Harvard Reinstates Standardized Testing

Harvard's reinstatement of standardized testing requirements means one more mighty domino has toppled in the fight for the future of college admissions.
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Published on April 15, 2024
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  • Harvard has reinstituted its standardized test requirement beginning next fall.
  • The decision follows similar announcements from Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown.
  • Studies suggest standardized tests can help increase socioeconomic diversity.
  • Critics express concerns about the timing of Harvard's announcement.

Add Harvard to the list of universities reinstating standardized test requirements.

On April 11, Harvard College announced it would require applicants for the class of 2029 — applying in fall 2024 — to submit SAT or ACT scores. If a student is unable to access one of these tests, Harvard will instead accept Advanced Placement or the International Baccalaureate exam scores.

Like many colleges, Harvard suspended its standardized test requirement when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. A year later, the university announced it would extend the testing moratorium through fall 2025, when the class of 2030 would be applying.

But now Harvard is essentially shaving off those last two years of test-optional admissions.

Why the about-face? Could it be as simple as peer pressure, even for a university more accustomed to setting trends than following them?

Several Ivies Return to Testing

In February, Dartmouth College became the first Ivy to reinstitute standardized testing, citing an internal study indicating that SAT and ACT scores can help flag high-achieving applicants from middle- and low-income backgrounds.

Shortly thereafter, Yale University did likewise, arguing that standardized tests can actually bolster diversity, not hinder it, by enabling students from under-resourced backgrounds to demonstrate their academic potential.

Brown soon hopped aboard the testing bandwagon, offering the same rationale.

[S]trong testing, interpreted in context, may actually serve to demonstrate [low-income students'] ability to succeed at Brown, an internal report noted, and the lack of scores may mean that admissions officers hesitate to admit them.

In light of this momentum toward reinstituting test requirements, it was perhaps only a matter of time before other Ivies and similarly selective schools followed suit.

In February, just after Dartmouth and Yale announced their intent, The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, ran a story speculating on the university's direction. In it, David Blobaum, of the test-tutoring firm Summit Prep, predicted Harvard's capitulation in response to peer moves.

It's more likely that more of the top schools will go back, including Harvard, he said. If none of the top schools went back, or if it remained just [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Georgetown, then Harvard would only lose applicants if they went back to tests required, and so that would put them at a disadvantage relative to their other peer institutions.

Of course, Harvard would never publicly admit to jockeying for position among peers. Its official stance, promulgated by Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Hopi Hoekstra, is that standardized tests are a means for all students, regardless of their background and life experience, to provide information that is predictive of success in college and beyond.

Two other Ivies, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania, haven't boarded that bandwagon. Columbia will remain permanently test-optional, while Penn recently announced its intent to extend its testing moratorium for at least another year.

Meanwhile, MIT, as Blobaum referenced, resumed testing requirements in 2022. Its West Coast rival, the California Institute of Technology, announced its return to testing on the same day Harvard revealed its change of heart.

Until recently, Caltech remained defiantly proud of its anti-test stance.

Caltech does not consider SAT or ACT testing, its website stated until its policy reversal. Period. Exclamation mark. Don't send it. We won't see it.

Yes, well, strike that.

Studies Recommend Mandatory Testing

A Harvard Gazette article covering the announcement references a study published by Opportunity Insights, a research group based at Harvard, that advises colleges to reconsider their test-optional stance.

Critics correctly note that standardized tests are not an unbiased measure of students' qualifications, as students from higher-income families often have greater access to test prep and other resources, Raj Chetty, a Harvard professor and director of Opportunity Insights, told the Gazette.

But the data reveal that other measures — recommendation letters, extracurriculars, essays — are even more prone to such biases. Considering standardized test scores is likely to make the admissions process at Harvard more meritocratic while increasing socioeconomic diversity.

In a similar study, Opportunity Insights found that test scores have more predictive power for academic success in college than high school grade point averages do, particularly at highly selective institutions.

Hoekstra's statement aligns with the research recommendations.

[W]hen students have the option of not submitting their test scores, they may choose to withhold information that, when interpreted by the admissions committee in the context of the local norms of their school, could have potentially helped their application, she wrote. In short, more information, especially such strongly predictive information, is valuable for identifying talent from across the socioeconomic range.

The Crimson's coverage, while otherwise neutral in its assessment of the university's decision, criticizes the timing of the announcement. Harvard's sudden reversal, the Crimson points out, comes rather late in the year with little warning, leaving potential applicants scrambling to sign up for SAT or ACT exams.

Students have only six sittings of each test before Harvard's regular decision deadline of Jan. 1, the Crimson notes, and even fewer opportunities to take these tests ahead of the early action deadline of Nov. 1.

Only six sittings hardly seems like cause for panic, and it's likely that potential Harvard applicants, who perhaps intend to apply to other Ivy-Plus schools, have already made plans to take a standardized test given the related news over the past few months.

The more salient concern is how the return to testing will affect the diversity of applicant pools, especially in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision banning race-conscious admissions.

During the suspension of testing, applicant pools have featured more underrepresented minority, low-income, and first-generation students. Will those numbers diminish at colleges resuming test requirements? Of course, these are the same students the return to testing promises to benefit.

One possible outcome could be a less diverse applicant pool but better outcomes for those underrepresented students who do apply.

The only certainty amid all this change is that college admissions, especially among highly selective institutions, continue to be a moving target for these institutions and the students who wish to be there.