higher education

What Does an SAT Score Mean Anymore?

The mass pivot to a test-optional approach reshuffled college admissions. MIT decided it was done.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

On the last Monday of March 2022, two weeks after MIT finished notifying 1,337 applicants that they had been accepted (and rejected some 32,000 others), a post appeared on the website of the university’s admissions office. After two pandemic-disrupted application cycles, during which basically every college in America ditched its SAT and ACT requirements, the dean of admissions, Stu Schmill, announced that MIT would be asking for test scores again, starting with the high-school seniors applying this fall. MIT had determined that it needed tests to make sure its students could do the work — a conclusion reached after “careful research,” Schmill wrote. The 1,400-word post was accompanied by nearly 3,000 words of endnotes, citing everything from academic journals to MIT’s own graduation data.

In bringing back the tests, MIT was going out on a limb. Since the start of the pandemic, the system by which universities craft and replicate the American elite has radically shifted, and standardized tests — once a rite of passage for generations of teenagers — are no longer assumed mandatory. Instead, our relationship with the tests has splintered into three positions. The first is the legacy policy: A test is required. The second is the “test blind” or “test free” approach, adopted by the University of California system in 2021, in which test scores are eliminated from the admissions process altogether. And the third is the test-optional approach, in which applicants choose whether to submit a score. In the spring of 2020, 600 campuses, including the entire Ivy League, became test optional, a temporary work-around to closed test sites. But then colleges kept extending the expiration date of their policies. Last September, Cornell said this year’s high-school seniors and juniors wouldn’t need to submit scores. Stanford followed in November, exempting this year’s seniors from sending scores. In December, Harvard went even further: Students applying as far out as the class of 2030 (this year’s ninth-graders) could consider their test scores optional.

Even before the pandemic, there’d been a growing disenchantment among colleges toward requiring test scores, which study after study has demonstrated are strongly linked to the applicant’s family income and race. In 2019, according to the testing-watchdog group FairTest, nearly 50 campuses made test scores optional for applicants — a record number, according to the Washington Post. “There was a growing realization that the value of the test as a predictive tool likely didn’t outweigh the harm it created,” Akil Bello, FairTests’s director of advocacy, told me. Until Schmill’s announcement, the only other admissions dean at an elite institution willing to publicly throw his weight behind the tests during the pandemic was Charles Deacon at Georgetown University. Deacon, one of the longest-serving admissions deans in higher education (he’s been in his role since the Nixon administration) is unapologetic about his belief in the necessity of the tests. “It’s not politically correct,” he admitted.

It was not only that MIT was moving in the opposite direction of nearly all of its competitors that caught high-school counselors and admissions officers by surprise but also how Schmill framed the decision. Bringing back the SAT and ACT, he argued, would be more equitable than keeping tests optional. Evaluating applications without scores “tends to raise socioeconomic barriers to demonstrating readiness for our education,” Schmill wrote, and the SAT and ACT allowed MIT to “identify (some) students who would not otherwise be ‘picked up’ by other indicators” because MIT, like most other colleges, buys names of prospective students whose standardized-test scores fall within a particular range to assist in recruiting its first-year class.

By being the first highly selective college to return to a test requirement, MIT would, Schmill knew, face criticism. The day after the announcement, Jon Boeckenstedt, vice-provost for enrollment management at Oregon State and a frequent critic of the SAT and its owner, the College Board, tweeted a thread of acerbic criticism at MIT, challenging Schmill’s claims and ending, “Just say you like tests. No one is going to cancel you.” One of the few public affirmations of MIT’s decision came, not unexpectedly, from the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which proclaimed, “Test Scores Count Again at MIT.” When Deacon saw Schmill’s blog post, “the next thing I did was write an email to Stu congratulating him,” he told me.

In the past two years, the broad shift toward the test-optional approach has reshuffled the math of college admissions: Without what used to be the one universal element in a “holistic” admissions process, a student’s chances of getting admitted to a selective school today are significantly different from what they were two years ago. The question for future classes is whether MIT is a bellwether that its competitors follow or whether test optional, and its downstream effect on admissions, is here to stay. MIT’s decision to require standardized tests again has reignited debates over what, in the decidedly unfair realm of elite-college admissions, constitutes equity and fairness — principles that admissions deans, students, parents, counselors, and even the courts have conflicting ideas about, particularly when the demand for seats so exceeds the number available.

Before it became the subject of editorial pages and Twitter spars between college deans, the SAT was seen as a purely egalitarian tool. In the 1930s, the then-president of Harvard University, James Bryant Conant, persuaded his fellow elite-college presidents to adopt the exam so they could expand their student bodies beyond pedigreed young men from East Coast boarding schools. As the number of teenagers going to college swelled in the second half of the 20th century, colleges used the SAT and later the ACT to quickly sort through applicants. By the late 1980s, U.S. News & World Report had started using scores as a metric in its college rankings; as a result, colleges felt obligated to report high scores to move up in the rankings.

But at the turn of this century, colleges increasingly began to see the tests as an unnecessary barrier, particularly for low-income and minority students. A bar graph on FairTest’s website illustrates a spike, starting in 2001, in the number of colleges that eliminated test scores as an admissions requirement. Most were less selective schools, joined by a small set of elite liberal-arts colleges. In 2008, Wake Forest University became the first top-30 national university in the U.S. News & World Report rankings to go test optional; ten years later, the University of Chicago became the first top-ten university, and by 2019, more than a thousand colleges had gone test optional. But as the number of schools that eliminated testing requirements rose, so did the number of test takers: In the cutthroat competition that elite-college admissions had become, students wanted any edge they could find. In the high-school class of 2015, 1.7 million students took the SAT. By 2019, 2.2 million students did. At the highest-ranked test-optional institution before the pandemic, the University of Chicago, 85 to 90 percent of applicants still submitted scores.

That devotion to the tests couldn’t even be disrupted by COVID-19 at first. “There was a run on test sites before there was a run on toilet paper,” Adam Ingersoll, founder and principal of Compass Education Group, an academic-advising and test-prep firm, told The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2020. Throughout the spring and summer, college officials realized they would need to relax their test requirements for admission the following fall. The reluctance of some institutions was evident in their initial, sometimes cryptic announcements. Purdue University called its policy “test flexible,” saying, “If students can take an SAT or ACT, we’d still suggest and prefer they do so.” The University of Michigan said, while missing scores wouldn’t hurt a student’s chances, “Scores are encouraged … if available.” And Cornell University said students who didn’t submit scores would be assessed with “increased scrutiny.”

With little preparation, colleges embarked on an experiment: What would happen if, for two application cycles, nearly every elite institution in America let students choose what to do about their test results? And what admissions deans found was that a test-optional policy, presented to students as a move of compassion, served their own agendas, too. Unsure whether testing was really optional or what a good score was when not everyone sent one, students aiming for selective colleges hedged their bets and applied to more schools than usual; according to forthcoming research from the Common App, average applications per student have increased during the first two years of the pandemic, with 17 percent of students applying to ten or more colleges this year using their platform (known in the industry as “high-volume applicants”). Top-ranked private colleges received the bulk of their applications. Having more prospective students to choose from gave colleges permission to lean more into their priorities, whether it’s admitting students from a particular geographic region, low-income students, men, students of color, athletes, legacies, or full payers. And now that scores weren’t required, colleges could craft a class however they wanted without worrying whether low scores from sought-after applicants might impact the average for the entire first-year class — and ultimately their rankings and prestige.

I saw how schools balanced those priorities while embedded in the admissions offices at three selective colleges for my book Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. Typically, institutional priorities really come into play in the final weeks of admissions season after the rough sort of the class is completed. By early March, colleges have a general sense of what their incoming class looks like in terms of their overall academic profile and demographics, so this is when admissions offices focus on smaller groups of applicants — “shaping” the class, as they call it — to add diversity or certain majors or bring in legacies, employees’ children, or donors. But a test-optional policy “gives you more degrees of freedom in selection,” said an admissions dean at a prestigious private university. “It brings other elements of the file forward that had to compete with test scores in the past.”

In July, the College Board released the results of a study on 51 public and private colleges that were test optional for fall 2021 and the policy’s impact on admissions. Applications were up across all kinds of institutions, but highly selective privates — those that admit fewer than 25 percent of students — saw the biggest jump, with more than half of applicants not disclosing a test score. These schools were also the only group that didn’t make more space to meet demand, resulting in ultralow acceptance rates. And while the overall numbers showed that the enrollments of underrepresented students of color and low-income students stayed basically flat, highly selective private institutions saw their numbers rise among their biggest admissions priorities: Black students, low-income students, and students with high GPAs.

“I have yet to speak to a counselor at a low-income high school who doesn’t believe that test optional has helped open the doors wider for their students,” Angel B. Pérez, chief executive officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told me. This fall, I spoke to a first-year college student from Texas named Jorge, the son of a single mom who works as a custodian. In high school, Jorge was interested in Columbia but had worried about his SAT scores; after taking three SATs, his best combined score was a 1230, which fell below Columbia’s middle 50 percent of test scores for admitted students, 1490 to 1560. “Why waste my time when I don’t have the scores?” he thought. “In the back of my mind, I thought, I’m not going to get in.” At the time, he was working with a nonprofit that provides college-counseling to low-income students, and his advisers encouraged him to apply anyway. Jorge sent in his application without test scores and was accepted early decision.

What remains to be seen is whether the switch to test optional at selective colleges has any impact on who stays and graduates. Fans of the tests have long argued that scores are a necessary benchmark for evaluating applications from high schools with varying degrees of rigor. “It’s not a score cutoff we’re looking for but one that’s high enough that you think, Well, maybe the student can do it,” Deacon said. “We don’t want people coming in for whom that is a real question. The really low test score is a warning signal.” But other deans have yet to make up their minds. I asked an admissions dean at one of those highly selective privates if it would be difficult to go back to requiring the tests should they continue to see the rise in underrepresented students admitted. “It’s the million-dollar question,” he said, one his institution is trying to answer by tracking the performance of undergraduates who enrolled without test scores. He’s not alone: One reason so many schools have extended their test-optional policies is so they can conduct an A/B test comparing how those undergraduates who withheld their scores fare over their college careers compared with those who included them, based on grades and how many return to campus.

A few weeks into his first year, I caught up with Jorge at Columbia. I asked him how the semester was going. “It’s difficult, but it’s just about how you can effectively manage your time,” he said. Graduating from an early-college high school where he took college-level courses helped. “I didn’t need an SAT score to tell me that I was going to be okay,” he said.

Meanwhile, other anecdotal results from the test-optional experiment are starting to trickle in. At one top-ranked liberal arts college, where 60 percent of the students who enrolled last year submitted scores, the admissions dean told me that the average first-year GPA for members of the freshman class that submitted scores was 3.57; for non-submitters it was 3.47. “Institutional research tells me the difference is statistically significant,” he said. Another admissions dean, from the selective private university weighing the “million-dollar question,” told me faculty members have informed him about students who have “a little less confidence” in the classroom. Since professors don’t know whether their students submitted scores, the admissions dean asks for names. He then looks them up. Most of the time, he said, the students didn’t submit scores. “The question is, if I’m coming in with a 1600 or a 1550 on the SAT, does that do something to my level of confidence in the classroom versus someone who just came in with grades?” this admissions dean wonders.

Few universities were as reluctant to drop testing as MIT. It was one of the last of the top-ranked institutions to announce a policy change. The first year of the pandemic, applications to MIT jumped 66 percent, more than at almost every other selective college. “We certainly did not increase our staff by 66 percent,” Schmill told me in June, when I met him in his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Our staff got very burned out.” MIT had every intention of restoring its test requirements after one year, but as COVID lingered, MIT was forced to extend its testing policy for a second year.

By fall 2021, Schmill had grown concerned about the pandemic-inspired policy. On October 1, MIT’s Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid (known on campus by the acronym CUAFA and made up of faculty, students, and other campus officials) convened over Zoom. On the agenda: what to do about testing in the fall of 2022. According to Chris Peterson, director of special projects in the admissions office, committee members weren’t in agreement about reinstating the tests. They knew the tests were controversial and, for a year and a half, had heard about the structural inequities they helped perpetuate. Plus, when other institutions were extending their test-optional policies or eliminating tests altogether, why, some committee members wondered, would MIT make a U-turn?

Schmill and Peterson came to that CUAFA meeting armed with data. To determine whether to keep the tests, MIT had taken a different approach from its peers: Rather than continuing to experiment on current classes, Schmill and his admissions team chose to look backward at historical data the school had been collecting on students since the early aughts. “We have 20 years of data where we fiddled with different levers over time,” Peterson told me.

One of those levers was the SAT itself — specifically, the range of MIT students’ scores today compared to 20 years ago. In the fall of 2020, the last year tests were required, the middle 50 percent of MIT first-years scored between 780 and 800 (out of a possible 800) on the math section. That means the top 25 percent of the class scored a perfect 800 and the bottom 25 percent scored a 780 or below with none scoring below 700. (To put these numbers in perspective: If a student missed two math questions out of the 58 on most versions of the SAT, they’d score a 770, putting them below 75 percent of the first-year class at MIT.) But in the early aughts, MIT admitted students with a wider range of scores: About a tenth of first-years scored between a 600 and 699 on the SAT math section, according to MIT’s archived Common Data Set. “They did not do well,” Peterson said. Graduation rates at the time hovered just above 90 percent, high for most colleges but not good enough for MIT.

Schmill didn’t publicly release any of the data he shared with the committee, nor would he show it to me, a stipulation he made when I approached him for this article in April. He was also reluctant to describe how this data broke down across demographic groups. (In late October, the Supreme Court would begin to hear oral arguments for Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a lawsuit that used, among other factors, Asian American students’ test scores to argue against affirmative action, and nearly every admissions dean I spoke to throughout the summer and fall worried about speaking publicly about how race factored into their decision-making.) But to get a sense of what the committee saw — and what made Schmill argue in his blog post that requiring a test score supports greater diversity rather than working against it — I dug into historical data on retention and graduation rates by ethnicity in MIT’s institutional research pages. Here’s what I found: 88 percent of Hispanic students who entered in the fall of 2006 (when 13 percent of MIT first-years scored between a 600 and 699 on the SAT math section) graduated within six years. Black students who started in the fall of 2006 had an 84 percent graduation rate, the lowest among any demographic group except “American Indian/Alaska Native.” Over the following years, as MIT reduced the percentage of students it enrolled with SAT math scores between 600 and 700, the overall percentage of Black students stayed relatively steady while the percentage of Hispanic students rose. But the graduation rates for both groups started to inch up with each eclipsing the 90 percent mark by 2013.

Schmill’s definition of equity in admissions, he told me, is “not all about who comes in the door but also who goes out.” Every year, MIT sees applications from students who didn’t take rigorous math and science courses in high school — many of whom are minority or low income — and without test scores, Schmill said, admissions officers risk accepting students less likely to make it to graduation. For students who applied without test scores the past two years, admissions officers looked for other evidence of math achievement, such as Advanced Placement tests, International Baccalaureate courses, or American Mathematics Competitions. Without any of those data points, the likely result was a rejection, but access to those assessments is even more closely tied to wealth than performance on the SAT or ACT.

For now, MIT remains in the minority in its claims about the predictive power of the SAT. In 2021, Wake Forest, which went test optional in 2008, released a longitudinal analysis that found that applicants who don’t submit scores — who are twice as likely to be low income, students of color, or the first in their family to go to college — have a lower GPA their first year at Wake Forest, but it narrows each subsequent year to a .03 difference by graduation with minimal difference in graduation rates. (Interestingly, students who withheld their scores even graduated at a slightly higher rate, at 90 percent, than those who sent scores, at 87 percent.) Studies of other colleges that went test optional before the pandemic have arrived at similar conclusions: After some time as an undergraduate, there isn’t much difference in the academic performance between students who submitted and those who didn’t. But as Schmill pointed out to me repeatedly, MIT’s undergraduate curriculum — its focus on mathematics especially — is unique even among its elite peers.

After the first meeting in October, CUAFA gathered on Zoom twice more, each time pressing the admissions office for more data on admitted students and how they performed on campus. Eventually, “they set aside what they all might have believed prior,” Schmill told me, “and came up with a decision that they thought was best for MIT.” In February, MIT’s senior administration signed off on the decision: MIT would require standardized tests again.

SAT and ACT scores have long commanded an enormous amount of signaling power for students in the admissions process. For students with lower scores  often low-income and underrepresented students  the SAT once functioned as a flashing red light, a warning that they need not apply to a selective college. For students with a high score, the SAT functioned as a vote of confidence: They believed their score would be the one thing that differentiated them from the hordes of teenagers with top grades and a laundry list of extracurriculars. The pandemic, and the mass pivot to test optional, has made that test score’s signal much weaker. And even when a student does have a test score, there is much more noise in interpreting it.

One unintended consequence is that the ambiguous rules of college admissions have become even more muddled, a change most keenly felt in pressure-cooker high schools where offers to selective schools were once taken for granted. “Test optional raised the anxiety level across the board,” Jeff Makris, director of college counseling at Stuyvesant High School in New York, told me. Before COVID upended admissions, test scores served as a guide for students, who used a school’s middle 50 percent range to decide where to apply and to gauge their shot at getting in. But in a world where only the top scorers submit, “who knows what a strong score is anymore?” said Owen, who graduated from a New York City public high school in June. Owen scored a combined 1560 on the SAT — a number that, in a previous era, when everyone was required to submit a score, he knew would have easily placed him among the top test takers at any selective college, yet he was rejected by 16 of the 22 colleges he applied to. He had his heart set on Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, or Duke; he ended up at the University of Southern California on the condition that he defer his start on the school’s Los Angeles campus until the spring.

Amid the confusion, high-school counselors are struggling to find new signposts to guide their students. One problem, counselors told me, is that the information they get from colleges isn’t standardized. Some report the percentage of applicants who applied without test scores but not the percentage accepted; others report the inverse. And while colleges report the SAT and ACT score ranges of enrolled students, they don’t indicate which percentage of the incoming class submitted those scores, leaving students to wonder how much the figures have been inflated by those with high scores who bothered to submit them. Two years in, counselors have no idea: What is a good score? Do I submit a score or not? And if so, should all colleges on my list get my score? Schmill tells me he gets those same questions from friends whose children are applying to other colleges. “I never had a good answer,” he said. “Like, I have no idea.”

After the past two admissions cycles, very few selective schools released data on who got in with or without test scores. (“We did admit students without test scores,” Schmill said wryly of MIT. “Not just one or two, so some.”) When they have, the statistics generally reveal that students who submitted test scores got accepted at a higher rate. In some cases, at Boston College, Notre Dame, and Amherst, the admit rate for this fall’s first-year class was twice as high for students with test scores compared to those without, according to data collected by Compass Education Group. At Emory University, while the overall acceptance rate for this fall was 11 percent, it was 15 percent for those who applied with test scores and 8 percent for those who didn’t. Those figures seem to indicate submitting a score at test-optional colleges provides an advantage, but several admissions deans and independent admissions counselors said those high scorers tend to have other things going in their favor too — top among them, high GPAs.

While an all-star student’s prospects may remain intact, the pattern that seems to be emerging is that a test-optional policy has scrambled the odds the most for the edge-case students. In the spring, Hannah Wolff, a former college counselor at Langley High School, a top-ranked high school in the wealthy suburbs of Washington, D.C., heard from admissions counselors at several public universities that a few Langley seniors who were rejected might have been admitted if they had not submitted their SAT scores, which were in the 1350 range. While a 1350 would have been considered a good score in the past at those schools, now, when the only applicants submitting scores are mostly those well above the average, the expectations of admissions officers have risen with the scores — especially for applicants from wealthy academic powerhouses like Langley. For students at competitive high schools who hover at the threshold, the decision to share a score can hurt as much as it can help. But as Georgetown’s admissions dean explained, “If you’re from some unknown high school in the middle of Mississippi and you’ve got a 1200, you should send it because that’s a good score for a place that we’re actually looking to add students.”

Stuyvesant students are good test takers, but even then, Makris agrees, “there’s a lot of situations where it’s a gray area.” He recalled a senior last year who came to him for advice about whether to send her just-under-1500 on the SAT to an Ivy League school. He showed the student the middle 50 percent of test scores for those who had enrolled a year earlier. “Technically, looking at data that is now about a year old, it looks like you’re a little bit under,’” he told her. He reminded her that admissions officers understand Stuy’s rigor and that they would “respect” her grades. “‘I could go either way,’” he remembers telling her. “‘But why volunteer something that could potentially work against you?’” The student’s dad later emailed Makris, disagreeing with the counselor’s take; Makris doesn’t know if the student ultimately applied without scores, but either way, she was rejected. Stories like that make him and other high-school counselors reluctant to tell students what to do about their scores. “The more we tell them what to do, the more we become scapegoats when they don’t get in,” he said.

While we spoke, Makris pulled up the admissions results for his students going back to 2016. He rattled off a bunch of college names. About the same number of his students get accepted at the usual suspects in the Ivy League now as six years ago, though many more apply too. What might surprise students and parents from a few years ago, however, is the next set of colleges Makris mentioned: Northeastern, Case Western, Boston University, and Binghamton University. In 2016, 298 students applied to Northeastern, and 91 were admitted; last year, applications to the Boston school jumped to 422, but only 49 were admitted. Last year, 129 Stuy students applied to Case Western, about the same number as in 2017, but admits were almost cut in half to 36. In 2016, the acceptance rate for Stuy’s students who applied to Boston University was 43 percent; last year, it was 14 percent. Normally, Makris said, about 50 to 75 graduates enroll at Binghamton University, one of the state’s top public universities but a safety school among many Stuy students. This fall, 124 students went there. As numbers like those get passed down to students in the hallways of schools like Stuyvesant, Makris anticipates that students and their families will eventually reset their expectations and cast a wider net in their college search.

For some students, that reset has already begun. Over the summer, I spoke to Emma, who graduated from a New York City high school last spring. She had gotten a 1530 on the SAT — including a perfect 800 on the math section — but she still tried to balance her college list between “reach” schools, such as Harvard, Yale, and Cornell, and “likely” schools, including Boston University, Stony Brook, and Binghamton University. Emma was accepted to four schools, including the University of Rochester, where she started as a freshman this fall. “I didn’t think of Rochester as my first choice,” she said. “I fell in love with it after the fact, when the other options weren’t present.”

In late September, some 6,000 college-admissions officers and high-school counselors gathered in Houston for the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. It was the first time the organization had gathered in such a big way since before the pandemic and the rapid expansion of test-optional policies. There were several sessions on the topic, each filled to capacity. At a session I moderated, one of the panelists, a high-school counselor from Florida, said the students she works with still believe they need a test score — and a high one at that — and the audience burst into applause. They did again when she said the lack of transparency by colleges around test scores makes it impossible to advise students. Another panelist, Yvonne Romero Da Silva, the vice-president for enrollment at Rice (which is test optional for now), said, “I don’t know what more we can say. I mean 25 percent of our students are at Rice without submitting a test. I think that’s some of the proof that’s in the pudding.”

What was clear in the sessions and hallway discussions in Houston among many admissions officers was that test optional gives them flexibility in selecting students and, as a result, that the policies might be here to stay. Even the College Board, the private corporation at the center of the multibillion-dollar testing industry, has toned down its opposition to the test-optional movement: In January, the organization announced a new, all-digital SAT. When it’s rolled out, starting in the spring of 2024, it will be an hour shorter than the current three-hour paper version. The hope among College Board executives I spoke with is that, if tests are optional for admission, students will want to take a test instead of feeling they must take one.

What is even more likely to establish test optional as a permanent policy among highly selective colleges is the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently heard arguments in two cases challenging the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Given the Court’s 6-3 conservative majority, the expectation among admissions deans is that it will end the use of race in admissions, a precedent it set more than 40 years ago and has repeatedly upheld since. According to Deacon, Georgetown’s admissions dean, being test optional could give colleges greater freedom in shaping a class with diversity in mind because test scores for applicants and admitted students are often used by plaintiffs in such cases as evidence of discrimination.

The question remains whether selective colleges will go a step further to avoid legal land mines (and provide clarity to applicants) by doing away with the tests altogether. A few weeks before the NACAC conference, the California Institute of Technology announced that its test-blind policy, adopted early in the pandemic, would be extended another two years to 2025, at which point the plan is to announce a permanent decision one way or another. In many ways, CalTech and MIT are more like each other than other top universities, and yet on this question their own internal research came to opposite conclusions. “The ability to firmly state that tests don’t matter reduces ambiguity and stress for applicants,” Ashlee M. Pallie, director of undergraduate admissions at CalTech, told me.

The patchwork of policies about this single piece of the college application has seemed only to further cement the power of the tests in the admissions process even as we talk about diminishing their influence. The admissions process is messy, Peterson, of the MIT admissions office, reminded me. His first job there involved monitoring the forum College Confidential. That experience answering questions about MIT on a website where misinformation and anxious chatter about admissions run rampant taught him that no single measure of merit, no metric of achievement, no amount of information about how someone ends up in the acceptance pile will satisfy students and their families. In the end, Peterson said, what they want is to “make the admissions decisions themselves.”

What Does an SAT Score Mean Anymore?