US universities are reinstating SAT scores. Experts say it will exacerbate racial inequality

<span>The Baker Library at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, in April 2023. Dartmouth is one of the schools that reinstated test score requirements.</span><span>Photograph: Charles Krupa/AP</span>
The Baker Library at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, in April 2023. Dartmouth is one of the schools that reinstated test score requirements.Photograph: Charles Krupa/AP

When SAT and ACT testing sites closed at the start of the pandemic in 2020, about 2,000 higher education institutions in the US had no choice but to offer prospective students test-optional or test-free admissions. It was a sweeping decision that by many accounts increased the applicant pool and enrollment of underrepresented communities.

But as the public health crisis waned in recent years, some Ivy League and state schools have changed course by reinstating SAT and ACT score requirements in their admissions. In just the past few months, schools such as Brown University, Dartmouth College, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Tennessee announced reinstatements, citing the tests as strong indicators of potential college success. Brown and Dartmouth, in particular, said high test scores could help under-resourced students stand out to admissions officers and therefore increase school diversity.

Critics of the reinstatements, however, say that standardized testing will do just the opposite. Studies have long shown that SATs mostly benefit white, wealthy students who can afford to pay for preparation courses and to take the tests multiple times. And a number of experts believe that the increase in applications and enrollment from Black and brown students may be seen as risky for some institutions.

“We saw this expansion of DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] after the murder of George Floyd and the campus responses to that, and then I think right now we’re really seeing a backlash against that,” said Kelly Ochs Rosinger, an associate professor at Penn State who focuses on racial and economic disparities in education. “Institutions are taking a step back and saying [reinstating test scores] is in the name of equity, but that remains to be seen.” According to some academics, the wholesale return to pre-pandemic SAT testing, coupled with last year’s ban on affirmative action, will only exacerbate racial inequality.

The real reason schools are reinstating SATs

Private institutions with large endowments and small undergraduate sizes, and public state institutions in red states, dominate the small list of schools requiring SAT and ACT scores again, said Dominique J Baker, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Delaware. For Ivy League schools, she said, their decision to return to standardized testing requirements comes from ideas about meritocracy and how to measure intelligence, “which are all bundled up with race in the United States”. On the other hand, public schools in states such as Tennessee and Texas have faced political pressure from legislatures to reinstate standardized testing. “A lot of financial aid across the United States that’s in any way tied to academics,” Baker said, “frequently requires test scores.”

Related: ‘Legal discrimination’: dismay as Kentucky poised to ban DEI in colleges

And even though there’s only a small set of schools that are requiring tests again, Rosinger said they play a powerful role in setting the standard of college admissions at higher education institutions throughout the nation.

College admissions counselors saw more applications from first generation Black and brown students when schools forwent test scores, said John Hollemon, the director of DEI at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “Some of [the institutions] probably saw a lot of changes in their student demographic from those individuals who were applying based off of the new changes,” Hollemon said. “And for some, that may have been eye-opening” because it showed that the tests were an admission barrier for some underrepresented students.

Schools that had increased enrollment from Black and Latino students when they went test-optional and test-free may be concerned that conservative activists could lodge reverse discrimination suits, said Harry Feder, executive director of the non-profit FairTest. “I find it hard to believe that reverting to [requiring standardized tests] will produce better results on race than using other more holistic factors,” Feder said, “particularly when the option of doing affirmative action based on race has been taken off the table by the supreme court.”

‘The route does not travel through Harvard’

Created in 1926 by the psychologist and eugenicist Carl Brigham, the SAT is known to have racist origins. Brigham believed that testing could reveal that “the Nordic race group” was superior to all others, and developed multiple-choice questions designed to limit admissions from non-white test takers. A 2020 study from the University of California system that looked at pre-pandemic data indicated that this legacy persists by showing that, compared with high school grades, standardized tests correspond more to family income and race. “To the extent that test scores are emphasized as a selection criterion,” wrote the study author Saul Geiser, “they are a deterrent to admission of low-income, first-generation college, and underrepresented minority applicants.”

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), though, are keeping with the pandemic results and moving forward with test-optional admissions, as an alternate model for schools beyond the Ivy Leagues. HBCUs, according to Hollemon from the NACAC, were aware that standardized tests didn’t favor Black and brown students even before the pandemic. Forgoing tests in 2020 convinced many HBCUs in the NACAC network that test-optional admissions is the best course of action for their students moving forward.

A growing number of researchers and academics recommend that institutions take a more holistic review of a student’s performance, with an emphasis on grade point averages, to create greater diversity in university admissions. Before deciding their test policies this year, education organizations recommend that schools take stock of their mission, and analyze their own application and enrollment data to ensure that the most diverse student bodies have access to their institutions.

Even though the public debate around admissions has mostly focused on elite schools, Baker believes that more resources and money toward historically underfunded institutions would create a more diverse academic landscape.

“When we talk about an equitable way forward … the route does not travel through Harvard,” said Baker. “That route travels through open access public institutions, community colleges, HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities. Those types of institutions are how we create a fairer system.”