The Extension of Harvard's Test Optional Policy

The latest news about changes in standardized-testing policies tends to pique people’s interest. But the latest news about changes in standardized-testing policies at Harvard University? That sends folks into breathless fits of joy or despair, depending on their view of the universe and the rightful place of the ACT and SAT within it. Because, you know, Harvard.

On Thursday The Washington Post first reported that the nation’s oldest university, which temporarily suspended its ACT and SAT requirement due to Covid-19, would extend its test-optional policy for four years, through 2026. Why? Harvard cited just one reason: concerns about how the pandemic might continue to limit high-school students’ access to testing centers. The bottom line is significant: The granddaddy of the Ivy League, which played a huge role in popularizing the SAT, just told the world it would forgo its testing requirements until today’s eighth graders finish high school.

The news caused a social-media tizzy. Some observers rejoiced on Twitter: “A tremendous step”; “This should be permanent. SAT/ACT were used to exclude Black and Brown students from colleges.” Others, such as Andrew Sullivan, the political commentator, saw a falling sky: “Abolishing objective standards to enable more aggressive race discrimination. … American higher education is committing suicide.”

The strong reactions reflected the fact that, whether you like it or not, Harvard casts an extra-long shadow. What the university does has long influenced other institutions, as well as the public’s thinking about admissions. And what Harvard seems to be doing now is slow-marching the ACT and SAT into decline and diminished relevance. It’s hard to imagine the university would end up rolling back its test-optional policy after so many years on the books.

Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment at Oregon State University, which adopted a permanent test-optional policy in 2020, said on Thursday that Harvard’s announcement “does fire a shot across the bow of everyone down the food chain — which is everyone.”

Though most colleges have at least temporarily stopped requiring the ACT and SAT, many big-name institutions haven’t yet announced that such policies will be permanent. Harvard’s announcement probably just made it more likely that they will do so. The university, Boeckenstedt said, had made “a bold ‘We’re going to end this now’ move. I give them credit for using their power. They can do what they want, and they did the right thing.”

Angel B. Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, had a similar reaction. “The reality of the matter is that Harvard doesn’t actually have to make any changes to its admissions process to admit a strong class,” he said. “Staying test-optional sends a really strong statement, a strong message about the lack of value that they see in the tests.”

Pérez, a former vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College, in Connecticut, expects that the announcement will accelerate discussions of testing policies at many other institutions, not just superselective ones: “When Harvard speaks, your alumni ask ‘What are we going to do?’ There’s a pressure to respond. If this ends up trickling down and influencing more and more institutions to make this change permanent, I think that’s a win.”

Perhaps it’s tempting to view the recent rise in test-optional policies as a high-minded revolution in which college officials searched their souls and decided that, by gosh, requiring tests that disproportionately disadvantage low-income and underrepresented-minority students really was a harmful and inequitable thing to do. Sure, on some campuses over the last few decades, that’s kind of what happened.

But the truth is, colleges are businesses. The pandemic disrupted the admissions business model that relied heavily on testing. And after the admissions process didn’t grind to a halt, and application totals soared far and wide, many colleges made the business decision — for competitive reasons, if nothing else — that tests are no longer necessary. That leaves more applicants to decide whether submitting a score might help or hurt them, a business decision in its own right — and often a difficult one.

So, yes, Harvard’s announcement is significant. But it’s important to keep this news in perspective. For one thing, changing a testing policy doesn’t guarantee that a given institution’s admissions process will deliver more-equitable outcomes. Harvard didn’t announce on Thursday that it would, for instance, stop considering applicants’ legacy status in admissions. In the classes of 2014 to 2019, children of the university’s alumni were accepted at a rate of 33.6 percent, compared with 5.9 percent for nonlegacies, according to a prominent economist’s analysis of Harvard data that came to light during an anti-affirmative-action lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions. Generally, legacy applicants tend to be white and come from affluent families.

One can get carried away with Ivy fever. So let’s keep in mind that the biggest testing news this week arguably came from the Golden State. On Wednesday, Joseph I. Castro, California State University’s chancellor, announced that the system’s Admissions Advisory Council had recommended eliminating its ACT/SAT requirement. The Board of Trustees will vote on the recommendation in March, but the nation’s largest university system — which enrolls nearly half a million students — appears poised to join the ranks of colleges allowing applicants to decide whether to submit test scores.


Recently, the University of California decided to go test-free, removing the ACT and SAT from the admissions process altogether. In other words, the history of standardized testing is being rewritten, and the lead authors are large, diverse institutions out West.

Finally, let’s not forget that while testing requirements have fallen at hundreds of colleges since 2020, many applicants will, for one reason or another, continue to take the ACT, the SAT, or both — and submit their scores. Those tests might die out one day, but they’re certainly not dead yet.

Beverly Low, director of guidance and college counseling at Manchester Essex Regional Middle High School, in Massachusetts, told The Chronicle last summer that many of her school’s high-achieving students would continue taking the ACT and SAT, “no matter what,” because they wanted a top score: “They live for the challenge.”

On Friday, though, Low said that Harvard’s move could help ease the skepticism of students and parents who don’t believe that test-optional really means test-optional. The toughest audience to convince that a college won’t penalize an applicant without scores?

College-educated parents, for whom testing was a rite of passage, Low said: “I’ve been trying to convince them that a student’s teachers, who instruct, challenge, mentor, and evaluate their children over time have a much better sense of a student’s academic ability and potential for success in college than a score obtained from a four-hour multiple-choice test. But, heck. If it’s happening at Harvard, then it must be real. Right?” By Eric Hoover