February 5, 2024

Update On Dartmouth's Standardized Testing Policy

Informed by new research, Dartmouth will reactivate the standardized testing requirement for undergraduate admission beginning with applicants to the Class of 2029


When Dartmouth suspended its standardized testing requirement for undergraduate applicants in June 2020, it was a pragmatic pause taken by most colleges and universities in response to an unprecedented global pandemic. At the time, we imagined the resulting "test-optional" policy as a short-term practice rather than an informed commentary on the role of testing in our holistic evaluation process. Nearly four years later, having studied the role of testing in our admissions process as well as its value as a predictor of student success at Dartmouth, we are removing the extended pause and reactivating the standardized testing requirement for undergraduate admission, effective with the Class of 2029. For Dartmouth, the evidence supporting our reactivation of a required testing policy is clear. Our bottom line is simple: we believe a standardized testing requirement will improve—not detract from—our ability to bring the most promising and diverse students to our campus.

An Evidence-based Policy Reactivation Informed by New Research and Fresh Data

A new research study commissioned by Dartmouth President Sian Beilock and conducted by Dartmouth economists Elizabeth Cascio, Bruce Sacerdote and Doug Staiger and educational sociologist Michele Tine confirms that standardized testing—when assessed using the local norms at a student's high school—is a valuable element of Dartmouth's undergraduate application. Their illuminating study found that high school grades paired with standardized testing are the most reliable indicators for success in Dartmouth's course of study. They also found that test scores represent an especially valuable tool to identify high-achieving applicants from low and middle-income backgrounds; who are first-generation college-bound; as well as students from urban and rural backgrounds. It is also an important tool as we meet applicants from under-resourced or less familiar high schools across the increasingly wide geography of our applicant pool. That is, contrary to what some have perceived, standardized testing allows us to admit a broader and more diverse range of students.

The finding that standardized testing can be an effective tool to expand access and identify talent was unexpected, thought-provoking, and encouraging. Indeed, their study challenges the longstanding critique that standardized testing inhibits rather than broadens college access; they note that contextually strong testing clearly enhances the admission chances of high-achieving applicants from less-resourced backgrounds when such scores are disclosed. Indeed, their finding reinforces the value of Dartmouth's longstanding practice of considering testing within our broader understanding of the candidate as a whole person.  Especially during the pandemic's test-optional period, my colleagues and I sharpened our awareness of local norms and environmental factors, as well as the degree of opportunity available at a student's high school and in their community. Those environmental elements of discovery and assessment were one of the fortuitous by-products of the extended pandemic moment during which we reimagined traditional guidelines and practices.  Knowing what we now know, it is an approach we will preserve as we move forward. Contextualized testing is an essential element of our individualized, holistic review. Of course, Dartmouth will never reduce any student to their test scores. It is simply one data point among many, but a helpful one when it is present.

The faculty researchers write: "Our overall conclusion is that SAT and ACT scores are a key method by which Dartmouth can identify students who will succeed at Dartmouth, including high performing students…who may attend a high school for which Dartmouth has less information to (fully) judge the transcript." Simply said, it is another opportunity to identify students who are the top performers in their environments, wherever they might be.

Indeed, as Dartmouth experienced our first admissions round with a "testing recommended" advisory this past fall, we set new institutional records for access even as 75 percent of those early acceptances included testing as an element of the application. We celebrated two early milestones: 22 percent are first-generation college bound and 21 percent qualified for a zero-parent contribution with family incomes and assets at or below $65,000 USD. These outcomes encourage and excite us, and we view contextualized testing as another opportunity to amplify our objective to admit and enroll a broadly heterogenous undergraduate class that is well-prepared to succeed in the curriculum we offer.

Lessons Learned from Test-Optional Practices

Our experience with optional testing has been enlightening. As with the other optional elements of the Dartmouth application—an alumni interview, a peer recommendation—the decision to share testing was individualized. But as the faculty study notes, "Some low-income students appear to withhold test scores even in cases where providing the test score would be a significant positive signal to admissions." Dartmouth admission officers also observed this pattern: Our post-admission research showed students with strong scores in their local framework often opted for a test-optional approach when their scores fell below our typical mean or mid-50% range. Often, those scores would have been additive, positive elements of the candidacy had they been shared. The absence of such scores underscores longstanding misperceptions about what represents a "high" or a "low" score; those definitions are not binary. A score that falls below our class mean but several hundred points above the mean at the student's school is "high" and, as such, it has value as one factor among many in our holistic assessment. That is how we consider testing at Dartmouth, and the opportunity to imagine better ways to inform students about their "score strength" will be a priority for us.

Moreover, the Dartmouth faculty study found testing "allows Dartmouth admission officers to more precisely identify students who will thrive academically." In our high-volume, globally heterogeneous applicant pool in which most candidates are "high achievers," environmental and historical data, high school performance, and testing—when taken together—offer the most robust framework for predicting success at Dartmouth. That finding was especially true for applicants from under-resourced high schools, noting that students with standardized test scores at or above the 75th percentile of test-takers from their respective high schools are well prepared to succeed in our fast-paced, rigorous course of study. All scores are assessed through that local framing as we seek excellence from new geographies.

Reactivating and Reimagining Our Testing Requirement

Beginning with the Class of 2029, Dartmouth will once again require applicants from high schools within the United States to submit results of either the SAT or ACT, with no Dartmouth preference for either test. As always, the results of multiple administrations will be super-scored, which means we will consider the highest result on individual sections of either exam regardless of the test date or testing format. For applicants from schools outside the U.S., results of either the SAT, ACT or three Advanced Placement (AP) examinations OR predicted or final exam results from the International Baccalaureate (IB), British A-Levels, or an equivalent standardized national exam are required. This distinction between students attending a school in the U.S. or outside the U.S. acknowledges the disparate access to American standardized testing—as well as the lack of familiarity with such testing—in different parts of the world. Dartmouth's English language proficiency policy remains unchanged: For students for whom English is not the first language or if English is not the primary language of instruction for at least two years, students are required to submit an English proficiency score from TOEFL, IELTS, Duolingo or the Cambridge English Exam.

Dartmouth will pair the restoration of required testing with a reimagined way of reporting testing outcomes, ideally in ways that are more understandable for students, families, and college counselors. For example, when testing was submitted as part of our Early Decision round for the Class of 2028, 94 percent of the accepted students who shared testing scored at or above the 75th percentile of test-takers at their respective high school. More significantly, this figure was a full 100 percent for the 79 students who attend a high school that matriculates 50 percent or fewer of its graduates to a four-year college. Accordingly, we will develop a new testing profile that seeks, in part, to disrupt the long-standing focus on the class mean and mid-50 percent range, with hopes of empowering students to understand how a localized score aligns with the admissions parameters at Dartmouth.

An Enduring Commitment to Holistic Admissions

Dartmouth has practiced holistic admissions since 1921, and that century-long consideration of the whole person is unquestionably as relevant as ever. As we reactivate our required testing policy, contextualized testing will be one factor—but never the primary factor—among the many quantitative and qualitative elements of our application. As always, the whole person counts, as do the environmental factors each person navigates. And, as always, we will evaluate and reframe Dartmouth's undergraduate admission requirements as the data and the evidence informs us.