Was Making the SAT Optional a Mistake?

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Sometimes educators are quick to admit to mistakes. Other times, educators (or people who work in educational institutions) will defend their mistakes at all costs. When it comes to universities making the SAT optional in recent years, only one has announced they’ve reversed their decision.

Recently, the New York Times published “The Misguided War on the SAT,” delving into the contentious issue of standardized testing in college admissions, particularly in light of the pandemic. As a response to COVID’s disruptions, many selective colleges shifted to an SAT-optional policy.

This move was hailed as a victory for equity in education. Surely, getting rid of a test that 1. No one likes, and 2. Leaves large gaps in achievement when it comes to race and class is a victory, right? Well, a growing number of experts and university administrators now question whether this shift was a mistake.

Why experts are reconsidering

Research indicates that standardized test scores offer valuable insights into predicting college success, surpassing the reliability of high school grades, which have seen inflation in recent years (as any teacher in a “no grade in the gradebook under a 50” can attest to).

Despite criticisms of bias, standardized tests are particularly effective in identifying promising students, including those from lower-income backgrounds and underrepresented minorities. If a college recognizes that a strong score came from a student in a less privileged background, that can be a sign of huge potential.  

The SAT score shouldn’t be the only criteria for admissions, to be sure. But excluding it from admissions eliminates a crucial criterion that flags many bright minority students.

Dartmouth’s big announcement

Like many colleges and universities, Dartmouth dropped the SAT requirement during the pandemic. Last summer, Dartmouth President Sian Beilock initiated a study on standardized tests that resulted in two key findings:

One, that test scores were a better predictor of student success at Dartmouth than other factors.

And two, that many lower-income students opted not to submit their SAT scores, wrongly assuming they were too low, when actually the scores would have indicated students had overcome difficulties and would actually thrive at Dartmouth.

In light of these findings, last week Dartmouth announced it would reinstate the SAT as a required part of their admissions process.

What this means for teachers

For teachers and college counselors, understanding this debate is crucial for guiding students through the college application process. No teacher will say they became an educator for the opportunity to administer standardized testing. Nevertheless, it’s important to equip students with the skills needed to excel on standardized tests, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This conversation also highlights the needs for a more holistic approach to admissions. Equity has to be considered, but so does academic potential.

One final note

Finally, it’s worth noting that this conversation seems to be only the most recent in a trend of institutions making sweeping decisions in the name of equity, only to realize it had the opposite effect. “No zeros” grading has resulted in a massive downturn in student motivation. Removing algebra from middle school classes has simply allowed wealthier students who can afford private tutoring to get ahead.

In our current political climate, everyone is quick to point to ways “the other side” turn a blind eye to the harmful policies they’ve enacted. If we as educators refuse to acknowledge the ways our own policies did and continue to do harm, we’re no better than those we criticize.

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