Dartmouth reinstates SAT/ACT requirement, citing diversity goals

Saying that standardized test results help its admissions officers notice promising students from less-resourced backgrounds who “might otherwise be missed in a test-optional environment,” Dartmouth this week became the first Ivy League school to reactivate its SAT/ACT requirement for applicants to the Class of 2029.

While Lee Coffin, Dartmouth’s dean of admissions and financial aid, emphasized to Inside Higher Ed that the decision was made “through the prism of Dartmouth College alone,” the announcement added yet another layer to an ongoing debate about the benefits and drawbacks of considering applicants’ standardized test performance during the admissions process.

‘A pragmatic pause’

Dartmouth first suspended its requirement that applicants submit standardized test scores in June 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed students’ access to testing opportunities. “It was a pragmatic pause,” Dartmouth said in announcing the requirement’s reactivation, adding that the institution saw it “as a short-term practice rather than an informed commentary on the role of testing in our holistic evaluation process.”

Dartmouth remained test-optional for several years, and in the latest cycle (for the Class of 2028) recommended that students submit test scores but stopped short of requiring them.

Students unknowingly withholding ‘contextually strong’ scores

During the hiatus, Dartmouth analyzed its admissions data, both from years with an SAT/ACT requirement and those without. Before fully reactivating the requirement, Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock commissioned a research study from Dartmouth economists and educational sociologists. The findings, considered along with other evidence from students across a number of “Ivy Plus” institutions, led Dartmouth to conclude that standardized testing—when taken in the context of a student’s high school and their grades—“is a valuable element of Dartmouth’s undergraduate application.” 

“Contrary to what some have perceived, standardizing testing allows us to admit a broader and more diverse range of students,” Coffin writes in the announcement.

In a letter to the Dartmouth community, Beilock said that, regardless of a students’ background, standardized test scores are a predictor of academic success at Dartmouth and that, in a test-optional environment, Dartmouth was “unintentionally overlooking applicants from less-resourced backgrounds who could thrive here.” 

The faculty study found that some low-income students were choosing to omit scores that would actually have been an asset when assessed in the context of their high school or background. “Contextually strong testing,” Coffin says, “clearly enhances the admission chances of high-achieving applicants from less-resourced backgrounds when such scores are disclosed.”

Calling the findings “unexpected, thought-provoking, and encouraging,” Dartmouth admissions leaders said that “Our bottom line is simple: we believe a standardized testing requirement will improve—not detract from—our ability to bring the most promising and diverse students to our campus.”

Importance of context

In her letter, Beilock emphasized that Dartmouth is aware that SAT and ACT scores “reflect inequality in society and in educational systems across the nation,” saying that they must be considered in context and as just one input in a holistic admissions process.

Dartmouth’s admissions leaders say they increased their knowledge of “local norms and environmental factors” across communities during the pandemic and will continue doing so. Ultimately, Beilock writes, the university hopes its definitive and clear stance on testing will reduce stress for potential applicants.

Larger implications?

While Dartmouth says the decision applies to Dartmouth alone, the decision “could reverberate throughout the higher education world,” Higher Ed Dive writes. According to FairTest, which opposes testing requirements, more than 1,900 U.S. colleges and universities currently allow applicants to decide whether they want to submit ACT/SAT scores.

Some, like the University of California, credit the policies with increasing the diversity of their undergraduate classes. “I think there’s lots of schools [that]…have been test optional for decades, and they do it well, and it’s integral to the way they may read and evaluate their class,” Coffin told Inside Higher Ed, asserting that different institutions have different needs. Zachary Bleemer, an assistant professor in economics at Princeton University, voiced similar thoughts to NPR, saying that he hopes universities “conside[r] carefully whether the SAT aligns with their admissions objectives.”

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