University of California faculty leaders are recommending the continued use of the controversial SAT and ACT as an admission requirement for now, citing UC data showing the standardized tests may actually help boost enrollment of disadvantaged students, according to a highly anticipated report released Monday.
The preliminary recommendation by the Academic Senate’s executive committee comes amid enormous legal and political pressure to drop the tests, which opponents say fail to adequately predict college success and unfairly discriminate on the basis of race, income and parent education levels.
As the nation’s premier public research university and largest user of the SAT exam, the UC system carries outsized influence over the future of standardized testing. Powerful UC voices have criticized use of the test, including Board of Regents chairman John A. Pérez and UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, but the Academic Senate is charged with deciding admission requirements. Any rejection of the faculty’s final recommendations by the board, which is set to vote on the issue in May, would overturn traditional practice and spark a political firestorm.
The new yearlong faculty review found evidence that most UC admissions officers offset much of the bias against disadvantaged students by evaluating standardized test scores in the context of their high schools and neighborhoods. Applicants’ tests scores, for instance, are compared both to those statewide and at the local high school, enabling UC officers to identify standouts among students with similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
That process results in higher admission rates for less-advantaged applicants for any given test score, a finding that faculty review committee members said surprised them. Among students with SAT scores of 1000 — the 40th percentile — half of Latinos were admitted compared to less than one-third of whites. The review found similar advantages for students who are low-income and the first in their families to attend college.
The faculty review committee “did not find evidence that UC’s use of test scores played a major role in worsening the effects of disparities already present among applicants and did find evidence that UC’s admissions process helped to make up for the potential adverse effect of score differences between groups.”
UC campuses enroll far more disadvantaged students than do similar elite research universities — 40% of undergraduates are first-generation college students and 36% are low-income as of fall 2019. However, the review found that “UC admissions practices do not fully make up for disparities that persist along lines of race and class.”
In 2017, 61% of California high school graduates were underrepresented minorities — African-American, Latino, and Native American. Yet these three groups represented 31% of enrolled UC freshmen.
The UC faculty report rejects for now making standardized tests optional for admission, as more than 1,000 colleges and universities have done. Faculty members — and some campus admission directors — are concerned that students with high scores would likely submit them and gain an implicit advantage over those who chose not to take the test or submit their results. They also fear that using high school grades as the primary metric for admission would promote grade inflation, which some research has found is more prevalent at affluent schools. But the report called for more research on that option.
The report also found that test scores are a better predictor of college performance than high school grades but that UC weighs grades more heavily in admission decisions.
ACT and the College Board, which owns the SAT, argue their tests help predict college performance and offer a uniform yardstick to judge students from diverse schools and states. They reject assertions that their tests are biased, saying that scores reflect longstanding inequities in access to quality education.
The Compton Unified School District and other equity advocates, however, have filed lawsuits against the UC system asserting that the standardized testing requirement violates state civil rights laws.
Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel, one of the law firms that filed the complaint, criticized the report’s conclusion that the biggest factor for the enrollment disparities was not standardized tests but students’ failure to meet UC’s required college prep coursework.
“Rather than blame California’s students, their families and communities, and their teachers,” he said, “the university should eliminate all reliance on these discriminatory and meaningless tests and instead work with the state K-12 system to...build a student body that reflects the broad diversity of the state.”
During deliberations last year, faculty members discussed potentially replacing the SAT and ACT with the state high school assessment known as Smarter Balanced because research showed it predicted college performance as well as the other standardized tests without as much bias against disadvantaged students. However, the committee concluded that Smarter Balanced is not universally used throughout the country and would not be feasible.
Over the long term, the report recommended that UC develop its own assessments for admissions — but notes that process could take nine years. Varsha Sarveshwar, president of the UC Student Assn., which opposes the testing requirement, said that timeline is far too long.
And some committee members, such as Patricia Gandara of UCLA, pushed to discontinue use of test scores more quickly than nine years and potentially before development of a new assessment during at times fierce disagreement and debate.
“It wasn’t kumbaya in those rooms,” said Eddie Comeaux, a UC Riverside professor and co-chair of the standardized testing task force. “There was a lot of pushing back and 20-second timeouts.”
The report also recommends expanding eligibility for guaranteed admission to the UC system from beyond the top 9% of graduating seniors at each local high school.
Acceptance into UC remains competitive. Systemwide, the UC system received about 218,000 applications for fall 2019 admission; about 136,000 were admitted to nine campuses and 67,000 enrolled. UCLA admit rates for fall 2109 was 12.4% and Berkeley 16.4%.
The preliminary recommendations will be reviewed by all Academic Senate members, who are mainly tenured and tenure-track faculty. The Senate is expected to deliver its final report in April to UC President Janet Napolitano, who first requested the review in 2018. Napolitano will then make her recommendation to the UC regents.