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Columns, Opinions

Reed ’21: A recipe for more equitable college admission

Staff Columnist
Sunday, September 27, 2020

For the past several years, the righteous fight for equity and fairness in college admission has been mired in a state of moral confusion. Everyone wants fairness, but how? Empowerment, but for whom? To knock down barriers, but which ones? To some, the answers are clear, and even more obvious to them are the corresponding policy solutions. Most recently, activists at Brown and at colleges and universities across the country have been fighting hard on one particular front: ending standardized test requirements.

Their case is simple: Standardized tests constitute a barrier to higher education and load the admissions dice in favor of those who can afford weeks-long prep courses and expensive tutors. It’s not that these activists are wrong per se. In fact, we have every reason to believe being born into privilege does yield advantages on these tests. To some extent, you can buy your SAT score. But activists’ solution to this rank injustice is to, quite simply, do away with the exams altogether.

However, anyone who actually cares about the stratification of American society must wrestle with the very real, though unintended, consequences of such an idea. Eliminating standardized testing may end one source of inequity, but it leaves an even bigger one in its wake.

For well over a century, the elite colleges of northeastern America were within the grasp of only the most select few. In those times, there were no standardized tests. Each university had its own entrance exam, meaning that only those already living in the area or wealthy enough to travel long distances had even a chance at admission. Consequently, the halls of Brown, the grass of Harvard Yard, indeed the libraries of nearly every elite university were the near-exclusive domain of the children of the wealthy and powerful and the graduates of elite boarding schools like Phillips Exeter Academy and Georgetown Preparatory School.

For a poor, young boy in Appalachia, his dream of going to Harvard was about as far-flung as his dream of going to the moon.

Then, in the mid-twentieth century, there began a shift toward meritocracy. This shift significantly accelerated during the Cold War, when colleges began seeking out raw intellectual talent irrespective of social origins to advance American interests in the international scientific community. As the role of colleges in American society changed, so did the composition of their student bodies. Colleges began using the SAT to find talent not only within the gates of exclusive prep schools, but from schools all around the country. To be sure, the progress was slow. But now the boy in Appalachia at least had a shot. If he worked hard in school and studied for the test and scored well enough, his application would be on the admissions committee’s desk right next to the kid from Georgetown. The SAT acted as a great equalizer. The playing field may not have been level, but at least now he was allowed in the game.

For him, standardized tests were a gateway to higher education, not a barrier. Today, these exams continue to provide an opportunity for students to show their stuff. No one is saying they’re perfect. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now. But we can’t achieve equity in the admissions process by eliminating that which has made it more equitable to begin with.

Rather than eliminate the tests, why not fix them? If the primary issue is that (putting the Felicity Huffmans of the world aside) a person’s wealth and social background gives them an edge on the exams, why not control for these variables to ensure test-takers are being judged fairly?

Allow me to extend a slightly modified, overused analogy. Consider two runners on a track, one starting ten yards behind the other. The race begins and, unsurprisingly, the disadvantaged runner loses the race. But just barely. Now, the prevailing wisdom is to declare the man who crosses the finish line the winner and lament the race and its unfair origins. Consequently, a chorus of spectators calls for eliminating racing altogether, as a completely ineffective means of determining talent.

But what if we decided we don’t care who won the race per se? What if we decided we only cared about the race insofar as it helped us determine the better runner? In this case, the better runner is, of course, the man who ran an extra five yards in the same amount of time.

So it is with the standardized test problem. If the boy from Appalachia scores a point lower on the SAT than his peer from Phillips Exeter, I haven’t cooked the books in his favor by declaring him the more meritorious. I’ve simply assessed his merit in the best way I know how. I haven’t given anyone an advantage or disadvantage, I’ve simply acknowledged the race is unfair and sought to identify the better runner.

Unfortunately, “need-blind” colleges and universities like Brown have boxed themselves in. Explicitly committing to not consider an applicant’s financial situation may sound all nice and progressive, but what it really means is that we care only about which runner won the race and not where they started. Consequently, when a poor student and a rich one score the same on the SAT, ‘need-blind’ universities lack many of the tools necessary to differentiate between the two.

Recall that the College Board tried to measure students’ socioeconomic backgrounds last year. Some of the data points included the free lunch rate at their school, the crime and poverty rates in the student’s neighborhood, the opportunities they had to take AP classes and educational rigor. This measure, derisively nicknamed an “adversity score” would have provided exactly the kind of tool universities could use to put an applicant’s test score in context. Sadly, the College Board abandoned that plan after heavy criticism of its viability as a reliable metric. Yet even if this specific metric was imperfect, the general concept of a systemic, numerical evaluation of these factors has promise that should not be so swiftly abandoned.

The cliche turns out to be true: Higher education is the gateway to success in America and, increasingly, in the world. Consequently, how we choose who gets to attend which college or university has a profound impact on the life of the person and for the life of society, in general. Everyone has the same goals: fairness, inclusion, accessibility. It may seem wise to eliminate every practice which has even the veneer of inequity — it’s certainly fashionable. But, in the case of standardized tests, the solution cannot be to forsake empirics. To eliminate them is to deny their history and to preserve, if not exacerbate, the segregation of American society along socioeconomic lines.

Andrew Reed ’21 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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  1. Context Matters says:

    The author says a common misconception about how need-blind admission works. A need-blind policy is one where an applicant cannot be penalized for requiring financial aid but it doesn’t mean that Admission Officers can’t read affirmatively towards low income students. Admission Officers can see low income markers (like if a student qualifies for free or reduced price lunch or if their parents work a traditionally low paying job) on an application and bring this up in a committee conversation when they are advocating to admit a student. Perhaps “need-affirmative” would be a better way to describe the admission processes at colleges/ universities like Brown, which are actively seeking to increase socioeconomic diversity in their student body.

    An admission system where test scores and other achievements are reviewed contextually is the ultimate goal but it isn’t quite working in practice at hyper selective institutions like Brown. A student who scored a 30 composite score on the ACT will still struggle to get admitted to a school like Brown, even if that score is 10 points higher than any other score from that high school. With such deep pools of applicants, highly selective colleges can pass up on this student (who could be academically successful on campus and might add to campus in other important ways) because there will likely be another student in the pool that meets those same institutional priorities and has a 31. Or a 34. Or a perfect score. It was common practice long before the College Board created the Environmental Context Dashboard for high schools to provide a School Profile with contextual data for Admission Officers to know what the average test score is from the school and yet Brown has largely remained a wealthy campus (see because they have chosen to place so much value in a testing system that disproportionately gives wealthy students an advantage.

    A test optional policy isn’t taking opportunities away from students who are strong test takers (or have the resources needed to train them to become strong test takers). It just gives students who aren’t strong test takers a chance to present themselves and their accomplishments in a way that doesn’t boil them down to a number (especially a number that is averaged with the rest of the student body and then tracked over time to see if the university is “becoming stronger” over time because the average SAT score went up by 10 points).

  2. The only fair way to assess students is to purely look at their academics and achievements and work ethic and be completely color blind. Only the best students should be admitted without regard to non academic factors. The joke is standardized tests are probably one of the more fair assessments and a great equalizer. It is a great way for poor and minority students to rise to the top and prove themselves by doing well on a standard national test. When the tests were secret in the 60’s-80’s this was a big problem. But now that the tests are available for free everywhere and on line and there are free books and sample tests everywhere, socio economic status has no bearing on result. There are literally dozens of free old tests available on line.

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