UC experts offer new ammunition against the SAT and ACT as an admissions requirement

Three University of California admissions experts have slammed a faculty recommendation to keep the SAT and ACT as admission requirements.
Three University of California admissions experts have slammed a faculty recommendation to keep the SAT and ACT as admission requirements.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Three University of California admissions experts slammed a faculty recommendation to keep the SAT and ACT for at least five years, giving ammunition to critics of the controversial exams who want to drop them as an admissions requirement.

In a letter to UC leadership posted Wednesday, the experts asked the Board of Regents to instead consider using the state assessment for K-12 students in California and several other states known as Smarter Balanced, which research shows is as predictive of college performance as the SAT with less bias against disadvantaged students.

Decades of research have shown the SAT and ACT tests are strongly influenced by race, income and parent education levels, driving legal challenges against their use in UC admissions and decisions by more than 1,000 colleges and universities to make them optional.


UC has temporarily suspended the standardized testing requirement as a result of SAT and ACT test cancellations amid the coronavirus pandemic. But both testing organizations plan to resume offering the exams later this year.

Smarter Balanced was found to be inappropriate for UC admission decisions and rejected as an alternative to the SAT and ACT in a faculty report on the university system’s use of standardized testing. The report was unanimously approved last week by the Academic Senate leadership and representatives from all 10 campuses in a 51-0 vote, with one abstention.

The approval signaled a sweeping show of support that set the stage for a high-stakes showdown with testing critics when regents meet next month to vote on the issue.

But three UC faculty experts in education policy and economics have stepped forward to blast the report’s dismissal of the Smarter Balanced test, continued reliance on discriminatory metrics and endorsement of what they found to be meaningless measures to expand access for underrepresented students.

“A faculty task report that was meant to inform and clarify has instead mischaracterized key issues,” wrote Michal Kurlaender of UC Davis, Sarah Reber of UCLA and Jesse Rothstein of UC Berkeley. “The report makes recommendations that are neither rooted in evidence nor likely to improve admissions fairness or representation across campuses.”

Academic Senate Chair Kum-Kum Bhavnani said several concerns about Smarter Balanced led the task force to reject it as an alternative. To perform well, students must have access to quality teaching, which is uneven across schools, and state data show a persistent racial achievement gap in test results. If UC adopted Smarter Balanced as an admissions test, affluent students will have more resources for tutors and test preparation, she added.

“I worry about Smarter Balanced being used as the UC admissions test, because, in under-resourced schools, we don’t know if there would be adequate preparation material available to teach the curriculum,” she said. “If that lack of material is accompanied by a greater turnover of teachers, students at under-resourced schools could be further disadvantaged.”


Kurlaender, chair of the UC Davis School of Education, said the UC system should consider Smarter Balanced because it tests what the state has determined students need to know in its Common Core curriculum and is administered to every 11th-grader during school hours without charge. Using Smarter Balanced for a UC admissions test would allow the university system to support the K-12 curriculum and give college-bound high school students a strong incentive to master the material, she said.

The faculty report dismissed the test because of a “wide range of risks,” including testing security and inconsistent administration across states. But Kurlaender said the action was too hasty, adding that Smarter Balanced was a better alternative than either the SAT or the report’s recommendation for UC to develop its own admissions test — which could take nine years.

Dismissing the Smarter Balanced test is a “missed opportunity to level the playing field for students who lack access to SAT/ACT test prep and retest opportunities,” she wrote, and “could shrink the opportunity gap for many thousands of California students.”

Reber, a UCLA associate professor of public policy, took issue with the faculty report’s recommendation to expand an admissions guarantee to top students who meet UC course requirements and take the SAT or ACT. Currently the top 9% of students statewide and at each local high school are guaranteed admission but only to a campus with available space. About 12,500 of them ended up with an offer only to UC Merced in 2018 — and only 168 chose to enroll — making the guarantee essentially meaningless, she said.

Instead, Reber said, UC regents should study how to encourage all campuses to admit more students who graduate with high GPAs but low test scores and hold them accountable for their academic success once enrolled.

Rothstein, a UC Berkeley professor of economics and public policy, argued that the report erred in asserting that the SAT was a stronger predictor of college performance than high school grades. He said the tests measure advantaged backgrounds, not potential for college, to a far greater degree than do grades.

He also said the report presented no evidence to support the assertion that the way UC uses standardized test scores in admissions decisions compensates for testing bias. The racial gap in SAT scores among applicants and admitted students are about the same, he said, which indicates the absence of any meaningful adjustments.