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Editorial: The UC regents’ risky bet on a custom admissions test

A student looks over questions during a college test preparation class at Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Md.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

The thunderous snap you heard last week was the sound of hundreds of thousands of No. 2 pencils breaking. The University of California Board of Regents voted May 21 to ditch the SAT and ACT tests for college admission, at least for most uses. The aim is to develop the UC system’s own, more equitable test, but if it cannot do that by 2025, it would simply scrap the college entrance tests for good.

Dropping the two leading college entrance exams wouldn’t have been the right choice a few months ago, before the novel coronavirus struck. Right now, though, it could be the only sane option left, assuming the university manages to develop a worthwhile alternative. That’s not a safe assumption, though.

The regents’ vote went against the findings from a yearlong study by a UC task force, which recommended continuing to require the tests while looking to replace them with a better one. The task force concluded that the SAT and ACT were better predictors of student success at UC than grades, even though they weren’t counted as heavily in admissions decisions. And the university’s holistic way of viewing the scores, within the context of each student’s background, had neutralized the tests’ tendency to favor white and more affluent students, according to the task force.

The tests actually helped some low-income students of color, the report said, by providing a way for them to show their potential even if their other achievements looked lackluster. The Academic Senate voted in favor of retaining the tests, which also can serve as a check against grade inflation — a phenomenon that largely benefits wealthier white students.

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Although we think the process could be made even more fair to disadvantaged students, such as by barring applicants from taking a test more than twice, we supported the findings of the task force. Its report was thorough, objective and well-reasoned.

But then COVID-19 blew into California and knocked the wind out of the debate. Students were sent home to study remotely, which has worked well for only some of them. The next academic year, whether it’s on campus, remote or a hybrid, will be anything but normal. Taking the test from home is problematic for security and because some students don’t have quiet space at home. Taking it the traditional way, in a large room crammed with students, is unsafe.

So it was fitting for UC to hit the pause button on the tests — as many schools across the nation have — and see what develops as a result. Perhaps, despite the task force’s reasoned conclusion, the tests don’t add enough value to the admissions process to be worth the time and anxiety they cause. And dropping them would also shrink the multimillion-dollar test-prep industry, another way that affluent kids gain an advantage.

But the regents didn’t just suspend the test requirement; they locked themselves into a scenario in which the university either comes up with a brilliant new test soon, which will be difficult to do amid the pandemic-induced disruptions, or drops entrance exams altogether. It makes little sense to commit to a course of action before seeing how the next few years go without entrance exams. Nor does it make sense to go to the expense and effort to study the testing issue in depth if personal feelings are going to rule the day regardless.

A UC-specific test presents its own problems. Many private colleges still require the SAT or ACT, which could mean doubling the testing misery for students applying to those as well as to UC schools. That would almost certainly widen the college application gap for disadvantaged students. Even worse: Every state with a robust public university system could be prompted to create its own exam.

The testing companies have been living in fear of the moment when UC might drop the exams. The ill-conceived essay portion of the SAT was added in 2005 to placate UC. Applicants to UC represent more than 5% of all those who take college entrance tests, and many other schools watch UC’s lead. Hundreds of other institutions made the tests optional in recent years. In other words, this could be the death knell for the exams.

The SAT was first used by colleges as an intelligence test intended to level the playing field for admissions, which was why it was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test. As the test evolved to other forms, that moniker was dropped and the acronym now stands for nothing at all. For better or worse, we’re about to discover whether that’s more than just symbolic.


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