Harvard will not require SAT or ACT scores for admission through the next four years, extending a policy adopted during the coronavirus pandemic and adding fuel to the movement to permanently eliminate standardized test scores for admission to even the nation’s most selective schools.
Harvard attributed the move, announced on Thursday evening, to the pandemic, which has made it hard for students to get access to testing sites.
But the decision has strong symbolic value, as it telegraphs that Harvard believes it can wade through thousands of applications and admit students without the aid of standardized test scores. It also signals that the university — and perhaps the nation — is one step closer to abolishing test scores from the admissions process altogether.
“Students who do not submit standardized test scores will not be disadvantaged in their application process,” William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid, said in a statement. He encouraged students to submit “whatever materials they believe would convey their accomplishments in secondary school and their promise for the future.”
Standardized test scores have been a rite of passage for generations of high school students, and a bane of their existence. Supporters say that they provide a uniform way of evaluating students from different schools and different parts of the country.
But critics have long argued that they are racially and culturally biased and do not reflect the true ability of many students, but instead their ability to pay for tutoring. An entire industry of test preparation companies now coaches students through the tests, charging hefty fees.
Harvard’s use of test scores has also been part of a lawsuit accusing it of discriminating against Asian American applicants by holding them to a higher standard than other prospective students. The lawsuit said that as a group, Asian American applicants scored higher than others on measures like standardized tests but were penalized by a subjective “personal” rating.
A federal court and an appeals court have upheld Harvard’s admissions process, finding that it was not discriminatory, and the Supreme Court is now considering whether to hear the case.
The current admissions cycle is the second for which students have been able to apply to Harvard without standardized test scores. The new policy would extend that to the next four classes, through the classes of 2027, 2028, 2029 and 2030, beyond the foreseeable boundaries of the pandemic.
Bob Schaeffer, head of FairTest, an anti-testing group, said that Harvard’s prestige and outsize influence made the decision more significant, and that it could be a harbinger of a future in which standardized tests would play a much smaller role in college admissions, or even no role at all.
“This proves that test-optional is the new normal in college admissions,” Mr. Schaeffer said. “Highly selective schools have shown that they can do fair and accurate admissions without test scores.”
The percentage of schools that do not require test scores has risen from about 45 percent before the pandemic to nearly 80 percent now, according to FairTest, or 1,815 of the 2,330 schools counted by the organization.
Students flooded the most competitive colleges with a record number of applications for the class of 2025, forcing the eight Ivy League schools to delay the date they announced their enrollment decisions. The surge was attributed in part to the many schools that had made test scores optional.
Harvard is hardly alone, and other major institutions have gone even further.
The University of California system made a final decision in November — after several years of debate — to end the use of standardized testing. The system, influential because of its huge size and prestigious campuses, including in Berkeley and Los Angeles, had been searching for an alternative exam, but ultimately decided that high school grades were a better way to evaluate students.
The University of Chicago went test-optional in 2018, before the pandemic, and has reported the admission of a more diverse class without a standardized testing requirement.
A vast majority of schools that are not requiring testing are “test-optional” rather than “test-blind,” meaning that if students choose to submit a test score, the school will look at it. Test scores are also frequently used in determining scholarship awards.
The testing announcement came as Harvard College said it had accepted 740 students to the class of 2026 from a pool of 9,406 who applied under its early-action program. The student newspaper, The Crimson, reported that the rate of 7.9 percent was the second-most-competitive early admissions rate in Harvard’s history. Regular admissions will take place in the spring.