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‘It’s a win-win’: Universities admit their second class of test-optional applicants

Harvard will not require SAT or ACT scores for the next four incoming classes.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

This week, universities across the country began admitting their second classes of students for which standardized tests were not required.

On Thursday, Havard accepted 740 students for early admission to the class of 2026 and said that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, it will not require SAT or ACT scores for the next four incoming classes. Most other area colleges and universities — including Northeastern University, Boston University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Wellesley College, to name a few — have also extended their test-optional policy this year and beyond.

The widespread adoption of test-optional admissions is being applauded by civil rights and equity advocates, who say it removes a significant barrier to entry for students of low income, students of color, and first-generation students. They argue such policies should become permanent.

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“Eliminating test requirements enhances diversity and academic quality without undermining academic performance,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a nonprofit research group that began advocating for open testing in the 1980s. Schaeffer said high test scores are not correlated with greater academic performance once an applicant is enrolled.

Research by FairTest shows that high ACT and SAT scores are strongly correlated with socioeconomic status, race, and gender. And high-cost tutoring effectively allows affluent parents to boost their kids’ scores without actually making them better students, Schaeffer said.

Before the pandemic, more than 1,000 schools across the country had adopted a test-optional model, including many New England institutions. Now, as many tests sites remain closed, Schaeffer said he’s not aware of any New England colleges that are requiring test scores for admission.

Instead of standardized tests, Harvard is considering applicants’ academic achievements, community service, extracurricular activities, family responsibilities, and employment, said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, in a statement.

“Students who do not submit standardized test scores will not be disadvantaged in their application process,” Fitzsimmons said. “Their applications will be considered on the basis of what they have presented, and they are encouraged to send whatever materials they believe would convey their accomplishments in secondary school and their promise for the future.”

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Almost 12 percent of the students newly admitted to Harvard will be the first in their families to attend college, compared with 16.7 percent last year. An estimated 10.8 percent are eligible for need-based federal Pell grants, Harvard said.

The admitted student population is 25.9 percent Asian American, 13.9 percent Black, 10.5 percent Latino, 3.7 percent Native American and Native Hawaiian, and 12.6 percent international, officials said.

This week, Suffolk University also released 3,000 early action decisions for its second class of test-optional students. Donna Grand Pré, vice president of admission and financial aid, said the university began planning to go test-optional in 2018 and implemented a permanent policy in the fall of 2021.

“We wanted to question why were really looking at this test, and to not just continue doing it because it’s what we’ve always done. We looked at our applicants and the students we want to recruit and asked what we can do to help them pursue a college education,” Grand Pré said.

The applicant pool has so far remained consistent, she said, as Suffolk has historically had high populations of students of color and first-generation students.

In reviewing the fall 2021 applicants, admissions officials were able to get a better understanding of who their students are as people — some applicants have hosted TedTalks, survived cancer, or raised money for public health efforts, she said.

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“It’s incredible to read about these students rather than have them defined by a test score,” Grand Pré said.

Schaeffer, of FairTest, said the test-optional approach is a “win-win.”

“Typically, schools that drop their testing requirements get more applicants, get better quality applicants with higher grades, more AP courses, more community service, and they get more diversity of all sorts,” he said.

He also said that removing test requirements eliminates “huge physiological barriers” for students, many of whom are already facing emotional stress due to the pandemic.

Shifting to a test-optional approach does not address all the inequities that plague the higher education admissions system, Schaeffer said, citing legacy admissions and parents leveraging connections or making generous donations. But it’s a start, he said.

“Some applicants have had every opportunity in life, from birth right up through test prep, while other kids have had to fight against barriers their entire lives,” he said. “So this system eliminates one piece of unfairness, but it’s a significant piece of unfairness.”


Julia Carlin can be reached at julia.carlin@globe.com. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.