Saturday, March 22, 2008

MIT struggles with math

From Keith Winstein in the WSJ...

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped invent radar, high-definition television, computer memory and the Black-Scholes model for pricing stock options. Its faculty and staff include 20 MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" recipients.

But for some time, MIT now says, it wasn't properly calculating the average SAT scores of its freshmen.

Those scores are closely scrutinized as a barometer of college quality. They are part of the formula used by U.S. News & World Report's influential annual rankings of schools.

When MIT dropped this year to seventh place from a three-way tie for fourth, its student newspaper, the Tech, asked why. In response, MIT revealed that its latest numbers factored in the SAT scores of non-native English speakers -- and that the school had excluded them for years.

The change contributed to a 16-point drop in MIT's average SAT scores between 2005 and 2006. The reported SAT average was inflated by six points in 2005 and four in 2004. The school says it isn't sure the scores ever were correct before this year.

"We were not at all trying to do this in any way to increase our rankings," says interim admissions dean Stuart Schmill.

Excluding the test scores of foreign students -- which tend to be lower than those of U.S. students in reading -- is one of many tricks that have plagued the U.S. News numbers. These days, the magazine asks schools to certify that international students who provided test scores are included, and deducts points for those who don't. MIT said it did.

Mr. Schmill says the Cambridge, Mass., school excluded some lower-scoring students because its admissions criteria don't consider SAT scores when a student's native language isn't English.

Students who scored better on a rival admissions exam, the ACT, also were excluded -- another violation of the U.S. News rules.

Mr. Schmill says MIT realized its mistake only by chance, after switching database software, and redid its methodology.

In the end, says Robert J. Morse, director of data research at U.S. News, a number of fluctuations -- including an increase in class sizes -- caused the school's drop in the rankings.

Says Mr. Shmill: "It was a pretty harmless error, or we wouldn't be talking about it."

Aside from this troubling last "admission" (haha!) and the amusing and ironic trouble with basic arithmetic, I'm reminded of the times when my accounting friends have trouble with numbers-- or when management faculty don't get along...


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