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After MIT reinstates SAT and ACT mandate, will other colleges follow?

The decision could reignite the debate over the value of test scores in college admissions, which critics say put minority and lower-income students at a disadvantage.
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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced this week that applicants once again must submit SAT or ACT scores, becoming the first prominent university to reverse a suspension of the requirement that was put in place because of the pandemic.

The reversal could reignite the debate over the value of test scores in college admissions, which have been criticized for putting minority and lower-income students at a disadvantage, but experts said it is not yet certain if other schools will follow.

It is not surprising that MIT, which is perhaps best known for its engineering and science programs, would be more willing than other universities to return to a test-based admissions process "given the highly technical nature of their curriculum,” said Zachary Bleemer, a postdoctoral fellow and education researcher at Harvard University.

But it is “very up in the air at the moment” whether the school will remain an outlier, he said.

MIT said Monday that it was reinstating the test score requirement in an effort to be "transparent and equitable in our expectations.”

“Our concern is that, without the compelling clarity of a requirement, some well-prepared applicants won’t take the tests, and we won’t have enough information to be confident in their academic readiness⁠ when they apply,” it said in a statement announcing the change. “We believe it will be more equitable⁠ if we require all applicants who take the tests to disclose their scores.”

The university had announced in July 2020 that it was suspending its SAT/ACT testing requirement because the coronavirus pandemic disrupted test preparation and access to testing sites. Prospective first-year and transfer students looking to enter MIT in 2021 were not required to submit test scores.

MIT said it had a “longstanding policy of not penalizing students for disasters and disruptions” and that the policy “applied generally to the cancellations of activities and exams due to Covid-19.”

The university's updated policy reinstates the testing requirement for the 2022–23 application cycle, meaning prospective first-year and transfer students seeking to enter MIT in 2023 must submit scores.

MIT's about-face comes as universities and colleges have increasingly opted for test-optional admissions policies, allowing students to decide if they will submit their test scores. Some schools, including some of the colleges at Cornell University, have taken an additional step and are "test blind," meaning they do not consider scores at all.

More than 1,800 accredited colleges and universities that grant bachelor’s degrees won’t require students applying for fall 2022 admissions to submit test scores, according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group that often opposes standardized testing. Their ranks have been buoyed by the pandemic, which disrupted education and led schools to re-evaluate their admissions policies.

MIT is "clearly an outlier," said Bob Schaeffer, the center's executive director. He added that schools that have done away with tests found that “you did not need to test scores to do admissions, selective admissions fairly or accurately.”

MIT’s decision, he said, won't have an immediate effect on the many schools that have committed to be test-optional “for several years to come.”

For example, the 10-campus University of California system no longer considers SAT and ACT scores submitted with admission and scholarship applications as part of a settlement of a student lawsuit.

Critics have long argued that relying on standardized test scores benefits wealthier students and puts minority and low-income students at a disadvantage. 

Schaeffer said eliminating test score requirements in admissions can produce better qualified applicants with greater diversity of gender, race, family income, first-generation status, second-language status and disability status.

Test scores, he said, keep "many talented kids from applying to schools because they don’t believe that they’ve attained the test score requirements, sometimes because their parents don’t have the money to pay for test coaching, or the schools they’ve attended have not offered the test prep.”

Stuart Schmill, the dean of admissions and student financial services at MIT, explained the decision in a Q&A posted by the MIT News Office, saying that research conducted by the university has shown that it can't predict who will do well there "unless we consider standardized test results alongside grades, coursework, and other factors.”

“These findings are statistically robust and stable over time, and hold when you control for socioeconomic factors and look across demographic groups,” he said. 

“It turns out the shortest path for many students to demonstrate sufficient preparation — particularly for students with less access to educational capital — is through the SAT/ACT,” he said, because students can study for the exams using free tools, “but they (usually) can’t force their high school to offer advanced calculus courses, for example.”

ACT, the nonprofit organization that administers the test, applauded MIT’s decision saying that its own data and “multiple other measures of readiness” found that the test scores improve admissions decisions and help with determining student placement and support.

“ACT is committed to working alongside admissions and enrollment professionals and the students we all serve to ensure the best and most holistic uses for the ACT test for student success,” the organization said in a statement.

Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of College Readiness Assessments at College Board, which administers the SAT, said in a statement that for the class of 2020, “nearly 1.7 million U.S. students had SAT scores that confirmed or exceeded their high school GPA. That means that their SAT scores were a point of strength on their college applications.”

“Among those students, more than 300,000 were from small towns and rural communities; 600,000 were first-generation college goers; and 700,000 were Native, Black or Latino,” Rodriguez said. 

She said that unlike certain elite resources, such as extracurriculars and legacy status, the SAT is “available to all students, free to practice for, and free to take for low-income students.”

Bleemer said he would expect that some colleges and universities that suspended the testing requirement only because of the pandemic could follow MIT's lead.

“I think it’s not so surprising that MIT, and I suspect some other private universities, will right now return to using the tests because their initial motivation for stopping their use is no longer as imminent.”

Bleemer said that unlike public universities, “private universities have a lot more leeway and are much less responsive to the public’s interest” in terms of remaining test-optional or test-blind.

However, Andrew Palumbo, vice president of enrollment management at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said the school, which has been test-optional since 2007 and in 2021 made the decision to go test-blind, has left the SAT and ACT “in the rearview mirror.”

“We know admissions officers don’t need standardized test scores to make good admissions decisions” and such scores “have long-standing problematic correlations” with things such as race, ethnicity, gender.

“Now we have a landscape where the vast majority of schools are test-optional, and now institutions that weren’t sure about making that jump prior to Covid have largely been forced to make it,” he said, adding that given the data, “I think they’re going to find out what WPI and so many other schools that have been test-optional for a long time have found out and that’s that you really don’t need the test scores.”

“Very often, they’re not telling us anything that we don’t already know about candidates,” he said.