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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Ruiz: Dartmouth’s Decision to Reinstate the Standardized Testing Requirement is Flawed

The internal study that motivated the College’s reintroduction of standardized testing requirements in admissions raises concern.

Dartmouth recently made headlines as the first Ivy League institution to reintroduce the standardized testing requirement in the admissions process, after three years of test-optional admissions. The College initially introduced its test-optional policy during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many students were unable to take standardized tests as a result of quarantine policy. The controversial decision to reinstate the testing requirement stemmed from an internal study conducted by a quartet of Dartmouth economists — Professors Elizabeth Cascio, Bruce Sacerdote, Doug Staiger and Michael Tine. Their findings were published in a report addressed to College President Sian Leah Beilock and vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid Lee Coffin on Jan. 30, according to previous reporting by The Dartmouth.

In their published analysis, the authors summarize their own findings in the following way:

Finding #1: “Students with higher SAT/ACT scores are more likely to have higher college GPAs than their peers with lower scores.”

Finding #2: “High school GPA does a poor job of predicting academic success in college.”

Finding #3: “Students from different socioeconomic backgrounds who have comparable SAT/ACT scores receive similar grades in college.”

Conclusion: “Standardized test scores, especially for highly selective colleges, may have more value for admissions processes than previously understood.”

The first of these findings is both the most important and the likeliest to cause potential damage. Requiring that impactful decisions like college admissions make use of a metric like the SAT or ACT could endanger values that we hold dear, while also promoting inequality. 

The authors’ findings are based on a linear comparison between the GPAs of first-year college students and their high school SAT/ACT scores. The first obvious, glaring issue is that this comparison utilizes fundamentally different metrics, essentially comparing apples and oranges. SAT scores, derived from at least 1.9 million unscaled raw scores, are “standardized” or “normalized” under the assumption of a bell curve distribution. The main controversy is that the bell curve has a kind of seductive pseudoscientific appeal. Specifically, it builds inequality into the scoring of the test: imposing one narrow definition of success, a kind of zero-sum game, which requires some students to fail in order for others to succeed. Such a result goes against our sense of democracy, equity and fairness, which can inadvertently perpetuate deep inequalities in society. 

The SAT is a fundamentally flawed psychometric tool for determining academic achievement, intelligence or scholastic potential. The test is primarily multiple-choice, requires little intellectual depth and, according to some education experts, relies on short-term rote memorization — along with the ability to discern the tricks of the test designers.

In essence, someone who scores highly on standardized tests may just be well-practiced at absorbing information in very short, time-compressed bursts, applying some formulaic patterns to the question at hand and then erasing any type of learning from memory. As many scholars have pointed out, standardized multiple-choice tests do not promote or encourage creativity, innovation, inventiveness, talent or wit — qualities that are in growing demand for leadership across all fields. 

For those who are willing to pay, there are exclusive consultants and expensive prep courses, which are often only available for wealthy college applicants. The advantages that these tutors and courses provide are beyond the means of a typical middle-class or working-class family. The SAT discriminates against middle and lower-class students who do not have the privileges of the wealthy elite. This is not an issue of political orientation — it is neither a conservative nor liberal point of view — but a question of creating a level playing field regardless of the applicant’s background.

The SAT suffers from another fundamental flaw: the test does not measure the full range of human capacity. Standardized testing quite naively measures the ability of an individual to take a particular version of the test on a particular day and extrapolates some type of inherent quality in the individual. To assume a student’s potential based on the way they behave on one all-important day is to take an extremely inconsistent measure and believe it to represent a student’s potential for success in college. 

To be fair, none of the authors of the study, nor anyone in the Beilock administration, is claiming that metrics like standardized tests or high school GPA are the only factors admissions officers consider — or even all that important to success in life. In fact, the College administration has been engaging with alumni groups to review its admissions policies and better understand how the process can be improved. It is evident that there is a high degree of trust between affiliated alumni and the administration. 

Alumni, such as myself, also appreciate how both the authors of the study and Coffin have engaged in a variety of thoughtful interviews and podcasts. We should all be on the same team and searching for the very best data, insights and methodology to make Dartmouth a stronger community — to select the broadest swath of the best and brightest students. We need to hold our admissions processes to high standards and ensure that admissions selectivity is carried out in a manner that is fair to all applicants, treating them as individuals, not as boxes or numbers.

I hope we can all agree that the College administration is not proposing that the SAT or ACT will be the most important factor in admissions. In seeking clarification from the administration on its policy change, it has also become clear that the admissions team does not intend to have strict cutoffs that ignore the context and background of a student. My understanding is that the admissions office is using the scores in context — not in absolutes. 

I agree with the administration’s stated aim to recruit the brightest applicants through a fair and holistic evaluation of each individual candidate. But the implication that test scores are important enough to be a requirement for all applicants is counterproductive to those admissions ideals. We need to also evaluate the individual’s maturity, emotional and intellectual qualities, character and potential, openness, global mindset, commitment to the ideals of the institution and sense of community. 

Kially Ruiz is a member of the Class of 1998 and the president of the Dartmouth Latino Alumni Association. Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.