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Standardized Testing is Back! (At least at Dartmouth)

Margot Englander

Centerspread Editor


Dartmouth College – an Ivy League school in New Hampshire – is reinstating standardized testing requirements (the SAT or ACT), beginning with the Class of 2029, after going test-optional during the pandemic. It was one of hundreds of colleges and universities that stopped requiring scores amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and at least 1,900 schools have made standardized test scores optional since. 

Previous research found that standardized tests put less wealthy students at a disadvantage, inherently favoring richer, white, and Asian students. However, the College Board (which administers the SAT) argues that the test itself is not at fault for the disparity, instead it simply mirrors the inequities in education. Research from a Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research study found that SAT/ACT scores and academic ratings can be accurate predictors of post-college success – defining success through monetary outcomes and “elite” employment status. 

Dartmouth is not a traditionally economically diverse school, with a third of admitted students having attended independent schools and 11% being legacies. So, in the memo sent out by Dartmouth College on February 5, 2024, the university justified the change by claiming that “a standardized testing requirement will improve [their] ability to bring the most promising and diverse students to [their] campus.” Dartmouth says that the decision comes following research that test scores might actually help disadvantaged students receive admission to the college. During the test-optional years, disadvantaged students were more likely to leave out their test scores, even if their scores could have been high enough to help them, because they did not understand what scores could aid their application. Dartmouth reports that they are working on better ways to communicate with prospective students what a helpful score is, so in the future they are not scared off by reporting scores. The research study confirms that standardized testing is a valuable element of Dartmouth’s undergraduate admissions process. They found that a high school transcript paired with a test score is the most reliable indicator for success at Dartmouth. Test scores are valuable in identifying high-achieving applicants from low and middle-income communities. Dartmouth emphasized that a student will never be reduced to just their test scores, but it is an important data point among many.

Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock acknowledged that SAT and ACT scores “reflect inequality in society and in educational systems.” In an effort to address discrepancies in access, the college has said that it will increase financial aid opportunities so admitted students can attend regardless of income. Dartmouth re-emphasized their commitment to a holistic admissions process, believing that “the whole person counts, as do the environmental factors each person navigates.”   

Beginning with the Class of 2029 (high school class of 2025), Dartmouth will require high school applicants to include either SAT or ACT scores (with no preference) on their application. The results of multiple attempts will be superscored, meaning the highest score on individual sections will be considered. 

Moreover, the SAT has gone virtual in 2024, with the first virtual test occurring on March 9, 2024. The new digital format is adaptive, meaning that how students do on a set of test questions affects the difficulty of the subsequent set of test questions. Students who do less well on the first section are limited for their overall score, while students who do better on the first section have a minimum score they can achieve. The test is shorter, going from three hours to two; the questions are also more concise, with only one question (rather than multiple) tied to each reading passage. The previous SAT had a non-calculator and calculator section, but the digital allows calculators for the entire math portion. Students can bring their own calculators or use the one embedded into the exam, reducing test-day barriers, as many students cannot afford a personal graphing calculator (which range from $100 - $200). With the pilot launch of the digital exam, 80% of students found the high-stakes test to be less stressful than the paper version. Despite the changes, the SAT remains on a 1600-point scale, and tests three sections: math, reading, and writing.

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