As more than two-thirds of all U.S. colleges and universities continue to make admissions decisions without requiring ACT or SAT scores, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made news by restoring its admissions testing requirement. Exam supporters jumped on the story, suggesting a wave of similar decisions at other schools. One story declared that the SAT isn’t unfair, society is, as if both couldn’t be true. Such reactions based in the false notion that standardized test scores measure “merit” fairly and accurately both over-generalize from the MIT announcement to reinforce their biases and ignore the details of the school’s policy.
In fact, MIT is an outlier. ACT/SAT-optional and test-blind/score-free schools are the new normal at all levels of U.S. higher education. Check out the current numbers compiled by FairTest:
- There are 2,330 total number of bachelor-degree granting colleges and universities in the United States (per National Center for Education Statistics).
- Before the pandemic, there were 1,075 four-year colleges and universities with test-optional policies.
During the pandemic, approximately 750 bachelor-degree granting institutions suspended ACT/SAT requirements.
- For fall 2022 applicants, there are 1,836 schools with test-optional or score-free policies. (Here’s a frequently updated list: fairtest.org/university/optional.)
- More than 1,600 schools have already extended ACT/SAT optional policies at least through fall 2023 applicants, many for years beyond or permanently.
Outside of MIT, an overwhelming percentage of the most selective colleges and universities are among those waiving test requirements for at least another year. That list encompasses the entire Ivy League (MIT’s Cambridge neighbor Harvard is test-optional at least through fall 2026) as well as the University of Chicago; and Stanford, Wake Forest, Brandeis and George Washington universities — each with globally competitive admissions. All campuses of the University of California system, including Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles, are permanently test-blind. Other highly regarded STEM-oriented schools such as the California Institute of Technology and Worcester Polytechnic Institute will not consider test scores even if applicants submit them.
Nearly all the top tier of liberal arts college are also test optional. So are more than two dozen state university systems from Oregon and Washington through Colorado and Illinois to North Carolina and Maryland. Many jurisdictions have made those policies permanent because their own data shows that dropping testing mandates enhances diversity without compromising academic quality.
Decades of well-documented critiques of the ACT and SAT set the stage for the wholesale adoption of test-optional policies during the pandemic. The data demonstrating that test scores strongly correlate with measures of socio-economic status — family income, racial and ethnic group membership and first-generation college-going status, for example — led many schools to review their admissions exam requirements. The impact of high-priced coaching courses and tutoring firms, which provided a score boost for applicants whose parents could afford multi-thousand-dollar fees, added to these concerns.
Perhaps even more important to the growth of the test-optional movement were studies conducted by schools that eliminated ACT/SAT requirements. In general, schools that dropped standardized exam requirements experienced more applicants, better qualified applicants based on high school grades and course rigor, and more diversity of all sorts in their applicant pools. This evidence persuaded peer-institutions that test-optional policies were a sound initiative. As MIT’s own announcement statement made clear, its policy is not designed to be generalized, even to other highly selective schools. Rather, the purported utility of SAT math scores at MIT is specific to the unique curriculum of that institution — the introductory physics course that all first-year students must take assumes that everyone has completed introductory calculus.
In fact, MIT has supplied little data to justify its policy. The school even said that the decision to restore a test submission mandate was not based on the performance of the undergraduates who had been admitted without ACT or SAT scores. Rather, MIT appears to have relied on some unpublished historic correlations. Since the mean SAT math score for MIT students is 790 and well more than half of its applicants posted 800s, it is difficult to figure out how the school might be using test results to cull its applicant pool.
The final major issue with MIT’s policy is its leaders’ failure to foresee that testing proponents would misuse the announcement to promote their agendas. MIT may yet be able to produce data for show that a testing requirement makes sense for its specific situation. But most of the world of college admissions testing is headed in a different direction based on decades of data and real-world experiences. Of course, ACT/SAT-optional and test-blind/score-free policies do not eliminate all inequities in the college admissions process. No one ever seriously made that claim. But they do eliminate one major barrier to access. That’s a crucial step.
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