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Dartmouth will again require SAT, ACT scores. Other colleges won't necessarily follow

A tour group makes its way through Dartmouth College's campus, in Hanover, N.H., in April 2023.
Charles Krupa
/
AP
A tour group makes its way through Dartmouth College's campus, in Hanover, N.H., in April 2023.

Updated February 6, 2024 at 12:48 PM ET

Dartmouth College has announced it will once again require applicants to submit standardized test scores, beginning with the next application cycle, for the class of 2029.

This comes after the Ivy League college, located in New Hampshire, opted to make test scores optional in 2020, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new studyconducted by the college found test scores could have helped less advantaged students, including first-generation students and students from low-income families, gain access to the school.

"We find ourselves missing out on some great students," says Bruce Sacerdote, a Dartmouth economics professor and co-author of that study.

He says students from disadvantaged backgrounds submitted their test scores at far lower rates, but their scores were high enough that they might have helped the students get in.

"We can see in the data: Oh wow, that student, boy, they had a 1450 ... or a 1500 ... We didn't even know that. And they were not admitted to Dartmouth," he says. "That is a really outstanding score. And, it would have been a great piece [of information] to have."

The study also found that test scores helped bring in students from high schools that didn't already have a track record of sending students to Dartmouth.

What works for Dartmouth won't necessarily work for everyone

The Dartmouth study challenges the long-standing criticism that standardized tests, like the ACT and the College Board's SAT, hurt students from marginalized backgrounds when it comes to admissions.

Multiple studies have found a correlation between higher test scores and higher income. And in the high school class of 2020, Black and Latino students scored lower than white and Asian students on the math section of the SAT, according to the Brookings Institution.

A years-long movement to get rid of test requirements gained critical momentum when the pandemic hit and complicated students' ability to take the exams.

"The wave of test optional becomes a kind of tsunami," says Harry Feder, executive director of FairTest, an advocacy organization that tracks test optional policies at colleges.

According to FairTest, more than 1,900 U.S. colleges and universities are currently "test optional," meaning students can decide whether they want to submit their standardized test scores with their applications. One of the largest public systems in the country, California State University, removed standardized testing from their admissions requirements in 2022.

But many of the schools that went test optional during the pandemic are now weighing whether to keep those flexible testing policies. And experts stress those policies aren't one size fits all.

"I'm concerned that other very different universities will join the bandwagon of the return to the SAT without themselves considering carefully whether the SAT aligns with their admissions objectives," says Zachary Bleemer, an assistant professor in economics at Princeton University.

He's done research looking at a program in California that admitted students with high GPAs and low test scores. They were able to take advantage of the universities' opportunities and resources and turn them into a successful career that wouldn't have happened if they hadn't been admitted. Bleemer says that access is kind of the point of a publicly funded college. A small, private college, like Dartmouth, may have different objectives.

College applications are always up for interpretation

Sacerdote, at Dartmouth, acknowledges the inequities in the admissions process. But he says those inequities exist in the larger education system – not just in tests.

The job of an admissions office is to interpret an application, including test scores – which means it all comes down to human judgment, and making sure application readers don't get obsessed with the test the way culture sometimes does.

"We have a lot of experience that says that people misinterpret and over emphasize numbers," says Andrew Ho, an education professor at Harvard University.

"These are humans rendering judgments, right? And you hope that they have expertise. You trust that they have expertise."

Or maybe, he says, you don't.

Edited by: Nicole Cohen

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Hiba Ahmad
[Copyright 2024 NPR]