Standardized Tests: A Data-Driven Conundrum for Higher Education

Recently, Dartmouth announced plans to reactivate the requirement for SAT/ACT scores for admissions starting with next year’s cycle. That’s the class of 2029 for those of you following along at home. Why does this matter?

Generally, good test scores correlate to higher family incomes and more well-funded schools.

In June of last year, The Supreme Court made it illegal to consider race as a factor in higher education admissions.

With these points in mind, it would be super easy to believe that Dartmouth is creating a larger chasm between the privileged and the disadvantaged. But when I looked more closely at the announcement . . . let’s just say, color me impressed.

What do standardized tests really show?

I’ll spare you my opinion about standardized tests until another post. (You’re welcome.)

Dartmouth and every other institution of higher learning who implemented the test-optional policy now have statistically significant data both with and without the standardized test requirement. They can compare and contrast the findings and make use of what the data reveals.

Dartmouth reviewed that data with their economics and sociology professors to determine which data factors were most important and how to view those—plus their objectives in student admissions—through a lens of equity.

Let’s first remark on the elephant in the living room: Dartmouth acknowledges that standardized tests reflect inequality in society and educational systems. They acknowledge this plainly in their announcement. But their data showed that, regardless of a student’s income or family background, standardized test scores are an important predictor of a student’s success in Dartmouth’s curriculum.

Context is everything.

When submitting test scores is optional, many applicants choose not to. What they may not know is that at Dartmouth and many other institutions, admissions officers consider applicants’ scores in relation to the norms of their high school. An application lacking a test score may be holding back a factor that could tip the scales in favor of admission.

For example, a student from a less-resourced environment may score 1400 on the SAT and be reluctant to submit that score when applying because it falls below the perfect score of 1600 and so won’t stand out. But if the median SAT score of their high school is 1000, that 1400 shines in a whole new light and illuminates that candidate’s ability to excel regardless of outside circumstances. In a test-optional application process, Dartmouth discovered they couldn’t spot these individuals.

In other words, the very approach they took to help level the playing field between privileged and disadvantaged students had the opposite effect.

Evaluation, discernment, and iteration.

What’s important in this story is not that they reinstated tests. It’s how they used an evidence-based (data-driven) approach to determine how to drive more equitable outcomes in their admission process.

When we think standardized test scores, we automatically think inequality. People picture a spreadsheet with test scores ranked low to high, and of course those students whose parents paid for extra classes and tutoring and who went to schools with well-funded resources are at the top. That isn’t what happens at all.

Applicants who didn’t know that Dartmouth looks at their test scores in context of their high school norms were self-selecting out of providing a data point that could actually help them stand out. Dartmouth discerned from their data that requiring standardized test scores with applications is more equitable for admissions, not less.

What would be the mistake to make here? If other schools just blindly folded back into this standard without an equally thoughtful approach to tailoring their admissions process for the admissions outcomes they want.

What comes next.

This is one of those fascinating moments where we get to watch a hallowed institution research and consider the impact of how they weigh different data elements of their systems to make sure they aren’t over-relying on the wrong data.

Along with the change of reverting to requiring test scores with applications, Dartmouth has also increased financial aid packages to support students who get in, ensuring they can truly thrive there.

Again, color me impressed, Dartmouth. Yale recently announced they’re following suit, citing that “standardized tests can identify students whose performance stands out in their high school context.” Every school now has the data and with it, a responsibility to seek to understand how their choice about testing impacted their enrollment goals. The decision about requiring standardized testing is not one-size-fits-all. More will be revealed as we see the impacts of higher ed institutions evaluating the data they have and what it means for both the schools and the students.




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