You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A crowd of people lounge on a campus green in front of a columned building facade

Yale is the first Ivy League university to adopt a “test-flexible” policy.

Stan Godlewski/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Yale University is adopting what it calls a test-flexible policy on standardized exam requirements, in which applicants must submit test scores but can choose to replace the traditional SAT or ACT with Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams. The policy will go into effect next admissions cycle.

“When used thoughtfully as part of a whole-person review process, tests can help increase rather than decrease diversity in our class, [but] a narrow focus on only the ACT and SAT can discourage promising students from considering colleges like Yale,” a statement announcing the decision explained. “Finally, inviting students to apply without any test scores can, inadvertently, disadvantage students from low-income, first-generation, and rural backgrounds.”

Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions, told Inside Higher Ed that after four years of test-optional policies—which the vast majority of colleges adopted at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—university officials came to appreciate both the benefits of test requirements and the need for increased flexibility.

“The reality is, we weren’t considering changing our standardized testing policy before the pandemic … but so much has changed over the past four years,” he said. “We needed to bring our policy in line with our practice by making this change.”

The decision represents a rare middle ground in an increasingly divisive debate over requiring standardized tests, as selective colleges weigh whether to make permanent the test-optional policies widely adopted during the pandemic—and which have been touted as part of a potential patchwork of policies seeking to maintain diversity in the wake of the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ban last summer.

The test-flexible third option has been tried before. The University of Michigan adopted a very similar policy during the pandemic; when most institutions went test optional, it allowed students to submit PSAT scores in addition to IB and AP. This week Michigan announced that it would adopt a permanent test-optional policy the same day Yale went test flexible.

A Third Way?

As temporary test-optional policies expire and experts debate testing’s benefits and prejudices, many of Yale’s peers have come down firmly on one side or the other: Dartmouth College, Georgetown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have all reinstated testing requirements, while Columbia University and the College of William & Mary extended their test-optional policies indefinitely.

By allowing students to submit IB and AP scores instead of just the SAT or ACT, Yale officials hope to walk a fine line between abandoning what they see as useful standardized data and ignoring the needs of students in a post-pandemic age.

“The question we’ve been getting all the time since [going test optional] has been, ‘Should I send my score?’” Quinlan said. “I’d rather have them think for themselves, ‘Which basket of scores do I have that reflects my strengths?’”

Mark Dunn, Yale’s senior associate director for outreach and recruitment, said he expects many students and families will wonder which test scores are best to submit. He hopes that the new policy will help applicants understand that they have to answer that question for themselves.

“Our advice would be, fight the urge to make equivalencies between these scores. They’re different exams measuring different things,” he said. “We hope this policy helps students internalize that it’s about putting their best foot forward—whatever that may be—and we will meet you on your terms. But don’t unwittingly withhold evidence from your application; give us something to work with.”

Quinlan said that under Yale’s test-optional policy, applicants sometimes omitted test scores that could have helped them in the admissions process, simply because they were below the median—a similar argument to the one Dartmouth’s admissions dean, Lee Coffin, made for returning to test requirements.

Yale also found that low-income and underrepresented applicants were more likely to be hurt by omitting test scores, according to Quinlan. Therefore, officials concluded that requiring all students to include some exam results in their application would benefit underrepresented students and increase diversity.

SAT and ACT scores, however, have been shown to skew significantly in favor of wealthy, white students. Putting those scores in context—whether by comparing them to the average at an applicant’s high school or considering socioeconomic factors like access to tutoring and practice tests—is “a real challenge” but more important than ever, Quinlan said. Yale has long used the College Board’s Landscape tool, a subscription resource that provides information about applicants’ high schools and neighborhoods, to help with this; he hopes the added flexibility of the new policy will make that difficult task a little easier.

Akil Bello, senior director of advocacy and advancement at FairTest and an outspoken critic of standardized testing, said he believes Yale is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Including AP and IB scores, he said, won’t make the Ivy League more accessible; it just adds more of the “elitist” metrics for success that selective colleges have trusted for decades.

“Students from higher-income families have higher SAT and ACT scores; that’s demonstrably true. So how does this address that issue?” he asked. “Who takes AP tests? What schools offer IB programs? They’re basically saying, ‘You can buy Gucci or you can buy Prada.’”

‘So Much Has Changed’

Quinlan said that when the pandemic hit, the admissions team at Yale was apprehensive about switching to test optional. They understood it was unavoidable under the circumstances, but the concept threatened to upend the institution’s admissions criteria.

But the switch was not as earthshattering as he’d feared.

“We have found that if you just spend a little bit more time looking at the transcript, the essays, letters of recommendation or even an interview, you can find evidence of academic preparation or curiosity or excitement or fit for Yale that can make us confident in our ability to admit the right type of students,” Quinlan said in an interview with NPR’s This American Life in 2021, a year into the policy.

Quinlan stands by what he said then. But those four years of test-optional admissions also taught him about the downsides of too much flexibility. The resulting policy synthesizes how Quinlan’s own understanding of testing has changed over a tumultuous period.

“We wanted to move toward more inclusive, broader requirements,” he said. “Otherwise, we would just be going back to the 2019 policy, which did not necessarily reflect what we have learned.”

But Yale and its peers that have reintroduced test mandates remain the exception; since the pandemic, most colleges no longer require test scores, and some big players won’t even consider them. In 2020 both the University of California and California State University systems adopted test-blind policies across their combined 33 campuses. Quinlan said that was a particularly big deal, since it has resulted in much lower SAT and ACT test-taking rates in the country’s most populous state.

Between the diminished role of the SAT and ACT post-pandemic and the evolution of testing itself—the College Board will come out with a new, shortened digital SAT in just a few weeks—the calculus around testing is different than it might have been 10 or even five years ago. Quinlan believes Yale’s policy could help other colleges reconcile their hunger for academically predictive applicant data with the new landscape.

“This is the best policy decision for Yale, and I’m in no way proselytizing about what other institutions should be doing,” Quinlan said. “That said, I hope that my peers take a closer look at this test-flexible policy, because I do think it has the potential to be a more open and inclusive option that allows us to embrace the changing dynamic of testing.”

Next Story

Written By

More from Traditional-Age