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Will standardized testing come back?

This week, Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that students will be required to submit either a SAT or ACT score starting with the next admissions cycle (the class of 2027). This decision comes two years after suspending the requirement as the pandemic had disrupted testing for many applicants.

Stu Schmill, Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services at MIT, published a very detailed letter that can be found here.

One of the interesting parts of the letter, found in the footnotes section, states that:

“Our research shows this predictive validity [of academic success] holds even when you control for socioeconomic factors that correlate with testing. It also shows that good grades in high school do not themselves necessarily translate to academic success at MIT if you cannot account for testing. Of course, we can never be fully certain how any given applicant will do: we're predicting the development of people, not the movement of planets, and people always surprise you. However, our research does help us establish bands of confidence that hold true in the aggregate, while allowing us, as admissions officers, to exercise individual contextual discretion in each case. The word 'significantly' in this bullet point is accurate both statistically and idiomatically.”

In contrast, “more than two-thirds of the 2,330 four-year colleges and universities in the United States have extended making SAT or ACT scores optional at least through fall 2023”, according to the NYTimes (source). Ivy League schools are among those choosing to remain test-optional for at least 1 more year with Harvard planning to keep this policy in place through the fall of 2026.

Takeaway: In the short term, the majority of the colleges will remain testing optional. Doing so is beneficial to colleges. It allows the colleges to increase their applications (thereby decreasing their acceptance rate when holding for the same number of seats in a class). The test optional requirement also enables colleges to attract a more diverse group of applicants, who might otherwise be intimidated by a school’s average test scores to apply.

Having said that, we might be starting to see a reversal of test optional policies for technical schools and highly selective schools. Prior to the pandemic, in surveys answered by admissions officers, test scores were ranked as the third most important criteria when evaluating college applications. If internal research by colleges such as MIT shows that tests scores have valuable predictive power, then it is likely that some colleges will shift back to requiring test scores. With time, the trend could regain popularity across other colleges as well.

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