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Cuafa- Admissions should focus on grades, scores, part 2

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(By Andrew L. Fish)

Citing concerns about declining student performance, a faculty committee has asked the Admissions Office to place greater weight on grades and standardized test scores in mathematics and science when evaluating applicants.

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The Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid said that applicants' "non-academic activities, talents, and personal qualities should be considered mostly as a means of distinguishing among individuals of comparable academic ability."

After a year-long study of the MIT admissions process, CUAFA found that the Admissions Office has been placing more weight on the personal qualities of applicants in recent years. CUAFA's report implies that this change has led to "a growing sense among the MIT faculty . . . of a decline in student performance in those subjects that demand the interest and ability to deal with topics in quantitative terms."

The report also recommended greater faculty involvement in the admissions process. Speaking at the May faculty meeting, CUAFA Chairman Keith D. Stolzenbach '66 said, "We have concluded that the lack of faculty input . . . has resulted in a situation where the implicit weighting in admissions decisions does not reflect the views of a sufficient number of faculty with regard to what constitutes an excellent applicant for MIT."

This perception was brought into focus in a report prepared by Professor Anthony P. French last year. French found that over the past 20 years the freshman class has had a progressively smaller fraction of students with math and science achievement test and SAT scores between 750-800. The CUAFA report revealed that when applicants were grouped into various categories based on their grades and test scores, a similar phenomenon was found -- more applicants in the "top" and "high" ranges were denied admission to MIT, especially between 1986 and 1988, the first three years of Michael C. Behnke's tenure as director of admissions.

The trends noted in both of these studies were reversed this year. The number of admitted students with math SAT scores of at least 750 jumped form 748 to 972, and the mean SAT math score rose 14 points to 741. The number of applicants with "top" or "high" profiles who were rejected dropped from over 400 to about 225. The report said more emphasis was placed on students' "intellectual promise" this year.

At the May faculty meeting, Behnke explained that complaints from faculty had played a role in the change. "The admission staff picks up signals from the community and tries to act on them," he said.

But Professor Robert M. Fogelson of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning cautioned that the CUAFA report offered "striking conclusions based on interviews with few faculty members." He noted that the committee's "recommendations have great implications for the future of MIT" and suggested that the faculty should discuss "the proper direction for MIT."

The CUAFA report said "faculty opinions about student performance are mixed." The committee found that about half of the faculty the committee consulted expressed no major concerns with students' academic performance and have detected no troubling changes over the long or short run. But the other half "was less positive and expressed varying degrees of concern."

Specifically, instructors in the mathematics and physics core subjects said they have lowered the level and slowed the pace of their subjects in several instances to accommodate a "decline in academic performance," the report said. Concern was also expressed by faculty teaching upperclass subjects, especially in the School of Engineering. CUAFA found less evidence of departmental perceptions of a decline in the performance of their majors.

The report said many faculty did not perceive a decline in students' academic ability, but rather a lessening of the "intensely focused interest in engineering and science which once characterized nearly all MIT undergraduates." It said that while students were still majoring in engineering and science, they were more likely to distribute their intellectual energies more evenly between technical and non-technical subjects. One mathematics instructor was quoted in the report said his students were just as bright but not as interested in the subject as students were five years ago.