Why Dartmouth College Is Requiring ACT and SAT Scores Again

A Dartmouth study found standardized test-optional admissions policies didn't lead to more first-generation, low-income, and under-resourced students at the college.
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Published on February 7, 2024
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  • Dartmouth researchers found SAT and ACT scores can help identify high-achieving, under-resourced students since the college looks at scores in context to where a student is from.
  • The lack of standardized testing places more weight on nonacademic factors like guidance counselor recommendations and nonacademic ratings by admissions officers, which are biased toward higher-income students, according to the study.
  • Opportunity Insights, a Harvard University-based research group, found that standardized tests have more predictive power than GPAs, yet still benefit wealthier students.

Dartmouth College is reinstating its standardized testing requirements after removing them during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Feb. 5, the Ivy League school announced renewed standardized test policies, starting with the class of 2029, after an internal research study found the ACT and SAT are valuable tools to identify high-achieving applicants from middle- and low-income backgrounds.

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, according to the college's press release.

Dartmouth first removed standardized test requirements in June 2020 — just like other Ivy Leagues and universities did — to promote opportunity and inclusion during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Dartmouth found in its study that test-optional policies didn't increase the proportion of:

  • First-generation students
  • Students from a neighborhood with a median income below the 50th percentile for the U.S.
  • Students from a U.S. high school in the top 20% of the College Board's index for challenge, which considers income, crime rates, housing stability, and more.

Researchers considered applicants' SAT/ACT scores, high school GPAs, other admissions indicators, and demographics data from 2017-2022.

So far, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Dartmouth are the only Ivy-Plus schools — which includes the Ivy League plus MIT, Duke University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago — to reinstate standardized test requirements.

Study: Test-Optional Policies Didn't Help Under-Resourced Students

Students of color statistically score lower than white students on standardized tests, according to a 2020 Brookings Institution report. Families with higher incomes can more easily pay for practice tests, study books, and test retakes more than once. Families of color, on average, have lower incomes than white families — a racial wealth gap — that can affect the ability to afford tutoring, test prep items, and test retakes.

So many schools, including Dartmouth, considered test-optional policies a step toward a more inclusive admissions process.

However, Dartmouth found in its study that SAT and ACT score consideration is an essential method to identify who will succeed at Dartmouth and help identify high-achieving, under-resourced applicants. The study said that many applicants choose not to submit scores even if the scores would benefit them.

Dartmouth said it looks at test scores in context to where a student is from.

For example, an applicant with an SAT score of 1400 has a higher probability of admission if from a high school where average SAT scores are relatively low, the study says. Under a test-optional policy, these students are less likely to be identified and admitted.

Under the test-optional policy, the university found that 31% of students have not submitted test scores, and most of the missing data consists of 1450 scores and below. If an under-resourced applicant submitted a score of 1400, they're twice as likely to be admitted than a student with the same score who did not come from an under-resourced background.

These relatively high-achieving under-resourced students likely should submit their scores, as their score would benefit their application, the study says.

The lack of standardized testing places more weight on factors that are more biased toward higher-income students, like guidance counselor recommendations and nonacademic ratings by admissions officers.

Test-optional policies also place greater weight on transcripts, which disadvantages low-income and international students likely to be from high schools where the college has less information to interpret the students' transcripts.

The study also found data consistent with other studies that SAT and ACT scores predict career success holding for family income.

Standardized Test Scores Better Predictors of Success Than GPAs?

Dartmouth found in its study that SAT scores allow the admissions office to identify who will thrive at the college — better than high school GPAs alone and even more than class rank. Dartmouth cites two studies, one being a 2020 report by the University of California Academic Council Standardized Testing Task Force, that aligns with its findings.

These findings are consistent for all subgroups, including under-resourced applicants, who statistically have lower GPAs in their first year than their peers from higher-income backgrounds.

Overall, we find that test scores add significant value to the Admissions process at Dartmouth. They are significantly predictive of academic success at Dartmouth and increase the likelihood that Admissions will be positioned to identify high-achieving less-advantaged applicants, the study concluded. In particular, the data suggest that a test-optional policy leads large numbers of less-advantaged applicants not to submit scores when it would benefit them to do so.

Standardized Testing Might Still Benefit Higher-Income Students

The in-house study comes just a week after Opportunity Insights, a Harvard University-based research group, found similar conclusions that standardized tests have more predictive power than GPAs.

Opportunity Insights also revealed last year that among applicants with the same SAT or ACT scores, students from the wealthiest families were twice as likely to be accepted. Students from the wealthiest families were also 15 times more likely to have a 1500 score or higher on the SAT.

Opportunity Insights found no evidence that wealthier students outperformed low-income students with similar test scores. However, the new study acknowledged that standardized testing still advantages wealthier students.

It is important to acknowledge that students from low-income families and other less advantaged backgrounds have lower standardized test scores and are less likely to take the test than students from higher-income families, the Opportunity Insights study said.

This fact is consistent with those presented above because of disparities experienced throughout childhood, including differences in school quality, neighborhood exposure, and many other environmental conditions.

Students May Prefer Test-Optional Admissions

A BestColleges survey found that most students think schools should go test-optional.

According to BestColleges' 2023 College Choice and Admissions Survey, most students would rather colleges adopt test-optional policies, and 47% say using standardized test scores to assess applicants is fair.

Despite SAT participation rising 10% between 2022 and 2023 after a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, 43% say standardized tests are a good measure of college readiness, 27% disagree, and 30% are neutral.