Most Minnesota colleges are sticking with the test-optional policies they adopted during the pandemic, forgoing the use of an SAT or ACT score in admissions, even as Dartmouth College and some others reinstate the standardized test requirement.

Many colleges nationwide switched to a test-optional policy when the pandemic canceled in-person activities, including the SAT and ACT tests. However, an effort to reduce the influence of the SAT and ACT in college admissions had been in the works long before the pandemic because of the way scores can be influenced by economic disparities and other factors.

At St. Olaf College, Dean of Admissions Chris George said switching to test-optional, which the college planned to do before the pandemic, has been a major success.

"I think it matches what's important to us," George said. "Our data show that the classes that a student took, the grades they received, as well as the way they challenged themselves in high school with our holistic review was a better predictor for us."

Dartmouth announced in early February that it would start requiring the SAT or ACT again, starting with applicants for the class of 2029. Some other colleges, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Georgetown University, have also retired their test-optional policies. In a statement about the change, Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock said the college made the switch after analyzing data collected during the test-optional period since the pandemic that showed that a holistic review without test scores missed students who might have stood out with that extra piece of information.

"In particular, SAT/ACTs can be especially helpful in identifying students from less-resourced backgrounds who would succeed at Dartmouth but might otherwise be missed in a test-optional environment," Beilock wrote in a letter to the Dartmouth community.

Still, she acknowledged that the tests themselves "reflect inequality in society and in educational systems across the nation" and said the scores would be considered within the context of where applicants went to high school. For instance, she noted a high, but not perfect, score from a student could help that student stand out if their school had a low average score.

The reversal was disappointing to advocates of the test-optional approach who point out that wealthier families can afford to hire private tutors who know the best ways to get a high score.

Harry Feder, executive director of the advocacy organization FairTest, said to get a well-rounded class, college admissions offices should look to other metrics besides an SAT or ACT score.

"Thoughtful admissions departments who are not beholden to average SAT scores understand that to give kids an opportunity, to produce a multitalented class, a three-hour test is not a good metric," Feder said.

Some schools, including California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and those in the University of California system, do not allow applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores.

In Minnesota, a few small colleges like Bethany Lutheran College and Martin Luther College still require an SAT or ACT score in admissions, according to their admission websites. But others are largely remaining test-optional, saying they use a holistic approach to admissions, where factors other than a student's grades and test scores are considered.

Hamline University and St. Olaf College have committed long-term to being test-optional. The University of Minnesota is test-optional but has not committed to the policy long-term. Nearly 50% of applicants to the University of Minnesota did not submit an SAT or ACT score with their application.

"The University of Minnesota considers an ACT or SAT test score as part of the undergraduate admissions holistic review process if a student chooses to include a test score with their application," Robert McMaster, the U's dean of undergraduate education, said in a statement.

Still, students applying to test-optional Minnesota schools may not want to skip the SAT or ACT altogether because scores are still used in other ways. Winona State University uses SAT and ACT scores for class placement and some scholarships. Hamline also considers SAT and ACT scores when awarding some scholarships.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, noted test scores may demonstrate a student's strengths and raise their visibility: "The SAT allows students — regardless of where they go to high school — to be seen by colleges and scholarship providers."

Tests as barriers or helpful predictors?

Dartmouth said its internal study showed high test scores mirrored first-year student success more than GPA or other factors did. The president said that data, along with robust financial aid, will help recruit "the broadest and most talented student body possible."

But Feder said Dartmouth's testing requirement will have the opposite effect on applications because the tests present another barrier.

"It completely ignores that if you require the SAT, more kids won't bother applying to Dartmouth, so they won't get the disadvantaged students who would've applied without it," Feder said.

Carleton College is still test-optional for now, said Art Rodriguez, dean of admissions and financial aid. But the school is conducting analysis through 2025 before making additional decisions.

"It'll be interesting to see how each individual institution determines what's the best practice for them based on the analysis that they're able to conduct around student success," Rodriguez said.

Jack O'Connor is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.

Correction: This story has been updated to note Carleton College is test-optional for now, but plans to continue analysis of that approach through 2025.