UC slams the door on standardized admissions tests, nixing any SAT alternative
The University of California has slammed the door shut on using any standardized test for admissions decisions, announcing Thursday that faculty could find no alternative exam that would avoid the biased results that led leaders to scrap the SAT last year.
UC Provost Michael Brown declared the end of testing for admissions decisions at a Board of Regents meeting, putting a conclusive end to more than three years of research and debate in the nation’s premier public university system on whether standardized testing does more harm than good when assessing applicants for admission.
“UC will continue to practice test-free admissions now and into the future,” Brown said to the regents, during a discussion about a possible alternative to the SAT and ACT tests.
Testing supporters argue that standardized assessments provide a uniform measure to predict the college performance of students from varied schools and backgrounds. But UC ultimately embraced opposing arguments that high school grades are a better tool without the biases based on race, income and parent education levels found in tests.
Given UC’s size and influence, the prolonged debate was closely followed nationally as a harbinger of the future of standardized testing in admissions. Its decision to permanently drop testing requirements is likely to embolden other campuses to do likewise and accelerate the national movement to seek more equitable ways to assess a student’s potential to succeed in college.
“When you have the most prestigious university system in the nation’s most populous state functioning without test scores and developing ways to do admissions fairly and accurately without them, it’s very significant,” said Bob Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “UC already is and increasingly will become a national model for test-free admissions.”
He said the number of campuses that don’t require test scores for admission has increased to 1,815 today from 1,075 two years ago — in part due to the difficulty of securing appointments for SAT and ACT tests during the pandemic. The share of students who submitted test scores to the Common Application, a consortium of 900 public and private colleges, fell to 43% in the 2020-21 admission season compared with 77% in 2019-20.
It’s unclear how many institutions will remain test-optional beyond the pandemic. And UC’s decision does not spell the end of SAT and ACT testing in California. Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second largest school district, still administers the test to its high school students and counselors advise them to take it to maximize opportunities to apply to other colleges.
But the issue is now definitively settled at UC.
Brown’s declaration culminated an often-contentious process kicked off in July 2018 when then-UC President Janet Napolitano asked the Academic Senate to review how UC uses the tests and whether any changes were necessary given the university’s efforts to expand access amid unprecedented growth in demand.
After a year of study, faculty leaders recommended in February 2020 that UC continue using the exams for admissions, citing data in a highly anticipated report showing that standardized tests may actually help boost enrollment of disadvantaged students.
But that controversial conclusion set off a flurry of countervailing pressures, including a report attacking the faculty recommendations. In May 2020, the regents ultimately voted to eliminate SAT and ACT testing requirements.
Meanwhile, the Compton Unified School District and several students and community organizations had filed two lawsuits in 2018 alleging that the SAT requirements violated their civil rights — and an Alameda County Superior Court judge agreed, ordering UC to suspend them in September 2020, six months after the regent’s decision.
UC President Michael V. Drake subsequently asked the Academic Senate this spring to examine whether an alternative test could be used beginning in 2025. A Senate committee studied whether an assessment used for K-12 students in California and several other states, known as Smarter Balanced, could be repurposed for UC admissions decisions. The committee’s unanimous conclusion: no go.
The Smarter Balanced test only provided “modest incremental value” beyond high school grades in predicting a student’s first-year UC performance while “reflecting and reproducing inequality” in educational opportunities for underserved students, committee co-chair Mary Gauvain, a UC Riverside professor, told regents on Thursday. Using the state exam in admissions decisions could benefit some underrepresented students who test well but have lower grades, the committee report found, but would disproportionately favor Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and could reduce admission rates of Black, Latino and low-income applicants.
Gauvain added that committee members were also concerned that using the test for high-stakes admissions decisions would spur the development of a test-prep industry — further exacerbating social inequities among low-income students unable to pay for such training.
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 that he was excited about working with UC to use Smarter Balanced’s tools to help improve teaching and learning. The faculty said the state assessment could be used, for instance, to help place students in writing classes after admission to UC.
But the committee could find no alternative UC admissions test without the broader problems, Gauvain told regents.
Drake said he concurred with the committee’s conclusion.
“Is this the end of the issue?” Regent Sherry Lansing asked.
“It’s the end for now,” Brown replied.
Drake said UC could consider adopting a standardized test in the future if one was developed that meets the university’s needs. “But we’re not developing one and we don’t know of one that exists at this time,” he said.
Without testing requirements, Drake added, UC attracted a record-breaking number of freshman applications for fall 2021 — more than 200,000 — and admitted the most diverse class ever. 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.
The faculty committee said UC should step up other ways 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 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.
Regents hailed the decision. Regent Eloy Ortiz Oakley, one of the earliest and most outspoken opponents of standardized testing for admissions, urged UC to continue to lead the way in promoting test-free admissions, particularly since they seem to increase the diversity of applicants.
Board Chair Cecilia Estolano called her vote to eliminate SAT and ACT testing requirements one of her proudest moments as a regent. She said the next pressing task is to double down on ways to prepare more students for UC admission and support them once enrolled.
“We know we’re dealing with generations of educational inequity baked in discrimination, baked in structural impediments to our students,” she said. “If we’re going to continue to try to expand educational access in an equitable way ... we have to provide the supports to enable our students to succeed.”
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