Lila Smith | Standardized testing is not standardized.

Smith’s Just Saying | What Dartmouth’s decision to mandate testing means for higher education

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By Lila Smith

Dartmouth College’s recent decision to reinstate the requirement for standardized testing for the 2024-2025 admissions cycle has intensified the debate on testing requirements in college admissions. Each of the Ivy League schools has arrived at its own, separate decisions. While Dartmouth argues that standardized tests play a crucial role in identifying the most promising and diverse students, biases and disadvantages make Penn’s recommitment to their test-optional admissions seem like the much more equitable alternative.

Dartmouth’s applicant pool, like Penn’s, is enormous, with more than 30,000 people vying for 1,200 seats. Simple statistics like test scores and grade point averages are a short-cut way to reduce the number of applications. Universities often claim that their admissions processes are “holistic,” as they assess an applicant’s experiences alongside traditional measures of academic achievement such as grades and test scores. In reality, testing scores provide admissions officers with a quick way to objectively judge candidates. 

GPA is increasingly seen as an unreliable metric, which has placed more weight on standardized testing over time. According to Lee Coffin, Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth, grade point average is being trusted less and less as an initial judgment of applicants. This is because grade inflation is common at the high school level. This is also complicated by the fact that many of the people who apply to Dartmouth and other top universities are straight-A students. 

While it is understandable that GPA may be an incomplete metric of student potential, relying on standardized testing as a primary indicator neglects the full picture. The one-day snapshot provided by standardized tests fails to capture a holistic view of student performance. Years of consistency, creativity, and intellectual curiosity that shape a student’s academic journey can be undermined by one bad day. 

Dartmouth’s faculty research group’s assertion that standardized tests provide a level playing field despite a student’s socioeconomic background ignores inherent biases in the standardized tests. Language, concepts, or examples that are more familiar to certain cultural or socioeconomic groups than others are often present, favoring certain test-takers over others. This can include vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, or grammatical structures that are more prevalent in certain communities. Oftentimes questions about historical events, literature, or social norms favor individuals who share similar cultural experiences or backgrounds.

Students from underprivileged backgrounds or marginalized communities may face unique challenges that impact their test performance. Jobs, family responsibilities, or the high cost of exams may prevent these students from taking the test multiple times. The financial burden of taking the test multiple times can be prohibitive, especially when students are already struggling to cover basic living expenses. As a result, students may be forced to limit the number of times they can retake exams, impacting their ability to achieve their desired scores. Singular test scores don’t take these factors into consideration. 

In some cases, students are unethically citing test-taking anxiety as a reason for needing “extra time” accommodations to take exams. Legitimate accommodations for students with disabilities are essential to ensuring equal access to educational opportunities. However, when students exploit these accommodations for personal gain without genuine need, it undermines the integrity of the accommodations system, inflates their scores without notifying schools that they have different accommodations, and diminishes the credibility of accommodations for students who truly require them. Thus, standardized testing is not standardized when students are taking the test under different conditions.

In light of these concerns, it is imperative that colleges and universities critically evaluate the role of standardized testing in their admissions processes. Rather than perpetuating an outdated and inequitable system, institutions should prioritize holistic assessments in all aspects of their process–not just standardized testing. 

Considering a diverse range of factors, including academic achievements, extracurricular activities, personal experiences, demonstrated potential for growth, and capacity for contribution to the campus community is the best way to allow for equitable opportunities and social mobility in education. This weed-out process disadvantages students by taking them out of consideration from the get-go.  

It is clear that standardized testing should not serve as a primary metric for college admissions when there is so much opportunity for an uneven playing field; the best element that standardized tests offer is standardization, and even then they aren’t truly standardized.

Colleges and universities must be transparent about how they use standardized test scores in their admissions decisions. If a school is test-optional, its website should give insight into how students should determine whether or not to submit a score. 

Steps must be taken to mitigate the inherent biases and inequities associated with these tests. This may include providing context for applicants’ test scores or considering alternative measures of academic aptitude. Schools can include AP and IB test scores in their consideration, helping to limit application quantities without relying on a singular score.   

The reinstatement of standardized testing requirements at Dartmouth College underscores the need for colleges and universities to critically evaluate their admissions processes and prioritize equity and inclusion. By moving away from reliance on standardized tests and embracing more holistic approaches, institutions can ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to pursue higher education.

It remains unclear whether Penn’s test-optional policy is a temporary delay of the decision on the use of test scores or a permanent solution. The reinforcement of Penn’s test-optional policy can be seen as a recognition of the limitations of standardized testing and a commitment to promoting fairness, diversity, and inclusivity in Penn’s admissions process.

Lila Smith is a freshman in the College studying Communications from Los Angeles, CA. Lila is also a staff writer for The Pennsylvania Post. Her email is

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