Rules confuse UC applicants

A major change in freshman admission requirements for the University of California this year was supposed to ease the burden of standardized test-taking for high school seniors and allow more students to apply.

But the new rules have caused widespread confusion and anxiety among students about whether to take the supplemental tests known as SAT subject exams. To boost their chances of UC admission, thousands of high school seniors are taking the subject exams even though the university has dropped them as a requirement, starting with applications for next fall. UC still requires scores from the main SAT test or its rival, the ACT.

Good subject test scores in any discipline will be a “plus factor” in a freshman application, similar to musical ability or club leadership, UC officials say. Not taking them or doing poorly won’t eliminate anyone, they emphasize.

Many high school students and counselors contend that is a bewilderingly mixed message. If taking the subject tests helps some students, they ask, won’t not taking them potentially hurt others in the zero sum game of admissions? Adding to the uncertainty is that several UC engineering and science programs recommend subject tests in math and science.

“It’s definitely been confusing for them,” said Noel Hernandez, a Monrovia High School counselor. “I’ve had a lot of students come in to my office and ask, ‘Should I take them or should I not take them?’ ” About half of her UC applicants are taking the tests, she said, and because submitting the scores is optional, she advises them to do so only if they do well.


Robin Sroka, a counselor at Wilson High in Long Beach, said she and many of her students are skeptical of UC’s promise that skipping or doing poorly on a subject exam won’t hurt. “It’s like telling a jury to ignore damaging information that a judge rules inadmissible after the jurors have already heard it,” she said.

Student reaction is divided as deadlines near: Nov. 30 is the last day to submit a UC freshman application for next year; Nov. 5 and Dec. 3 are the final two dates UC allows seniors to take the exams.

Daniel Antalan, 17 and a senior at Eagle Rock High in Los Angeles, said he took five subject tests so he wouldn’t miss any advantage in applying to UC campuses. “If people don’t take it, they most likely won’t be able to compete with people who took the subject test,” he said.

In contrast, Charles Shirley, 17, a senior at Wilson High in Long Beach, was happy not to take any subject exams. “In some ways, it’s been a real relief,” he said, adding that it freed up time to prepare for the main SAT test as he applies to several UC campuses and to the U.S. Naval Academy. “I would have taken them if I had to ... but it did take some stress away, not having to take them.”

UC officials say the new policy should not cause worries, although they acknowledge that any big admissions change can provoke anxiety for many students and parents.

Kate Jeffery, UC’s interim director of undergraduate admissions, said taking the subject tests in math and science may be a good idea for those applying to competitive engineering programs that recommend them. But students will not be denied admission just because they didn’t take the exams, she said, “just as no student will be denied admission merely because he or she was not editor of the student newspaper, a star athlete or any number of other plus factors.”

All the angst may puzzle anyone who has not recently applied to college or has no college-age children. For the uninitiated: UC requires the basic SAT test, also called the reasoning test, which takes three hours and 45 minutes and has three parts: critical reading, math and writing. (The rival ACT exam can be used instead, with the SAT writing test added.)

The nonprofit College Board, which owns the SAT tests, offers 20 hour-long subject exams in such topics as world history, biology, literature and Spanish. It costs at least $44 to take two of the tests in one sitting, with extra fees for language listening exams. Many Ivy League colleges and some other prestigious private schools still require or recommend two subject tests.

For years, the most important factors in UC admissions were high school grades and combined scores from the SAT or ACT and two subject tests. But faculty leaders determined that too many gifted students, especially low-income, black and Latino students in urban and rural areas, were not taking the subject exams. The reasons included test fees, poor counseling and high schools not offering the honors courses that prepare students for the exams.

In February 2009, UC’s regents voted to drop the subject tests, previously called achievement or SAT II tests, starting this year. Other changes also were made to allow additional students to be eligible for at least one of UC’s nine undergraduate campuses. For example, a student who ranks in the top 9% of his or her high school class (up from the previous 4%) is guaranteed a spot somewhere in the system, although only UC Merced will enroll eligible students this year who are rejected at all other UC campuses.

UC’s decision to stop requiring the subject exam may cost the College Board. Last year, about a third of the 312,000 students nationally who took the test were in California. The state’s numbers are declining this year, but it is too early to say how much, said College Board spokeswoman Kathleen Steinberg.

To help clear up confusion, UC officials have been explaining the reforms at meetings of high school counselors and administrators around the state. After a recent session in Anaheim, several counselors said they still felt unsettled.

“They kept saying that the subject tests are not required but could help. What does that mean? It is a little nebulous,” said Jared Fulton, acting assistant principal and a counselor at Los Amigos High School in Orange County. “You could argue both ways on what we heard.”