Brown University Reinstates Admission Testing Requirement

March 7, 2024

Like MIT, Dartmouth and Yale, Brown has now joined the ranks of top-ranking universities who are following their institutional data and reinstating test requirements for admissions. 

It is not a great surprise that Brown is following this path, as Christina Paxson, president of Brown, has previously acknowledged the predictive value of test scores for Brown students. In June of 2023, she cited institutional research that students with stronger test 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.”

The pivotal research was spearheaded by Brown Professor and Chair of Economics, John Friedman, who worked closely with Raj Chetty and colleagues at the Opportunity Insights group. Friedman was the lead author of a study analyzing the relationship between test scores and academic performance at Brown and the Ivy-plus colleges. The principal findings of that analysis are:

  1. Students with higher SAT/ACT scores are more likely to have higher college GPAs than their peers with lower scores
  2. High school GPA does a poor job of predicting academic success in college
  3.  Students from different socioeconomic backgrounds who have comparable SAT/ACT scores receive similar grades in college
  4.  Students who did not submit test scores achieved college GPAs in the 3.3-3.4 range, equivalent to students who had submitted ACT scores of 28 or SAT scores of 1307.

The data are compelling, and the relationship between testing and GPA is visibly much stronger than that between high school GPA and college GPA.

This data was certainly provocative and helped inform the decision of the Ad Hoc Committee on Admissions Policies, comprising faculty, administrators and board members of the Brown Corporation, to reinstate testing requirements

The predictive power of testing holds for all students

In its executive summary, the committee cites that the relationship between testing and grades at Brown holds across “all subgroups.” Testing is as robust a predictor for affluent students as for lower-resourced students, for those coming from affluent high schools as from lesser-resourced schools. Similarly, testing is a robust predictor for students across the demographic spectrum, including underrepresented minority students.

Assess testing in context

The executive summary recommends that tests be interpreted “in the context of an applicant’s overall record, background and opportunities,” and “in relation to the range of scores at the student’s secondary school.” This sounds very similar to Yale’s use of the College Board’s Landscape platform. The committee emphasized the importance of communicating the use of test scores in context to encourage a broad range of students to apply, including those with scores below Brown’s median.

Testing as a means to support underrepresented students 

Like Yale and Dartmouth, Brown cites the absence of test scores as a factor that could reduce or eliminate the likelihood of a potentially promising candidate from receiving an offer of admission. Testing provides critical evidence of an applicant’s academic strength, even if the submitted scores are below Brown’s median score. 

Testing is often more critical for students from “underserved schools and communities” who may lack advantages that more affluent students possess. Additionally, as Brown seeks to expand its recruiting efforts to include a broader range of high schools, domestically and abroad, having a standardized metric will become even more important for predicting success at Brown. 

Examining the data, the committee found that there may be “unintended adverse outcomes of test-optional policies in the admissions process itself, potentially undermining the goal of increasing access.” The Committee felt that reinstating test scores could serve the goals of expanding Brown’s commitment to “excellence, equity, access and diversity.”

Full testing data will yield more honest metrics and send a clearer signal to prospective applicants

The committee acknowledged that “median test scores have risen under the test-optional policy, as students with weaker testing have chosen not to submit their scores.” These inflated scores may be “intimidating to applicants.” By requiring testing from all applicants, particularly the some 25% of enrolled students who did not submit test scores, it will bring the score averages closer to historic norms. 

Additionally, the clear communication that scores are evaluated holistically in the “context of [each student’s] background and experiences” can help allay some of the concerns about the relatively high test scores of enrolled students.

More schools will follow Brown’s lead

With the rapid succession of Dartmouth, Yale and Brown reinstating testing requirements within a short series of weeks, other selective colleges will be making similar decisions in the coming months.