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Test scores rise in response to concerns

@ByName:By Andrew L. Fish

CUAFA asked the Admissions Office to place greater weight on standardized test scores and grades, saying that "non-academic activities, talents, and personal qualities should be considered mostly as a means of distinguishing among individuals of comparable academic ability."

Director of Admissions Michael C. Behnke said last spring that the CUAFA report "lent urgency" to the process of "getting the top math and science talent." Indeed, the number of applicants admitted with SAT math scores between 750 and 800 jumped by 224 to 972 students. Such students comprised 51 percent of the accepted pool, as compared to 42 percent last year.

The CUAFA report, issued after a year-long study of the admissions process, said the Admissions Office has been placing more weight on the personal qualities of applicants in recent years. The report implied 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 last May's 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 in 1988. 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 Behnke's tenure.

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."

At October's faculty meeting Professor Vera Kistiakowsky stressed that MIT should focus on attracting "diverse, thinking, caring human beings." None of the standardized tests measure the potential to become a good research scientist, she said.

Also, Professor Hartley Rodgers Jr. noted that by using standardized tests, the faculty was delegating part of the admissions process to the Educational Testing Service. With students of such educational promise, this delegation has some risks, he said.

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 quoted in the report said his students were just as bright but not as interested in the subject as students were five years ago.

Diversity should be maintained

While CUAFA said that more emphasis should be placed on grades and test scores, it endorsed efforts to increase the representation of women and underrepresented minorities in the student body.

Both nationally and at MIT, standardized test scores have been found to underpredict the academic performance of women. For this reason, even though women admitted to MIT have lower average standardized test scores than men, CUAFA found that the academic performance of women over four years is not statistically different from that of men.

CUAFA said that MIT admits all underrepresented minority students who will be able to succeed at the Institute. The report expressed concern about the "individual experiences of minority students who may find it particularly difficult to succeed at MIT," but offered no suggestions to change affirmative action policy. It did note that support services for minority students have not expanded at the same rate as the minority population, creating a possible mismatch between "expectations and resources."

Gray cautions against

damaged self-confidence

At the end of the faculty's May discussion of the CUAFA report, President Paul E. Gray '54 noted that the discussion of declining performance has given some underclassmen, especially freshmen and sophomores, the sense that they were "the worst class ever admitted." But "the actual situation in no way supports that self-doubt," he said.

Gray believed there was "some impairment in the self-confidence of large numbers of our students" and he urged the faculty to make it clear to students that they were qualified to be at MIT.

Copyright 1990 by The Tech. All rights reserved.
This story was originally published on Tuesday, February 6, 1990.
Volume 110, Year in Review
The story began on page 4 and jumped to page 8.

This article may be freely distributed electronically, provided it is distributed in its entirety and includes this notice, but may not be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to archive@the-tech.mit.edu for additional details.

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