US universities retreat from test-optional admissions

MIT joins several state institutions in resuming SAT-ACT mandate as pandemic eases, providing opening to wider reassessment

April 1, 2022
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The rush to abandon standardised admissions tests in the US appears to have hit a bump, reinforcing some suspicions that the reform may have been driven by managing enrolment as much as promoting equity.

In the most prominent such case, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced it was reinstating its requirement that its applicants submit SAT or ACT exam scores, saying that it stopped due to Covid restrictions and believes that standardised exams overall help socio-economically disadvantaged students prove their talents.

While that runs counter to a much larger trend in recent years of US institutions making the tests optional – more than 1,600 US colleges and universities have now dropped the requirement – MIT is not alone in reversing course as pandemic restrictions ease. Others taking that step include Georgetown University, the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of North Carolina system.

Such actions have alarmed experts and activists who have long argued that standardised admissions tests – both because of the types of questions asked, and the costs of preparing for and taking the exams – serve to widen economic and racial divisions in US higher education.

The relatively few institutions acknowledging their resumption of admissions test requirements generally gave no explanation beyond noting that the pandemic had reached the point where the exams could be held as usual in person.

MIT, however, offered an extended set of rationales. It said that standardised tests were necessary to reliably predict student performance, and that they helped reduce other types of income-based disparities such as the relative ease with which wealthier students can pad their applications with extracurricular activities.

In Georgia, meanwhile, the 26-campus state university system restored its testing requirement, then pulled back that mandate to just its three most prominent institutions. It gave no clear explanation for that distinction, said Bob Schaeffer, the executive director of FairTest, which generally opposes standardised admissions testing.

The most likely answer, however, was that Georgia’s 23 less-selective campuses were struggling to meet enrolment targets, Mr Schaeffer said, and that state leaders hoped prospective applicants would be attracted to those locations by their lack of testing mandates.

separate analysis issued just ahead of the Covid lockdowns, by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, concluded that institutions were getting confident in their ability to structure their admitted classes to maximise revenues, and that eliminating testing requirements would allow them even more freedom to do that.

Covid, meanwhile, is becoming less of a factor regardless of the course of the pandemic, as the College Board has decided to use online testing as the SAT’s default delivery method.

The pursuit of equity – at MIT, across Georgia, or anywhere else – does not seem a reasonable explanation for resuming standardised tests, Mr Schaeffer said. “The track record of test-optional institutions,” he said, “is that the diversity of their entering classes increases after dropping standardised exam requirements.”

That realisation had been driving the moves by the hundreds of US institutions, well ahead of the pandemic, that dropped their requirements for standardised admissions tests and, in some cases, refused to even consider them. Almost simultaneously with MIT’s move, the California State University system – the nation’s biggest four-year grouping – agreed to join the University of California system in abandoning its use of the SAT and ACT tests in admissions.

CSU said it determined that the tests caused students stress while providing institutions little benefit in finding the applicants best able to make use of an offer of admission.

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