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It’s easy to hate the SAT and ACT, and many people have celebrated the waning influence of these tests as the coronavirus pandemic turbocharged a movement by colleges to de-emphasize them.
In particular, making the SAT or ACT optional or scrapping the use of standardized test scores entirely is supposed to help diversify student bodies.
When Harvard University announced these tests would be optional during the pandemic and then extended that policy through 2026, it meant qualified kids afraid of their scores might now apply, according to one education expert.
Jeff Selingo, who wrote a book about sitting in on the admissions process at top schools, told CNN’s Michael Smerconish in December that college admissions offices “would be looking at applications they would not have seen previously when they required test scores.”
Smerconish made the point that kids who spend all their time in test prep could learn an instrument instead. Although there’s also the possibility they’d flip through TikTok.
So it was a bit surprising this week to read that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is bringing back its standardized test requirement – reversing its test-optional policy during the pandemic – specifically because it helped them identify kids from diverse backgrounds.
“Our research suggests the strategic use of testing can help us continue to improve both the diversity of our class and its collective success at MIT,” Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill wrote in a blog post. It’s a heavily footnoted and long post, which refers to MIT’s research but does not share it. It’s worth reading anyway.
Schmill admits the SAT and ACT are imperfect tests but argues that since they are available in most communities, not requiring test scores “tends to raise socioeconomic barriers.”
Note: There are a lot of problems with standardized tests like the SAT, and many of them have to do with inequality in American schools and the fact that people who have the time and resources can prepare for the test. The College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, has tried, failed and tried again to tweak the test, but nobody has really been satisfied. I liked this CNN Opinion piece from Nicole Hemmer that argues college inequality is much larger than just testing.
Paul Tough has written extensively about college admissions and argued in a New York Times Opinion piece last May that the SAT should be abandoned. He points to data that seems to contradict Schmill and MIT about the tests and diversity. It is compelling.
MIT is a special case, Schmill argued, since it requires so much math and science from every student. The testing helps demonstrate ability in those areas.
The school will still take a holistic approach to every applicant, looking at grades, test scores and life experience – although Schmill also suggested there’s quite a bit of grade inflation going on out there. More on that later.
He also included this line to appease stressed-out college students (emphasis his): “You are not your test scores, and for that matter, you are also not your MIT application, either.”
The week before hyper-selective MIT announced its decision, the massive California State University System – which has nearly 129,000 graduates each year, compared with MIT, which awards fewer than 4,000 degrees – said it would ditch its SAT/ACT admissions requirements.
“In essence, we are eliminating our reliance on a high-stress, high-stakes test that has shown negligible benefit and providing our applicants with greater opportunities to demonstrate their drive, talents and potential for college success,” said Steve Relyea, CSU’s acting chancellor.
CSU joins California’s other massive university system, the University of California, which officially abandoned standardized testing for admission in 2021.
“We reached a conclusive decision that there isn’t right now a test or an assessment that we feel comfortable using in our admissions process,” UC Board of Regents chair Cecilia Estolano said in November 2021, when the decision was made.
But UC does have the data that tells it the hated standardized tests are better than high school grades at predicting how undergraduates will perform at the school.
A report conducted by UC professors and released in January 2020 – part of a years-long review of admissions processes – used data from many years of students and concluded that admissions tests, which have since been abandoned, actually protected diversity.
“The unexpected outcome of the statistical analyses in the Report is that … because each applicant’s test scores are viewed within the applicant’s local context, they offer a means for protecting the diversity of the applicant pool,” said UC Santa Cruz feminist studies professor Kum-Kum Bhavnani in prepared remarks from 2020. Bhavnani was UC’s Academic Senate chair at the time.
Henry Sanchez, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and one of the authors of the report, said schools will find they need some tool like a test to differentiate between students.
“You can get rid of all these tests, but you don’t get rid of the structural bias in the K-12 schools and that is what affects how students will perform in higher ed,” he said.
The recommendation by the task force was for the UC system to de-emphasize the importance of standardized tests and develop its own test – rather than continue to rely on organizations like the College Board, which administers both SAT and AP tests, and ACT Inc., which administers the ACT. They are technically nonprofits, but many in the higher education world have long complained they are part of a billion-dollar industry.
To Schmill’s point about availability and access to alternative tests, the UC system abandoned, for now, its own effort to develop an alternative test.
I reached out to the UC Office of the President to ask about MIT’s decision and UC’s experience with not taking test scores into account. A spokesman declined an in-depth interview since there is not sufficient data and told me it was too early to draw any conclusions.
“It would also be difficult to separate trends in student success outcomes from the pandemic’s impact,” the spokesman wrote in an email. “We continue to assess the impact of our test-free policy and our campuses are currently in the process of making admissions offers to a diverse, accomplished, and hardworking cohort of students for the fall 2022 academic term.”
I reached out to Mimi Doe, one of the co-founders of Top Tier Admissions, which admittedly caters to students who have the resources to pay for extra help applying to college.
But Doe said her advice to all students going to college, regardless of their background, is to start early and to take the SAT and ACT seriously.
Here are some interesting things I took away from our conversation.
Test-blind is different than test-optional. Doe: Georgetown for instance, was test optional – wink wink. Of their accepted students, only 7% did not submit scores.
Grade inflation is real. Doe: I have done this work for 20 years and I look at high school profiles … you are seeing now half the class has straight A’s.
There are more applicants than ever. The first reason, she said, is that more Common Applications and fewer required essays have made it easy to apply to many schools. But the move from testing has flooded the zone.
Doe: The second reason is score optional. Baby, it’s a free-for-all. Every kid who’s No. 1 in their class, or who’s No. 100 in their class out of 100, is going to apply to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Dartmouth, all these dream schools, because scores don’t matter. I got to give it a shot.
Colleges are looking for different things. Doe: They’re looking for kids who go above and beyond around social justice issues and making their own communities better … they don’t want robots who just take 13 APs to get into college … it’s a qualitative and quantitative shift in college admissions.
Students shouldn’t suffer through activities they think will be attractive to colleges. Doe: Do what you love… We give kids permission to be authentic around their genuine interests, to understand where to spend their time, and to strip away the noise.
Tests are a bummer. But they’re not gone yet for top students. Doe: I believe (the SAT/ACT are) a colossal waste of a student’s time and energy. That said, it’s still a data point in admissions and has been in the past two years during Covid. So it’s a fact of life if you’re aiming for very top colleges.
This story has been updated with additional reaction.
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