Dec 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The decline of standardized testing

SAT books
SAT test prep books. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Image

Harvard University announced on Thursday that it will not require SAT or ACT scores for admission through the next four years.

Why it matters: The shift adds more momentum to the move in higher education away from using standardized test scores as a major bar for admission, partially in the name of improving equity.

Driving the news: Harvard's decision extends a policy adopted during the pandemic because coronavirus outbreaks were making it difficult at times for students to access testing sites.

  • But it also signals that the university believes it can assess tens of thousands of applicants by looking at "whatever materials they believe would convey their accomplishments in secondary school and their promise for the future," according to Harvard dean of admissions and financial aid William Fitzsimmons.

The big picture: Harvard is only the latest in a series of U.S. colleges and universities to end the use of standardized test scores for applications or to make the tests optional. Other schools include the University of Chicago and the entire University of California system.

  • By the numbers: The percentage of schools that do not require standardized tests rose from about 45% before the pandemic to nearly 80% now, according to the anti-testing group FairTest.

Between the lines: Supporters of the anti-testing movement argue the SAT and other tests are biased in favor of affluent, white and Asian American students, and they can too easily be gamed by applicants who can afford expensive private tutors.

  • The other side: Proponents of keeping the tests say scores are often a better predictor of college performance than high school grades and that putting more emphasis on extracurriculars and essays might tilt the playing field even more heavily toward rich applicants.

The bottom line: The SAT and other standardized tests were key building blocks of the construction of the postwar American meritocracy, but as the belief in the fairness of that system has declined, the big tests may follow.

Go deeper