SAT wars: Report bolsters idea of dropping SAT, ACT tests for UC admission

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The University of California is debating whether to continue using the SAT exam for admissions decisions.
(Mario Tama / Getty Images )

As University of California regents prepare to discuss Thursday whether to drop SAT and ACT test scores as an admission requirement, a new research paper is likely to deepen the sharp disagreement over the value of standardized tests in predicting college performance.

The new analysis strongly rejects a key conclusion of a highly anticipated report by a UC Academic Senate task force, which recommended continued use of the SAT and ACT tests for now despite growing legal and political pressure to drop them.

Opponents of the tests say they unfairly discriminate on the basis of race, income and parent education levels.


The task force’s preliminary findings concluded that the tests may actually help boost enrollment of disadvantaged students and better predict college performance than high school grades.

But such claims are “spurious,” based on a fundamental error of omitting student demographics in the prediction model, according to the new paper, released Wednesday by Saul Geiser, senior associate at the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education.

When demographics such as family income and parent education level are included in the prediction model, the results reverse and high school grades are actually shown to be more influential than the SAT or ACT, according to Geiser’s analysis, which was based on data presented in an appendix to the task force report.

Test scores are much more closely correlated with family income and education than high school grades, he said.

His conclusion parallels similar findings in numerous other studies and underscores the need, he said, to drop the tests because the cost to disadvantaged students outweighs any limited benefit in helping UC campuses decide who will succeed if admitted.

“The task force should go back to the drawing board,” Geiser said, “and provide the UC community with more realistic estimates” of the value of the tests.


Geiser’s findings are likely to fuel the heated debate over whether the UC system should drop the tests — a decision that will reshape the national standardized testing landscape because of the size and global stature of the public research university system. The UC’s nine undergraduate campuses are deluged with applications from more than 172,000 freshmen, almost all of whom are required to submit SAT or ACT test scores.

The UC Board of Regents will discuss the issue Thursday but not vote on whether to keep or drop the tests until at least May. Chair John A. Pèrez, Vice Chair Cecilia Estolano and Regent Eloy Ortiz Oakley have expressed deep skepticism about the tests. UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and UC Provost Michael Brown also have voiced support for dropping the tests.

But UC San Diego officials told the task force they oppose eliminating the tests because they help winnow 99,000 applications annually and assist the campus in selecting a diverse class. UCLA said dropping the tests would cause a greater reliance on grades — a challenge, officials said, because the campus receives 10,000 applications each year from students with 4.0 GPAs or higher.

The UC Academic Senate task force members stood by their work.

“What can I say? Saul unfortunately is wrong,” said Li Cai, a UCLA professor who directs the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

Cai said the task force analyses “very much included the purportedly omitted demographic variables, through a more transparent means.” He said task force members chose to use a different and simpler model than did Geiser so the public would more easily understand their findings.

He also said Geiser’s model did not reflect how admissions decisions are actually made at UC campuses. Admissions officers compensate for the discriminatory impact of SAT and ACT scores by discounting their weight while increasing emphasis on grades in application reviews of underserved students, the report found.

Among students with SAT scores of 1,000 — the 40th percentile — half of Latinos were admitted compared to less than one-third of whites, the task force found. The report found similar advantages for students who are low-income and the first in their families to attend college.

Those findings, however, were challenged by another expert, Jesse Rothstein, a UC Berkeley professor of public policy and economics.

“The task force report got a lot of things wrong about the SAT,” Rothstein said.

“In particular, it overstates the value of SAT scores for predicting student success in college, and has no basis for its conclusion that UC admissions ‘compensate’ for test score gaps between groups.”

In any case, the fundamental issue — giving all students an equitable shot at UC admission so the state’s diversity is fully represented — won’t be settled by a “horse race” between SAT scores and high school grades, said Julian Betts, a UC San Diego economics professor and task force member.

That’s because the report found that three-fourths of the gap in UC enrollment of underrepresented students is rooted in high school preparation — namely, their lower rates of completing a prescribed sequence of college-prep courses required for UC admission, Betts said. The remaining gap is tied more to differences in high school GPA than SAT scores, he said.

“The upshot is that if UC overnight dropped the SAT requirement, it would do very little to improve diversity,” Betts said. “But at the same time, within any student socioeconomic group, UC would be admitting students less well prepared to succeed. This would not serve the students or the public well.”

In other findings, the task force recommended continued research into making the SAT and ACT optional, as more than 1,000 colleges and universities have done. In the long run, the report recommended that UC develop its own admissions test but noted that process could take nine years. Some task force members believe that time frame is too long and supported setting a sunset date for use of the standardized tests but narrowly lost a vote to do so.

The Academic Senate is circulating the preliminary report among its members — all tenured and tenure-track faculty — for review and plans to submit a final report to UC President Janet Napolitano next month.