Parents and students are understandably frustrated by the vagaries of college admissions, especially the advantages handed to wealthier applicants. Rich kids are more likely to attend high-achieving schools, receive private tutoring and coaching, and have parents whose legacy history at a college gives them a bump up in the process (or who, in rare cases, can usher their children into college by donating a few million dollars — or by hiring someone to falsify their offspring’s athletic or academic credentials).
The SAT and a rival college entrance exam, the ACT, were intended to level the college admissions process a bit by offering an objective test that would place all students, regardless of what school they attend, on the same footing. But it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. Private test prep has become a big business, with fees that often run into the thousands of dollars per student. More affluent students can also afford to take the test multiple times in search of higher scores. It’s no wonder that test scores are strongly correlated with family income.
That’s why the University of California, which has a public obligation to treat the state’s students fairly, is right to reexamine the tests and their role in the admissions process. Applicants to UC schools today are required to take either the SAT or the ACT, although there’s no minimum score they have to meet for admission. Some key questions the university should ask are: How accurately do the tests predict future student success in UC’s rigorous academic programs? Should they be given less weight as an admissions factor? Discounted altogether? Made optional, as hundreds of colleges have already done? Are they indeed biased against students of color, low-income students, non-English speakers and students with disabilities?
UC’s report on the subject is expected to be released in February.
This is serious work with high stakes; in fact, colleges across the nation are watching to see what UC does and many are likely to follow its lead. So it is important that it be done right, and that the complex academic issues involved be carefully considered. However, the university was threatened this week with a lawsuit by the Compton Unified School District, the Community Coalition, the Dolores Huerta Foundation and various other organizations demanding that it drop the tests as an admissions requirement “immediately.”
But the university should take its time; the issues here are thorny. Is there no value at all to a standardized measurement of applicants? At the very least, these tests act as a check against teachers who feel pressured to inflate grades. A college applicant whose report card shows straight A’s but whose SAT score is abysmal calls for a second look.
And just because UC asks for and considers standardized test scores as part of the process doesn’t mean they have to be a major determinant of admissions. They could be relegated to a smaller role in the process conceivably. But dumping the tests altogether is a big decision that shouldn’t be made instantly under threat of a lawsuit.
Among other things, UC needs to figure out how well the test measures an applicant’s likelihood of future success in school — and then determine how important a factor that should be. Certainly, for students whose parents have shelled out thousands of dollars for intensive test prep, a high score on the SAT or ACT is unlikely to be a reliable barometer of college potential. But in other cases, students may score well and may indeed be well prepared for college because they’ve had advantages — they have gone to better-funded schools with more advanced courses, or gained from enrichment at home through, say, an emphasis on reading. Maybe that means the tests are too unfair to be used; or maybe it is information UC still can use as long as it keeps the results in perspective. One problem is that there’s no way for admissions officers to determine why students did well — or poorly — on the tests, which adds to the uncertainty factor.
At the same time, disadvantaged students might have developed other skills for college success that aren’t measured by existing admissions criteria, such as by working during the school year, or by having overcome obstacles in their lives. Is there a way to factor in this kind of preparation?
The subject-by-subject achievement tests offered by the College Board, the organization behind the SATs, have been mentioned as a possible substitute for the SAT and the ACT. Another proposal is to keep the tests but set a floor for scores; students who meet that baseline score would be considered ready for university studies, and anything above it wouldn’t make a difference.
But if that’s all the test is needed for, UC might be better off using California’s annual standards test for 11th graders, which is free to students and more closely linked to the state’s curriculum. This would ensure that every California student is, by default, taking a college admissions test.
UC considered dropping the SAT about 15 years ago, questioning its validity as a test of student aptitude and criticizing its lack of emphasis on writing skills. In response, the College Board revamped the test and added an essay section that had little to do with college writing skills and was too easily coached, putting low-income students at an even worse disadvantage.
Let’s hope UC does it right this time by not rushing the process and making fact-based, academically sound decisions, not ones motivated by legal threats.