New Sanity on Standardized Tests

UNC should follow the Ivy League’s example.

Dartmouth College announced last month that it is reinstating its mandatory-testing policy after four years of optional score submission for applicants. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, dean of admissions Lee Coffin said that the former policy had been “reanimated.”

That word is apt, suggesting as it does mad scientists recalling a body to life. Yet the requirement that students submit SAT or ACT scores with their college applications was no mere corpse. It was a murder victim, slain for ideological reasons and resurrected now because those motives have proven vain.

The elimination of testing requirements was always political. Concerned that standardized tests were biased against minority high schoolers, university officials used the fig leaf of the pandemic to institute “test-optional” policies. As Dartmouth now acknowledges, however, those worries were not based in reality. “The research suggests this tool is helpful in finding students we might otherwise miss,” Dartmouth president Sian Beilock told the New York Times. The Gray Lady’s paraphrase is even blunter: “The evidence [doesn’t] support” claims alleging racial damage.

Elite schools’ experiment with optional score submission will likely be remembered as a counterproductive move.Indeed, elite schools’ experiment with optional score submission will likely be remembered as a counterproductive move that did real harm to minority applicants. “Under the test-optional policy,” WSJ reported last month, “low-income applicants withheld their scores even when those results would have helped make their applications stand out.”

The source of that claim was Dr. Bruce Sacerdote, a Dartmouth economist who helped study the relationship between standardized test scores and first-year college grades. The study’s conclusion? “The use of SAT and ACT scores is an essential method by which Admissions can identify applicants who will succeed at Dartmouth.”

Conservative education reformers have been making this point for years. Rather than disadvantaging minority high schoolers, standardized test scores let students who have come of age without lacrosse sticks and polo ponies shine. They “are crucial in giving poor kids in America a shot,” as Yale political-science student Sean-Michael Pigeon wrote for USA Today in 2021.

Pigeon should know, having “[grown] up poor in a single-income household.” Scores of other American students can speak similarly of working hard to beat long odds—odds made just a little shorter by tests designed, and newly proven in Dartmouth’s study, to be “highly predictive of academic performance.”

To read Dartmouth’s report now is to see a number of right-of-center assertions borne out. A quoted University of California task force discovered that high test scores align more closely with college success than do high-school GPAs. (Unsurprisingly, grade inflation is to blame.) Moreover, relaxed testing policies led, counterintuitively, to lower acceptance rates. Without the “check” of SAT or ACT scores, middling students could compete for admission as never before. Some of them found success, thus displacing applicants with greater academic skill but less showy resumes.

Is Dartmouth’s move a victory for common sense? Yes, and so is the backpedaling by Yale, Brown, MIT, and UT Austin, all of which have announced that their test-optional policies didn’t work. It is an indictment of university culture that these concessions to reality are not only refreshing but startling. Campus radicals are surely observing the return to evidence-based policymaking with alarm.

Campus radicals are surely observing the return to evidence-based policymaking with alarm.Of course, the battle to rationalize university admissions is far from over. Cornell and Vanderbilt announced last month that they are extending their test-optional policies. The UNC System is considering a proposal that would restore testing requirements for some applicants only. Inexplicably, a recent UNC Board of Governors meeting featured a comment that “class rank” is a fair substitute for an SAT score. Someone should alert the board that such rankings don’t allow for the easy comparison of students from different high schools. Standardized testing does.

Perhaps most distressingly, the Ivy League’s own testing requirements are coming back in part because institutions have found a way to weave them into their anti-racist (read: racist) minority-preferences regimes. As WSJ’s reporting made clear, “Less-advantaged applicants … who submitted a 1400 score had twice the probability of admission to Dartmouth as more advantaged students with the same score.” The urge to discriminate appears unquenchable.

Yet, despite this hiccup, reformers should cheer these small steps in the direction of admissions fairness. What began in Cambridge and Hanover may well spread to the rest of the nation’s elite schools and beyond, as administrators realize that eliminating testing requirements hurts those it was intended to help. Americans of all political stripes should hope for that outcome.

Graham Hillard is editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.