College & Workforce Readiness

Dartmouth and Yale Are Backtracking on ‘Test-Optional’ Admissions. Why That Matters

By Elizabeth Heubeck — February 28, 2024 6 min read
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Earlier this month, Dartmouth College announced that it would reactivate its standardized testing requirement for undergraduate admission beginning with the class of 2029 applicants. Less than two weeks later, Yale University followed suit, announcing an end to its four-year, test-optional policy for incoming undergraduate applicants, but with a twist: It will expand the tests to fulfill the requirement beyond the SAT and ACT to include Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.

Dartmouth and Yale are just two of the most highly selective of the nation’s estimated 4,000 degree-granting postsecondary institutions. But their turnaround nonetheless raises the question of whether this marks the beginning of a trend to reverse the test-optional movement, which ramped up exponentially during the pandemic.

To explore this and related questions, here’s a brief look at the history of test-optional policies, what Dartmouth and Yale administrators and other higher education experts say led these two elite schools to revert to requiring standardized test scores, and how high schools can support near-future college applicants as they prepare to navigate the complex world of higher education admissions.

Background: The rise of test-optional college admissions

During the ‘80s and ‘90s, submitting an SAT or ACT score was generally a mandatory part of the college application process. But throughout the 2000s, an increasing number of higher education institutions turned to test-optional admissions policies. Advocates felt test-optional admissions were more equitable and would result in more diverse student bodies. Some research asserted that high school GPAs better predicted college success than SAT/ACT scores. Educational experts also said standardized tests were inequitable, given that Black and Latino students overall do worse on them than their white and Asian peers—in part because they often have less access to the same sorts of academic resources like test prep, advanced-level courses, and sophisticated extracurricular activities.

Then came the pandemic.

In March 2020, the College Board, which runs the SAT, and ACT Inc., canceled testing dates nationwide for their college admissions exams. This led to a swift, dramatic increase in the number of U.S. colleges dropping SAT or ACT scores as an admissions requirement—from 1,075 test-optional schools in March 2020 to 1,700 by the fall of 2020.

Even as the pandemic receded, the number of test-optional schools continued to climb. More than 80 percent of U.S. four-year colleges and universities will not require fall 2025 applicants to submit ACT/SAT scores, according to FairTest, an organization that tracks student test taking and scores. Given that kind of continued growth, the announcements from Yale and Dartmouth came as a surprise to many—but not to everyone.

Behind the decision to reverse test-optional applications

“The only thing that’s surprising to me is that it happened a little more quickly than I would have thought,” said Jayson Weingarten, senior admissions consultant at Ivy Coach, a college admissions consulting firm. “I thought it would be a five-year thing,”

Weingarten, who previously worked in the admissions office of the University of Pennsylvania, said that colleges want as much information about applicants as possible to make decisions about who is best positioned to succeed. Standardized test scores are an integral part of that decision-making process, he said.

Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale University, gave a similar message when announcing the school’s return to requiring test scores.

“Over the past four years, we learned that our admissions committees can function without test scores. But when operating a process that requires you to make predictions about the future with incomplete information, more evidence is better than less,” he said in a news conference on the topic.

And some of that evidence, Quinlan acknowledged, comes in the form of standardized test scores. “Simply put, students with higher scores have been more likely to have higher Yale GPAs, and test scores are the single greatest predictor of a student’s performance in Yale courses in every model we have constructed,” he said.

Addressing questions of equity

Officials from both Yale and Dartmouth explained that they decided to reinstate test requirements in part due to new research showing that test-optional policies were actually adversely affecting prospective applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. The policies, it seemed, discouraged some of these applicants from including test scores that may have increased their chances of admission.

Dartmouth economists led an analysis of standardized testing in college admissions and, in January 2024, presented their conclusions to the school’s president and dean of admissions. They noted that “many high-achieving less-advantaged applicants choose not to submit scores even when doing so would allow Admissions to identify them as students likely to succeed at Dartmouth and in turn benefit their application.”

Yale’s Quinlan made a similar assertion, noting that standardized tests are “especially valuable for students attending high schools with fewer academic resources and fewer college-preparatory courses.”

Some higher education experts, such as Ivy Coach’s Weingarten, argue that standardized test scores are no less equitable than other aspects of the college application process. Higher-income students, for example, are more likely to get support writing college application essays, and have access to a wider array of extracurricular activities as well as a broader curriculum of advanced, college-level courses than their less-resourced peers, he said.

A newly released nationwide study by RAND confirmed that achievement in advanced mathematics courses (trigonometry, precalculus, calculus, or Advanced Placement courses) predicts long-term college success, but that many disadvantaged students who are Black, Hispanic, or from low-income households attends schools that don’t offer them.

Earlier research, from 2012, found that taking college credit-bearing courses (AP, IB, or dual/concurrent enrollment) is associated with college success, and that Black students and those from economically disadvantaged families were less likely to have access to these courses. This could present another admissions barrier to a school like Yale, whose new “test-flexible” policy will accept AP and IB test scores in lieu of ACT or SAT results.

Advice for college applicants and the high schools supporting them

To future college applicants, Weingarten offers this advice: Take as many higher-level courses as possible. He also cautions current high school juniors: “Don’t fall for the lie that test-optional means test-unimportant. If you have good test scores, or a lot of test scores, submit them.”

As for high schools, Weingarten urges them to offer students access to advanced courses, as well as multiple opportunities to take standardized college admissions tests—preferably on campus or at nearby, accessible locations.

“At the end of the day,” Weingarten said, “students who are competitive in terms of their raw academic metrics, and students who are compelling in what they do, their background, and their aspirations—those students are going to continue to earn college admissions, despite changes in admissions policies.”

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