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After a pause for the pandemic, Dartmouth will again require SAT and ACT scores

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire, announced it is reinstating standardized testing requirements - the SAT or the ACT - as a requirement for admission after going test-optional during the pandemic.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Dartmouth says that the decision is based on research the college did that shows including a test score might have actually helped disadvantaged students get in.

MARTIN: NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher education, and she's with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. So tell us, how did all this come about?

NADWORNY: So a group of professors at Dartmouth found evidence that in the years when the college was test-optional, disadvantaged students were more likely to leave out their test scores, but those scores were sometimes high enough and might've helped them get into the college. Here's Bruce Sacerdote. He's an economics professor at Dartmouth and one of the researchers.

BRUCE SACERDOTE: They don't know that their 1400 might be a great score given the challenges of their neighborhood and educational environment. And so they can't be expected to know, and they really handicap themselves in the process.

NADWORNY: Sacerdote says Dartmouth is working on ways to better communicate to students what a helpful score might be so that students in the future aren't scared off by the testing requirement.

MARTIN: OK, Elissa, so Dartmouth is one of just a few dozen highly selective schools in the U.S. I was looking at the recent class of admits. A third went to independent schools. That's three times as many as in the U.S. overall. Eleven percent are legacies. So you get the picture - right? - not the hugest group in the world. So why do you think this is important? Like, why should we care?

NADWORNY: Dartmouth is not economically diverse. Here's why it's important. During the pandemic, hundreds of schools went test-optional, including less-selective colleges and many public universities. I talked with Zachary Bleemer about this. He's an assistant professor of economics at Princeton. He says lots of those schools are deciding right now whether or not to keep those flexible testing policies.

ZACHARY BLEEMER: I'm concerned that other, very different universities will sort of join the bandwagon of the return to the SAT without themselves considering carefully whether the SAT aligns with their admissions objectives.

NADWORNY: He's done really interesting research looking at a program in California that admitted students with high GPAs and low test scores, and he found those students did a lot better than expected, and they took advantage of opportunities and resources and had successful careers after graduating.

MARTIN: So at the end of the day, Elissa, so what do we think about these standardized tests? Are they helpful or are they unhelpful?

NADWORNY: That's kind of up for interpretation. And interpretation is the core of the selective college admissions process. Andrew Ho, a professor of education at Harvard, says this really all comes down to human judgment and making sure that application readers don't get obsessed with the test, like culture sometimes is.

ANDREW HO: Well, you know, we have a lot of experience that says that people misinterpret and overemphasize numbers. These are humans rendering judgments, right? And you hope that they have expertise (laughter).

NADWORNY: Because in the college application process, Michel, there are inequities everywhere - in essays, extracurriculars, grades and definitely tests. We know that better test scores correlate with family income. We also know that schools with a majority of Black or Latino students are more likely to be under-resourced, and those students are more likely to have lower test scores. All of this is even more complicated by the fact that it is now illegal to use race in admissions, thanks to the Supreme Court - another piece of the puzzle that admissions officers cannot use in interpreting a test score.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Elissa, thank you.

NADWORNY: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.