The Debate Over Test- Optional Policies at Elite Colleges Continues

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Photo by Antoine Dautry

Elite colleges are reconsidering their admissions policies after a flurry of institutions, primarily Ivy League and other prestigious colleges, have recently reinstated SAT/ACT requirements.

The announcements by Dartmouth College, Yale University, and Brown University come at a time when test-optional policies have been largely adopted across higher education since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These institutions join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which reverted back to requiring test scores in 2022.

As admissions officers search for new ways to enroll underrepresented students following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban on race-based affirmative action in admissions across higher education, research on the merits of standardized testing is invaluable.

However, just as Christina Paxson, Brown University president, debated the issue in a summer 2023 alumni magazine article, “To Test or Not to Test,” many may be torn over the data.

Paxson concluded that the question of whether the benefits of standardized testing outweigh disadvantages is an empirical one, and deferred the final decision until further data was gathered over the course of the year. After months of deliberation by the Ad Hoc Committee on Admissions Policies, administrators at Brown announced the reinstatement of testing policies in March.

Overall, research on the matter points in both directions.

In Support of Testing
When Dartmouth delivered the news, its administration presented the 18- page “Report From Working Group on the Role of Standardized Test Scores in Undergraduate Admissions,” developed by Dartmouth economics and sociology professors.

The experts point to a number of findings, the most notable of which is that test-optional policies have not increased the number of less privileged students admitted to the institution; moreover, they have potentially served as a barrier to admissions officers in identifying disadvantaged applicants who would likely be successful students.

The report relies largely on an expansive 2023 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Diversifying Society’s Leaders? The Determinants and Causal Effects of Admission to Highly Selective Private Colleges.” The findings appear to be pivotal in Dartmouth’s decision.

The study researchers analyzed Ivy Plus colleges, which include the eight Ivy League schools and additional highly selective institutions, and found that the SAT/ACT is a valid tool for helping to understand a student’s ability to succeed academically. They concluded that removing test scores in admissions likely benefits students from wealthy backgrounds.

This is because, without test scores, more weight is placed on factors like guidance counselor essays, AP courses, and extracurricular activities, without addressing the underlying problem, which is the large disparity in opportunities for individuals with different lived experiences, says John Friedman, PhD, study co-author and Briger Family Distinguished Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs and chair of the Department of Economics at Brown.

For example, a student from a high school that has not traditionally had students attend Ivy Plus colleges before may have an SAT score of 1400, which is below the percentile of an Ivy Plus institution, he explains. This student may not have individuals available to guide them in the application process and suggest their SAT score would hurt their chances of acceptance. However, if the student had been required to submit the score, it may have revealed to an admissions officer that the applicant excelled despite the challenges posed by their academic environment.

“For Ivy Plus schools, I believe [it’s] better to return to the prior testing requirements, where the test scores provide valuable additional data so that admission officers can make assessments based on the most complete set of information,” Friedman says.

Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth leaders referenced similar findings in their announcements.

“The research shows that standardized test scores can be an important predictor of academic success at a place like Dartmouth and beyond.— more so even than just grades or recommendations, for example — and with a test-optional policy, prompted by the pandemic, we were unintentionally overlooking applicants from less-resourced backgrounds who could thrive here,” Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock said in a statement.

Friedman adds that he’s glad policymakers are finding the report helpful in promoting socioeconomic diversity and upward mobility. However, he hopes that institutions also look at the evidence that other admissions practices are inequitable, like legacy preferences, weighing non-academic criteria, and athletic recruitment.

As family connections in admissions remain a subject of intense debate, this matter is under ongoing review by Brown University leaders following the ad hoc committee’s recommendation to continue evaluating legacy applicant data with an emphasis on what will best advance academic excellence, equity, access, and diversity.

“For Ivy Plus schools, I believe [it’s] better to return to the prior testing requirements, where the test scores provide valuable additional data so that admission officers can make assessments based on the most complete set of information.” John Friedman, PhD

Differing Research
As some elite institutions are reconsidering requirements, many Ivy League schools have chosen to extend test-optional policies, including Princeton University, Harvard University, and Cornell University. Columbia University is implementing the policy indefinitely.

Jesse Rothstein, PhD, Carmel P. Friesen Professor of Public Policy and economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is supportive of this. He has published extensively on the role of standardized test scores in college admissions.

While he agrees that testing predicts college grades better than GPA, he highlights that there’s no basis to apply this beyond the Ivy slice of higher education, pointing to evidence in the 2021 study “Untested Admissions: Examining Changes in Application Behaviors and Student Demographics Under Test-Optional Policies,” published in the American Educational Research Journal.

Researchers reviewed nearly 100 private institutions and found that test-optional policies were associated with increases of 3%-4% for Pell Grant recipients, up to 12% for newly enrolled racially/ethnically underrepresented students, and up to 8% for women.

Aside from the test-optional debate, Rothstein says that what Friedman’s study really reveals are problems with other admissions policies at elite institutions.

“[The study] shows that Ivy-Plus schools heavily favor wealthy applicants via preferences for legacies and athletes in obscure prep school sports,” he says. “If these schools wanted to admit more diverse classes, they wouldn’t need the SAT to do so.”