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Another blow to UC admissions tests: Nix the SAT alternative exam, faculty recommend

Students sit at desks in a classroom
The University of California should not use an alternative standardized test for admissions to replace the discarded SAT, faculty say.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In another blow to the future of standardized testing for University of California admissions, a faculty group has recommended nixing the use of an alternative assessment to replace the SAT in a new report to UC leaders.

The UC Board of Regents, in a move that reverberated nationally, unanimously voted last year to drop the use of the SAT and ACT for admissions decisions through 2024 because the tests exacerbated disparities based on race and income. Faculty were asked to examine whether an alternative test without those biases could be used beginning in 2025.

UC President Michael V. Drake asked the Academic Senate in April to explore whether the statewide assessment used for California public school students, known as Smarter Balanced, would be an appropriate replacement. Some educators were more open to using the state test over the SAT because it assesses how well 11th-graders learned California’s core curriculum.

But the Academic Senate committee’s conclusion: no go.

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“The ... assessment is not appropriate as an admissions test, required or optional, for the UC,” the report concluded. It said using the state test would “likely come at the same cost as the SAT,” mirroring the “inequities in opportunities to learn across California schools that are pronounced by race and socioeconomic status.”

The report did recommend, however, that the state test be explored as one of many measures used for placement in writing classes after students are enrolled at UC. And it suggested that UC work with Smarter Balanced officials and state educators to include more challenging test items in core subject areas and encourage all California high schools to use the assessment to help students evaluate their college preparedness.

Tony Alpert, Smarter Balanced executive director, did not comment on the findings that the test reflected racial and economic disparities. But he said in a statement Friday that the nonprofit was “excited” by the recommendation to expand use of the test and looked forward to deepening its partnership with California.

Academic Senate Chair Robert Horwitz and Mary Gauvain, the faculty committee’s co-chair, declined to comment on the report until it’s presented to the regents next month.

Some critics of standardized testing welcomed the report, including Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, a nonprofit advocate for fair testing.

“This is the signal that there is no test that will be used for high-stakes admissions by the UC in the foreseeable future,” he said. “I think that’s a great thing.”

UC’s decision to drop use of the SAT and ACT for admissions decisions — prompted by a lawsuit, the pandemic and skepticism about the test among many regents — was seen as a game-changer in the national debate over whether the tests discriminated against disadvantaged applicants and the extent to which they predict college success.

Dropping the test as an admission requirement was credited with boosting UC freshman applications to a record high of more than 200,000 for fall 2021.

UC admissions officers have said they were able to thoroughly evaluate the flood of applications without test scores, using 13 other factors in the system’s review process, such as a student’s high school grade-point average, the rigor of courses taken, special talents, essays and extracurricular activities.

Though using the state exam in admissions decisions could benefit some underrepresented students who test well but have lower grades, it would disproportionately favor Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and could reduce admission rates of Black, Latino and low-income applicants, the report found.

At the same time, the assessment would add only “modest incremental value” in predicting UC first-year grades, the committee concluded. The state test, SAT and high school GPA all predict first-year grades at roughly the same level, although the SAT performed slightly better, the report found. Using only high school GPA produced the most diverse pool of top UC applicants.

In addition, the faculty committee concluded that using the state test for UC admission would probably lead to the development of a test prep industry that disadvantages those who can’t afford to pay for such lessons.

Lynda McGee, a college counselor at Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles, said she was glad to learn the faculty committee recommended against replacing the SAT with the Smarter Balanced state test.

“You’re asking a one-day snapshot in time to represent a student’s academic ability, and the problem is that it’s going to be nerve-racking for the kids and they’re going to blank out,” she said. “It just means more pressure, more tests.”

She added, however, that she still recommends students take the SAT — and Los Angeles Unified administered the exam at its high schools this week — so they have options to apply to campuses that require standardized test scores.

The Academic Senate committee said UC must take other actions to advance equity in admissions. Recommendations included a closer partnership between UC and the K-12 system with greater access to college-preparatory courses required for UC admission, more state funding for academic preparation programs, and enhanced monitoring to make sure UC is reaching underserved high schools.

The report also called for more funding to help UC thoroughly assess applications, provide anti-bias training for application readers and strengthen supports to help students complete their degrees.


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