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. In today’s newsletter, I’ll tell you the story behind Dartmouth’s decision.
Training future leaders
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.
Questions and answers
In our conversations, I asked Beilock and her colleagues about several common criticisms of standardized tests, and they said that they did not find the criticisms persuasive.
For instance, many critics on the political left argue the tests are racially or economically biased, but Beilock said the evidence didn’t support those claims. “The research suggests this tool is helpful in finding students we might otherwise miss,” she said.
I also asked whether she was worried that conservative critics of affirmative action might use test scores to accuse Dartmouth of violating the recent Supreme Court ruling barring race-conscious admissions. She was not. Dartmouth can legally admit a diverse class while using test scores as one part of its holistic admissions process, she said. I’ve heard similar sentiments from leaders at other colleges that have reinstated the test requirement, including Georgetown and M.I.T.
And I asked Beilock and her colleagues whether fewer students might now apply to Dartmouth. Coffin, the admissions dean, replied that such an outcome might be OK. He noted that the test-optional policy since 2020 had not led to a more diverse pool of applicants and that Dartmouth already received more than enough applications — 31,000 this year, for 1,200 first-year slots. “I don’t think volume is the holy grail,” he said.
Finally, I asked Beilock whether she was satisfied with Dartmouth’s level of economic diversity, which is slightly below that of most similarly elite colleges. She said no. “We have aspirations to bring it up,” she said. Reinstating the test requirement, she believes, can help Dartmouth do so.
For more: Compare economic diversity at hundreds of colleges through our College Access Index.
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