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MIT resumes mandate for SAT or ACT scores. Many other colleges have not.

Whether the decision will slow the momentum of the test-optional movement in higher education remains to be seen

The campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. (Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology this week became one of the first super-selective schools to reinstate its requirement for SAT or ACT scores, an admissions mandate that had been suspended amid widespread testing disruptions at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

MIT said scores can yield important insights into students’ potential when considered alongside other information about their background and academic preparation.

Whether the decision, announced Monday, will slow the momentum of the test-optional movement in higher education remains to be seen. But it is certain to be widely noticed because of the school’s reputation as a premier destination for students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The decision runs counter to the direction of many leading universities, including a certain well-known neighbor of MIT’s in Cambridge, Mass. — Harvard University in December announced that it will be test-optional for the next four years.

Harvard won’t require SAT or ACT through 2026 as test-optional push grows

MIT’s decision does not affect the 1,337 students whom it offered admission for the class that enters next fall. (Admit rate: 4 percent.) But it will affect those who are high school juniors and plan to apply to enter MIT in fall 2023.

Stu Schmill, MIT’s dean of admissions, wrote in a blog post that reviewing admission test scores as part of a holistic review significantly improves the school’s ability to assess the academic potential of prospective students as it weighs tens of thousands of applications a year. Students at MIT, he wrote, must follow a rigorous program that demands everyone pass two semesters each of calculus and calculus-based physics.

“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.

But there are plenty of universities that value math skills and take a different approach. “The test scores — we don’t need them,” said Andrew Palumbo, vice president for enrollment management at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, also in Massachusetts. Last year WPI switched to a policy that bars any consideration of the SAT or ACT. Previously, it had been test-optional.

Palumbo said data showed “no statistically significant difference” in the performance of students who submitted scores compared with those who didn’t. He said he was also dubious of the value of timed admission tests for a university that promotes creativity and problem-solving. “It’s so antithetical to how we believe students should learn and educators should teach,” he said.

MIT has now admitted two classes without a test score requirement. The freshmen who entered last fall were the first. Schmill said in a telephone interview Monday that the decision to reinstate the requirement does not reflect any lack of confidence in the performance of the Class of 2025 or in the potential of the Class of 2026.

“We had as much confidence as we could have in every student we admitted,” Schmill said. “I fully expect students to do as well as they ever have.”

Even without the testing requirement, Schmill said, most of the 33,796 applicants this year submitted ACT or SAT scores. Some were admitted without scores, he said. Grades in advanced classes in math, science and other fields are a crucial indicator of potential.

Data from MIT show that for those admitted to the Class of 2025 who reported scores to the school, 75 percent scored at least 780 out of a perfect 800 on the math section of the SAT or 35 out of a perfect 36 on math in the ACT.

That is rarefied territory. But Schmill said MIT is not looking for perfection. He cited some successful applicants who withheld scores initially and then voluntarily reported them to MIT after securing admission. “There were a number of students who had test scores that were perfectly fine,” Schmill said. “They weren’t perfect, but they were quite good.”

Schmill said he feared that privileged students often get better advice than disadvantaged students on whether to submit scores to test-optional schools.

MIT is not alone. Georgetown University is requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. So are some public universities, such as Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and the University of Florida.

Debate over the value of admission tests has raged for many years. It is widely accepted that there is a strong correlation between scores and family income. The more affluence in a community, the higher its average scores.

Critics say that the SAT and ACT provide little useful information and that the grades students achieve and the rigor of the courses they choose are far more important. Proponents of the tests say they provide a useful check against grade inflation and help schools find otherwise-hidden academic talent.

Around the country, the test-optional movement has picked up speed during the pandemic. The entire Ivy League will be test-optional for at least the next year. Even when scores are optional, though, many applicants will submit them, and schools will review them.

Some colleges and universities go even further and omit scores from the process entirely, a method known as “test-free” or “test-blind.” That is the case for the University of California and California State University systems. The private California Institute of Technology, often considered a peer of MIT’s, has omitted consideration of test scores in the last admission cycle and current one and intends to do the same for the coming year.

In effect, there is a giant national experiment underway to examine various approaches to the role of test scores in selective admissions. Schmill said the pandemic has created too much educational upheaval to run a proper experiment. Crucial variables — including access to high-quality instruction and rigorous courses — have been muddied, he said.

Others disagree.

“People will watch the MIT experience and compare and contrast it with the experience of other top-tier schools that are either test-optional or test-blind,” said Bob Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a group critical of the SAT and ACT.

Schaeffer said he doubts many schools will follow MIT’s lead. “For now, it’s an outlier,” he said.