C: Muzammill Soorma

MIT brings back standardised testing requirement 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Admissions has announced that it will reinstate its requirement that applicants submit scores from an SAT or ACT exam – rejecting the claim that such tests negatively effect diversity.

The Institute suspended its longstanding requirement in 2020 and 2021 due to disruption caused by the Covid pandemic.

The private land-grant research university, which was last year named the world’s top university for the tenth year in a row by the QS World University Rankings, said in a statement that standardised testing was necessary to properly assess the academic preparedness of applicants.

“After careful consideration, we have decided to reinstate our SAT/ACT requirement for future admissions cycles. Our research shows standardized tests help us better assess the academic preparedness of all applicants, and also help us identify socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities that would otherwise demonstrate their readiness for MIT. We believe a requirement is more equitable and transparent than a test-optional policy,” MIT said. 

The university noted that the math portion of standardized tests is important when evaluating students’ performance through the system. 

“In other words, there is no path through MIT that does not rest on a rigorous foundation in mathematics, and we need to be sure our students are ready for that as soon as they arrive,” the institute said. 

MIT added that bringing back the test score requirement was 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 as it announced the change on Monday. “We believe it will be more equitable⁠ if we require all applicants who take the tests to disclose their scores.”

A statement posted by the institution, which is perhaps best known for its engineering and science programmes, explained that the decision stemmed from “a great deal of careful research” which proved the effectiveness and need for standardised testing. MIT stated:

“Within our office, we have a dedicated research and analysis team that continuously studies our processes, outcomes, and criteria to make sure we remain mission-driven and student-centered. During the pandemic, we redoubled our efforts to understand how we can best evaluate academic readiness for all students, particularly those most impacted by its attendant disruptions. To briefly summarize a great deal of careful research:  

  • our ability to accurately predict student academic success at MIT⁠
  • is significantly improved by considering standardized testing — especially in mathematics — alongside other factors 
  • some standardized exams besides the SAT/ACT can help us evaluate readiness, but access to these other exams is generally more socioeconomically restricted⁠
  • relative to the SAT/ACT
  • as a result, not having SATs/ACT scores to consider tends to raise socioeconomic barriers” to demonstrating readiness for our education, relative to having them, given these other inequalities”.

MIT said that the research undertaken couldn’t explain why these tests are so predictive 

of academic preparedness for MIT, but that it believes it is likely related to the centrality of mathematics — and mathematics examinations — in education provided at the institution. 

All MIT students, regardless of intended major, are required to pass two semesters of calculus, along with two semesters of calculus-based physics, as part of the General Institute Requirements.⁠

“The substance and pace of these courses are both very demanding, and they culminate in long, challenging final exams that students must pass⁠ to proceed with their education,” the statement said. 

“In other words, there is no path through MIT that does not rest on a rigorous foundation in mathematics, and we need to be sure our students are ready for that as soon as they arrive,” it added.

Since MIT opened in 1865, and until the Covid pandemic triggered its suspension in 2020, MIT has required some form of entrance exam to demonstrate mastery of the material required to succeed in its education. At its founding, applicants had to show competence in “arithmetic, algebra, geometry, English grammar, geography, and the rudiments of French” on an entrance exam designed and administered by the Institute. Such exams have allowed applicants to show their ability to succeed at the world-famous university, regardless of what was available at the high school they may have gone to, and eventually transitioned to similar exams offered by the College Board in the 1940s.

These evolved over time into the simpler set of tests set by MIT today. The Institute, which places first in the world in 12 subject areas including chemistry, architecture and computer science, has a long history of tailoring its admissions requirements to pragmatic assessments of what is required to succeed at the Institute.

MIT insisted that a candidate’s performance on standardised tests is not the central focus of its “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,” it said.

“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.”

The reversal could reignite the debate over the value of test scores in college admissions, which critics argue put lower-income, recent immigrant students and second-language students at a disadvantage. 

Bob Schaeffer, executive director of Boston-based FairTest, a watchdog group that advocates for optional testing policies, said the decision was unusual. He said more than 700 US universities dropped testing during the Covid pandemic, with only a handful restoring it.

“What they’re doing is very unusual in the admissions world. Test score barrier excludes low-income students, second-language students, recent immigrant students and others who have talent, but can’t meet that test score requirement”, Schaeffer argued.

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