Harvard Continues Test-Optional Policy

Harvard Continues Test-Optional Policy
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When the pandemic first hit in March of 2020, along with all the school closures, there were also waves of SAT (Standard Assessment Testing) and ACT (American College Testing) cancellations. As the pandemic continued, through most of 2020 and 2021, many other test dates were either full or cancelled, so many students were forced to apply to colleges without their test scores. In light of this, many colleges implemented test-optional policies; including Harvard. This year Harvard has announced that they will be continuing this policy due to the fact that these tests are racially and culturally biased.

According to a report by The Common Application, only 43% of students in 2020-21 submitted SAT or ACT results, this was down from 77% in 2019-20. Considering the difficulty in obtaining test appointments, many colleges didn’t require test scores for admission in 2020-21. 90% of Common Application’s members (over 900 colleges) didn’t require scores.  During the pandemic, Massachusetts, where Harvard is based, was one of the states with an extremely low rate of testing; less that 25%.

Harvard was one of the numerous colleges that adopted this stance through the pandemic. They have announced that they will continue this policy until 2026 due to claims that the standardized tests are racially and culturally biased. During the pandemic, those who did complete that SAT or ACT were often from more affluent areas and the gaps between minorities and first-generation college attendees were exacerbated. First-generation applicants often are from lower socioeconomic, minority or immigrant backgrounds; often all three. Prior to the pandemic, 69% of first-generation applicants took the SAT or ACT compared to 78% continuous generation applicants – a 9-point difference. During the pandemic, that difference doubled, with 30% first-generation applicants taking the tests compared to 48% of continuous generation applicants.

The removal of testing requirements saw a rise in applicants without test scores from minorities and under-represented groups, proving the importance of removing barriers to education access. According to a study by the Student Aid Policy Analysis; the higher the family income, the higher the SAT score. Students from lower-income backgrounds scored 968/1600 on average compared to middle-class applicants who scored an average of 1091/1600. Black students, on the other hand, scored 104 points lower on average than white students.

The finanical barrier to the SAT and ACT exacerbates the cultural and racial barriers. The SAT costs around $55 each time and the ACT costs around $60. Affluent students can afford to take the test multiple times, improving their score by 60 points on average each time: an option not available to lower income students.  There are fee-waivers available for lower-income students, but the SAT only provides two free tests and ACT only provides one. The ability to retake the SATs and ACTs multiple times allows these students to submit their best scores. Furthermore, affluent students can afford private SAT or ACT tutoring – the cost of these tutoring courses can be around $1500 -$2000, often they can be higher. According to a Bark survey, 14.4% of students receive some type of tutoring. The lack of access to tutoring and the inability to re-take tests multiple times acts as a gatekeeping method for prestigious institutions – removing them may be a step to make the application process fairer. Instead of test scores, students are encouraged to send “whatever materials they believe would convey their accomplishments in secondary school and their promise for the future”.  

Whilst the pandemic forced many colleges to stop considering test results, many colleges, including Harvard and other Ivy Legues, are considering keeping the test-optional policy in the future. The pandemic accelerated a trend that was already growing across the United States. Last season’s test-optional policy provided the framework for this admissions process and proved that there is still an effective way of assessing who to admit. It may not be the end of SATs or ACTs however, since many merit-based scholarships still require these results. As the pandemic continues, it is likely that colleges will not return to requiring tests – especially since there is growing evidence that standardized testing provides more barriers to the education system for disadvantaged students.

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