Faculty Petition Speaks to Broader Implications for Undergraduate Admissions

Last month, over 140 professorial faculty signed and submitted to the administration a petition calling for the reinstatement of the SAT as a criterion for admissions. In other words, rather than continuing with the testing moratorium which has been in place since 2020, signatories are urging the admissions committee to return to a test-optional platform for future cycles.

“We have more qualified students applying than there are spots at Caltech,” noted Centennial Chair Professor and petition signatory John Dabiri in an interview with the Tech. Standardized testing “helps quantify the level of rigor the students are capable of.”

Dr. Dabiri was first a SURF intern, then a graduate student, and now a professor at the Institute. According to him, Caltech is a place where “the best and brightest…come for the most advanced education.”

However, determining exactly which students are the “best and brightest” is the challenge the admissions committee faces year after year, a challenge only worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. With testing center closures across the globe, the admissions committee made the decision to implement a “testing moratorium” in order to increase access to Caltech. An internal study conducted by Caltech faculty concluded that “standardized test scores have little to no power in predicting students’ performance…as students progress through the first-year core curriculum,” according to an official Institute statement.

Caltech’s decision to adopt a “test-blind” approach is not solely influenced by the pandemic, but is the product of increased scrutiny of standardized testing as a whole. Many believe that what the SAT and ACT promise is an arbitrary academic benefit that comes at a very concrete financial cost which can act as a barrier to low-income or minority students. Consequently, colleges and universities have been re-evaluating their SAT/ACT admissions requirements in an effort to increase diversity on campus by lowering the hurdles to higher education. And many colleges chose to drop the testing requirement over the COVID-19 pandemic.

MIT was one of those such colleges, suspending their SAT/ACT test requirement from 2020-2021. However they reinstated it in 2022 citing it as an important predictor of student success for the rigor of math based classes students at MIT are required to take.

What Dr. Dabiri did point out was the need for all students on campus to be fully literate, so to speak, in science and technology, especially given Caltech’s infamous rigor. After all, as he put it, it’s “very difficult to make progress in French with students who don’t speak French.” And given the sheer number of research opportunities available to first-years, both faculty and the admissions office want to make sure the incoming class is capable of joining in.

Test requirements have been controversial in the past with some claiming it disadvantages certain students who do not have the resources needed for extensive test preparations. Dr. Dabiri emphasized, though, that the faculty petition to reinstate the SAT has no correlation with this trend towards diversifying the student body. “The two questions are completely different,” he remarked, noting that he believes that a focus on equity at Caltech does not mean that the quality of students has decreased - “we can do both.”

Likewise in their statement explaining the return of the test requirement, MIT claimed that the testing requirement did not significantly decrease the diversity of the student body and in fact “way we use the SAT/ACT increases_ _access to MIT for students from these groups relative to other things we can consider” according to the MIT dean of admissions. Educational inequality, weather stemming from economic or socioeconomic factors can affect much more than just the test scores and considering the test scores gives admissions the data they need to ensure the students are ready for the coursework.