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Harvard University last week became the latest Ivy League institution to announce a return to standardized testing for undergraduate admissions, following on decisions by Brown University, Dartmouth College and Yale University. Each of these institutions has cited the potential of testing to improve opportunity and diversity. Harvard’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences said that “standardized tests are a means for all students, regardless of their background and life experience, to provide information that is predictive of success in college and beyond.” At Brown, the committee tasked with researching its testing policy concluded that reinstating testing “is consistent with Brown’s commitments to excellence and equity and will serve to expand access and diversity.” All four institutions cited research that suggested that their test-optional policy had harmed the admissions prospects of applicants coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. This was because some of these applicants had declined to submit test scores that, while lower than some others, would have in fact boosted their chances of admission when their educational circumstances were factored in.

The other Ivies are remaining test-optional for now while they further evaluate their policies. And while the future of college admissions will most likely incorporate a tapestry of differing approaches, including test-free, test-optional and test-flexible, it is clear that standardized testing will once again feature prominently on the admissions landscape, especially at the most highly selective institutions.

Considering the extraordinary benefits bestowed on those fortunate enough to access the best of American higher education, I fully support any policy that brings us closer to true equity and diversity in elite admissions. The findings at Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth and Yale underscore the complexity of the issue, and the need for a truly differentiated and contextual approach to evaluating applicants from a wide range of educational backgrounds and experiences. However, it is very important that this equity include students with learning disabilities, whose academic potential may be misrepresented on standardized tests, and unable to be effectively contextualized using the methods these institutions are advocating for. Disability is a form of diversity and social disadvantage that is not mentioned in these policies, nor in the internal and external research they reference.

The College Board and other testing entities are legally required to provide disability accommodations to ensure that testing conditions do not discriminate against individuals with disabilities. However, they have long failed in this mandate. When I prepared to take the SAT back in 2008, my family and I fought for months to get approval for me to take the test with the same accommodations (double time, a scribe and a reader) that my school had determined were necessary to afford me equal access to my education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The College Board refused, and my family did not have the resources to pay for private educational testing outside the school system and/or to retain a lawyer to fight the decision. While I did as best as I could under only partially accommodated conditions, I ran out of time long before completing each section and spent the final minutes in every block randomly circling half of the answer sheet. Or, in the case of the essay, writing a statement that identified myself as dyslexic, and imploring that I not be discriminated against based on my spelling (which, the year prior, had fallen into the bottom 3 percent of students in my age group). What resulted were standardized test scores that were dramatically lower than my academic standing and intellectual aptitude, and had significant implications for my college options.

I thought that my excellent grades in Advanced Placement classes, outstanding teacher recommendations, and an essay that discussed how my disability experience had not only shaped my identity, but also sparked activism that measurably improved disability inclusion at my high school, would outweigh my low standardized test scores. I addressed my scores directly and took colleges at their word that they would view them holistically, as only one part of my application, and within a broader context that considered my disability and the SAT’s failure to accommodate for it.

I was wrong. I did not get into a single college that I submitted SATs to, even colleges ranked much lower than the test-optional institutions that had accepted me in the absence of my scores. Privately, a candid admissions officer at one elite liberal arts college told me that while she knew I could be successful there, SAT scores typically correlate best with how applicants perform in a highly rigorous environment. I asked her what the provision was for the exceptions. She said she didn’t have a good answer.

My experience is hardly unique. Many similar reports of individuals being denied accommodations on standardized tests prompted the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to issue guidance in 2015 emphasizing fair testing practices and to scrutinize the College Board and other testing companies for their handling of accommodations.

Following this scrutiny, the College Board announced that it would make it easier for test takers to obtain the same accommodations that their high schools had granted. Though this significant progress would have benefited students like me tremendously, it has hardly eliminated the inequities of standardized testing for many students with disabilities, particularly the lower-income students that Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard and Yale rightly seek to support. A 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office found a variety of barriers for students needing accommodations on a range of standardized tests like the SAT, ACT and GRE, including the prohibitive cost to obtain the additional documentation that many testing entities still require, with clear equity implications for the students with the least financial resources.

In my own case, I realized that my SAT scores would always reflect badly on my potential and hinder my chances at obtaining admission and scholarships at selective institutions, including state universities, which certainly did not have test-optional policies at the time. I decided to take a gap year and re-apply to colleges, this time selecting only among test-optional institutions, which consisted of a limited group of private colleges, none of which were truly top-tier. I have no regrets about the excellent education I received at Sarah Lawrence College and all the wonderful ways that my life has been shaped by my particular educational path. I proved myself to be an excellent student at Sarah Lawrence, gained entry to a prestigious visiting student program at the University of Oxford, and went on to graduate school at the University of Michigan. I also recognize the significant privileges I enjoyed at every stage as a white male from a squarely middle-class family who had access to good public schools. But I am under no illusions that my disability was properly accommodated for on the SATs, that these scores were an accurate indicator of my higher education potential, or that what they represented was fairly weighed by the colleges that required them.

If America’s top colleges and universities return to standardized tests, particularly in the name of equity and diversity, there must be robust provisions for students with learning disabilities, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In cases where their SAT scores do not accurately reflect their abilities, they should not be used as a measure of collegiate worthiness.

Our most prestigious institutions of higher education should do all in the name of merit and equity. They must, therefore, think carefully about how to avoid perpetuating inequities for any subset of applicants for whom standardized test scores impair fair and accurate evaluation of merit and potential.

Dwight Richardson Kelly, M.S.W, L.I.C.S.W., is a clinical social worker based in Vermont. He has published research on disability inclusion in American and British higher education, previously served as a disability accommodation specialist for the City University of New York, and led disabled student groups at Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Oxford.

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