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Op-eds, Opinions

Fuad ’23: Equity isn’t optional. The SATs should be

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Friday, February 26, 2021

In 1968, Black students at Brown staged a walkout to protest, among other inequalities, the disproportionately white student body. They demanded that incoming classes be at least 11 percent Black, so as to reflect the United States population at the time.

Since then, BIPOC students of all races have staged three more major protests demanding the same thing: equity in admissions. But to no avail: Admissions data from 2019 show an incoming class that’s 7.6 percent Black, 9.8 percent Hispanic/Latinx, 0.2 percent Native Hawaiian and 0.2 percent Native American. Each falls well below their national percentage. Over 50 years have passed since the first 1968 walkout, and we haven’t even met the 11 percent goal. 

Why is that? Are Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities disproportionately unfit for an Ivy League education? Or, more likely, are qualified BIPOC applicants being consistently and systemically overlooked by Brown’s admissions?

Evidence overwhelmingly points to the latter. The most obvious of the many discriminatory systems perpetuating this practice is Brown’s standardized testing policy. Requiring SAT/ACT scores has been repeatedly shown to exacerbate existing inequities and bar underrepresented students from the University. Universities continue to justify their use, despite consistent studies showing that these tests are actually poor predictors of college success.

By going SAT-optional, more than 1,000 institutions have diversified their student pool and seen the same graduation rates and cumulative GPAs as before, if not better. Wake Forest University reported that their student body became “stronger” and better equipped to handle university rigor after going SAT-optional in 2009, and CalTech’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions Nikki Chun has rejected the notion that test scores are needed to identify strong students.  

Requiring standardized test scores filters out some of the most qualified and capable applicants while exacerbating existing inequalities: Students who identify as BIPOC, first generation and/or low-income tend to score lower on the SAT/ACTs than their peers, even when controlling for all other factors. Tellingly, Black and Latinx students comprise 12 percent of the top high school GPA decile, but only five percent of the top SAT/ACT score decile; 31 percent of first generation students are in the top two quintiles of high school GPA scores, but only 14 percent are in the top two quintiles of SAT/ACT scores; and SAT/ACT scores are strongly correlated with wealth, while high school GPA is not. Unsurprisingly, a 2018 analysis of 28 SAT-optional universities found that students who didn’t submit SAT/ACT scores are more likely to be BIPOC, first-generation and/or low-income than those who did.

Requiring SAT/ACT scores hurts the competitiveness of our student body, and more concerningly, acts as a barrier to underserved students. So why do we maintain such an archaic policy, especially one that so clearly disadvantages underrepresented students? 

One answer is that, while standardized testing is a barrier to many, it occasionally acts as an opportunity. Some have argued that standardized testing allows some underserved students, lacking other means of doing so, to prove their ability. But an SAT-optional policy doesn’t rob them of this. Rather, it allows students to choose how they’d best like to be represented — whether through SAT/ACT scores or otherwise. 

The reality is that Brown likely keeps the requirement around, in part, because it’s a matter of finances: a choice between quality versus cost and equity versus efficiency.  

“As applications to top-ranked institutions have grown exponentially over the past decade, admission offices have not kept up with the labor needed to process them,” argues Marie Brigham, head of the group Admissions Community Cultivating Equity and Peace Today. Universities don’t have enough application-readers to ensure that every student is meaningfully considered. Instead, to save time and labor, they use standardized tests as a quick and easy filter for which applications to thoroughly read. According to the former Associate Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, applications with low test scores are barely skimmed over (and essentially screened out). Only high-scorers are meaningfully evaluated. Consequently, plenty of qualified applicants, most of whom are from historically underrepresented communities, are systematically overlooked. 

Going SAT-optional means spending more time reading applications. It requires hiring additional readers, implementing new protocols and creating new training programs. It would, in short, cost a significant amount of money. But this investment is already long overdue. 

If Brown really hopes to be at the forefront of change and progress, and to fulfill its mission of equity in access, it must allocate its resources accordingly. Top universities, from the University of Chicago to the University of California system, are now test-optional. Standardized testing is on its way out. Why are we still clinging on? 

The lack of diversity at Brown, and among the Ivies at large, is a crisis that urgently needs addressing. Yet, in 67 pages of equity plans, Brown’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan only mentions undergraduate admissions briefly in the appendix, with no discussion of evaluating or changing harmful policies.

As a result of the pandemic, Brown has gone SAT-optional for the classes of 2025 and 2026. This temporary policy shift will, if done right, remove major barriers for already underrepresented students. But such a short timeline may not allow for proper implementation of the “checks and balances” needed to ensure that all students (regardless of whether they submitted scores) are fairly evaluated. “We’ll get through this year, we’ll get through next year, we’ll take what we learn from that to make the best decision,” said Dean of Admissions Logan Powell. But equity is not achieved through a series of last-minute decisions, and this sort of planning lacks both the intentionality and care needed for meaningful change. Rather, restructuring our broken systems to create fairer and more equitable ones takes time and thoughtful deliberation. It takes a long-term commitment.

More concerningly, this year-by-year planning basis does not show a commitment to seriously considering the merits of the complete removal of standardized test requirements. The SAT-optional policy is only set to be in place for two years. Why not make it permanent? How could we actively decide to re-implement discriminatory and unnecessary practices?

Implementing a meaningful and effective SAT-optional policy will require a lot more than just slapping on a “test-optional university” label. It will mean completely changing the way students are evaluated, and then re-training application-readers appropriately. 

As a world-class research institution, Brown should know that these two years of a slapdash SAT-optional policy aren’t enough for good data. At the very least, we ought to commit to extending this SAT-optional policy for three more years, giving ourselves time to actually study the efficacy of standardized tests at Brown by thoroughly and fairly evaluating non-submitters’ complete college career before making definitive decisions. Anything less isn’t only inequitable, but also just bad research.

If nothing else, 2020 has allowed us to imagine what a “new normal” should be, and we all bear responsibility for turning that vision into reality. The SATs were developed in the 1920s as a thinly disguised form of eugenics. Now, 100 years later, it’s time to stop using them as a gatekeeper of opportunity. 

Zoë Fuad ’23 can be reached at zoe_fuad@brown.edu. Fuad is a member of Students for Educational Equity and is the lead organizer for the SAT-Optional Campaign. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. The SAT’s and other standardized tests are the great equalizers, that anyone can take, and anyone can study and excel. Prep for the tests are all available free on line as well as endless books in your public and school libraries. Without the tests, this puts more advantage to students with money and resources who can pay for sports, music lessons, college courses, summer camps, and many other expensive extracurriculars that are out of reach for disadvantage students. Removing the SAT’s does the exact opposite, more students of wealth will now have much better applications.

  2. Given that the objective for a higher learning institution is to further the pursuit of knowledge, it does not seem self-evident, at least to me, as to why equity through superficial racial representation should matter. Having racially proportional representation, as a result of a race-conscious application process, in an institution that is academically motivated backward and counterintuitive.

    Asian Americans account for 14.1% of the Brown University student population — they are overrepresented in comparison to the national population of Asian Americans. Do you then, propose, that we systematically — if not already with Affirmative Action — deflate the application of “overrepresented” minorities for the sake of creating an ethnically proportional campus? Similarly, are you prepared to do the same towards Jewish Americans who are vastly overrepresented in higher education? In doing so, do we not inadvertently enshrine a systematically racist process wherein everyone must be judged by immutable characteristics such as race? You can either be an advocate for equality or equity, but cannot be for both.

    And ironically, by removing the SAT and ACT, you place a larger incentive on the University to screen via subjective GPA standards by which private schools, with better funding and knowledge of the admissions process, can make grading more lenient while public-schools are not afforded that same opportunity. Additionally, prospective students that poor have fewer resources compared to their weather peers to pour into extracurriculars and sports which have been notorious for being dominated by the socio-economically privileged.

    This March, I will not be voting for this ballot proposition. I encourage all those who read this to do the same. This is not because I despise or do not support a more diverse campus, but rather because I believe that superficial racial representation does achieve substantial progress in our society. If anything, we should be advocating for widespread socio-economic Affirmative Action which would kill two birds with one stone by disproportionately aiding minority communities which are economically disadvantaged without hurting other individuals through racial discrimination.

    • “Do you then, propose, that we systematically — if not already with Affirmative Action — deflate the application of “overrepresented” minorities for the sake of creating an ethnically proportional campus? Similarly, are you prepared to do the same towards Jewish Americans who are vastly overrepresented in higher education? ”
      If you have followed the proposals by Bill de Blasio and Richard Carranza for getting rid of admissions testing for some of the elite public schools in New York City, then the answer to your question would be ‘yes’. The folks in New York City who are currently making the same argument against testing as the above article is making are perfectly fine with reducing the number of East Asians, South Asians and Jews in all levels of education. The fact that some of these Asian and Jewish students are from low-income immigrant households is irrelevant to folks like de Blasio and Carranza because they are “white-adjacent” or something like that.

    • Harmful Framing says:

      Will removing racist barriers to entry lead to a greater proportion of Black and Latinx students on campus? Yes. Will that inadvertently lead to Asian Americans (and possibly Jewish Americans, not discounting the fact that Jewish doesn’t necessarily mean white), comprising a smaller percentage of the student body? Yes. Is that reason enough to keep barriers to Black and Latinx applicants? No.

      If your argument is that we should maintain “overrepresentation” of certain minority groups at the expense of other minority groups, simply because they hold minority status, your argument is a bad one.

      • So, the way to remedy past and current discrimination is to racially discriminate in the present? Surely, advocating to continue perpetuating systemic racism through the form of racial quotas in higher education is not the right path moving forward? And, to be frank, even though I’m not Asian American myself, I think that the notion that Asian Americans do not face enough “racist barriers” is disrespectful. Considering the recent events this past month, it’s tone-deaf honestly. According to a study conducted by PewResearch, Asian Americans have the worst wealth inequality of any racial group in America. Morally, how is it acceptable to justify practicing racial discrimination when vastly successfully South and East Asians are unjustly lumped with many Southeast Asians that live below the poverty line?

        Also, don’t mischaracterize my words. My argument is not that we should maintain racial quotas, but that we should focus on more substantial reforms that don’t continue to discriminate on the basis of race. Centralize education funding so that there’s no incentive to hoard wealth in the suburbs. I voiced my support for socio-economic Affirmative Action which would achieve help minority communities disproportionately without discrimination against other minorities.

        As I said before, I don’t see the benefit, especially at an educational institution, to have superficial racial diversity for diversity’s sake. Even then, it’s honestly ironic and laughable to unironically believe racial Affirmative Action policies actually benefit those who were directly impacted by White America’s racism. This is especially true given the vast overrepresentation of African Americans from an immigrant background that is typically disproportionately wealthy and educated. The benefits sadly don’t even benefit African Americans who descended from slaves. But, that’s a spiel for another time.

        • Harmful Framing says:

          A. You’re right, the aggregation of the Asian American identity is harmful and so is the false belief that all Asians are wealthy. “Asian” refers to a huge diversity of backgrounds and cultures, along with socioeconomic experiences. If your argument is that some Asian Americans are underrepresented, then you’re right. Brown SHOULD accept more Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, etc. But this is an issue of racial aggregation and can only be solved through disaggregation. Moreover, it is these Asians that are systemically disadvantaged on standardized testing.
          B. I never claimed, nor would I claim, that Asian Americans don’t face racism. Anti-Asian racism is a crisis and an urgent one. But we can recognize the ways certain Asian American communities benefit from some white supremacist systems while simultaneously suffering the effects of others. The latter experience does not justify the former, rather the aim should be to dismantle all white supremacist systems no matter what. There is a very clear line between perpetuating Anti-Asian racism and claiming that white supremacy is justifiable in circumstances where it benefits non-white people.
          C. There is nothing superficial about increasing racial diversity through removing very real, harmful barriers to underserved students. If we were starting from a level playing field, I might agree that trying to increase diversity for the sake of diversity is pointless. But we’re not.
          C. Unfortunately, solving for socio-economic inequity alone does not go far enough in removing racially focused inequities.
          D. There is no reason these policies cannot exist side by side. Removing standardized testing requirements will also increase the number of low income students at Brown. So will socio-economic affirmative action. Going SAT-optional doesn’t prelude the latter.

      • Asians (East Asians) actually face higher barriers to entry. If admissions were to actually look at pure academics, the amount of Asians would increase and more schools would end up looking like Cal Tech.
        If Brown wants to be more fair, it could start by stopping giving out class slots to lazy celebrity, legacy and international kids who don’t need financial packages and who are only let in because they might help contrbute to increasing the lowest endowment of the Ivy League.

  3. Replacing racism by another form of racism is not the answer. This is just increasing admissions weight on skin color which is ridiculous. Are taking rich Blacks from Andover and Exeter instead of a poor Southern white more diverse? Using skin color or race for any decision must be eliminated to have a purely color blind society, otherwise there will always be a group that feels cheated and discriminated.

  4. Ivy League colleges have to start taking the best and the brightest to survive without all this other crap (race, diversity, first gen, donors, VIPs), otherwise they will all go to Caltech, MIT, Chicago.

    • That’s where the smart ones should be going anyway.

    • Actually Read the Article says:

      CalTech and UChicago are test blind and test optional respectively …

      Also, it clearly says that SATs are a bad predictor of college success? Ie removing them leads to better prepared students? so what’s ur point lmao

      are u upset by a policy that increases student success just because it also increase diversity? why did u assume that more URM students = less capability, even when the article says explicitly otherwise? …. did u just assume that BIPOC students can’t do better than their white peers playing the system?

      racist systems don’t lead to better students … just whiter ones.

      • I don’t have a point. I just come here for the Clown College entertainment. Have fun maning the barricades! Oops, have fun personing the barricades. Stay Woke Brunonia, Stay Woke! 🙂

      • actually do your research 🤡 says:

        caltech is not test blind. their standardized testing policy is just a two year moratorium on on requiring SATS which is literally exactly the same thing that brown is doing….. 🤡🤡 also the only reason that uchicago got rid of sats is to increase their application numbers to appear more selective and improve their rankings

        sats are also a better predictor of success than asking hundreds of thousands of different teachers at thousands of institutions to use an A-F scale to evaluate 35K applicants……

    • Chicago? I can understand Caltech and MIT, but what merit is there in attending Chicago compared to the Ivy Leagues when Chicago already practices being test-optional? With the recent reforms in Chicago’s core curriculum, I’d argue that the Ivies are still by in large more rigorous than Chicago.

  5. Can someone explain to me how getting rid of SATs doesn’t just create a massive incentive for grade inflation? The SATs might be a poor predictor of college success but I worry that test optional admissions could lead to even more barriers to entry.

    Asking the admissions office to weight tens of thousands of straight A transcripts against one another without the benefit of any sort of standardized system will surely beget increased reliance on school reputation, meaning an A grade given to a student Exeter will come to matter much more than an A from a low-performing public school.

    In what way will this do anything but make things worse?

  6. Keeping admissions test ‘optional’ allows the school to report higher average test scores so the rankings stay high, as those with low scores don’t submit. It allows more students to apply since they don’t have worry that low test scores will limit them, so that increases applications and selectivity, which also drive up rankings. Finally it allows the school to get a broader and more diverse candidate pool, which helps fulfill diversity goals.
    So unlikely they will go back to mandatory standardized testing.

  7. Agreed. Chicago got rid of all testing years ago, and their ranking and number of applications zoomed. Then Stanford was the first elite school to not require SAT2’s, and their applications and ranking increased to compete with Harvard. The Ivies were slow on the uptake to not require any testing. As you can see most of the Ivy Colleges’ applications increased 30-57% this year, so don’t see requiring tests returning any time soon.

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