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Testing Policies in the Spotlight

Amid wide-scale test cancellations in 2020, most colleges in the U.S. chose to go test optional during the initial wave of COVID-19. Although some schools announced that the policy change would be permanent, many colleges took this period as an opportunity to study the merits of testing requirements.

One nearly universal impact of test optional policies was a rise in applications at competitive colleges. The question for many colleges, though, was whether or not this rise in applications translated to more competitive or more diverse classes. Colleges have now been able to analyze three full admission cycles and at least two full academic years, and we are seeing some notable announcements.

Below, we will track some of the country’s more well-known schools’ decisions to return to testing and why. For a list of the current testing policies at the 400+ schools Compass tracks, click here.

June 17, 2024

Rice University

Excerpt from the announcement:

“At Rice, we have long held that testing – SAT, ACT and APs – provide meaningful insights into how students will perform in a Rice undergraduate curriculum, beyond an assessment of high school grades alone,” [Yvonne M. Romero da Silva, vice president for enrollment] said. “We are therefore moving to recommend that students submit the testing they feel will showcase their strengths, beyond simply having a test optional policy.”

Compass commentary:

Rice’s move is not unexpected, as it has long had one of the least convincing test optional policies. Although the school moved to test optional during the pandemic, it retained language asserting the value of testing. Officially moving to “recommended” provides more accurate guidance to applicants.

June 7, 2024

Stanford University

Excerpt from the announcement:

Stanford will resume requiring either the SAT or the ACT for undergraduate admission, beginning with students applying in fall 2025 for admission to the Class of 2030. Stanford will remain test-optional for students applying in fall 2024 for admission to the Class of 2029.

Test scores represent only one part of a holistic review of each applicant to the university, for which academic potential is the primary criterion for admission. Performance on standardized tests is an important predictor of academic performance at Stanford, a review by the faculty Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid has confirmed. The renewed testing requirement will allow Stanford to consider the fullest array of information in support of each student’s application.

Compass commentary:

Stanford’s announcement was telling in what it did not say. The university felt no need to show its work. While it acknowledged the results from its study committee, the school did not release any details. As more colleges return to requiring the SAT or ACT, the bar is lowered for each subsequent announcement. We expect more resumptions of testing requirements before the Class of 2026 starts the application process in 2025.

June 2024

United States Naval Academy

Excerpt from the announcement:

All candidates applying for admission to the Naval Academy are required to take either the SAT or the ACT…We need to receive the full composite score report directly from the testing service (not the superscore report from the College Board or ACT).

Compass commentary:

USNA described its previous policy as “test flexible” rather than “test optional.” What this meant was that the academy expected scores unless the applicant provided a reason that they were unavailable (e.g., test cancellations or “extenuating circumstances”). The move back to a universal requirement is recognition that the classes of 2025 and beyond have not experienced COVID-related disruptions to testing plans.

May 14, 2024

The University System of Georgia

Compass commentary:

The University System of Georgia announced that they will move back to requiring testing at 4 additional campuses for the high school graduating class of 2026. In 2020, the Board of Regents waived minimum testing requirements at 23 of 26 institutions. Test requirements remained at University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Georgia College & State University. Applicants at other campuses could avoid testing based on meeting GPA minimums. Starting with the class of 2026, there will now be 7 campuses where testing is required: the original three and Georgia State University, Augusta University, Kennesaw State University, and Georgia Southern University.

In essence, Georgia is a microcosm of the larger testing landscape. Now that students are able to test again, schools are able to make test requirement decisions without the specter of COVID. They can evaluate their applicant profiles, admission procedures, and recent class histories and decide whether collecting test scores from all applicants is useful. Some universities will find a benefit in remaining test optional.

April 22, 2024

Cornell University

Excerpt from the announcement:

Cornell will reinstitute standardized testing requirements for students seeking undergraduate admission for fall 2026 enrollment, based on evidence from a multiyear study conducted by the university’s Task Force on Standardized Testing in Admissions.

Cornell will remain test-optional for students applying in the upcoming admissions cycle for enrollment in fall 2025, although these applicants are encouraged to submit SAT and/or ACT scores to the Cornell colleges and schools that are currently test-optional.

Compass commentary:

On April 23rd and 24th, Compass will be running a series of presentations about admission testing with Jonathan Burdick, the former Vice President of Enrollment at Cornell. The events are for college counselors, but we will link to a write-up. Burdick said of today’s announcement: “The admissions-testing analysis at Cornell has been thoughtful and research-driven; the ultimate choice made here reflects that care. I admire Cornell’s further commitment to give current high school sophomores ample time to plan, and to acknowledge transparently—and I hope more test-optional places will follow—that test scores, when presented, have continued to influence decisions.”

Cornell’s announcement is notable, because the university had been the most test-skeptical of the Ivies. Cornell has independent admission processes at its 5 colleges and 3 schools, and half of those had stopped even considering SAT and ACT scores in 2020 (the other half went test optional).

The task force report released today found no “clear indication that the relaxation of the testing requirement has increased the diversity of matriculating first year students.” It did, however, find that “the submission of test scores has a substantial and statistically significant impact on the chances of being admitted.” It is important for students to understand that peer institutions — even ones still promoting test optional policies — are likely seeing the same data. Those universities will either change their policies in the future or risk misleading students by maintaining that non-submission does not disadvantage applicants. The Cornell task force reports that by the fall of 2023, only 24% of students applying to the College or Arts & Sciences submitted SAT/ACT scores, but they represented 50% of acceptances and 62% of enrollments.

Although Cornell has pushed off implementation of the new policy until the 2025–26 admission cycle, it now recommends testing for 2024–25 applicants at its 4 test optional colleges.

April 11, 2024

California Institute of Technology

Excerpt from the announcement:

Caltech has reinstated its requirement for prospective students to submit SAT or ACT test scores as part of their application for admission to undergraduate study. The test requirement takes effect immediately, which means that all students who apply to Caltech beginning in fall 2024 and would enroll in fall 2025 are required to report test scores as part of their application.

Compass commentary:

Caltech’s abrupt reversal is perhaps even more surprising than Harvard’s. Most colleges chose to go test optional during the early days of the pandemic, but Caltech went further and implemented a “test-free” policy. Under its now ended policy, Caltech did not consider SAT or ACT scores at all. “We mean it. Don’t send them as the Admissions Committee will never see them.”

In July 2022, Caltech announced that it would extend its “testing moratorium” for an additional 2 years. The policy did not survive the full 2 years.

Caltech cited the same primary rationale as other colleges:

  • Student testing has rebounded and 95% of its applicants had SAT or ACT scores (though the scores were not considered during admissions).
  • “[S]tandardized testing provides admissions officers and faculty reviewers useful information about academic preparedness as part of a holistic consideration of all prospective students.”

It also pointed to the school’s mission as a factor in its decision: “Caltech reaffirms its commitment as a community of scientists and engineers to using all relevant data in its decision-making processes.”

April 11, 2024

Harvard College

Excerpt from the announcement:

All applicants to the Class of 2029 — due to apply in the fall and winter of 2024 — will be required to submit SAT or ACT scores, barring specific cases in which they may be unable to access such exams, according to the College’s announcement. In such cases, scores from exams such as Advanced Placement or the International Baccalaureate will be accepted as substitutes.

Compass commentary:

Harvard surprised many families when it decided today to end its test optional policy at least 2 years early. High school class of 2025 students who haven’t planned to test or improve scores must act fast in the coming months.

As recently as March, Harvard had provided ambiguous answers to questions about its reconsideration of testing requirements. Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Hoekstra, who was charged with investigating the policy, said, “We will make a decision that is best for Harvard at a time that’s best for Harvard.”

Harvard has not yet released data supporting its decision, but it presumably observed many of the same factors cited by peer institutions such as Yale and Dartmouth.

Concern over high school grade inflation was mentioned by Dean Hoekstra in March, for example. And Harvard’s longtime Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons, has previously pointed to the correlation between test scores and success at Harvard.

It may seem counterintuitive that Harvard would change its policy so abruptly. Requiring tests will likely reduce the number of applicants. The competition is not for applicants, however, it is for enrolled students. Remaining test optional would have meant that Yale would have more information about prospects than Harvard would. Identifying talented students across a diverse range of backgrounds is a critical part of admissions — something Harvard pointed to multiple times in its announcement.

Compass expects that the momentum from policy changes this spring will carry over to peer institutions for the high school class of 2026. Students should be wary of assuming that existing policies are static.

March 11, 2024

University of Texas—Austin

Excerpt from the official policy:

After four years of test-optional admissions for undergraduate applications, The University of Texas at Austin will return to requiring standardized testing scores, beginning with applications for the Fall 2025 semester.

Excerpt from the announcement:

Those who opted in had a median SAT score of 1420, compared with a median of 1160 among those who did not…[T]hose who opted in had an estimated average GPA of 0.86 grade points higher during their first fall semester, controlling for a wide range of factors, including high school class rank and GPA.

From President Jay Hartzell: “Our experience during the test-optional period reinforced that standardized testing is a valuable tool for deciding who is admitted and making sure those students are placed in majors that are the best fit. Also, with an abundance of high school GPAs surrounding 4.0, especially among our auto-admits, an SAT or ACT score is a proven differentiator that is in each student’s and the University’s best interest.”

Compass commentary:

As with other colleges making announcements this cycle, UT-Austin found that considering test scores and GPA during a holistic review allows the university to make better decisions when admitting a class. The university also found that 90% of applicants were already taking the SAT or ACT. Shifting back to “required” removes the guessing game for applicants when deciding whether or not to submit those scores.

March 5, 2024

Brown University

Excerpt from the official policy:

Starting with next year’s application cycle (effective for the Class of 2029), Brown will reinstate the requirement that applicants for first-year admission submit standardized tests scores (the SAT or ACT, except in the rare circumstance when these tests are not available to a student). This will accompany enhanced communications to students and school counselors emphasizing that test scores are interpreted in the context of a student’s background and educational opportunities.

Excerpt from study committee:

Data from the Class of 2025 and Class of 2026 indicate that academic outcomes — whether measured by the fraction of grades that are high or by the fraction of students who struggle academically— are strongly correlated with test scores. An applicant’s test scores are a strong predictor of a student’s performance once enrolled, and of their capacity to succeed in a rigorous academic environment. This relationship holds across all subgroups, including within groups from less-advantaged vs. more advantaged high schools, and for HUG vs. non-HUG students.

The weaker academic performance of students who do not submit scores is, on average, on par with students who submit lower test scores…Further, the data suggest unintended adverse outcomes of test-optional policies in the admissions process itself, potentially undermining the goal of increasing access. The committee was concerned that some students from less-advantaged backgrounds are choosing not to submit scores under the test-optional policy, when doing so would actually increase their chances of being admitted.

February 22, 2024

Yale University

Excerpt from the official policy:

Standardized tests are required of all first-year applicants for fall 2025 admission and later. Applicants will choose which scores to include from four options: 

    • ACT
    • Advanced Placement (AP) 
    • International Baccalaureate (IB)
    • SAT

Applicants choosing to submit AP or IB scores should include results from all subject exams completed prior to applying.

Selecting Scores When Applying
When completing the Yale-specific questions on the Common Application or Coalition Application, or when completing the Yale QuestBridge Questionnaire, applicants will respond to three prompts: 

    1. Select one or more test types from the list of four options to indicate which scores you wish to have considered.  
    2. Self-report any scores from the test type(s) selected above that are not included elsewhere in your application. 
    3. Provide any details of circumstances that may have affected your experience preparing for or completing tests (optional).

For Compass’s full analysis, read our blog post. Applicants using AP or IB scores should note that predicted scores are not accepted. Yale also asks for the submission of all scores of the selected type(s). The college does superscore ACT and SAT scores.

February 5, 2024

Dartmouth College

Excerpt from the official policy:

Beginning with the Class of 2029, Dartmouth will once again require applicants from high schools within the United States to submit results of either the SAT or ACT, with no Dartmouth preference for either test. As always, the results of multiple administrations will be super-scored, which means we will consider the highest result on individual sections of either exam regardless of the test date or testing format.

Excerpt from working group paper:
    1. SAT (and ACT) scores are highly predictive of academic achievement at Dartmouth.
      SAT scores have significant predictive value for academic achievement over and above other measures such as high school GPA…SAT by itself explains about 22% of the variation in first-year GPA. High school GPA by itself explains 9% of the variation…
    2. SAT is a strong predictor of academic success at Dartmouth for all subgroups.
      The SAT predicts first-year GPA at Dartmouth similarly for all subgroups we have examined…
    3. A test-optional policy is likely a barrier to Dartmouth identifying less-advantaged students who would succeed at Dartmouth.
      First, in the absence of having a common test score metric across students, Admissions is left having to place more weight on other factors that have been shown to be biased toward higher-income students…Second, lower-income students and international students are more likely to be from high schools where Admissions has less information to interpret the transcript. Third, under test-optional policies, some less-advantaged students withhold test scores even in cases where providing the test score would be a significant positive signal to Admissions.
    4. Test-optional policies do not necessarily increase the proportion of less-advantaged students in the applicant pool.

For Compass’s full analysis, read our blog post.

Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.

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