In a pivotal decision that will likely ripple across higher education, Harvard University announced on Monday that it will not require next year’s undergraduate applicants to submit standardized test scores.
The decision comes amid fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and growing criticism that standardized test requirements unfairly penalize students of color.
A coalition of civil rights groups and education advocates intend to send a letter on Tuesday to elite colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UMass Amherst, urging them to scrap the SAT and ACT altogether.
“[We] call upon you to stand up against practices that institutionalize racial inequity and take action to ensure your institution promotes the type of inclusive diversity that is critical for generating sustainable solutions and a better future for all,” says the letter, written by The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and signed by 10 other organizations and provided to the Globe.
Harvard’s decision is temporary. The university has defended its admissions policy and its strategy to build a diverse student body in court. Last fall, a federal district court judge in Boston ruled in favor of Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy, although opponents are looking to overturn that judgment on appeal.
A Harvard spokeswoman on Monday tied the decision to COVID-19 and the difficulty the pandemic has created for students seeking to take the standardized tests. Students who do not submit a test will not be disadvantaged, she said.
“We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has created insurmountable challenges in scheduling tests for all students, particularly those from modest economic background, and we believe this temporary change addresses these challenges,” spokeswoman Rachael Dane in an e-mail Monday evening.
Even before the pandemic, many competitive schools had joined a growing national movement to make standardized testing an optional part of a student’s admissions package. More than half of all four-year colleges and universities in the nation no longer require SAT or ACT this fall, according to FairTest, an organization that tracks such requirements and urges schools to drop them.
“A lot of it is catalyzed by COVID-19, but the movement was out there,” said Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest, which also signed the lawyers letter to the schools.
By the end of last year, 1,000 schools had made the tests optional, and another 200 have joined the movement this year, according to a master list his organization compiles. The list includes 85 percent of the top liberal arts colleges in the country, as rated by U.S. News and World Report, Schaeffer said.
Boston University and Northeastern are among the local institutions that have dropped testing requirements this spring. Boston College said Monday it, too, would drop the requirement. Most have done so on a temporary basis and plan to reinstate or reevaluate the requirement after the repercussions of the pandemic fade. Others include Amherst College, Babson College, Bentley University, Dartmouth College, Middlebury College, Tufts University, Wellesley College, Williams College, and Yale University. In all, 132 colleges in New England are now test-optional, according to FairTest.
Not requiring tests gives colleges more and better-qualified applicants, Schaeffer said, and makes schools more attractive to students.
“For kids, you know that you’re going to be treated as more than a score. It’s a breath of fresh air that ‘I’m going to be evaluated holistically,’” he said.
MIT and UMass Amherst are among the well-known schools in Massachusetts that still require standardized tests.
MIT has not changed its testing requirements but may choose to do so if an increasing number of students can’t take the standardized tests because of the pandemic, said Stuart Schmill, the dean of admissions and student financial services.
"That may come to pass, but at this point we are waiting to see how things develop in the fall, in the hope that there will be some abilities for students to take those tests," Schmill said. "But if they cannot, then we will adjust our policies and make decisions using the best information that we have in the rest of the application.”
Still, MIT stands behind the benefits of SAT and ACT test scores. These test scores are among many factors that MIT considers in admissions, Schmill has said.
“While we know these tests are not perfect, they do provide an informative and consistent measure of a student’s academic potential in a world where high school experiences vary so widely, and they allow us to admit students from across the country — and the globe — who we are confident will thrive and succeed at MIT," Schmill said in a blog post in March.
Boston College officials just recently dropped the requirement and began notifying college counselors on Monday, according to BC spokesman Jack Dunn.
“We hope this decision puts those applicants’ minds at ease, and will allow them to focus on the other important aspects of their college search and application process in the months ahead,” said Grant Gosselin, director of undergraduate admission at BC, in a statement to the Globe.
BC plans to reinstate testing requirements after the effects of COVID-19 subside, he said. The BC admissions director said standardized testing provides “meaningful context” for evaluating applicants from very different high schools. He also said the school has found that test scores help predict whether a student will be successful at BC.
The admissions dean at Tufts University announced in March that the school would conduct a three-year test optional admissions policy. The decision was spurred by COVID-19, dean Joseph Tuck said in a statement to the Globe.
In the past, many applicants took the SAT or ACT in the spring and then again in the fall. With various testing dates canceled, the school worried students who would have otherwise applied to Tufts might cross it off their list.
“To me, it was indefensible to miss out on great students because of too much rigidity about a testing requirement,” Tuck said.
The school decided to conduct the trial to gather enough data to decide whether to make the permanent decision.
College counselors agreed that eliminating the testing requirement will help increase access for low-income and first-generation students.
“The test disadvantages students who you may want in your community,” said Robert Bardwell, the director of counseling at Monson High School in south central Massachusetts. “It’s a system that’s set up to disadvantage those that are already disadvantaged.”
There are likely to be fewer test spots and locations because of the pandemic and social distancing requirements, meaning that students without transportation or access to counselors who will help them apply to take the test, or those who are juggling both academic and family responsibilities, will struggle to take these exams, Bardwell said.
And it’s usually these minority, first-generation students who are balancing both academics and jobs and family responsibilities that colleges should want on their campus, he said.
As more colleges adopt test-optional policies or try to phase out standardized exams, those that don’t are likely to face more pressure, he said.
“It does make you wonder what the value is and why it’s so important,” Bardwell said.