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Action delayed on SAT subject exams

Times Staff Writer

University of California regents on Wednesday debated a proposed overhaul of freshman admission standards that would drop the requirement for SAT subject exams and make more students eligible based on class rankings in their high schools.

The proposed changes, which would take effect for students hoping to enroll in fall 2012, are intended to help UC applicants who fall short by a technicality or whose high schools do not offer enough UC-required classes or adequate counseling, its backers say.

“A lot of excellent kids are eliminated from consideration on trifling grounds. This would stop that,” said UC Santa Barbara education professor Michael Brown, chairman of the UC systemwide Academic Senate. Last month, the faculty group approved the changes after years of study and revision.

Now, the regents’ assent is needed but a vote may be delayed for several months to allow new UC President Mark G. Yudof, as well as counselors, alumni and the public, to digest the proposal. Several regents said they were confused by parts of the plan and worried that it could be perceived as lowering standards.

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Yudof, in his first regents meeting as president, said he agreed with the plan’s goals and its elimination of subject tests. But he also said it was one of the “most consequential” issues facing the governing board. “Every time you change the admissions standards, you have a little bit of unpredictability. So that’s why we have to study it very carefully,” he said at the board’s meeting at UC Santa Barbara.

Under the proposed changes, UC applicants would still be required to take the main SAT exam or the ACT test with a writing section. But UC applicants would no longer have to take two supplemental subject exams in such areas as history or math. Critics of the subject exams say that they add little useful information to applications and that missing the tests is a major reason applicants with otherwise good grades and SAT scores are ineligible for UC.

The plan would also change other ways students become eligible for UC admission and are guaranteed a spot at one of its nine undergraduate campuses, even if not always at the students’ first choice. And it would add a new category of applicants: students with slightly lower grades than other applicants, but whose resumes and essays would at least be reviewed for possible admission.

Proponents say they expect the changes to help many low-income, minority, rural and inner-city students whose schools may not offer enough college prep and honors classes. UC officials have said students from more affluent, suburban communities are often disproportionately represented in the freshman class.

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Under current policies, students are evaluated separately by each campus to which they apply. But if they are turned down and still deemed eligible for the UC system, they are guaranteed a spot at campuses that have room, often Riverside and Merced.

Students generally become eligible for the university through one of two pathways. They can complete a set of 15 required college prep classes and earn a combination of grades and SAT scores on a sliding index that puts them in the top 12.5% of high school graduates statewide. (A 3.0 GPA is the minimum, although students get a boost with honors classes.) Or they can earn grades that put them in the top 4% of their high school.

The plan would tighten up the statewide guarantee by reducing it to the top 9% of all high school graduates. It would broaden the local high school path by offering admission to those in the top 9% of their school’s graduating class, but officials say there is significant overlap between those groups.

A category of applicants, called Entitled to Review, would be created for students who have slightly lower grades and may be a bit late in finishing requirements. They would have to complete 11 of the 15 required classes by the end of 11th grade, finish all 15 by graduation and earn a minimum GPA of 2.8 without the grade boosts UC gives for honors classes. UC campuses would read their applications but not ensure them a seat in the class, even at Riverside or Merced.

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Mark Rashid, chairman of the faculty panel that wrote the plan, said thousands of excellent students remain invisible because they missed one class or test. “There are students being disenfranchised unfairly,” said Rashid, a UC Davis engineering professor.

Some regents expressed skepticism.

Regent George Marcus said he worried that the public would see the change as lowering the entrance bar and that it could trigger resentment that UC would “take a seat away from seniors who followed the rules.” Others warned of unintended consequences, such as signaling students to relax about taking required high school courses.

Brown insisted that the plan was “not dumbing down standards, it is raising them.” He also said the proposal was not an attempt to get around Proposition 209, which forbids consideration of race in the state’s public university admissions. “There is nothing in the proposal that mandates or even suggests the university use race or sex in the selection process,” he said. “But the university continues to have a mandate to fairly and appropriately represent the citizens of the state of California.”

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An earlier version of the proposal would have eliminated some admissions guarantees to eligible students, but that idea was killed by faculty leaders who said they feared a political firestorm could result.

Students had a mixed view of dropping the subject exams.

Mia Jessup, who will be a freshman at Dartmouth College in the fall, applied to 16 colleges, most of which required two subject tests. She said it was unfair that her class had to take the subject tests for UC, but suggested that eliminating them might help future applicants.

“Perhaps it will lessen the load and could make them do better on the SAT or ACT as opposed to the smaller tests,” said Jessup, a graduate of San Clemente High School.

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Amanda Rosenthal, 17, of Pacific Palisades said she thought the subject tests were a fairer way of comparing students than the main SAT exam.

The subject test “reflects all the knowledge accumulated throughout the year, rather than a student’s test-taking ability,” said Rosenthal, who will be a senior at the Marlborough School this fall and has taken three subject tests.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.


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