Editorial: Why it’s smart for universities to bring back the SAT requirement

A student looks at questions during a college test preparation class
A student looks at questions during a college test preparation class at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Md., in 2016. Some universities are bringing back SAT scores as part of college admissions.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

The SAT and ACT are making a small but important comeback after the tests were widely dropped as a requirement for college applications during the pandemic.

Most schools went test-optional, meaning students could submit scores if they wanted but not doing so wouldn’t count against them. The University of California won’t consider test scores at all.

Only a handful of schools have resurrected the testing requirement, but among them are heavyweights in the world of higher education: MIT, Dartmouth and Georgetown. Most recently, the University of Texas at Austin and Brown University joined the list and the University of North Carolina is considering it. Yale also will require standardized test scores, but tests such as Advanced Placement can be used in place of college entrance exams.


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Additional competitive schools are likely to join the group, along with schools that aren’t as selective. The University of Tennessee, which accepts 68% of applicants, decided a year and a half ago to bring the tests back.

The tests were criticized long before the pandemic as giving an unfair boost to more affluent students who could afford tutoring. And it’s true that scores are closely correlated with family income. But the pause in testing gave colleges a chance to study the issue more closely. They found that SAT scores were extremely effective at predicting whether students would succeed in college.

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No one should be surprised. The University of California convened a panel several years ago to study the issue at length and it reached the same conclusion. The standardized tests were more equitable than grades, the panel said, because grade inflation is more pervasive at affluent schools. Yet UC refuses to consider test scores, after bowing to pressure from critics. We hope that the trend toward reinstating the tests in admissions makes UC leaders rethink this position.

Making the tests optional was actually counterproductive, Dartmouth, Yale and Brown found. Their applicant pools became less diverse, because low-income students and students of color were less likely to apply even if they had good test scores, thinking they hadn’t tested well enough.

The whole debate has sadly ignored the bigger factors perpetuating the uneven playing field of college admissions. Yes, rich students can receive SAT tutoring, and it helps, though only a little. The most rigorous study of the topic found that tutoring could raise scores by about 20 points.

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Meanwhile, some aspects of college admission tilt the field in favor of wealthier students more than test scores do. For example, teachers at more affluent schools have more time for writing letters of recommendation for college applications than teachers at low-income schools.


Athletes continue to get the upper hand on acceptance, and not just in commonly played games like football and soccer that most students have access to in high school. Golf, equestrian, fencing, gymnastics and crew are among the sports that require families to pay for their children to participate, and those athletes also get preferential treatment in college admissions.

Essays can be coached, heavily edited or even written by college consultants for a fee. A 2021 study at Stanford University found that the quality of essay content was closely correlated with family income among University of California applicants. Yet UC kept the essays and got rid of the tests.

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There is nothing inherently evil about the SAT or ACT. It all depends on how they’re used. They can act as a reality check — a student who didn’t get great grades might show a lot of potential in the test scores, and vice versa. And, as UC did before it scrapped the tests, colleges should consider the scores in context, such as, is this the best score in a generally low-scoring high school? A score might reflect the education at that school, not the student’s aptitude for college work.

These latest changes also point to a larger problem in admissions at selective colleges: Every school seemingly wants different things. Some want high SAT scores, others care more about AP exams, and others don’t want any standardized test scores. Some enhance grade-point averages depending on how tough the courses are, others don’t, and others in just some cases.

Of course, schools have a right to seek out the students who will fit best at their institution. But the lack of transparency and consistency has given rise to a nearly $3-billion-a-year industry of pricey college-admissions consultants.

Talk about tilting the playing field.