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Why colleges are adopting standardized tests again

Learner looked at news reports and press releases to track the efforts of colleges across the U.S. to reinstate standardized testing for admissions.


African American teenage girl sitting at the desk in a classroom holding a pencil and looking down at the paper in front of her.


In April, Harvard University announced that it would again require prospective undergraduates to submit either SAT or ACT scores as part of their applications for fall 2025, a significant policy reversal for the Ivy League school.

Harvard was one of many colleges and universities that dropped its standardized testing requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompted by the widespread closure of testing centers amid unprecedented circumstances. It was the latest development in the ongoing evolution of standardized testing, the purpose and value of which have been hotly debated for decades.

Schools that dropped standardized test scores as requirements for admissions decisions during the pandemic were far from the first to do so. The test-optional movement, which gained traction well before 2020, had already raised questions and concerns about the tests' legitimacy, prompting some 200 four-year colleges and universities to adopt "test-optional" or "test-blind" policies over the two decades prior.

Cultural and racial barriers inherent in standardized tests are well-documented. White and Asian students typically fall at the higher end of scoring distributions, while Black and Hispanic/Latino students are at the lower end, according to data from the Brookings Institution. Scores also tend to correlate with income, further perpetuating inequalities in scoring due to the racial wealth gap.

However, test scores alone don't reveal the full picture behind these scoring tendencies. Recent data suggests that standardized tests aren't actually biased but rather reflect and perpetuate existing inequalities. "Standardized tests are better proxies for how many opportunities a student has been afforded than they are predictors for students' potential," wrote Andre M. Perry, a Senior Fellow at Brookings Metro.

Now, Harvard is among other elite institutions in the United States—including Yale, Dartmouth, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Texas at Austin—that have re-embraced standardized tests. This development adds a new layer of complexity to the already fraught college admissions process.

Learner analyzed news reports and academic research to see why colleges are taking up standardized tests again and what it means for the future of college admissions.

Why test scores matter

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When the University of Texas at Austin announced that it would once again require undergraduate applicants to submit standardized test scores after four years of test-optional admissions, the school released data showing that students who declined to send in their SAT and ACT scores were seriously underperforming.

In 2023, around 90% of applicants to UT Austin submitted standardized test scores. Those who did had a median SAT score of 1420 out of 1600, while those who declined had a substantially lower median SAT score of 1160. Students who submitted SAT scores performed better in their classes, earning a 0.86 higher grade point average than their peers who did not. Overall, UT Austin estimates that students who chose to send in their SAT scores were 55% less likely to have a first-semester college GPA of below 2.0, or approximately a C average.

Colleges have also cited grade inflation as a reason for bringing back the SAT. The share of incoming four-year college freshmen with A or A+ high school GPA rose from 13.4% in 1985 to 30.9% in 2019, according to surveys published by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. A further 28.4% of freshmen reported having A- grade averages in high school. Because of this increase in high grades, a 4.0 GPA is no longer the mark of distinction it once was in college admissions.

Bringing back standardized tests, some research shows, would better distinguish students who have the potential to thrive academically. A 2024 study in the Journal of Opportunity Insights found that standardized test scores were far more predictive of college success than high school grades. They estimate that a typical student who received 1200 on their SATs can be expected to earn roughly a 3.2 GPA in college. By contrast, their peers who scored 1600 on their SATs can be expected to earn GPAs of around 3.65, a correlation held true across students from both affluent and less affluent high schools. In contrast, high school grades showed little correlation with college performance.

Data is mixed, however, on just how predictive standardized test scores are of academic performance. A 2019 study from the American Educational Research Association found that high school grades are more predictive of college success than standardized tests, suggesting that the SAT and ACT measure only a small skill set compared to the wide range of knowledge and information reflected by grades.

Standardized test scores might be the best success indicator for lower-income students

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Shutterstock // EQRoy

With conflicting data on standardized tests, holistic admissions have gained favor in recent years, an approach that promises to paint a fuller picture of each candidate. Yet some studies show that these holistic views can be even more skewed in favor of higher-income students.

Research by Harvard and Brown University economists analyzed admissions data from elite colleges and found that after controlling for test scores, more than 35% of applicants whose parents were in the top 0.1% of the income distribution had high "non-academic" ratings, compared to around 25% for applicants from a household with typical income.

Applicants whose parents were in the top 1% of income distribution paled in comparison to the children of the top 0.1% when it came to essays and extracurriculars. Similarly, students from the richest households also received better ratings from their teachers and counselors.

Given the bias in favor of higher-income students, some suggest that standardized test scores may actually be the best indicator of success among lower-income students and students of color. In other words, cutting out tests altogether might end up taking talented, lower-income students of color out of the running, leaving admissions officers to choose qualified but more privileged candidates whose families had the means to hire a professional tutor for test prep, invest in extracurricular activities like fencing or lacrosse, or even had the benefit of legacy admissions.

Since the College Board Entrance Exams broke ground in 1901, standardized testing has been a flashpoint in conversations about culture, education, and meritocracy in America. Current trends may only prove one thing: College admissions are increasingly fraught, and admissions officers must deal with the tension between maintaining high academic standards and ensuring that all students are given a fair shot at higher education—and a good start on their future.

Story editing by Alizah Salario. Copy editing by Tim Bruns.

This story originally appeared on Learner and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.