ability to excel in their environment,” said Beilock.

However, Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy and governance at the University of Washington, told ABC News’ podcast “Start Here” that a student who didn’t submit a test score under a test-optional application might not even apply to the university with the requirement.

“I think what they’re neglecting is the possibility that they make the SAT score required again and that student … does not apply because they realize, ‘oh, well, now that I have to reveal this information that I’m ashamed of, I’m not even going to bother applying,'” said Vigdor, citing the spike in applicants seen at many universities amid the admissions policy changes.

He argued that the SATs can be a good predictor of best grades at a school, but are not completely necessary for determining how a student will succeed in the school environment.

Research from Harvard and NBER states the college admissions process plays a major role in favoring richer populations.

It found that students from families in the top 1% are twice as likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy-Plus college than students from a middle-class family with comparable standardized test scores. The study cites legacy admissions, athlete recruitment, and non-academic ratings as benefitting high-income applicants.

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