de Wolff: End Test-Optional Admissions

Dartmouth should reinstate its standardized testing requirement.

by Thomas de Wolff | 7/8/22 4:05am

For Dartmouth’s Classes of 2025, 2026 and 2027, the admissions office has instituted a “test-optional” policy, in which applicants may choose whether to submit standardized test scores as part of their application, but will not be penalized if they do not. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions’ website claims that “it is not the moment to restore the testing requirement” due to the pandemic. Recently, standardized testing has come under fire for two different reasons: access and equity. But these attacks do not hold up under scrutiny. Recent advancements in public health and technology, as well as extensive research, all show that these arguments are either inaccurate or wholly unfounded. Ultimately, Dartmouth will be less able to accept students who will succeed academically if it stays test-optional. The College should once again require applicants to submit standardized test scores. 

From an admissions perspective, these tests. are a strong indicator of future academic success. This predictive ability is why another top university reversed course on its testing requirement earlier this year: as of March, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began requiring standardized test scores as part of its application for the class of 2027 and beyond. MIT stated that it could not reliably predict how a student would do academically unless it considered standardized test results as part of the student’s application. MIT’s dean of admissions even explained that by considering SAT and ACT scores, the school actually increased admissions from socioeconomically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.

The first main argument against standardized tests — lack of access — is more easily addressed. During the pandemic, many opportunities to take the test were canceled due to the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Now that most pandemic restrictions have subsided, students are again able to take these tests. Widespread vaccinations, the expansion of the free in-school SAT and the advent of the digital SAT have all overcome these roadblocks to access that students may have faced during the last few years.

But addressing the second main argument, equity, is more difficult. Critics have labeled the test a racist perpetrator of structural inequalities in the American education system. There are two main kinds of disparities contributing to this accusation: disparities caused by wealth and by race. Access to outside coaching, more rigorous schools and more supportive environments have all been targeted as unfair factors leading to certain students being better equipped to take these tests.

Regarding disparities caused by wealth, wealthier students who can pay for outside test prep and coaching do not score much better than those who cannot afford to do so. Coaching only has a small positive effect on the SAT, resulting in about a 10-to-20-point total improvement, concentrated mostly in the math section. The effects of coaching are minimal, and far less than what major commercial test preparation companies claim to achieve.  

Nor do standardized test scores follow income distribution. Studies have demonstrated that when considered together, an applicant’s SAT score and high school GPA are a more accurate predictor of future academic performance than either one on their own. Even when controlling for the socioeconomic status of test-takers, the SAT maintains this accuracy, implicitly showing that SAT results are not just a reflection of socioeconomic status.

The second component of the inequality equation is race. Standardized tests show disparities across races and ethnicities in test results. As a whole, white and Asian-American students score higher on standardized tests than Black and Hispanic students. These gaps in scores are not a cause of systemic inequality, but rather a result of it. Instead, social, economic and cultural factors all play a role in causing this distinction. In getting rid of standardized tests, we remove one more indicator of that gap, which erases one more signal of the inequalities that we should address instead.

Finally, according to the dean of admissions at MIT, standardized tests are more objective compared to other means of evaluating a student and can increase the admission of disadvantaged applicants. Well-off applicants can pay for outside essay coaches (and in some cases, essay writers). A perfect score on a test is a better measurement of scholastic aptitude than your ability to write an essay that can entertain a random admissions officer for seven to eight minutes. A bright but underprivileged student may not be able to found a nonprofit or go on a mission trip to Nicaragua, but they can take the SAT.

While the move by the College’s admissions office to go test-optional for three years makes some sense in light of the pandemic, any further adoption of this policy will hurt Dartmouth in the long run. Progress in public health and technological advancements have made it safer and more accessible for students to take standardized tests than in past years when the pandemic ran rampant. Standardized tests are accurate predictors of future academic success, even when controlling for the socioeconomic background of applicants. Nor are these tests the relics of white supremacy their opponents paint them as, for Asian-American students, rather than white ones, score highest on it. Dartmouth should make the move that will best position it —  and its student body —  for success in the long run by reinstating its testing requirement for future classes.

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