Columns, Opinions

Colby ’20: It’s time for Brown to go test-optional

Staff Columnist
Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Brown’s early decision application deadline is fast approaching, with many applicants rushing to submit their SAT and ACT scores. These students are applying in the shadow of Brown Promise, the University’s multi-billion dollar effort to promote diversity and access to a Brown education. However, meaningful improvements to the diversity of Brown’s student body can’t happen with extra funding for financial aid alone. That is, as I and my fellow columnists Quentin Thomas ’21 and Lena Renshaw ’20 have pointed out in the past few weeks, the complicated mission of building a more diverse Brown requires an integrated approach. As such, any serious program of reform must address the systemic inequities faced both by applicants and current students, who must deal with student loans after graduation.

Right now, Brown’s continued use of regressive admissions practices, like legacy admissions, inadvertently undercuts its stated goals of diversity. But another regressive practice worth scrutinizing that hasn’t received as much attention is Brown’s use of standardized test scores to evaluate applicants. Standardized tests have long been a staple of Brown’s admissions process; the University suggests applicants take not only the SAT or ACT but also two additional SAT Subject Tests. These standardized exams subvert Brown’s goals of socioeconomic, racial and intellectual diversity on campus, in part by imposing undue burdens on low-income applicants. As such, Brown should seriously reevaluate its use of standardized tests — especially as it pushes to bolster its accessibility to underrepresented students — and go test-optional. The University has already taken some steps to remedy this. For the Class of 2021, applicants did not need to submit the essay portion of the SAT or ACT. Measures like these can help low-income students, but Brown needs to do more.

In recent years, the University has prioritized diversity in its admissions policies and its development of new programs to help students acclimate to campus life. The administration has recognized that diversity is important for countless reasons — including the fact that diversity enhances the Brown experience by bringing people from different backgrounds together to collaborate and exchange knowledge. Thus far, Brown has devoted more resources to minorities, low-income and first generation students: Last fall, the University opened the First-Generation and Low-Income Student Center in the Sciences Library, and last spring, it moved to waive application fees for low-income students. Still, these actions cannot fully help Brown compensate for its discriminatory past and achieve its long-term diversity goals so long as the University employs standardized testing in admissions. As Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Herald in 2012, “I don’t think (need-blind admission does) any good. Because in the end, it’s the distribution of test scores. You can go need-blind, but if everyone’s got a 1200 SAT, you’re not going to get any low-income kids.”

As I’ve written about before, standardized tests unfairly advantage privileged applicants who have the means to afford test preparation tutors and courses. According to a 2016 Herald poll, 42.3 percent of students with no financial aid used professional test tutors, compared to only 14.3 percent of students receiving some grants, and 4 percent of students receiving full aid. Multiple studies have concluded that test preparation has a positive effect on standardized test outcomes. One case study of 21 students compared their performance before and after test preparation and saw 12 students earn “SAT-Math scores that were 70 or more points higher… four increased their scores by 100-120 points, and one jumped a whopping 160 points.” But these score improvements are, by and large, concentrated among those who can afford expensive test preparation. SAT preparation materials generally are beyond the reach of poor families: practice books are expensive, Kaplan’s most popular SAT Prep Course costs $899 and private tutoring can easily cost thousands of dollars. The discriminatory effects of standardized tests — which essentially reward wealthier students at the expense of others — may provide one explanation for why over 19 percent of Brown students come from the top 1 percent of the income scale, while only 18.2 percent come from the bottom 60 percent of the income scale.

It has been argued that without standardized tests, there is no broad, objective metric that admissions officers can use to easily compare students. This notion ignores the plethora of evidence that already proves that standardized test scores are not an objective metric. Universities that have decreased the weight they place on applicants’ test scores, like Wesleyan University, have found that standardized tests are a poor indicator of college academic success, and that they are better able to attract a “more racially and socio-economically diverse pool of candidates.” It is also worth pushing back against the idea that standardized tests meaningfully measure applicants’ abilities. The use of test scores places a normative value on the ability to test well, and thus the rote analytical skills that come with standardized test-taking. Test scores reward just one type of intelligence, while neglecting all other ways of thinking — which may, in the long run, hinder the diversity of thought and creativity on campus. Moreover, a gradual shift to a test-optional admissions policy does not mean Brown must abolish the use of tests entirely; they may still prove useful when comparing students from similar academic, racial, geographic and economic backgrounds.

Many universities have already taken note of the inherently discriminatory nature of the SAT and vowed to apply the test in more equitable ways. Pitzer College, Bowdoin College and Wesleyan all have similar acceptance rates to Brown and are all test-optional. The use of standardized tests does not need to be the norm — there are already over 950 accredited colleges and universities that employ “test optional,” “test flexible” policies or otherwise de-emphasize the importance of standardized test scores. These reforms would certainly align with the goals of the University’s BrownTogether and Brown Promise campaigns, which aim to promote a more diverse student body. Ultimately, if Brown really cares about diversity of class, race and thought on campus, it ought to become test-optional as part of a more integrated approach to equity in admissions.

Owen Colby ’20 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

Correction: Due to an error in editing, a previous version of this article cited a 2015 Herald article that said that the Class of 2021 onward would not need to submit the essay portion of the ACT or SAT. The Class of 2021 did not need to submit the essay. But this year, the Office of Admission decided to reinstate the essay requirement for the Class of 2022 applicants. The Herald regrets the error.

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  1. Man with Axe says:

    How is a minority applicant from a terrible high school, one in which any ordinarily competent student could get a 4.0 gpa, going to demonstrate that he is a cut above?

    Why should a poor inner-city student who really is just as smart and who has learned just as much as his white suburban competitor for the last few seats not be able to answer just as many questions correctly on the SAT, and write just as competent an essay?

    Maybe a few SAT points in either direction doesn’t prove much about an applicant, but if the average score is 1,200 and a particular applicant has an 850, he is going to struggle, guaranteed. Why not encourage him go to a school where he is not among the worst students there? Are you satisfied to have a university in which the minority students invariably are in the bottom of every class?

    • “Simple. Those 4.0 poor students can show that they are Ivy League worthy by doing extracurriculars – such as building houses in Rwanda, study abroad, hockey, founding money losing startups, and interning in DC. You know – the things that anyone can do if they are truly dedicated.”


  2. Jonathan Weisskoff says:

    Without requiring SAT scores, the admissions office will have to rely on high school transcripts, application essays, and letters of recommendation in deciding whom to accept. But all of these can be fabricated: Grades don’t mean much if the integrity of the school’s testing is unknown, and to accept a diverse student body, Brown admissions office must consider applicants from schools that they know little about. The problem of ghost-written application essays is well known. There are plenty of teachers who would be willing to stretch the truth to write a flattering letter of recommendation to help their favorite student get into an Ivy League school. Therefore, the only way for Brown or for any school to maintain a fair application process–that is, one that cannot be gamed–is to use some type of unfalsifiable standard, like the SAT. If Brown were to follow the suggestion that this author has made, and do away with the SAT requirement, they would be implementing an application process that can be taken advantage of by cheaters, and that is not fair.

    Also, this quote from an opinion in the NYT is relevant to this discussion:

    “University-level entrance exams are not intended as intelligence tests, and for good reason: to the extent it can be measured, intelligence is a limited predictor of academic success at that level. Colleges aren’t simply looking to enroll the smartest students; rather they are seeking mature, talented, well-rounded, motivated, service-oriented and accomplished students of every background. Standardized tests provide a reasonably reliable barometer of the extent to which a student has been able to master the general high school curriculum in a way that will prepare her well for college.

    It is true that students of means continue to have greater access to educational resources and opportunities. That is a societal issue. In response, college admissions departments have always sought to evaluate a student’s credentials and achievements against that student’s perceived opportunities. They maintain rigorous expectations of a student who has grown up with many privileges, and reasonably modified expectations of students who have overcome perceived disadvantages.”

  3. Bowdoin has been test optional for 40 years. Yet, the college still remains dominated by rich and/or legacy students. It makes you wonder if the true goal of test optional policies is opposite of what is stated.

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