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Is Merit Really Making a Comeback?

Standardized tests are back for admissions at Yale, but it may not be for the right reasons.

City Journal – Yale University has announced that it will reinstate standardized test requirements for admissions, beginning with students applying to enter in fall 2025. Yale’s “test flexible” approach requires applicants to submit a standardized test score but lets them choose between several options: SAT, ACT, International Baccalaureate, or subject-based Advanced Placement examinations. The policy change follows recent test reinstatements at Dartmouth College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Purdue University.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, about 80 percent of American institutions of higher education, including Yale and almost all other prestigious schools, suspended standardized-testing requirements, usually citing the stress of those upsetting times to favor more “holistic” means of selecting incoming freshmen. Since then, disclosing test scores has been optional. Four years on, most of those institutions still have not returned to the pre-Covid status quo, layering pandemic concerns with the progressive conviction that standardized tests are inherently racist and therefore produce admissions outcomes that perpetuate racial inequality. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Students for Fair Admissions last June made going test-optional all the more necessary, for that option offered a convenient loophole for institutions seeking to favor lower-scoring demographic groups, without creating an evidentiary trail of racial discrimination. An applicants’ personal challenges and experiences (which might be associated with race) could still be factors in admission.

With identity politics coming under pressure at top schools in recent months—and with the value of college education itself increasingly called into question—it may be tempting to believe that Yale and the few peer institutions that have reinstated test scores have seen the light and embraced merit once again. In January, it’s worth noting, a study by Opportunity Insights, compiled by researchers from Dartmouth and Brown University, found a strong correlation between high academic achievement and students who submitted test scores, and a corresponding correlation between lower academic achievement and students who declined to submit their test scores.

One might think that results like these could be of some value to Yale, which has struggled in recent years with free speech and academic freedom issues, overzealous Title IX and DEI enforcement, and a presidential search that has become high-profile with recent resignations of two other Ivy League presidents: Harvard’s Claudine Gay and the University of Pennsylvania’s M. Elizabeth Magill. Yet, the meritocracy argument does not appear to have won the day entirely in New Haven. The university buttressed its announcement of the new admissions policy with the claim that “tests can help increase rather than decrease diversity,” and that “inviting students to apply without any test scores can, inadvertently, disadvantage students from low-income, first-generation, and rural backgrounds.” Mandatory test scores, in other words, are not back in because they produce the most qualified student body but because the university now believes that testing in fact promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion, which presumably remain Yale’s highest priorities.

How did Yale’s leadership reach this conclusion? “When admissions officers reviewed applications with no scores,” the university’s statement maintains, “they placed greater weight on other parts of the application. But this shift frequently worked to the disadvantage of applicants from lower socio-economic backgrounds.” The university’s faceless admissions bureaucrats may, for example, have failed to consider that applicants from low-income secondary schools have fewer means besides standardized test scores to demonstrate their talent, while more “privileged” students can produce transcripts with honors courses, long lists of unique study and “enrichment” opportunities, and more informative recommendation letters from dedicated teachers in stabler environments.

“This confidence is founded on evidence,” Yale’s statement concludes without a trace of irony, adding that “we hope to empower applicants to put their best foot forward, and to help admission officers respond to excellent students from all contexts.” If you think “excellent” means “most qualified,” however, you might want to ask Yale administrators what they mean by “contexts.” That word has become awfully complicated of late.

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