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UC must immediately drop use of the SAT and ACT for admissions and scholarships, judge rules

SAT prep books  on a shelf.
The University of California must immediately suspend use of SAT or ACT test scores for admission and scholarship decisions, an Alameda County Superior Court judge has ruled.
(Mario Tama / Getty Images)

The University of California must immediately suspend all use of SAT and ACT test scores for admission and scholarship decisions under a preliminary injunction issued by an Alameda County Superior Court judge.

The ruling came in a lawsuit asserting that the use of standardized test scores is broadly biased — and particularly detrimental to students with disabilities who seek to take the test during the coronavirus crisis.

Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman said in his Monday ruling that plaintiffs had shown sufficient cause to stop the tests for now because applicants with disabilities had virtually no access to test-taking sites or legally required accommodations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The barriers faced by students with disabilities have been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 epidemic, which has disrupted test-taking locations, closed schools and limited access to school counselors,” Seligman wrote.

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Seligman added that little data existed to show whether the tests were even valid or reliable indicators of their future college performance. He set a case management conference for Sept. 29.

The injunction on the use of SAT and ACT results will affect all California applicants to the UC system.

“The SAT and ACT are dead and gone as far as the UC system is concerned,” said Mark Rosenbaum, a Los Angeles attorney who helped file the lawsuit as director of Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law project. The “historic decision puts an end to racist tests that deprived countless California students of color, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families of a fair shot at admissions to the UC system.”

Rosenbaum said he and his team targeted only the UC system to efficiently manage the case but that the court’s reasoning should apply to all colleges and universities, both public and private, across the country.

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“If other universities don’t follow, we’ll come after them as well,” he said, adding that he would be conferring with civil and disability rights advocates in other states.

In a statement Tuesday, UC said it “respectfully disagrees” with the court decision and was evaluating whether it would pursue further legal actions.

“An injunction may interfere with the university’s efforts to implement an appropriate and comprehensive admissions policies and its ability to attract and enroll students of diverse backgrounds and experiences,” the statement said.

SAT officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment but have long argued that their tests are not discriminatory and provide a uniform and useful yardstick to assess applicants from different schools and states.

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ACT officials said they offered accommodations to students with disabilities and are committed to “ensuring access to our assessment’ for them “despite the difficulties that COVID-19 has presented globally.”

Earlier this year, the UC Board of Regents unanimously voted to phase out standardized test scores in admissions decisions after concluding that the tests were unacceptably biased based on race, income and parent education level and did not provide useful information about how students would fare in college. Regents voted to make the tests optional this year and next, then phase them out, but would still allow them to be used for scholarship decisions. Regents also gave campuses the flexibility to choose to drop them immediately rather than continue using them on an optional basis until 2022.

UC Berkeley, UC Irvine and UC Santa Cruz already have decided to drop the SAT and ACT testing requirements altogether. Most of the system’s five other undergraduate campuses, including UCLA, had planned to consider the scores for applicants who chose to submit them. UC campuses will begin accepting applications for admission to the 2021-22 academic year on Nov. 1.

“University admissions officials and faculty are best positioned to determine appropriate admissions decisions and procedures, taking into account the individual needs and priorities of a particular campus,” the UC statement said.

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The lawsuit was brought by several high school students and nonprofits, including Community Coalition, Dolores Huerta Foundation, College Seekers, Chinese for Affirmative Action, College Access and Little Manila Rising. One plaintiff, identified only as Gary W., was described in the ruling as a recent high school graduate with learning disabilities who had completed all UC admission prerequisites (which include several college-prep courses). But the student faced what the ruling called “formidable barriers” to taking the SAT and ultimately could not do so, prompting his decision to not apply for UC admission this year.

Some accommodations, such as Braille and large-print exams, 100% extended time for tests and computers for those who cannot hand write essays, are only available at high school testing centers, but those have been closed during the coronavirus crisis, said Abigail Graber, an attorney with Brown, Goldstein & Levy, a Baltimore law firm representing the plaintiffs. She added that students also have been unable to obtain needed documentation of their disabilities because they can’t meet with high school counselors and psychologists for evaluations during the pandemic.

In its own filing, the university argued that campuses should have the flexibility to use optional testing as allowed this year and next so all applicants can showcase their strengths — which could be test scores for some disadvantaged students, including those with disabilities. Applicants who perform well on standardized tests, for instance, could use their scores to offset lower grades or completion of fewer honors or AP courses.

UC officials also argued that a ruling was premature because the application window for fall 2021 won’t open until November and most campuses have not finalized their admissions process yet. Therefore, UC argued, no applicant has yet demonstrated any harm suffered.

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Seligman, however, rejected those assertions. He agreed with UC that no data yet exists that show students with disabilities have been harmed. But he noted that several campuses have indicated they plan to give all applicants a first review based on factors other than test scores, then provide a second review with test scores for those who have them. Most if not all students with disabilities would be denied the benefit of the second review, he said, since the chances of being able to take the SAT or ACT with or without accommodations during the pandemic are “almost nil.”

“In short, applicants with disabilities are denied meaningful access to the ‘aid, benefit or service’ that test-takers have,” Seligman wrote. “They are denied a potential second chance at admission.”


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