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

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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