On MIT’s Decision to Bring Back College Board Testing Requirements
[guest post by JVW]
From time to time I am called upon to defend the virtue of my alma mater, so here goes.
There seems to be a great deal of chatter about the recently-announced decision from MIT to once again require that all applicants for admission take either the SAT or the ACT exam at least once, after having suspended the requirement for the past two years. Many of those who are generally critical of the incessant wokeness these days in higher education (like me!) are enjoying a triumphant moment of “See! This is what happens when you lower admission standards in the name of diversity!” As you may recall the University of California system spent years trying to junk standardized college board test requirements, and finally got its wish when a judge ruled that making the tests “optional” but still considering them as part of an applicant’s qualification was discriminatory towards those who had lesser access to the tests. The Democrat-appointed Board of Regents for the University of California had already determined that the tests would no longer be required starting in 2023, so the SAT and ACT evaluations are effectively dead for UC applicants.
But this isn’t what happened at MIT. Unlike the UC system, there was no widespread movement among faculty or the administration to junk the college board tests. MIT simply suspended the requirement that applicants submit those test scores starting in the spring of 2020. If I can take you back in time a couple of years, you might recall that was when COVID lockdowns began being implemented and as a result the companies that administer the ACT and SAT cancelled all of their scheduled testing sessions for April and May, which is the optimal time for high school juniors to take those exams (before summer recess when, presumably, the brain atrophies a certain amount). When the companies resumed testing that summer, the sessions — limited in size due to social-distancing requirements and not available in all locations thanks to local COVID restrictions — were highly sought after and plenty of students who wanted to take the test were unable to register in time for a session. Thus, the Institute declared that they would waive the testing requirement for the class of 2025 (the class of 2024 had already been admitted before the lockdowns hit). The next year, when it was time for the prospective class of 2026 to take the exams as high school juniors, COVID regulations in many parts of the country continued to make test registration difficult, especially for students in “underserved” communities, and the Institute extended the waiver for that class as well. Students who were able to take the college board exams were welcome to submit their scores along with their application, but no applicant was required to do so. This was never about the merits of the tests themselves; it was only about whether all applicants had fair access to them.
So now with the pandemic in the rear-view mirror (I am furiously knocking wood right now) it simply makes sense for MIT to once again require them for the prospective class of 2027 who will be applying for admission later this coming fall. One of the most remarkable parts of MIT’s announcement that they would be re-instituting the requirement — one that the anti-woke crowd ought to have been focusing upon rather than making specious claims that MIT had deliberately tried to subvert the SAT and ACT as legitimate screening tools — was the following [bolded emphasis from me]:
To be clear, performance on standardized tests is not the central focus of our holistic admissions process. We do not prefer people with perfect scores; indeed, despite what some people infer from our statistics, we do not consider an applicant’s scores at all beyond the point where preparedness has been established as part of a multifactor analysis. Nor are strong scores themselves sufficient: our research shows students also need to do well in high school and have a strong match for MIT, including the resilience to rebound from its challenges, and the initiative to make use of its resources. That’s why we don’t select students solely on how well they score on the tests, but only consider scores to the extent they help us feel more confident about an applicant’s preparedness to not just to survive, but thrive, at MIT.
At the same time, standardized tests also help us identify academically prepared, socioeconomically disadvantaged students who could not otherwise demonstrate readiness because they do not attend schools that offer advanced coursework, cannot afford expensive enrichment opportunities, cannot expect lengthy letters of recommendation from their overburdened teachers, or are otherwise hampered by educational inequalities. By using the tests as a tool in the service of our mission, we have helped improve the diversity of our undergraduate population while student academic outcomes at MIT have gotten better, too; our strategic and purposeful use of testing has been crucial to doing both simultaneously.
This is such an important point that needs to be understood by people outside of the MIT community: It really isn’t necessarily the student who scores a 1600 on the SAT or a 36 on the ACT whose MIT application benefits from taking those exams. Every year there are students with perfect college board scores who are not offered admission to the Institute, and that was true even back in my day when far fewer students attained perfect scores. The student who truly benefits from having their college board scores included is that student from a lower-performing school district who scores a 1450 on the SAT or a 31 on the ACT (the the median scores for MIT students are 1510 and 34, respectively). This suggests to the admissions office that even though the student might not have access to a top-flight high school curriculum, they appear to have the basic aptitude to withstand the rigors of an MIT education. And finding these students actually increases the number of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds in each admitted class, making MIT one of the most diverse institutions of higher education in the nation and world.
Believe me, there are plenty of instances in which wokeness is creeping into life at MIT, and there is a strong contingent of alumnae and alumni who are pushing back against it. But MIT has not succumbed to the ridiculous anti-testing mania that afflicts the UC system — and for the time being much of the Ivy League — and in fact the Institute sees a strong value in requiring that applicants take these exams as it turns out to be a valuable way for the admissions office to find that “diamond in the rough.” What ought to be of real interest in this story is that MIT is swimming against the trendy academic current in asserting that the tests serve a useful need in predicting a student’s future success in an education strongly geared towards quantitative reasoning, and that college board tests help — not hinder — efforts to maintain a diverse student body.