February 23, 2024 - 8:00pm

Elite universities in the United States are starting to wind down their pandemic-era experiments with test-optional admissions policies. The verdict? Standardised tests are not so bad after all. 

On Thursday Yale University announced it would reinstate standardised testing requirements in the autumn of 2025. Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan stated that Yale’s test-optional policies hurt the disadvantaged students it was trying to help:

“Our analyses have found that applicants without test scores have been less likely to be admitted; concerningly, this was especially true for applicants from lower-income backgrounds and those attending high schools with fewer college-preparatory courses.”

Yale’s decision makes it the third elite American university to reverse course after Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Does this mean that the tide could be turning? 

The switch to test-optional policies follows a decades-long battle over the utility of standardised testing requirements in college admissions. Many earlier criticisms debated whether tests like the SAT and ACT were good enough predictors of student success in college. If the tests were insufficiently useful, then their perceived harms of being too reductive or contributing to a stressful testing culture might not be justified. 

But as higher education’s obsession with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) reached its peak in 2020, criticisms of standardised tests became more racially-driven, with critics painting the tests as “racist”. The coronavirus pandemic and its associated lockdowns finally gave elite universities the excuse they needed to implement test-optional policies: many students couldn’t take the tests at a physical location with a proctor so a change was required.

Now, as the progressive haze has begun to clear, universities such as Yale and Dartmouth have come to their senses. But their susceptibility to cultural trends should still be concerning, as these decisions should be based on quality evidence. So there is still a way to go before anti-meritocratic DEI policies are fully removed from college admissions. 

These elite institutions act as if they’ve discovered brand new information about standardised tests, when the arguments they make have been around for decades. Dartmouth, which released its report on the value of standardised tests in January 2024, called the findings “unexpected, thought-provoking, and encouraging”. 

Yet proponents of standardised tests have argued for decades that the SAT and ACT give low-income students the opportunity to demonstrate their academic qualifications. Either university leaders have had their heads buried in the sand for years, or they actively chose to ignore this information to follow the lead of progressive zealots. 

The tendency of elite universities to blindly follow the latest whims of activists is a good reason for scepticism about the future of college admissions. While it’s encouraging that some universities have reversed test-optional policies, a 2023 survey of more than 200 college admissions officers found that 73% wanted to keep test-optional policies permanently. And at least some of this devotion to test-optional policies is a reaction to the 2023 Supreme Court ruling that ended racial considerations in college admissions.

Test-optional policies are only one of the many anti-meritocratic distortions admissions officers have introduced in recent years to “racially balance” the admissions pool. Universities have created essay questions which ask students to discuss their racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some public universities have introduced policies to automatically accept the top 10% of students at each high school in the state, subtly favouring students at less competitive schools that they hope are more diverse.

All of these policies need to be overturned in favour of colour-blind meritocratic admissions if American universities wish to return to their former values of excellence and equality of opportunity. But only time will tell if institutions can completely shake off the “anti-racist” delirium of 2020. For now, bringing back standardised tests is a good start.

Neetu Arnold is a Research Fellow at the National Association of Scholars and a Young Voices contributor.