Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Feb 15, 2024

Dartmouth has bucked the recent test optional trend, announcing that the college will require applicants to submit SAT/ACT scores starting with the fall of 2025 (for the class of 2029). Dartmouth is the first Ivy League member to reinstate the testing requirement, and will join MIT and Georgetown University as highly selective colleges that have done so.

The New York Times has coverage of the Dartmouth announcement:


Dartmouth College announced this morning that it would again require applicants to submit standardized test scores, starting next year. It’s a significant development because other selective colleges are now deciding whether to do so.

Last summer, Sian Beilock — a cognitive scientist who had previously run Barnard College in New York — became the president of Dartmouth. After arriving, she asked a few Dartmouth professors to do an internal study on standardized tests. Like many other colleges during the Covid pandemic, Dartmouth dropped its requirement that applicants submit an SAT or ACT score. With the pandemic over and students again able to take the tests, Dartmouth’s admissions team was thinking about reinstating the requirement. Beilock wanted to know what the evidence showed.

“Our business is looking at data and research and understanding the implications it has,” she told me.

Three Dartmouth economists and a sociologist then dug into the numbers. One of their main findings did not surprise them: Test scores were a better predictor than high school grades — or student essays and teacher recommendations — of how well students would fare at Dartmouth. The evidence of this relationship is large and growing, as I explained in a recent Times article.

A second finding was more surprising. During the pandemic, Dartmouth switched to a test-optional policy, in which applicants could choose whether to submit their SAT and ACT scores. And this policy was harming lower-income applicants in a specific way.

The researchers were able to analyze the test scores even of students who had not submitted them to Dartmouth. (Colleges can see the scores after the admissions process is finished.) Many lower-income students, it turned out, had made a strategic mistake.

They withheld test scores that would have helped them get into Dartmouth. They wrongly believed that their scores were too low, when in truth the admissions office would have judged the scores to be a sign that students had overcome a difficult environment and could thrive at Dartmouth.

As the four professors — Elizabeth Cascio, Bruce Sacerdote, Doug Staiger and Michele Tine — wrote in a memo, referring to the SAT’s 1,600-point scale, “There are hundreds of less-advantaged applicants with scores in the 1,400 range who should be submitting scores to identify themselves to admissions, but do not under test-optional policies.” Some of these applicants were rejected because the admissions office could not be confident about their academic qualifications. The students would have probably been accepted had they submitted their test scores, Lee Coffin, Dartmouth’s dean of admissions, told me.

That finding, as much as any other, led to Dartmouth’s announcement this morning. “Our goal at Dartmouth is academic excellence in the service of training the broadest swath of future leaders,” Beilock told me. “I’m convinced by the data that this will help us do that.”

It’s worth acknowledging a crucial part of this story. Dartmouth admits disadvantaged students who have scores that are lower on average than those of privileged students. The college doesn’t apologize for that. Students from poor neighborhoods or troubled high schools have effectively been running with wind in their face. They are not competing fairly with affluent teenagers.

“We’re looking for the kids who are excelling in their environment. We know society is unequal,” Beilock said. “Kids that are excelling in their environment, we think, are a good bet to excel at Dartmouth and out in the world.” The admissions office will judge an applicant’s environment partly by comparing his or her test score with the score distribution at the applicant’s high schools, Coffin said. In some cases, even an SAT score well below 1,400 can help an application.

Excerpts from Dartmouth's statement on the policy change:

When Dartmouth suspended its standardized testing requirement for undergraduate applicants in June 2020, it was a pragmatic pause taken by most colleges and universities in response to an unprecedented global pandemic. At the time, we imagined the resulting "test-optional" policy as a short-term practice rather than an informed commentary on the role of testing in our holistic evaluation process. Nearly four years later, having studied the role of testing in our admissions process as well as its value as a predictor of student success at Dartmouth, we are removing the extended pause and reactivating the standardized testing requirement for undergraduate admission, effective with the Class of 2029. For Dartmouth, the evidence supporting our reactivation of a required testing policy is clear. 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.

An Evidence-based Policy Reactivation Informed by New Research and Fresh Data

A new research study commissioned by Dartmouth President Sian Beilock and conducted by Dartmouth economists Elizabeth Cascio, Bruce Sacerdote and Doug Staiger and educational sociologist Michele Tine confirms that standardized testing—when assessed using the local norms at a student's high school—is a valuable element of Dartmouth's undergraduate application. Their illuminating study found that high school grades paired with standardized testing are the most reliable indicators for success in Dartmouth's course of study. They also found that test scores represent an especially valuable tool to identify high-achieving applicants from low and middle-income backgrounds; who are first-generation college-bound; as well as students from urban and rural backgrounds. It is also an important tool as we meet applicants from under-resourced or less familiar high schools across the increasingly wide geography of our applicant pool. That is, contrary to what some have perceived, standardized testing allows us to admit a broader and more diverse range of students.

The finding that standardized testing can be an effective tool to expand access and identify talent was unexpected, thought-provoking, and encouraging. Indeed, their study challenges the longstanding critique that standardized testing inhibits rather than broadens college access; they note that contextually strong testing clearly enhances the admission chances of high-achieving applicants from less-resourced backgrounds when such scores are disclosed. Indeed, their finding reinforces the value of Dartmouth's longstanding practice of considering testing within our broader understanding of the candidate as a whole person.

The faculty researchers write: "Our overall conclusion is that SAT and ACT scores are a key method by which Dartmouth can identify students who will succeed at Dartmouth, including high performing students…who may attend a high school for which Dartmouth has less information to (fully) judge the transcript." Simply said, it is another opportunity to identify students who are the top performers in their environments, wherever they might be.

The Washington Post has additional coverage of Dartmouth's announcement:


Sian Leah Beilock, Dartmouth’s president, wrote in an email to students Monday that researchers who analyzed admissions data at the college and elsewhere found that SAT and ACT scores “can be especially helpful in identifying students from less-resourced backgrounds who would succeed at Dartmouth but might otherwise be missed in a test-optional environment.”

It is the first Ivy League college to announce that it will require the tests again. The others remain test-optional — although most say the policy is provisional and being studied.

Harry Feder, executive director of FairTest, which is critical of the SAT and the ACT, called Dartmouth’s decision to restore the requirement misguided: “I think they really don’t care. I will say this quite bluntly: They are not there to be an institution of broad opportunity for the American student body. They are there to pluck and craft and create a perceived elite. And I’m sorry that they operate that way.”

However, Lee Coffin, Dartmouth’s vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid, wrote that officials “believe a standardized testing requirement will improve — not detract from — our ability to bring the most promising and diverse students to our campus.”

“The finding that standardized testing can be an effective tool to expand access and identify talent was unexpected, thought-provoking, and encouraging,” Coffin wrote. “Indeed, their study challenges the long-standing critique that standardized testing inhibits rather than broadens college access.”

Four Dartmouth professors studied admissions data from years when tests were optional and how it compared with data from years when tests were required, as well as other analyses, and concluded that the scores — when considered in the context of the norms of the applicant’s high school — were helpful. The scores and high school grades gave the best indications of success at Dartmouth, the researchers found. And they were especially helpful in identifying applicants who were the first in their family to go to college, those from low- or middle-income families, and those from rural and urban areas.

They found that the tests were very predictive of how well students do in college, said Bruce Sacerdote, a professor of economics at Dartmouth who was part of the group studying the issue — and that held true across demographic groups.

Another revelation was that “we were missing out on all these great, talented kids who were withholding their scores,” not realizing that the school considers scores in the context of the applicant’s high school or neighborhood. Given the option of not submitting scores, some students were choosing not to send in theirs, presumably because they were below the median of admitted students’ scores — even though the numbers would have helped their shot at getting in.
The number of applications went up when they dropped the requirement, but it didn’t diversify the applicant pool, Sacerdote said.

“SAT and ACT scores reflect inequality in society and in educational systems across the nation. The research does not dispute that,” Beilock wrote. “Crucially, though, the research shows that standardized test scores can be an important predictor of academic success at a place like Dartmouth and beyond — more so even than just grades or recommendations, for example — and with a test-optional policy, prompted by the pandemic, we were unintentionally overlooking applicants from less-resourced backgrounds who could thrive here.”

Akil Bello (senior director of advocacy and advancement at FairTest) has written an article for Forbes critiquing the recent David Leonhardt piece in The New York Times that has received so much attention.


There is an informed debate taking place in living rooms, courtrooms and newsrooms about the value of a college education, the utility of standardized tests and higher education’s mission to serve the public good. Unfortunately, in his article “The Misguided War on the SAT,” New York Times columnist David Leonhardt opted not to participate in this discussion. Instead, drawing on research from Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights group, Leonhardt published a loving ode to elitism and the SAT disguised as informed reporting.

Myriad technical, logical and practical problems in Leonhardt’s article have been addressed by experts, including Jake Vigdor, a professor of public policy and governance at the University of Washington; Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost of enrollment management at Oregon State University; and Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley. But it’s still worth addressing a few of the larger issues the article brings to light.

Leonhart’s argument against test-optional policies suggests that these policies prevent students from benefiting from a strong score, but this isn’t true. The only colleges that refuse to consider test scores are those with test-free policies, but the 3 to 4 percent of colleges with test-free policies have not been the target of ire from advocates for standardized testing.

The attention of those decrying the “war on the SAT” has squarely been put on test-optional colleges. Yet, paradoxically, their arguments frame test optional as restricting a student’s ability to capitalize on a good score. This is either logically dishonest or a gross misinterpretation.

Test optional is exactly what it says—optional. A test-optional policy means the college has chosen to allow applicants the choice of whether to submit a score or not. They provide an applicant the option of whether to participate in test prep, whether to take a standardized test and whether to submit a score. At each step along the way, test-optional policies empower students to make informed choices about how to spend their time and how to display their abilities. If a student is a strong test taker or particularly proud of their test performance, they can submit that score.

At Bowdoin College, which has been test optional since 1969, 36 percent of students who enrolled in 2022 submitted a SAT score, and another 21 percent submitted an ACT (a combined total of 57 percent); the combined figure was 62 percent at Williams College, 76 percent at Rice University, 19 percent at Trinity College in Connecticut and 44 percent at Northeastern University. Clearly, none of those institutions stopped students from taking advantage of a score they were proud of. Suggesting otherwise is suggesting that universities are lying about either their practices or the data they have submitted to the federal government.

All the benefits of testing continue to exist in a test-optional environment, though critics of the policy desperately want to pretend they do not. A test-optional policy simply reduces the importance of testing and puts it on equal footing with other optional elements in applications, like Advanced Placement classes, essays, interviews, extracurricular activities, donating a building or claiming genetic affiliation with the institution.

The ire directed at the optional testing but not other optional elements of the application process should raise questions.

A core assumption that seems to undergird many of the arguments against test-optional policies—and against diversity, equity and inclusion; race-conscious admissions; and affirmative action— is that the purpose of college is to rank and sort members of society. And the tools for ranking and sorting should exist unquestioned in perpetuity.

The issue with standardized tests isn’t whether they measure some academic skills or provide a distinction between two candidates, but whether the skills and differences are statistically meaningful and worth the cost of the testing regime.

Addressing complex educational problems and questions requires recognition that numbers are not data, data is not understanding and understanding is not knowledge.

Those arguing for reinstatement of narrow definitions of merit, readiness and ability seem dedicated to stripping higher education of its variety and restricting student choice.

In this moment of educational and political turmoil, we’re best served by raising the level of discourse, not repeating talking points and putting more power in the hands of nontransparent, unelected, unregulated test publishing corporations and colleges with billion-dollar-plus endowments.