Business casual, Test-Optional, and Equity


February 7, 2024

A decade may have passed, but I remember it like it was yesterday. 

It was my second day at Harvard, and I wanted to make a good impression. So I texted my friends and spent hours on Google trying to make sure I knew what to wear for our graduate school cohort class picture, which instructed us to be “business casual,” a term I was unfamiliar with. Settling on a nice shirt and dress pants, I soon discovered, to my horror, that I was the sole male without a suit and jacket. I later realized that in previous class pictures, it was explicitly stated what we should wear, but in my year, in an attempt to be more inclusive, they used the term “business casual.”

Surprisingly, this is the anecdote that came to mind while reading a New York Times piece yesterday on Dartmouth reinstating standardized testing in its application process. 

It seems as if at every level of higher education, there is an unseen script that seems to favor those with social clout. It doesn’t stop at trivialities like class pictures; it seeps into significant life-altering events, including the college admissions process. This hidden curriculum, accessible to only a select few, sheds light on the pervasive and often unfair dynamics shaping the journey through higher education. 

And it appears, that despite the best of intentions, colleges that implement “test-optional” policies may perpetuate some of those unfair dynamics. As someone from a low-income background who has had the privilege of navigating elite institutions, I have long been skeptical of test optional policies

While the movement to go test optional has been around for decades, it picked up steam after the interruptions to in-person learning during the pandemic. Currently, over 1800 colleges and universities are test-optional, including Dartmouth college, which was the subject of the piece by David Leonhart yesterday. 

Dartmouth’s President Sian Beilock, after taking the helm of Dartmouth College last summer, decided to look at the data and ordered a study as to how the test-optional policy at the university was working for students. The findings revealed, among other conclusions, that numerous low-income students who chose not to submit test scores and were subsequently rejected probably would have been accepted if they had submitted their scores. 

More from the study:

Our overall conclusion is that the use of SAT and ACT scores is an essential method by which Admissions can identify applicants who will succeed at Dartmouth. Importantly, these test scores better position Admissions to identify high-achieving less-advantaged applicants..the data suggest that, under an SAT/ACT optional policy, many high-achieving less-advantaged applicants choose not to submit scores even when doing so would allow Admissions to identify them as students likely to succeed at Dartmouth and in turn benefit their application. 

Dartmouth, like most colleges, examines a student’s test score with other factors, including the high school the student attended. Students from high-poverty schools with lower test scores might be recognized by admission officials for their potential, acknowledging the challenges they have overcome. However, without test scores, officials lacked a clear indicator of these students’ academic abilities.

Test-optional policies like Dartmouth’s place the burden squarely on the student’s shoulders to determine if their test score merits submission. This creates another hurdle for students already navigating multiple hurdles through the college application process. In the case of Dartmouth, students who believed their scores were low were unaware that submitting their scores could have actually benefited them. The students, in Leonhardt’s words, made a “strategic mistake.” 

This type of gray area is where those with social capital with access to tutors and college advisors thrive and those without means are often left behind. 

Previous studies, for example, show test-optional policies have a limited impact on increasing enrollment of low-income students and students of diverse backgrounds. Consequently, the biggest drawback of test-optional policies at private colleges like Dartmouth, from my perspective, is in its guise of promoting equity and access while maintaining other policies that keep inequitable practices in place. Rather than focusing on test-optional policies, universities should interrogate policies that tip the scale in favor of wealthy students, such as legacy admissions, binding early admissions, donor preference, and recruiting primarily from elite boarding schools, among other practices. 

Supporters of test-optional policies and college presidents who have embraced them should follow Dartmouth’s lead, base their decision on facts not conjecture, and ensure this policy is actually helping the students they claim to be helping. In addition, it’s important to consider other significant implications of implementing test-optional policies that warrant close scrutiny. For example: 

  • Some studies indicate that college essays and grades show a stronger link to wealth than test scores and, although it is unclear whether this was the case at Dartmouth, it may give those with more resources an edge. Therefore, identifying additional metrics to counterbalance these advantages is crucial. 
  • Twenty-three states across the country use the SAT/ACT as the high school assessment for school accountability purposes under ESSA. It is important to keep track of whether students will now be incentivized to opt-out of standardized tests at a higher rate in high school, potentially hurting the validity of the K-12 accountability system. 
  • Girls in high school tend to have better grades and boys tend to do slightly better on tests. Test-optional policies that devalue the importance of tests in college admissions might increase the already sizable gender-gap in college enrollment.   

Introducing further complexity to an already intricate process doesn’t aid students unfamiliar with the higher education landscape. Instead, it advantages those already proficient in navigating the system. As evidenced by Dartmouth, this complexity can disproportionately harm low-income students. I have no doubt that other colleges, without parallel reforms, will reach the same conclusions. Replacing objective measures with subjective measures will always benefit wealth and privilege. 

When it comes to equity and access, clarity is kindness, whether it’s in class pictures or college admissions.