Is MIT an outlier in bringing back test scores or are other colleges following its lead?

It’s dean of admission can’t explain the ‘why’ in the university’s decision, but it is based on the math.
By: | March 29, 2022
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While more than 1,600 institutions of higher education remain test optional or test blind through 2023, at least one major institution is bucking the trend as “an outlier”, says Bob Schaeffer, CEO of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest).

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is bringing back SAT and ACT test scores for the 2022-23 application cycle, according to its Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill because it says its academic success is “significantly improved” with their inclusion.

“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,” Schmill wrote to MIT’s community. “We believe a requirement is more equitable and transparent than a test-optional policy.”

Schmill said the decision was in part done because of mathematics—in other words, the math not only has shown MIT leaders that standardized tests do help as a predictor but also because its own students through the years have achieved high success.

“Our research can’t explain why these tests are so predictive of academic preparedness for MIT, but we believe it is likely related to the centrality of mathematics—and mathematics examinations—in our education,” Schmill wrote.

Schmill said scores are just one measure of a student’s overall candidacy that also includes whether they are a fit for MIT and whether they are resilient. He cited a study from the University of California’s Standardized Testing Task Force that he said showed that admissions could better predict the future success of undergraduates with test scores than without them, or simply relying on GPAs.

But that study was overridden by the Board of Regents at the time, and the UC system permanently suspended its test-optional practices in 2020. The California State University just did the same. Even Schmill downplayed their importance somewhat, saying “performance on standardized tests is not the central focus of our holistic admissions process. We do not prefer people with perfect scores.”


More from UB: Two-year study from universities will examine fairness of test-optional policies


And yet, because of MIT’s research and the fact that Schmill said testing is more readily available than it was over the past two pandemic-interrupted years, the university reinstated the requirement. The move didn’t surprise Schaeffer. “We’ve always expected that there would be a handful of super selectives who would revert to test scores,” he said. “Georgetown already has. MIT is the outlier. It’s consistent with what’s going on in the rest of its peer group.”

What’s next for testing?

It is unclear whether others will follow MIT’s lead. Many institutions have stood by their decisions to eliminate them, at least temporarily, including public universities in Oregon, Washington, Indiana and Arizona. The Georgia public system just waived the requirement for 2023 at almost all of the institutions, other than three big ones, including the University of Georgia. The University of North Carolina is keeping testing alive. But other elite institutions are not. Harvard extended its test-optional period to 2026, while Stanford remains test-optional through the 2022-23 cycle. One big one to watch, Schaeffer says, is the California Institute of Technology, whose students in many ways mirror MIT’s.

Schaeffer and his team at FairTest have been staunch opponents of the tests, which they say are not a true part of that “holistic process” and do not accurately reflect the breadth of a student’s makeup and performances in high school. They also may unfairly penalize those who may not be strong test-takers or come from underserved communities. Schaeffer said MIT always has done well compared with peers on diversity and with socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and he said test scores did not need to be a factor.

“From many research studies, the strongest predictor of undergraduate performance is how well a student did in high school, including grades and course rigor,” Schaeffer said. “A high school track record includes lots of tests, portfolios, science projects, book reports. There is more than enough information in a student’s application file, which includes extracurricular activities, leadership, community service, obstacles overcome, essays written and letters of recommendation, to get a rich picture of an applicant without needing to know how well they do on bubble tests.”

The 1,830-plus institutions that have them are currently getting high-quality students, regardless of whether they take those exams or not. And they are seeing a more wide of students interested, especially in schools such as MIT. “[Colleges] have more applicants and better-qualified applicants than they’ve had in the past, and more diversity,” Schaeffer says. “They’ve also found that once they made the adjustment, it wasn’t all that hard to do admissions without testing.”

But, prepared to fend off the many detractors who believe standardized tests should be eliminated, Schmill wrote: “To those of you who feel [inadequate because of their test score], I say: you are not your test scores, and for that matter, you are also not your MIT application, either. You are infinitely more than either of these narrow constructs could ever capture. When we talk about evaluating academic readiness for MIT, that doesn’t mean we are measuring your academic potential, or intrinsic worth as a human. It only means that we are confident you, at this specific moment in your educational trajectory, can do well in the kind of hard math and science tests demanded by our unusual education.”