The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Who stands to gain most from Harvard’s SAT-optional policy? Harvard admissions officials.

Pedestrians walk through Harvard Yard on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., on April 20, 2020. (Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg)
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It was a kind of relief when the logistical exigencies of the pandemic forced hundreds of elite schools to drop standardized test requirements. At minimum, the tests tell us all sorts of things we’d rather not hear, like “educational opportunity remains very unequally distributed” or “for all their hard work, your child is still not very good at math.” And when debates flared over higher education, the tests were always the hottest flash point. Activists say biased tests contribute to stark disparities, while opponents of affirmative action wave those same test score gaps as evidence of discrimination against Whites and Asians.

How nice it was to give the tests up for a while, and give up talking about them, too. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Harvard University just announced it will continue its pandemic policy until at least 2026. Applicants can submit test scores if they want to. But if they don’t, the dean of admissions says it won’t count against them. This will probably make for a restful four years for Harvard, and for any other schools that follow Harvard’s lead.

But it probably won’t do much good for the people it’s ostensibly supposed to help.

“Test optional” was a fine policy for the topsy-turvy world of the pandemic, when there were lots of idiosyncratic reasons a student might not submit a score, from canceled tests to an immunocompromised parent or sibling. But as things return to normal, it’s unlikely that many kids with top scores will resist the Hobbesian competitive pressures to submit them. There will of course be exceptions — free spirits with ideological qualms about the tests and first-generation applicants who didn’t know to take them. But for many applicants, omitting test scores will be a strategic decision, presumably to play down scores significantly lower than a school’s average.

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In the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, underrepresented and first-generation students were significantly less likely to report scores, while 6 percent of students clearly behaved strategically, submitting test scores to some schools but not others. Admissions officers surely can draw obvious inferences.

In theory, test-optional admissions officers are willing themselves to ignore that obvious inference, focusing instead on essays, portfolios, recommendations and transcripts. But of course, they could have similarly steeled themselves to ignore a mediocre SAT or ACT score. What changes because they have denied themselves the exact numbers? And if the test is really so easily ignorable, why not follow the example of the University of California and move toward dropping the tests altogether?

Even that probably wouldn’t do much to erase the disparities that test-optional or test-blind admissions are supposed to fix. It’s true that standardized tests mirror other patterns of disadvantage in society, such as race and income. But so do alternate measures admissions officers rely on, because GPA, essays, well-curated extracurriculars and so forth all get better when a college-educated parent is directing the process and using their incomes for tutors or consultants who can help students over any rough patches. Predictably, the most recent research suggests that pre-pandemic, colleges that went test-optional barely increased either low-income students or underrepresented minorities.

But if making the test optional doesn’t solve any obvious problem for students, or society, it does solve one for admissions offices: our intense scrutiny of their decisions.

For decades, the annual ritual of the standardized test was the one thing that every applicant to a selective college had in common. A 4.0 GPA might signal wildly different levels of mastery, depending on the difficulty of the school or courses taken, and it might be hard to say whose essays or recommendations were better. But everyone with a 1550 on the SAT had performed the same task in approximately the same way.

Because of that, rankings of college quality lean heavily on average SAT or ACT scores. Those scores are also what we look at when we want to know how much of a benefit affirmative action or legacy admissions is conferring — or whether Harvard is in fact discriminating against Asian students, as an ongoing lawsuit alleges. Making tests optional probably means lower-scoring students dropping out of the sample, boosting the school’s stats in rankings and making it harder to see when admissions officers are boosting or penalizing certain groups.

Now, just as in the past, Harvard admissions officers will admit classes that fit their idea of what Harvard should be, and if that idea included more low-income students, or underrepresented minorities, they’d already have admitted them. Instead, they have chosen to maximize other things, such as institutional prestige and future donation potential.

The difference is that making the tests optional makes it harder for the rest of us to see what, exactly, they are maximizing, or what tradeoffs they are making to get there. And admissions officers will undoubtedly be very relieved to stop talking about that.