Apodaca: Getting rid of SATs and ACTs are only the first step in ensuring quality, fair education

Newport Harbor High School.
Newport Harbor High School. The move toward eliminating SAT and ACT tests has columnist Patrice Apodaca hopeful that students’ future prospects aren’t shackled to test results.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

I’ve been rooting for the downfall of the SAT for a long time.

So it gives me great satisfaction that the dreaded college admissions test is finally being given the heave-ho by a growing number of universities, including the University of California system. Same goes for the SAT’s biggest rival, the ACT.

Both exams — but particularly the SAT — are prime examples of what is wrong with our education system.

The SAT contributes next to nothing to deep and meaningful learning, but it’s part of a culture in which schools have felt pressed to tailor their curricula to improve standardized test scores. It’s not a stretch to argue that some subjects — civics, for instance — that might benefit students in the long run are sometimes downplayed in part because they don’t fit neatly into the requirements of this type of testing.


The exam has also heightened anxiety among students, who have long been led to believe that their future prospects are shackled to their test results. Yet, despite the outsized importance we have ascribed to the SAT, in reality it provides little additional information to admissions officials that isn’t already apparent through grades and other factors.

Worse still, in spite of claims that it offers an objective means of evaluating student potential, the SAT actually exacerbates inequality because it favors those who can afford expensive test prep. That the UCs and other universities are now ditching the SAT could be seen as a long-awaited acknowledgment of that reality.

The former site of the Los Angeles Times’ Orange County operations in Costa Mesa is the new home of Irvine-based defense technology company Anduril.

Feb. 16, 2021

The UC system’s announcement last year followed a unanimous vote by the Board of Regents to make the SAT and ACT optional for two years. After that, the tests will not be used at all for admissions purposes, but they could be considered for course placement and scholarships.

Though I consider this a welcome sign of progress, I’m not popping the champagne cork just yet.

Many questions remain: What will replace the SAT and ACT? Do we even need a replacement?

And most important, are we going to make a concerted, full-throated effort to solve the bigger issue of inequality in education, of which the SAT is only a symptom?

It should be acknowledged that not everyone is happy with the UC decision. Some critics of the move argue that the absence of test results will force admissions decisions to be weighted more heavily toward grades and other factors such as extracurricular activities.

This poses a problem, they argue, because grading standards vary widely, grade inflation could become more rampant, and extracurricular endeavors also favor students from higher-income backgrounds.

They have a point.

But universities could take these factors into consideration by evaluating applicants in the context of their specific backgrounds and educational opportunities.

Also, many alternatives have been put forth that could provide universities with greater insight into their applicants. Some observers have suggested, for instance, that prospective students might be interviewed or asked to submit videos.

Universities could also consider students’ scores on other standardized tests. One idea is for UC to factor in results from the state’s 11th grade assessment test, an exam that one study found to have less of a disparate impact on minority students who are underrepresented in the UC system.

When making its announcement about the SAT and ACT, the UC system stated that it would try to create its own replacement test. Some observers have argued for a test designed to focus less on math and English and more on critical thinking, and to include an unscored essay section so that colleges can observe students’ writing without the benefit of outside editing.

UC also said it might adapt an existing exam to better align with what students are supposed to be learning in high school. If none of these options work out by 2025, it plans to drop standardized tests altogether.

It’s unrealistic to expect any perfect fixes. Still, it’s encouraging that UC is at least trying to make an improvement.

Yet the harsh truth is that the college admissions process is only one glaring piece of our failure to rectify the broader problem of education haves and have-nots.

Federal data shows a large funding gap between rich and poor schools, and a growing share of students living in poverty, findings that track closely with academic achievement gaps. As one researcher put it, there’s “an almost ironclad link” between students’ zip codes and their chances of success.

COVID-19 has made the disparity even worse, as evidence indicates that pandemic-related learning losses are greater in minority and disadvantaged communities. The consequences of these losses could be grave for an entire generation of students.

We think of education as the path to greater opportunity. But we’ve made the path far easier for some than for others. That’s the real issue at the root of the college admissions racket, and getting rid of a couple of tests — no matter how justified — won’t accomplish much without comprehensive reforms.

Will we ever achieve full equality? Probably not.

But we can and must do a better job of ensuring that all students have access to a quality education and a fairer process for evaluating their college applications. Dumping the SAT is just a start.

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