Starting next fall, students applying to Dartmouth must submit an SAT or ACT score. Dartmouth joins the ranks of MIT and Georgetown, highly selective schools who have similarly determined that requiring standardized test scores in a holistic admission process will allow them to build the best possible class and serve the values and interests of their respective institutions.
Georgetown, under the leadership of long-time Dean of Admissions and testing advocate Charles Deacon, only hesitantly adopted a test-optional position during the depths of the pandemic and quickly reinstated testing in the fall of 2021.
MIT, one of the most rigorous STEM-focused universities on the planet, was perceived as an outlier when it reinstated testing requirements in March of 2022 on the grounds that students who did not perform well on standard measures of math (such as those provided by the SAT and ACT) were more likely to struggle and potentially fail out.
Dartmouth, a liberal arts college, not necessarily philosophically committed to testing like Georgetown, nor having such a unique academic program like MIT, has the potential to influence many other like-minded liberal arts colleges and universities with its announcement.
A data-driven decision
The president of Dartmouth, Sian Beilock, is a powerhouse psychologist, cognitive scientist and researcher, whose work I’ve been following for over 15 years since she began publishing at the University of Chicago. If you’ve read any of her books or publications (her work on anxiety, the mind-body connection and self-regulation is outstanding), you know she is committed to rigorous data analytics and scholarship.
When Beilock took the helm of Dartmouth, she commissioned a study of the relationship between testing and admissions and outcomes at Dartmouth. She told The New York Times's David Leonhardt, “Our business is looking at data and research and understanding the implications it has.” Not surprisingly, the data from this study (part of a larger study spearheaded by Raj Chetty and Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights team) revealed that test scores were superior to high school grades (and essays and teacher recommendations) at predicting how students would fare at Dartmouth.
Economics professor Bruce Sacerdote, one of the four researchers at Dartmouth who reviewed the data, was surprised by the extent to which grade inflation had diminished the ability of high school GPA to predict success at Dartmouth. As Sacerdote told the Wall Street Journal, “[S]tudents with a perfect 4.0 in high school earned college grades that were just 0.1 point higher than those with a high school GPA of 3.2.” High school GPA “explains a lot less than SAT does alone.”
The findings from Dartmouth and the broader Opportunity Insights research mirror those from the Standardized Testing Task Force (STTF) of the University of California in 2020. The STTF similarly found the SAT and ACT, when compared to high school GPA, were superior predictors of performance at UC. The head of the UC Board of Regents was quick to dismiss the research from the task force before eliminating testing from UC. Beilock, in stark contrast, like the leaders at MIT, was committed to making data-driven decisions and implementing policy supported by empirical findings.
Testing requirements can support diversity goals
There is a narrative from the political left that requiring admissions tests limits campus diversity and eliminating testing requirements leads to increased diversity. This claim, however, is not supported by academic research.
A foundational study of 180 colleges and universities found that the 32 colleges that shifted to test-optional admissions between 1992 and 2010 saw no significant gains in low-income enrollment or increases in the racial or ethnic diversity of the student body. Test-optional admissions increased average test scores and selectivity but had no meaningful effect on diversity. MIT reinstated testing in 2022 and proceeded to enroll its most diverse student body in history. Schools committed to increasing diversity need to change how they recruit students and evaluate applications, something they can do with or without testing requirements.
Speaking to David Leonhardt, Sian Beilock directly challenged the diversity-limiting critique of testing: “The research suggests this tool is helpful in finding students we might otherwise miss.” Dartmouth researcher Bruce Sacerdote reported that lower-income students mistakenly withheld competitive test-scores that would have helped make their applications stand out. Lee Coffin, Dean of Admissions at Dartmouth, reported that for many of these lower-income students, submitting a test-score, albeit lower than Dartmouth’s average score, would have confirmed their academic qualifications and would have led to more lower-income students being accepted to Dartmouth.
Which Ivies might be next?
Dartmouth’s Lee Coffin shared with the Wall Street Journal that when it comes to reinstating testing requirements, he “would be surprised if we are the only ones that make the move,” given the recent research on admissions and testing,
The research led by Chetty’s team, analyzing data from the Ivies, Duke, MIT, Stanford and Univerity of Chicago, “showed little relationship between high school grade point average and success in college.” As I reported in my most recent post on grade inflation, both Yale and Brown have conducted their own institutional research and found that testing is a better predictor of performance than high school GPA. Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, framed it simply: “Standardized test scores are a much better predictor of academic success than high school grades.”
Yale or Brown could easily make the move to test required admissions. There was once talk in the admissions world that the Ivies were going to make a move together, towards test-optional, test-required, or test-blind admissions, but that ship has sailed. Columbia broke ranks when it announced in March of 2023 that Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science were committing to a test-optional policy.
With Dartmouth making a data-driven move towards test-required, other highly selective schools will follow. They’ll follow their own institutional data and many will determine that admission test scores make a unique contribution to predicting collegiate academic performance, independent of high school GPA.
Looking South for the next test-required developments
Southern public colleges and universities seem poised to return to test-required admissions. Florida publics never ceased requiring testing, and the Georgia flagships and all of the Tennessee publics have now reinstated testing requirements. Both UNC-Chapel Hill and UT Austin announced and then retracted plans to reinstate test requirements, indicating these highly selective institutions are seriously contemplating the return to testing. Alabama richly rewards applicants with strong testing, allocating tens of millions in merit-based aid for strong testers, making it a likely candidate to require testing for all of its applicants. Similarly, Auburn is now test-required for students with a GPA under 3.6. UVA admits students with test scores at a rate that is 89% higher than that of non-submitters, indicating a preference for test scores and the potential motivation to return to test requirements for all applicants.
Follow your own data, wherever it leads
MIT and Dartmouth are leading the way towards data-driven educational policy. Testing requirements might not make sense for many institutions of higher learning, but they will for many others. Colleges can use testing to build the strongest academic class while maintaining and increasing commitments to increased campus diversity.
The doors are opening for colleges and universities to conduct their independent institutional analyses and determine the best course of action for their students. The pandemic forced schools into a test-optional position, but that time is now behind us. We are entering a time of school-driven, data-driven policy.
The pandemic created an interesting natural experiment, with cohorts of test-submitters and non-submitters. Now it's time for every school to bring in the statisticians, run the regression analysis, and determine if testing is helpful or hurtful to their institution, and follow the data wherever it leads.