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Guidelines Limit Use of Standardized Tests in Admissions

By Laura McGrath Moulton

Taking the SATs or the ACT is a rite of passage for college-bound high school students, who tend to obsess over their scores and spend considerable money on classes and tutoring to increase their chances of getting into their dream school.

The US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is trying to lessen that focus on standardized testing through new guidelines. A draft of these guidelines, called “Non-Discrimination in High Stakes Testing: A Resource Guide,” has been circulating through colleges and universities this spring, sparking a fierce debate on the proper role of standardized tests in college admissions. Because of the tendency for minority students to receive lower scores on such tests, the guidelines encourage limitations on their use to avoid violation of federal anti-bias law.

According to the guidelines, “the use of any educational test which has a significant disparate impact on members of any particular race, national origin, or sex is discriminatory, and a violation of Title VI and/or Title IX, respectively, unless it is educationally necessary and there is no practicable alternative form of assessment which meets the educational institution’s educational needs and would have less of a disparate impact on the basis of race, national origin, or sex.”

The release of the draft of the guidelines caused consternation among college officials and test administrators, who worried that the goal of the guidelines might be to eliminate standardized testing altogether.

Jones downplays impact on MIT

“The document is really more focused on primary and secondary schools” as well as public and to a lesser extent private universities, said Marilee Jones, MIT Dean of Admissions. Several states, including Massachusetts, are considering implementing standardized tests which students must pass in order to graduate.The guidelines will “identify the legality around the issue,” Jones said.

“They’re not focusing in on the SATs” or trying to abolish them, but rather [making] sure that schools use standardized tests as “just one indicator,” Jones said.

The College Entrance Examination Board, which administers many standardized tests, posted a legal and a technical response to the guidelines on its website. The response criticizes the “anti-test theme” of the guidelines and says that it “omits any clear, even-handed statement of the value of standardized tests.”

Some favor guidelines

Others have applauded the guidelines, saying they represent a positive change for minorities seeking higher education.

“I think it has been a long time coming,” said Leo Osgood, Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Minority Education. “Standardized tests can not be used to exclude people. You can’t put the burden of decision on those results.”

Standardized tests “tell someone what you know that day, and that’s it,” said Osgood. “Do they tell your potential for learning? I think not.”

Osgood noted that such tests are not “strong predictors of academic success” and are “skewed to a certain class.”

Jones agreed, saying that standardized tests “overpredict the performance of men and underpredict the performance of women.”

MIT will not have to change its current admissions process to comply with the guidelines. MIT bases its admissions on “a candidate’s grades, the quality of their academic program, standardized test scores, personal accomplishments, and such characteristics as creativity, leadership, and love of learning,” according to the admissions web-site.

Jones said MIT uses an algorithm to compute a candidate’s “numeric index” which incorporates grades, class rank, and standardized test scores.

“The numeric index has the highest correlation to success at MIT, more so than any one of its parts,” Jones said. “We have a very good use of these tests, better than most schools.”

Osgood praised MIT’s admissions process. “Everyone who is admitted has the potential to succeed here,” he said.

The Department of Education will continue to seek feedback on the draft of the guidelines. It hopes to publish a final version by December 1999.