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Cal State poised to drop SAT admission requirement as chancellor supports scrapping test

Visitors tour Cal State Fullerton
Visitors tour Cal State Fullerton, one of 23 campuses in the California State University system that may permanently drop the SAT and ACT as an admissions requirement.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

California State University, the largest four-year university system in the nation, is poised to drop the SAT and ACT as an admissions requirement — a move that would follow the University of California’s elimination of the exams and further shake up the standardized testing landscape as hundreds of campuses across the nation shift away from the assessments.

Cal State Chancellor Joseph I. Castro said Wednesday he supports scrapping the test requirements after a systemwide admission advisory council approved a recommendation to do so last week. The Board of Trustees will review the recommendation in January and vote on it in March.

“I’m very supportive of that,” Castro said of eliminating testing requirements. “I just want folks to know that I am not interested as chancellor to make it harder for students to get into the CSU.”

A move by Cal State to drop the SAT and ACT requirement, coming after UC regents voted to do so last year, would put California in the vanguard of a national movement to eliminate standardized testing because of concerns over bias and to seek more equitable ways to assess a student’s potential for college success.

Critics say standardized tests are an unfair admission barrier to underrepresented students, pointing to decades of research showing biased results based on race, income and parent education levels. They also say that high school grades are a better predictor of college success.

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The Cal State system, which educates 486,000 students on 23 campuses, has suspended admission testing requirements for the 2022-23 academic year. But the system’s Admission Advisory Council, which is composed of faculty, students, campus presidents, other top administrators and enrollment leaders, has been studying what to do after that and approved a recommendation to permanently end the testing requirements.

Robert Keith Collins, Academic Senate chair, said council members approved the recommendation after months of “vigorous debate” over the potential impact of eliminating testing requirements. They considered pandemic-related hardships, equity and fairness, academic preparation, graduation goals and extensive research on standardized testing and college admission, according to an executive summary of the report. Collins added that council members studied UC’s Academic Senate research on the issue and spoke to faculty about it.

As with UC, key Cal State concerns involved eliminating bias, including unequal access to pricey test prep, and the importance of maintaining rigorous academic standards. Council members also debated who would be helped and hurt, including students able to better demonstrate college potential through standardized tests over grades.

Council members also noted a 2019 study that found high school GPA was a stronger predictor than the SAT of first-year grades and second-year retention for Cal State students. Last year, Cal State replicated that research with a different cohort of students and found essentially the same results.

Some faculty in science, technology, engineering and math fields questioned how to assess quantitative reasoning skills without the tests, Collins said, while others wondered how to evaluate a student’s writing ability, which is critical for college work. Unlike UC and the Common Application, a consortium of 900 public and private universities, Cal State does not require essays for admissions. Collins said faculty would be discussing whether to propose a writing supplement going forward as they vet the recommendation.

He added that the SAT and ACT test scores “provided some insight into college readiness” that some faculty found useful, especially given Cal State’s required grade-point average of 2.5 — lower than UC’s 3.0 — and the system’s elimination of remedial courses.

Ultimately, however, he said there was a “meeting of the minds” on the council that the bias was real and Cal State needed to come up with alternative ways to assess college readiness without the tests.

“The cons outweigh the pros,” Collins said. “The bias outweighs the benefits.”

Castro made his remarks supporting the recommendation during a webinar about a new report by the Campaign for College Opportunity detailing how too many qualified students are being shut out of access to UC and Cal State campuses. Michele Siqueiros, the nonprofit’s president, expressed strong support for the recommendation to end testing and the prospect that trustees could approve it next year.

It’s harder than ever to get into the University of California and Cal State University. Suggestions to open access include creation of UC and Cal State branches at underused community colleges.

“I think you can hear the loud applause, if folks were not on mute, [for] the amazing decision that will hopefully be forthcoming to increase equitable access to the Cal State system,” she said.

If trustees vote to eliminate the SAT and ACT requirement, test scores would not be used in admissions decisions at all, even if submitted, said spokeswoman Toni Molle. Submitted scores could be used to help place admitted students into math and English classes, she said.

Under the recommendation, Cal State would instead develop a new quantitative formula for admissions decisions, using data based on four categories:

  • High school grade point average in a sequence of 15 college preparatory courses required both by Cal State and UC.
  • Completion of those courses beyond the minimum required.
  • A school’s percentage of low-income students and whether it’s a student’s Cal State partner school, a campus near their home that considers them for priority admission.
  • A student’s activities outside the classroom, including leadership, work, community activities and family educational level.

Krishan Malhotra, a Stanislaus State senior and student government leader, said he and many other students supported the recommendation to drop the SAT and ACT. He said he did not have the time or money to take a test prep course before applying to Cal State and scored in the 55th percentile — a result he said did not reflect his actual academic ability.

The testing requirement is “a huge stressor that adds to things being really, really difficult for students,” he said. “Moving forward, it’s going to make things so much more accessible and easy” for students to enter Cal State without the test.

The College Board, which owns the SAT, and other testing advocates argue that the tests themselves are not biased but reflect broader educational inequities in underserved communities. The tests, combined with high school grades, are the most accurate predictor of college readiness and are a uniform tool to assess students from different high schools across the nation, testing advocates say.

UC regents unanimously voted to drop the SAT and ACT testing requirement last year. System leaders announced last month that they would permanently end standardized testing requirements after an Academic Senate group concluded it could find no alternative test that would avoid biased results. The prolonged debate was closely followed as a national harbinger of the future of standardized testing in admissions.

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 COVID-19 pandemic. The share of students who submitted test scores to the Common Application fell to 43% in the 2020-21 admission season compared with 77% in 2019-20, according to Bob Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

A Cal State decision to drop testing requirements would be “hugely significant because the CSU is the largest four-year public university system in the U.S.,” Schaeffer said.


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