Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


The standardized test, badly battered in recent years as universities moved to more holistic admissions models during the COVID pandemic and in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court rulings upending race-conscious admissions, isn't down for the count quite yet — and that's a good thing for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This month, Dartmouth became the first Ivy League school to resume requiring students to submit their SAT or ACT score, starting next year, moving away from a test-optional policy that, while well-intentioned, wasn't having the desired effect.

This isn't just about a small cluster of elite private schools that get outsized attention while educating a tiny fraction of Americans. According to the nonprofit FairTest, more than 80% of U.S. colleges are now test-optional or test-free.

The problem is this: Tests, while certainly imperfect measures of academic prowess, are better than most alternatives. They're less subject to highly unlevel playing fields, like grade-point average and school quality and course difficulty. They're not profoundly subjective, like measurements of students' grit and creativity and exuberance. They don't innately favor the wealthy and well-connected, as are the points often given to students with enriching service projects or extracurriculars.

Sure, plenty of students can and do prep to boost their SAT or ACT scores, and that preparation often costs money — but standardized tests, which are the same whether you take them in Astoria, Anchorage or Alabama, turn out to be among pretty good predictors of students' success.

Dartmouth changed course after its new president, Sian Beilock, asked some professors to study standardized tests' utility as a criterion in admissions.

First, they found that tests more closely correlated with students' college performance than high-school grades, teacher recommendations and essays. Second, and maybe even more important for those who've been leading the anti-test brigades to understand, they found that less-advantaged students often withheld their test scores thinking that doing so would increase their chances of admissions — when in fact their scores would've helped them get into the elite school.

The score on a single test taken on a single day is only one indicator. There are plenty of kids who do a little bit worse on the SAT and ACT who might otherwise be brilliant students. Which is one of the drawbacks with the single-test admissions model for the most selective New York City public high schools.

But there's a huge distance between saying that admissions shouldn't be based on just one test and saying tests shouldn't be one important factor, measured alongside others. In far too many ways, the college admissions game is rigged to help the wealthy and privileged. A study released last year found that applicants from families in the top 0.1% economically had more than twice the chance of getting accepted to a top-tier university than the average applicant.

The SAT and ACT — and Advanced Placement tests, and International Baccalaureate tests, and other well-established, rigorous measures of what kids have learned and how sharply they think — can give a leg up to disadvantaged kids who might have attended subpar K-12 schools, had turbulent adolescences filled with family and economic obligations, yet still managed to show a spark.

Don't write off the tests, or the kids who use them to demonstrate excellence, yet.