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‘Throwing Away Information’: Harvard’s Test Optional Policies Face Expert Criticism

A Crimson analysis shows that despite Harvard's test-optional policies, admitted student demographics have remained unchanged.
A Crimson analysis shows that despite Harvard's test-optional policies, admitted student demographics have remained unchanged. By Jade Xiao
By Elyse C. Goncalves and Matan H. Josephy, Crimson Staff Writers

As Harvard College prepares to admit its fourth straight class without requiring applicants to submit test scores, questions — and criticisms — surrounding test-optional admissions policies continue to mount.

Harvard first announced a shift to test-optional admissions in June 2020, removing the requirement for applicants to the Class of 2025 to submit standardized test scores amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, before it extended the policy to the Class of 2026.

In December 2021, the College announced that all applicants through the Class of 2030 may submit applications to Harvard without standardized test scores should they choose to do so. The move was a victory for critics of standardized tests, who have long argued that requiring scores disadvantages historically marginalized racial and socioeconomic groups in the admissions process.

But a Crimson analysis shows that despite falling submission rates of test scores, admitted student demographics have remained unchanged. According to information from the Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication, the demographic data of Harvard’s accepted classes has remained consistent over the past six years, both before and after test-optional policies were put in place.

For the accepted classes of 2022 through 2027, Asian American and White students have made up approximately 70 percent of the class, while Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Native Hawaiian applicants have made up the other approximately 30 percent, with minimal fluctuations.

The Harvard College Admissions Office declined to comment for this story.

According to David Leonhardt, a senior writer at the New York Times who has written extensively about higher education, whether colleges require the SAT is not integral to the diversity of their class.

“You can admit diverse classes if you don’t require the SAT, and you can admit diverse classes if you do require the SAT,” Leonhardt said, pointing to test-required schools like MIT and Georgetown as a counterexample to the argument that schools that require the SAT do not have diversity in their student body.

After going test-optional in June 2020 for admissions to the class of 2025, MIT reinstated its testing requirement starting with the class of 2027. The school saw an increase in the percentage of Black and Latinx students in its admitted class after it reinstated the requirement.

While all Ivy League universities currently remain test-optional, only Harvard and Columbia — which has gone test-optional indefinitely — have committed to the policy so far in advance.

David Card, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard’s expert witness in its trial against anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, said that test scores also help predict the performance of students in college.

“If I use everything I’ve got about a student at admission and the test score, what predicts their performance in the first couple of years of classes or their probability of graduating on time, or the kind of jobs they get when they graduate?” Card said. “When that’s been done in the past, it’s typically shown that the SATs do help predict kids’ performance, especially in more technical subjects.”

In July 2023, a prominent paper by Harvard Kennedy School professor David J. Deming, Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty ’00 and Brown University professor John N. Friedman ’02 found that while high school GPA poorly demonstrates a student’s college performance, SAT reflects this metric independent of the individual’s socioeconomic class.

“Our research suggests that test-optional policies lead to less fair admissions processes with less information about students, especially at Ivy-plus schools,” Friedman wrote in an email.

In an interview, Deming said that removing standardized tests from consideration in the college application process is ineffective.

“The question is, why are you throwing away information? If you’re throwing away information because you think it’s helping you accomplish certain social goals, better to just try to accomplish those goals directly, but also use the information you have about academic preparedness,” said Deming.

Peter S. Arcidiacono, a Duke economics professor and SFFA’s expert witness in its case against Harvard, agreed with Deming.

“Why would a university of all places not want to use all the information available to them? To the extent that you feel like the tests are unfair, then you should adjust for that, and have a reason for testing for that,” Arcidiacono said.

Proponents of such test-optional policies point to concerns that testing requirements hinder applicants from low-income or socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. In announcing the College’s test-optional extension, the admissions office cited pandemic-related concerns about testing accessibility.

Chris Bennett, a research education analyst at the Research Triangle Institute, said that test optional policies add workload for universities, but are associated “with moderate increases in student diversity.”

“I think that from my research, I have seen a lot of evidence that test optional policies can give greater flexibility to applicants and admissions committees in decision making,” he said. “It seems like a worthwhile step, but not a perfect solution.”

But some experts said that while the SAT may favor wealthier applicants, other factors in the admissions process are even more subjective — and often even more associated with privilege and resources.

“Even though it is true that somebody’s score on the SAT or the ACT is highly related to their family income, so is almost everything else in the admissions process,” Deming said. “If you get rid of the SAT, you have to replace it with something else, and the things you replace it with are often even more related to privilege than the SAT.”

“I think it’s fair that students should have a chance to prove their worth, on some common metric,” he added. “And I think that’s what a test like that does.”

—Staff writer Elyse C. Goncalves can be reached at Follow her on X @e1ysegoncalves or on Threads @elysegoncalves.

—Staff writer Matan H. Josephy can be reached Follow him on X @matanjosephy

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