As the University finishes its first admission cycle with a test-optional policy, implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of student voters advocated for the University to make the policy permanent on a recent referendum on the Undergraduate Council of Students’ spring election ballot.
Nearly 74 percent of the 1,932 students who voted on a referendum asking if the University should switch to a test-optional policy voted “yes.” Such a policy would allow applicants to choose whether or not to submit their standardized test scores, and guarantee that they would not be penalized for not doing so.
UCS referendums, though, are non-binding — meaning there is still work ahead for Students for Educational Equity at Brown, the group that proposed the referendum, said Zoë Fuad ’23, SEE’s lead organizer for its SAT-Optional campaign. Having won the referendum, the group is now using their success as a mandate — and hoping that the rest of the University will pay attention.
“It’s one step in a process,” Fuad said. “The referendum itself doesn’t mean Brown has to do anything.”
Fuad described SEE’s path ahead as a patchwork of alumni, faculty and student pressure, meetings with University administrators and support from allies within and outside the University.
SEE has laid “strong groundwork,” Fuad said, and with the referendum in hand, the group can engage administrators in evidence-backed conversations about the “barriers to going test-optional.”
The campaign began when leaders of the Providence Student Union initially encouraged SEE to pursue a test-optional policy, Fuad said. After doing their own research, members of SEE concluded the campaign was worth the effort.
According to SEE, a test-optional policy is beneficial for the University because it enhances equity: The SAT and ACT present a “barrier” to students of color and low-income students, SEE says — and according to numerous studies, test scores are not a predictor of college success. By eliminating standardized test requirements, organizers say, the University has an opportunity to become more equitable in its admission process.
“I am highly encouraged by the initiative our students have shown in thinking about ways to expand access to the Brown application process,” said Dean of Admission Logan Powell, who added that he would be “thrilled” to talk to students who support the initiative.
SEE did not make official contact with the Office of Admission or the Office of the Provost before the referendum passed, Fuad said, noting that the referendum results now provide leverage in conversations with administrators. Without traditional means of protesting, such as sit-ins, the referendum became a clear avenue for demonstrating student support, she added.
“You can’t have huge protests outside of University Hall,” said UCS President Jason Carroll ’21. “Because in-person organizing isn’t possible right now, virtual opinion gathering is even more powerful.”
“The biggest, most effective piece of a referendum is that it shows student support. You have specific statistics to back up your idea when you go talk with an administrator,” said Deepak Gupta ’22, the outgoing UCS chair of academic affairs.
The 73.65 percent of student voters who chose in favor of a test-optional policy surpassed SEE’s goal of garnering 70 percent support.
Face-to-face meetings are the “most important part” of the process coming out of a referendum, Gupta noted. In consulting with Fuad — the incoming UCS chair of academic affairs — Gupta recommended outreach to the leaders of the admission office to explore “next steps” and “open the door for conversation,” though he expected some “hesitation.”
“I’d see it as an important voice in the conversation we’ll have as a university,” Powell added. “I welcome their voice, their ideas and their input.”
Beyond meeting with administrators, the group aims to leverage support from a network of alumni groups that have endorsed the effort, including the Inman Page Black Alumni Council and the Brown University’s Latino Alumni Council. A number of groups, Fuad added, told SEE they would not endorse the effort until a referendum passed.
Fuad also said that the campaign has attracted allies among student affinity groups, within the Corporation, at third-party advocacy organizations and even at admission and administrative offices of other universities such as California Institute of Technology and Cornell.
Multiple stakeholders across the University such as the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost and potentially even the Dean of the College have a say in determining admission policies. Those policies are subject to change, Powell said, citing the gradual elimination of SAT subject test requirements, the addition of new automatic fee waivers and new supplemental essay questions.
“We look at and think about the application requirements every single year,” he said. “We always begin with the question, ‘what can we do to expand access?’ We also ask the question, ‘Are we gathering enough information to make an informed decision?’”
In re-evaluating a policy this significant, Powell said, the Office of Admission would consult a number of other University leaders.
SEE, Fuad said, is aiming to engage with the Office of the Provost, among others, in hopes of convincing the University before the 2022-23 application cycle begins to extend its test-optional policy in perpetuity, or for a few more years at least as a trial period, like those implemented at Tufts University and Davidson College.
Timing also plays a key role: SEE aims to pressure them the University cement its current test-optional policy instead of re-implementing the requirement once standardized testing becomes more accessible to students after the pandemic.
The proof, Fuad added, is reflected in this year’s cohort of admitted students under a test-optional policy — one of the most diverse classes in terms of percentage of students of color. “Going test-optional has done for Brown what no other test change has. It’s going to be hard to justify going back to test-required policies,” Fuad said.
But the University’s testing policy is bound by institutional constraints, Powell said, largely due to the non-scholarship recruitment of Ivy League athletics. To prevent one school from undercutting another on academic standards to admit better recruits, Ivy League schools have a “common agreement” about student athletes and academic qualifications. Test scores, Powell said, help “inform that discussion” about setting “the bar.”
“That’s to make sure we are all looking at the same very high level of student athletes and that one school isn’t reaching too far,” Powell added.
“We have to think about this at a conference level, because it has implications for conference athletic regulation,” Powell said.
The Daily Pennsylvanian reported last year that Ivy League athletic departments as a whole must meet an average “academic index” — a combination of numerous academic metrics including GPA and standardized test scores.
SEE has not fully considered its stance on athletics, Fuad said, though “allies” have mentioned the issue to the group.
“We need to start reaching out to coaches and different actors,” she said. Still, she expressed confidence that the issue could be circumvented, either by maintaining the standardized test requirement for athletes or judging them on an SAT-optional basis.
The Office of Admission is evaluating outcomes for test-optional students in the application process, Powell noted, though the profile of the enrolled class of 2025 and the effects of the policy will not become clear until students accept the University’s offers of admission and empty slots are filled with students on the waitlist.
UCS referenda that call for administrative action have a checkered history of success: In 2019, after a referendum calling for the University to divest from companies “complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine” passed with 70 percent of the vote, the University expressed its objection and took no action.
Administrators at the University, Gupta said, are willing to “talk with students and work through solutions,” noting the University’s willingness to work with UCS on COVID-19 issues. But the fear remains that students will be “cut out” of conversations.
Still, Fuad expressed hope that the University would move toward a permanent test-optional policy as a result of SEE’s efforts.
“I do think the University should be responding to a referendum,” she said. ”It’s why we have the structures in place. I’m confident the administration will respect that.”
Will Kubzansky is the 133rd editor-in-chief and president of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he served as a University News editor overseeing the admission & financial aid and staff & student labor beats. In his free time, he plays the guitar and soccer — both poorly.