This week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that it would once again require applicants to take standardized tests. “Our ability to accurately predict student academic success at MIT is significantly improved by considering standardized testing,” wrote the university’s dean of admissions, Stu Schmill. Parents and alumni largely hailed the decision.
Sanity, it seems, might be coming back. MIT needs the tests to remain MIT. Progressive critics of standardized testing say that a merit-based focus comes at the expense of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and they question the predictive value and objectivity of the tests. But the weight of the evidence shows that the tests indeed measure what they set out to measure.
MIT’s decision cuts against recent trends. In 2020, the Regents of the University of California system banned standardized testing for admissions, overriding a faculty committee that had been convened on the issue. After a year-long study, the faculty observed that standardized test scores better predicted academic success at UC than did high school grade point average, especially for “underrepresented” minority students, first-generation students, and low-income family students. Further, the report found, rising grade inflation meant that standardized test scores were gaining in predictive power while high school GPA was losing predictive power. Without standardized test scores for balance, GPA risked degenerating into a meaningless metric. But politics won the day for the UC Regents.
During the pandemic, other top schools such as Harvard decided to allow but not require applicants to submit test scores for consideration. That move ignores the advice of cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who, in a 2014 article, argued that Harvard, his employer, should admit students by standardized test scores only, because the other typical factors in multi-criteria or “holistic” admissions add only advantages unrelated to merit. By contrast, the SAT predicts more than just classroom success. “We have already seen that test scores, as far up the upper tail as you can go, predict a vast range of intellectual, practical, and artistic accomplishments,” Pinker wrote.
Top U.S. universities may soon have to revisit their admissions strategy, however. The Supreme Court is set to decide this summer whether Harvard and the University of North Carolina are engaged in illegal racial discrimination. At these schools, white and Asian applicants with grades, extracurriculars, and teacher recommendations comparable to those of black and Hispanic applicants must score hundreds of points higher on the SAT to achieve the same admissions odds.
Standardized tests are among the fairest assessment methods available. They not only predict academic talent across economic levels but also counter the mischief that holistic admissions allow. Schools can use holistic admissions to justify double standards on an individual level, or a wider range of biases against certain groups. As UC–Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel shows in his research on Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, holistic admissions were designed early in the twentieth century to limit the number of Jews at colleges. Later on, the targeted group became Asian students.
Standardized testing, with their emphasis on an objective measure, can be a tool of upward mobility. With holistic admissions, by contrast, wealthier families can shift their resources from test preparation—which even the poorest of families can pursue through public libraries—to purchasing edifying experiences, such as arts, athletics, summer programs, and unpaid internships. They can also purchase services, such as interview coaching and essay editing. These experiences and polished writing samples look good on applications, but they further punish those applicants who are qualified but lack such advantages. Grade inflation, too, benefits the wealthy: the Fordham Institute recently found that the phenomenon “worsened in schools attended by affluent students more than in those attended by lower-income pupils.”
Without standardized tests, American universities will confront obvious and difficult selection problems. MIT has decided on a better way.
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