Harvard Abruptly Reverses Course — Reinstating SAT/ACT for the Class of 2029

12/04/20249 minute read
Harvard Abruptly Reverses Course — Reinstating SAT/ACT for the Class of 2029

In a surprising turn of events, Harvard University has announced the reinstatement of SAT/ACT testing requirements for the class of 2029, retracting its previous commitment to extend test-optional policies through 2030. This decision aligns Harvard with other Ivy League institutions like Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown, which have also reverted to mandatory testing based on new evidence suggesting that standardized tests are reliable predictors of academic success. This blog post delves into the reasons behind Harvard's policy reversal, explores the implications for prospective students, and discusses the broader impact on the college admissions landscape.

We recently shared some in-depth analysis of shifting SAT/ACT requirements at a number of top colleges, with several Ivy League schools abandoning the test-optional policies that had become the norm in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic.

Now another big tremor just struck the college admissions landscape: Harvard is abruptly reinstating testing requirements for the Class of 2029, falling in line behind Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown but only after signaling, even recently, its intention to remain test-optional, at least through the Class of 2030.

According to Harvard's official announcement “All applicants to the Class of 2029 — due to apply in the fall and winter of 2024 — will be required to submit SAT or ACT scores.”

The sudden about face makes Harvard’s announcement a likely source of considerable anxiety for many aspiring applicants, removing a key component of flexibility with regard to decisions about testing and score reporting at an institution with one of the lowest overall acceptance rates in the nation.

Prospective applicants now need to revisit their SAT/ACT planning, including, presumably, making time to prepare and possibly sit for several retakes as well, if necessary, as they consider this additional hurdle while striving for a coveted Harvard offer.

For the rare circumstances where a student faces genuine obstacles to sitting for an SAT or ACT, Harvard has made some small-print provisions to substitute AP scores or similar qualifications.

Making Common Cause with Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown

In announcing the testing mandate — effectively renouncing its pledge to remain test optional for the near term — Harvard pointed to evidence that standardized test scores are strong predictors of success in college and beyond, according to Hopi Hoekstra, the school's Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences:

Standardized tests are a means for all students, regardless of their background and life experience, to provide information that is predictive of success in college and beyond.

Harvard’s assertions echo those alluded to in the announcements from Yale, Dartmouth, and Brown, when those schools revealed their policy changes back in February and early March.

Jeremiah Quinlan, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, made a similar claim, just over a month ago, asserting that “for students attending high schools with fewer resources, applications without scores can inadvertently leave admissions officers with scant evidence of their readiness for Yale,” and that test scores can make it easier for admissions officers to more confidently identify which of these students have better prospects for “academic success  in college.”

For years, however, a preponderance of research pointed to high school grades as the most reliable predictors of college success.

So what gives?

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A (Controversial?) Ivy-League Reframing of the Test Debate

As a rationale for its decision to reinstate testing, Dartmouth pointed to internal reviews of post-admissions student data comparing student data before and after instituting its test-optional policy that led them to conclude that test scores were more reliable predictors of college success. Harvard, meanwhile, referenced a study more open to public and academic scrutiny, one done under the auspices of its own Opportunity Insights economics research initiative.

(Note: Dartmouth later updated its announcement in order to present its findings in the form of published research.)

The Harvard-led Opportunity Insights study, Diversifying Society’s Leaders? The Determinants and Causal Effects of Admission to Highly Selective Private Colleges (July 2023), came to a similar key conclusions that Yale cited using internal student data — the conclusion that standardized test scores were better predictors of college and post-college outcomes than high school GPA.

Predictive Power: For More Ranking or More Inclusion?

When comparing students with similar SAT/ACT scores who came from less advantaged vs. more advantaged high schools, the study’s authors found “there is no evidence that students from higher-resourced backgrounds outperform students from lower-resourced backgrounds — their college GPAs are virtually identical.”

A parallel finding in the same study also cast doubt on past assumptions about the superior predictive power of high school grades, leading the researchers to conclude that “standardized test scores may have more value for admissions processes than previously understood in the literature, especially for highly selective colleges.”

Minority students, of course, may see test mandates as a return of additional obstacles to admissions and equity. And Harvard's shift may be even more vexing in light of the US Supreme Court's still recent decision on affirmative action, with a majority of justices ruling against the use of race preferences in college admissions in June 2023.

One of Harvard’s own African American student organizations promptly criticized the Harvard's decision as one that “strikes at the very heart of the progress made toward achieving true equal opportunity within higher education institutions such as Harvard.”

The study’s authors, meanwhile, have an opposing rationale.

Their posture was one of encouragement when it comes to leveling the playing field in college admissions, arguing that test scores should offer a powerful mechanism for promoting equity within a holistic admissions approach precisely on account of this strong predictive power.

By reducing the ‘noise’ that abounds in a holistic admissions process — in the form of prominent academic and extracurricular accomplishments or activities far more accessible to affluent students — the study's authors argue that test scores can serve as a very reliable equalizer, providing a simple objective metric that schools could choose to use to make admissions more inclusive, as opposed to adding another barrier to admissions for underrepresented groups.

“Not everyone can hire an expensive college coach to help them craft a personal essay. But everyone has the chance to ace the SAT or the ACT.”

- David J. Deming, co-author of Diversifying Society’s Leaders? The Determinants and Causal Effects of Admission to Highly Selective Private Colleges

That said, the study’s authors themselves were not dismissive of the inequities impacting students chances for success on standardized tests:

It is important to acknowledge that students from low-income families and other less advantaged backgrounds have lower standardized test scores and are less likely to take the test than students from higher income families. This fact is consistent with those presented above because of disparities experienced throughout childhood, including differences in school quality, neighborhood exposure, and many other environmental conditions. While these findings do not suggest how to address these deeper inequities, they do suggest that test scores may be helpful for highly selective colleges to create more upward mobility by prioritizing admissions for academically prepared students from a broader range of backgrounds.

Wherever your sentiments lie when it comes to testing, holistic admissions, and equity, it's hard to deny that by acting in unison, this quadrumvirate of hallowed universities seems to be driving a stake in the ground — clearly reverting to an old policy but expressing a new approach and inaugurating a new vision of the role and purpose of standardized testing, as a uniquely valuable tool for promoting greater inclusion at the nation's most selective schools.

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Final Thoughts

As Harvard reinstates SAT/ACT requirements, high-achieving students face renewed pressures in their college application journey. While this shift may cause anxiety for students looking to apply to Harvard, it also reinstates a familiar feature of the admissions process but with an eye to inclusion rather than mere ranking.

This shift appears even more formative given the unanimity and solidarity of perspective expressed by Dartmouth, Yale, Brown, and now Harvard — especially with Harvard's unparalleled leadership status and willingness to anchor its claim in publicly accessible research.

In this shifting landscape, applicants should stay engaged and informed but not overly focused on headlines, remaining committed to advancing their overall academic preparation in order to build a resilient foundation for a successful journey into and through college, and beyond.