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How do you feel about the SAT? The recent decisions of Dartmouth and Yale to return to consideration of standardized testing in admission has raised this question anew. I have smart, thoughtful friends on both sides of this question. My own opinion of standardized tests is favorable. I think selective colleges should require standardized tests and use them appropriately in their decisions.

I can provide reasons in defense of that position—the same reasons that influenced Dartmouth and Yale. I think standardized tests give schools a useful universal data point they can use to compare candidates, compensate for the absurd grade inflation that often renders high school transcripts meaningless, are a useful predictor of college performance and can help schools spot talent that otherwise would go unnoticed. I do not think the tests, in and of themselves, encode racial bias. And though I am certain they provide an advantage to wealthy kids who can afford test-preparation courses (and the infinitely smaller number of poor kids attending prep schools who have access, through enrollment, to test-prep courses), I know that admission officers are smart and can handle that fact appropriately.

In the end, though, my support for standardized testing is grounded in an entirely separate reason: my belief that taking the SAT offers what lawyers call “process values.” Let me explain.

In 1985, I was a 19-year-old lance corporal in the United States Marine Corps assigned to an assault carrier, the USS Peleliu, sailing across the Pacific Ocean. I was preparing to apply to college that fall, and I wanted to go to a good one, but my prospects were not great. I had left high school after three years with very poor grades. Plus, I was a broke, financially independent teenager with no money. So, if I wanted to prove I could do college work at a high level and attract the scholarship I needed, I knew the SAT provided the only real opportunity.

The stakes were high, so I decided to prepare for the tests with the same seriousness that Marines prepare for war. Before we embarked onboard ship, I spent some $20 on two bulky SAT test-prep books, one containing math and language exercises, the other containing dozens of practice exams. Every night, after the workday, I retired to the mess deck where the Navy offered unlimited hot coffee on tap and I did two hours of SAT preparation work. I cannot recall precisely how much progress I made from my first diagnostic exam to my final pretest tune-up. I do remember, however, that it represented more than 200 points. I have no doubt that my relatively high score was an essential factor in my ultimate admission to Yale.

And here is where “process values” come in. I am not claiming that my experience can be reproduced by everyone. I am not claiming that anyone can study hard and get into Yale. I had certain advantages back then, just as (I think it is fair to say) I faced certain barriers. What I do believe, however, is that the standardized test process had value in itself.

What did that value consist of? First, the test offered opportunity. As a 19-year-old, I could not travel back in time and get better grades. But the SAT offered a way out, an opportunity to prove my worth against every other single applicant. It is important to tell smart kids with mediocre grades that standardized tests give them a chance to establish their competence, no matter what challenges they had in high school.

Second, the test offered accountability. When I went in to take that test, there was no guarantee I would do well. Nothing was promised, nothing certain, my own fate in my hands and my hands alone. I would sit for three hours, take a test and get a score. How I did was up to me. This accountability was and is vital. In an era of immense high school grade inflation, where poor performance is often excused, students need to experience a moment where they are held objectively accountable for what they know and what they do not.

And finally, the test-preparation process required discipline. I did well because I put in the work. That was probably the test’s greatest gift. It was important to my development to face a challenge that demanded that kind of dedication.

The standardized testing process does more than provide useful data to admission officers. It provides students with opportunity, accountability and discipline in a world where those things are in short supply. And that is why I think Yale and Dartmouth have taken an important step. Many colleges abandoned standardized testing during the COVID epidemic because of concerns about test availability. Now that the epidemic is over, it is time to bring them back.

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