Remeritocratizing College Admissions: Why Our Top Universities Must Require Standardized Test Scores

Justin Attlesey, Jun 23, 2024

In just five years, the landscape of elite college admissions has undergone a sweeping transformation. From the striking down of affirmative action to the Varsity Blues scandal, the systems in place to determine our society’s next generation of leaders have been scrutinized under the microscope. The most drastic of these recent shifts, however, is the widespread adoption of test-optional policies across most top universities. The SAT and ACT, once thought of as deciding factors in admissions decisions, have been pushed to the side in favor of a more holistic process that emphasizes extracurricular activities and essays.


Standardized test scores are the most consistently accurate predictor of college success. Their numerical scores allow for certainty that they are earned and can be controlled for socioeconomic factors. Therefore, in this era where affirmative action is restricted, college admissions are stratified by wealth, and grade inflation has muddied the primary academic indicator for incoming students, standardized testing requirements at selective colleges are essential to ensure that college applicants are qualified and create opportunities for lower-income and minority students who are otherwise at a disadvantage in the admissions process.


Standardized testing requirements were commonplace before the COVID-19 pandemic. The SAT was introduced in the 1920s to identify the most skilled students as objectively as possible [1]. Standardized testing requirements spread rapidly after the 1960s when the federal government pushed for the introduction of many achievement tests to guide schools toward more skilled workforces [2]. By December 2022, however, just four percent of America’s colleges required standardized test scores compared to 55 percent in 2019 [3]. This change was primarily due to necessity; institutions like the University of California (UC) acknowledged the massive disruption COVID-19 caused and determined that temporary test-optional policies were necessary [4].


Some universities were already considering a pivot away from standardized test requirements before the pandemic hit. Almost 50 colleges dropped their requirements between September 2018 and September 2019 [5], indicating a widespread disillusionment with the role of standardized tests in college admissions. Some went even further. The entire UC system committed in May 2020 to become test-blind, meaning it would not consider SAT or ACT scores in admissions [6]. Interestingly, and uniquely among top universities, the UCs attempted to develop their own standardized tests to replace the SAT and ACT starting in 2025. That never happened, and its test-blind policy seems to be permanent.


Top colleges that dropped standardized testing requirements due to the pandemic have generally been less than satisfied with the results. Over the last two years, there has been an increase in elite institutions rolling back test-optional policies they enforced during the pandemic, beginning with MIT in March 2022. The most intriguing part of this trend is the various reasons universities have given for their policy changes. MIT, for instance, believes that standardized test scores are essential to predicting a student’s success at the university due to the school’s quantitative focus [7]. However, the school makes a key distinction: while test scores are useful in determining if students meet a certain benchmark of qualification to a university, any score above that benchmark does not add favor to a student’s application.


Many other studies have come to the same conclusion as MIT—standardized test scores are uniquely accurate at predicting student success. UT Austin found that even when controlling for other factors, applicants who submitted SAT scores (who had a median score of 1420) in 2023 had an estimated average first-year, fall semester GPA 0.86 points higher than applicants who did not submit SAT scores (these applicants had a median score of 1160) [8]. Moreover, a sweeping 2023 Opportunity Insights study found that SAT and ACT scores were one of the best available indicators for post-college success as measured in employment and earnings outcomes [9]. When used appropriately as a benchmark for academic qualification, standardized test scores assist elite colleges in selecting the most qualified class possible.


Adding value to the SAT and ACT is their unique ability to objectively predict student success compared to other metrics. Without standardized test scores, colleges have only GPA, course rigor, and letters of recommendation to assess a student’s academic qualifications. Letters of recommendation are subjective and do not provide concrete facts about a student’s probability of college success. GPA and course rigor should, in theory, fill this gap. However, the widespread issue of grade inflation and differences in high schools’ course offerings make these metrics difficult to standardize.


A recent study by the ACT revealed a steady increase in GPA across all subjects even as scores on the ACT decreased slightly between 2010 and 2022 [10]. Grade inflation, as exemplified by this statistic, leads to more students having higher grades over time even though their academic performance and understanding of the subject matter do not improve. This presents a major problem for colleges attempting to select the most qualified applicants without the aid of standardized test scores: the more students who have higher GPAs, the harder it is to differentiate academic qualifications.


Determining course rigor is another potential avenue for a proper determination of academic qualifications. Unfortunately, this area is fraught with the potential for inequitable admissions. Schools attended by low-income, rural, Black, and Hispanic students are not as likely to offer AP and dual-enrollment courses, which are key indicators of academic rigor [11]. 


However, some contend that standardized test scores, too, are biased toward wealthier students to be useful. This bias has repeatedly been proven to exist. Wealthier students, especially those who are Asian and white, tend to score far better on the SAT and ACT due to their increased access to superior education, test preparation, and testing locations [12] [13].


These findings have caused many top colleges to end standardized testing requirements. The UC system, for example, found that the SAT and ACT have flawed methodologies and negative effects on admissions equitability due to their ability to be biased by applicants’ wealth [14]. Additionally, Wake Forest University dropped its testing requirement in 2009 and saw a 90 percent increase in undergraduate ethnic diversity between 2008 and 2017 with no difference in academic achievement [15], seemingly confirming the inherently biased nature of standardized test scores. However, almost every other factor in college admissions heavily favors wealthy applicants. Essay content, for example, is more highly correlated than SAT scores with household income [16], reflecting a student’s more personal qualities like their creativity over subjects like struggles in their life. These essays can be enhanced further by expensive consultants or well-educated parents. Additionally, extracurricular activities are often restricted by wealth and can even be entirely fabricated, as demonstrated by the Varsity Blues scandal [17]. Even letters of recommendation are heavily dependent on the quality of the recommender’s writing, further favoring wealthier students with higher caliber teachers. Making admissions more “holistic,” therefore, does not address equity issues. It is not reasonable to ignore standardized test scores because they can be wealth-dependent when most other application components share the same concern.


If every aspect of a college application is shaped by a student’s wealth, what components can be evaluated on a truly meritocratic basis? SAT and ACT scores, while not perfect, are the easiest indicators of college and post-college success to standardize across socioeconomic status.


When Dartmouth reinstated its standardized test requirement in February 2024, it cited students who could have benefitted from submitting a score being hurt by not submitting one as a primary reason [18]. It found that SAT and ACT scores help the school identify students from underserved communities who are academically qualified but would not be seen that way without a standardized test score, allowing the school to admit a more diverse class. Additionally, Dartmouth’s test-optional policy did not increase the diversity of its applicant pool [19]. The school gives the example of a student with an SAT score of 1400 coming from a high school with a 1000 mean SAT score to illustrate how standardized tests can promote diverse admissions policies [20]. When taken at face value, a student scoring 1500 on the SAT from a school that averages 1450 would seem more qualified. However, because colleges can control for factors like socioeconomic status and educational quality, the 1400-scoring student will be seen as just as, if not more qualified. As MIT indicated, standardized test scores are best used as a benchmark for academic success, not a competition for the highest score. By recontextualizing standardized test scores with this approach, standardized tests can become a tool to increase equity.


Some low-income students are concerned that they lack access to standardized tests to begin with. Standardized tests require payment and often long commutes. However, unlike issues of scoring differentials between high- and low-income applicants, this issue affects only a small minority of low-income applicants to top colleges. Most applicants to test-optional colleges take standardized tests even if they don’t submit scores; UT Austin, for example, estimates that at least 90 percent of its 2023 applicants took either the SAT or ACT even though they are not required for admission to the university [21]. Still, some applicants, though they may be few, are prevented from applying to universities that require test scores due to economic and geographic barriers. A widespread solution to this issue could occur at the state level. Twenty states already fund a free SAT for high school juniors at public schools [22], and other states could follow this example to increase standardized test access for all applicants.


Despite a preponderance of evidence pointing to the utility of standardized test scores in the admissions process, their validity is still met with skepticism by some college applicants. Colleges can ease the applicants’ worries by increasing transparency in reporting the value of each aspect of the college application. Dartmouth’s press release in the wake of its switch to standardized test requirements broadly stated its reasoning but contained little information as to what the school’s methodology was in coming to its conclusion. More disclosure about how applications are evaluated, especially with regard to how standardized test scores are considered, could decrease confusion and distrust among applicants. Students should know that their SAT scores will be evaluated within the context of the rest of their application and understand how good they are at predicting student success. When students are made aware of these ideas, they will see the sound reasoning behind standardized test requirements, making them more willing to accept the policies.


Standardized test requirements remain a fluid issue. The Fall 2024 admissions cycle saw 2,025 institutions adopt test-optional or test-blind policies, over 1,700 of which have permanently adopted these approaches [23]. This makes sense for the vast majority of U.S. universities; only 16 percent of students attend a college with an acceptance rate of 50 percent or lower [24]. Most schools should focus on maximum accessibility and do not need to be selective in categories like standardized test scores.


Some top colleges still do not require test scores, including the UC system, which permanently decided against making them a part of admissions decisions. Based on other institutions’ studies that suggest that standardized test scores predict college and post-college success and offer the potential to increase equity in class selection, selective universities like those in the UC system should follow their peer institutions and reinstate standardized testing requirements to select the highest-achieving, most diverse class possible. The unparalleled predictive ability of standardized test scores, along with their ability to elevate disadvantaged applicants who may seem otherwise academically qualified, makes them an essential consideration for top colleges.


[1] Gershon, Livia. “A Short History of Standardized Tests.” JSTOR Daily, May 12th, 2015.

[2] Gershon, “History of Standardized Tests.”

[3] de Visé, Daniel. “In College Admissions, ‘Test-Optional’ Is the New Normal.” The Hill, December 2nd, 2022.

[4] UC Office of the President. “UC Admissions Requirements to Help Students, Families in Wake of COVID-19.” University of California, April 1st, 2020.

[5] Strauss, Valerie. “A Record Number of Colleges Drop SAT/ACT Admissions Requirement amid Growing Disenchantment with Standardized Tests.” The Washington Post, October 18th, 2019.

[6] UC Office of the President. “University of California Board of Regents Unanimously Approved Changes to Standardized Testing Requirement for Undergraduates.” University of California, November 24th, 2020.

[7] Wren, Kathy. “Q&A: Stuart Schmill on MIT’s Decision to Reinstate the SAT/ACT Requirement.” MIT News, March 28th, 2022.

[8] “UT Austin Reinstates Standardized Test Scores in Admissions.” UT News, March 11th, 2024.

[9] Chetty, Raj, David J. Deming, and John N. Friedman. “Diversifying Society’s Leaders? The Determinants and Consequences of Admission to Highly Selective Colleges.” Opportunity Insights, October 2023.

[10] Sanchez, Edgar I. “Evidence of Grade Inflation Since 2010 in High School English, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science Courses.” ACT, August 2023.

[11] Tyner, Adam. “Think Again: Do College Admissions Exams Drive Higher Education Inequities?” The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, February 21st, 2023.

[12] Miller, Claire Cain, and Francesca Paris. “New SAT Data Highlights the Deep Inequality at the Heart of American Education.” The New York Times, October 23rd, 2023.

[13] “2023 Total Group SAT Suite of Assessments Annual Report.” College Board, 2023.

[14] UC Office of the President, “Changes to Standardized Testing Requirement.”

[15] Strauss, “Colleges Drop SAT/ACT Requirement.”

[16] Ashok, Arvind. “The Persistent Grip of Social Class on College Admissions.” The New York Times, May 28th, 2021.

[17] Ashok, “Grip of Social Class on College Admissions.”

[18] Office of the President. “Reactivating the SAT/ACT Requirement for Dartmouth Undergraduate Admissions.” Dartmouth, February 5th, 2024.

[19] Leonhardt, David. “A Top College Reinstates the SAT.” The New York Times, February 5th, 2024.

[20] Office of the President, “Reactivating the SAT/ACT Requirement.”

[21] “UT Austin Reinstates Standardized Test Scores.”

[22] Heimbach, Alex. “Which States Require the SAT? Complete List.” PrepScholar. Accessed May 14th, 2024.

[23] “Overwhelming Majority of U.S. Colleges and Universities Remain ACT/SAT Optional or Test-Blind/Score-Free for Fall 2025.” Fairtest, February 21st, 2024.

[24] Arum, Richard, Mitchell L. Stevens, and Quoctrung Bui. “For Most College Students, Affirmative Action Was Never Enough.” The New York Times, July 3rd, 2023.