To Test or Not to Test
A letter from the President.
Most Brown alumni can remember nervously sitting in a classroom, with many sharpened number 2 pencils, to take the SAT or ACT before applying to college. Today, fewer college students share this memory. Practices changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Brown and the vast majority of our peers became “test-optional,” meaning that first-year, transfer, and Resumed Undergraduate Education applicants could supply test scores if they chose, but their applications would be considered regardless. This made sense during the pandemic, when numerous sites for in-person tests were closed and it would have been burdensome, if not impossible, for many students to take the tests.
The question now is: Should schools return to required testing? This is a hot topic in higher education. Some of our peer institutions recently reinstated testing requirements. Others say they will remain test-optional indefinitely. At Brown, we have extended our temporary test-optional undergraduate admission policy for the 2023-24 admission cycle and plan to reevaluate the policy going forward.
Recently I have been asked why we have not made a permanent decision. This is a complex and important issue. I want to share our approach and how we will use data to inform our future decisions.
Standardized testing has been criticized as an inaccurate predictor of student success. Yet, data show that these tests do reveal useful information about whether students will, on average, be academically successful at Brown. Careful statistical work by one of Brown’s faculty members shows that students with higher SAT or ACT scores are less likely to encounter academic difficulty at Brown. And standardized test scores are a much better predictor of academic success than high school grades, which are exceptional for the vast majority of Brown applicants but also carry the complication of being increasingly subject to grade inflation.
But, there are clear drawbacks to requiring standardized tests. Simply put, students are less likely to apply to colleges that require test scores. We have no shortage of students interested in Brown. A record 51,302 applied to join the Class of 2027. However, we have serious concerns about the potential for the Supreme Court to upend more than 40 years of precedent allowing for race and ethnicity as one consideration of many attributes in student admissions. (As of the time of writing this column, no decision has been made.) We know from evidence that at many institutions in states where race can no longer be considered in admissions, racial and ethnic diversity among the student body decreased significantly. If the law is changed, we will need to make every effort to build a large, diverse, and talented applicant pool.
Discussions have begun about what Brown will do in response to the Supreme Court decision. We will comply with the law while sustaining our commitment to diversity and an applicant assessment that considers the broad range of attributes each applicant would bring, but Brown cannot admit students who do not apply. Our biggest challenge will be ensuring that students we very much want push the “submit” button on applications. Requiring test scores could work against us by reducing the size and diversity of the applicant pool.
Whether the benefits of required standardized testing outweigh the drawbacks is, ultimately, an empirical question. We do not know what the Supreme Court will decide. We do not know how its decision will affect the number and composition of applicants. And, given Brown’s short experience with optional testing, we do not know the long-term outcomes for students who do and do not submit test scores.
The decisions we make must be grounded in values and informed by facts. Brown’s values are clear: We want to enroll exceptionally talented, creative, and intellectually curious students who bring diverse experiences and views. In the coming year, we will learn more about the facts. We will then be in the best position to decide whether to require test scores. Until then, deferring a final decision makes the most sense.