Worried that too many white, wealthy students are "gaming the system" to get extra time on the SAT, a group of University of California regents Wednesday called for an extensive review to make sure that special accommodations on the test are not giving some students an unfair advantage.
The regents were responding to an article in The Times that reported a jump of more than 50% since 1994 in the number of students who claimed a learning disability to win extended time or other special accommodations in taking the test. Leaders of the College Board, which owns the test, worry that despite their best efforts, the system allows some privileged families to gain advantage on the high-stakes exam.
"The disproportionate increases in the requests from elite private schools and public schools in wealthy suburbs is great cause of concern," said Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who is a regent by virtue of his legislative position.
"We should look into the matter and make sure we are doing everything possible to ensure the integrity of our institution."
Ward Connerly, the regent who orchestrated the university's ban on affirmative action, said he and his colleagues need to be similarly vigilant in weeding out any other special preferences.
"We need to use our platform to say that if the SAT is going to have any credibility at all, people shouldn't be gaming the system," Connerly said. "We need to do whatever we can to make sure the SAT is not disadvantaging anybody in the process."
The University of California relies heavily on standardized test scores to determine who is eligible for admission. UCLA and UC Berkeley, the most selective campuses, pick at least half of their freshman class each year based solely upon the students' grades and test scores.
Although the regents set overall policy for the nine-campus university, they have delegated the task of determining admissions criteria to the faculty.
For that reason, UC President Richard C. Atkinson said he will ask the faculty's systemwide admissions committee to review the issue. One idea he plans to suggest is that university admissions officers review psychological documentation of any student who is granted extra time on the SAT because of a learning disability.
Only a tiny fraction of students--about 1.9% nationwide--get accommodations on the SAT. But a Times computer analysis shows that those receiving special treatment are concentrated in the wealthiest communities and that students enrolled in private prep schools are three to five times as likely to get extended time. Special accommodations only rarely get offered to poor children at inner-city schools.
Such unequal access, Atkinson and other regents said, makes them more inclined to drop the SAT altogether. "I would like to replace the SAT with the high school exit exam," Atkinson said of the test that Gov. Gray Davis wants to roll out in the fall.
But Chiara Coletti, a College Board vice president, pointed out that the same issue would surface with any standardized test. "If it is a high school exit exam, the SAT or ACT, youngsters with special needs must be accommodated because of federal law."
The College Board works hard to make sure only students with properly documented disabilities win accommodations, she said. It has a review panel than turns away 82% of requests for extra time and counsels high schools on how to make fair and appropriate decisions.
"Only 2% are given special accommodations and we assume that most of those youngsters are honest," she said. "The number who may be involved in cheating is very, very small."
Regent Peter Taylor said more needs to be done.
"We have to assure the other 98% that the rules are fairly applied," he said. "What we don't want is people who are wealthy and sophisticated about working the system going out to find a psychologist to get them a break, while lower-income students don't have access to such an advantage."