Editorial: Rethinking the Test-Optional Policy in Admissions

The Editorial Board calls for the college to again mandate standardized testing in the college admissions process.

In February 2024, Dartmouth College posted an update to its website that announced its reinstatement of mandatory standardized testing as part of the college admissions process, beginning with the class of 2029. Dartmouth — like many other schools — had shifted to test-optional during the pandemic.

While standardized tests have long been criticized for further entrenching racial and socioeconomic inequalities, Dartmouth has concluded that standardized testing actually enables greater equity in college admissions, which have long been skewed towards white and wealthy applicants. The Editorial Board is in agreement.

Those measures traditionally held up as the basis of a holistic admissions process, like extracurriculars, admissions essays, advanced coursework, athletics, and teacher recommendations, are not immune from bias towards rich applicants (and are weighted more heavily in the absence of a standardized test score). As students are already mandated to submit these components of their application, the Editorial Board argues that the package should be the same for all students — it should encompass a broad range of variables that includes mandated standardized test scores.

Standardized tests are often criticized, as scores are highly stratified by class. But, as clinical psychology professor Kathryn Paige Harden argues in an article titled “The SAT Isn’t What’s Unfair,” “[T]he income-related disparities we see in SAT scores are not evidence of an unfair test. They are evidence of an unfair society. The test measures differences in academic preparedness, including the ability to write a clear sentence, to understand a complex passage, and to solve a mathematical problem. The SAT doesn’t create inequalities in these academic skills. It reveals them. Throwing the measurement away doesn’t remedy underlying injustices in children’s academic opportunities, any more than throwing a thermometer away changes the weather.” Standardized tests are not inherently unequal. They are simply immersed in an education system where everything else is deeply unequal.

Low-income students often feel discouraged from submitting their test scores, Dartmouth acknowledges, despite the fact that their scores may strengthen their application. According to Dartmouth economics professor Bruce Sacerdote, “[Low-income students] don’t know that their 1400 might be a great score given the challenges of their neighborhood and educational environment. And so they can't be expected to know, and they really handicap themselves in the process.” Sacerdote highlights a key component of admissions policies — it is integral that standardized testing serves a part of a broader admissions process that analyzes the student’s educational opportunities and socioeconomic status. A 1400 from a student who has been able to take the test numerous times with the guidance of a tutor is significantly different from a first-generation, low-income student without such resources. Raw data is only one part of the story — but it forms a critical part that fleshes out who a student is for the admissions committee. With a test-optional policy, a marginalized applicant may unintentionally hinder themselves.

While standardized testing undeniably has a problematic history mired in racial exclusion, its current iteration — if supported by policies that enable all students to access standardized testing and sufficient resources for preparation — presents possibilities to remedy prestigious colleges’ troubled reputations of educating exclusively the elite. Using two universal tests that all students take — and then analyzing the results based on the student’s high school and access to resources — is a relatively objective way to judge incoming freshmen as opposed to more subjective measures that often tilt in favor of the privileged.

The Editorial Board recognizes and appreciates Amherst’s existing commitments to diversity, as exemplified by its need-blind financial aid policy, and hopes that Amherst will take heed from Dartmouth and seriously reconsider its test-optional policy.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 17; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 2)