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Students can practice with a free SAT online prep program. But some UC officials said access is uneven.

There is a lot of uncertainty and even anxiety about what the University of California will do with its current requirement that all freshman applicants take the SAT or ACT exam. Should such tests be dropped altogether, overhauled or replaced by other exams?

But one thing is certain: whatever a special faculty task force recommends on those issues when it issues its report early next year will be closely watched and debated around the state and nation.

That’s why it is important, leaders of the panel say, to carefully consider how well the SAT and ACT predict success at UC’s nine campuses that admit undergraduates and whether dropping or reforming the tests will help bolster enrollment of students who are low-income, African-American or Latino. Also being examined is whether changes in the exam requirement could backfire, hurt UC’s academic quality and result in high school grade inflation. 

“This is a deeply important issue we are wrestling with. And we want to make sure we get it right,” said task force co-chairman Eddie Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at UC Riverside. The committee’s final report should be objective and “aligned with our values in improving access, diversity and creating the most equitable model possible.”

The task force is looking at options beyond simply dumping all standardized tests. These include:

  • Changes in the material tested by the SAT and ACT.
  • Replacing the exams with the state-mandated Smarter Balanced tests, aligned with the Common Core and given in all California high schools.
  • Improving access to and financial aid for tests and test preparation courses. 
  • Changing the way test scores are weighted compared with high school grades in making admissions decisions.

Despite some UC regents expressing impatience with the study’s deliberate pace, faculty officials say they will stick to their schedule of publicly releasing the task force report in February or March. Then, in what promises to trigger passionate argument no matter what the study says, UC regents will have to decide whether to adopt, reject or change its recommendations.

The decision will be enormously influential just by the sheer number of freshman applicants to UC’s nine undergraduate campuses: more than 176,500 students applied last year with most trying to get into several UC schools. Applicants must present scores from either the SAT or ACT exams.

The “Standardized Testing Task Force” was established ten months ago and began meeting in February. Its members — 17 UC professors, in such varied fields as education, neuroscience, engineering and economics, plus one student representative — all want to ensure both UC’s high academic quality and equitable access to it, said co-chair Henry Sanchez, who is a pathology professor at UC San Francisco. 

The goal, Sanchez told EdSource in a recent interview, is to engage in “genuine, mindful and thoughtful analysis and discussions and then provide recommendations that are going to benefit the university and its obligation to the state of California.” 

The study will analyze potential impacts of any changes on admissions and graduation rates among various income, ethnic and geographic groups, he said. And it will explore possible unintended results, such as pressure on high school teachers to give higher grades and whether some unethical applicants might feel they have to fabricate extracurricular activities. 

At its monthly meetings, the task force has heard from experts and partisans in both directions. Among those have been David Coleman, president of the College Board, which sponsors the SAT, and Saul Geiser, a college admissions expert at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education who has criticized the use of SAT scores as a way to predict college success.

The pace of meetings may pick up soon, according to Comeaux, who also heads the influential Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), the faculty panel that sets UC admissions standards. But it shouldn’t be rushed to finish sooner than February, he said. 

The outcome will be closely watched nationwide, according to Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an organization highly critical of standardized tests. 

If UC, one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious public university systems, were to end (or limit) its standardized exam requirement, the decision would send a similarly strong message to higher education policy makers across the U.S.,” Schaeffer said in an email. Several smaller public universities, such as the University of New Hampshire, have made tests optional and increasing number of private colleges, including the elite University of Chicago, have done so as well. 

The issue’s political volatility has surfaced in the Legislature. Last month, California lawmakers passed a resolution, ACR 64, which asks UC and requires CSU to evaluate whether standardized tests should be required in admissions. (UC’s faculty study was already underway.) But in a possible contradiction, another legislative action would could give the college entrance tests even more prominence: the Legislature also passed legislation which would give school districts the option of replacing the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced test with the SAT or ACT and reimbursing them for the costs. That is now awaiting a decision by Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

(The 23-campus California State University has talked about reviewing its own test requirements but has not started or scheduled a formal inquiry, according to spokeswoman Toni Molle.)

The UC faculty task force received little attention until the debate about its pace erupted at the regents meeting last month. The board’s chairman John Perez, the former Assembly Speaker, asked the regents’ legal counsel whether the regents board could take back the power it traditionally gives to faculty over studying admissions requirements. Told that the regents could, Perez stressed that he was not advocating a takeover but just wanted to know whether it was theoretically possible. Still the question upset some faculty who took it as a threat, something Perez said he did not intend.

Regents vice chair Cecilia Estolano derided the SAT, saying it uses a “clearly flawed methodology that has a discriminatory impact.” She urged quickly dumping it, saying “we don’t need any more studies.” Other regents said they were not ready to do that now or possibly ever, and UC president Janet Napolitano urged regents to allow the committee to finish its work, noting it could set a national precedent.

In a subsequent interview with EdSource, Perez said he is upset by unequal access to even the free SAT prep courses because of insufficient internet capability at some schools and students’ homes. He said he is predisposed to experiment with making tests optional but said he wants his opinions to be “checked by fact. And I think that’s where most of the regents are coming from. Some may be predisposed one way or the other. But everyone is anxious to have information so they can make an informed decision.” 

His main question is whether standardized tests help enroll a student body that “is broadly representative” of the state’s population. “If external elements make it more difficult for a kid from Shasta, or Redding, or Weedpatch or Hanford to get into a UC, we ought to be mindful of evaluating those things, just as we ought to be mindful of barriers to preparatory materials for kids from the Eastside of L.A. or another part of the state,” he said.

A student is eligible for the UC system by earning a combination of high school grades in certain courses and standardized test scores that place them in the top academic 9 percent of high school seniors statewide or the top 9 percent in their own high school. (In addition to basic SAT and ACT, UC requires the auxiliary writing tests.) However, eligibility does not guarantee a spot at the most competitive campuses, such as UCLA or Berkeley, where entrance standards are much higher. Other factors are considered too, including personal statements students must write about their interests and challenges, extracurricular activities and some bonus points for being low-income or among the first in their families to attend college.

UC taskforce co-chair Sanchez said he does not expect a conflict with the regents about the report, no matter what their opinions now are about testing. The regents, he added “are intelligent people who I hope will give the time and effort and fairness to it. That’s all I would ask.”

One thing is sure: any significant changes probably won’t take effect for four years, he said. So current high school students won’t be forced to change any plans or be relieved of the pressures to do well on the tests.

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  1. Bo Loney 1 week ago1 week ago

    As the population grows we obviously need more spots and to build more universities. Why not start by using the technology we are blessed with now for virtual classrooms and online learning?

  2. Cheryl James-Ward 1 week ago1 week ago

    I'm a high school principal. My concern with considering removing SAT/ACT out of the college entrance equation is that there are many parents who will do anything for their high school students to get good grades that without some metric such as this teachers, counselors and principals may be overwhelmed with parents demanding and attempting to intimidate and/or bribe school officials to give their children grades that they may not deserve. The SAT/ACT … Read More

    I’m a high school principal. My concern with considering removing SAT/ACT out of the college entrance equation is that there are many parents who will do anything for their high school students to get good grades that without some metric such as this teachers, counselors and principals may be overwhelmed with parents demanding and attempting to intimidate and/or bribe school officials to give their children grades that they may not deserve.

    The SAT/ACT results have been effective measurement of academic readiness over the last several decades. Perhaps we should do a better job of preparing students for these exams and academic success. I believe that the SAT measures for things that are important for any student’s success 1) stamina and endurance, 2) academic knowledge, 3) ability to follow through and answer questions completely, and 4) speed and/or fluency. All are necessary for success in college. I recommend that we look for ways to help all students prepare for success on these rigorous exams.

    Replies

    • Bo Loney 1 week ago1 week ago

      I agree, KTLA reported the head of a West Hollywood private school is pleading guilty for taking bribes from Singer to allow test fixing. How much easier will it be just to pay for GPAs? If the test only benefits the wealthy then why are the wealthy having to cheat it? There are plenty of poor kids, even kids that had troubles that score really high on these tests on their own merit. … Read More

      I agree, KTLA reported the head of a West Hollywood private school is pleading guilty for taking bribes from Singer to allow test fixing. How much easier will it be just to pay for GPAs? If the test only benefits the wealthy then why are the wealthy having to cheat it? There are plenty of poor kids, even kids that had troubles that score really high on these tests on their own merit. This whole push and rush to get rid of the SAT just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

  3. Roman Stearns 1 week ago1 week ago

    Thank you, Larry Gordon, for a comprehensive and objective update on the UC faculty committee's efforts. If the ultimate outcome either eliminates or makes optional the SAT and ACT, and if we should expect 4+ years to implement a new policy, then perhaps there is time to pursue a more holistic approach to assessing a student's readiness for college that (a) aligns with the spirit of UC's current comprehensive review, (b) adheres to the State … Read More

    Thank you, Larry Gordon, for a comprehensive and objective update on the UC faculty committee’s efforts. If the ultimate outcome either eliminates or makes optional the SAT and ACT, and if we should expect 4+ years to implement a new policy, then perhaps there is time to pursue a more holistic approach to assessing a student’s readiness for college that (a) aligns with the spirit of UC’s current comprehensive review, (b) adheres to the State Board of Education’s effort to promote local control and accountability, and (c) simultaneously disrupts current patterns of inequity that have been difficult to remedy.

    Specifically, let’s consider leveraging local communities’ definitions of readiness and success, which they have established through their efforts over the past decade to convene stakeholders, gather input, and create a Graduate Profile. Increasingly, we are able to measure outcomes that tend to show up in those Graduate Profiles and have a great deal to do with a student’s readiness for, and likely success in, college — i.e., 21st century skills (collaboration and teamwork, communication, creativity and innovation, and critical thinking and problem solving) as well as social-emotional learning outcomes (self-awareness, self-management, persistence, resilience, self-efficacy, ethical decision-making, growth mindset, and more).

    Scaling Student Success (https://ScalingStudentSuccess.org), a recently-launched CA partnership, is convening nine pioneering communities eager to operationalize their respective Graduate Profiles and hold themselves collectively accountable for assuring that each and every student demonstrate the articulated outcomes. UC and the state may benefit from seeing where this initiative goes, how it expands, and what the potential may be for assessing student readiness using a different, and perhaps more indicative set of success measures.

  4. Sharie Legler 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    We keep trying to dummy down tests so everyone can pass. That lowers everyone. Keep the same test we’ve always used.

  5. SD Parent 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    The majority of courses at the UCs demands academic rigor from students. While there is no perfect standardized test, without standardized testing, grading inconsistencies cannot be normed. For example, San Diego Unified looked at its AP course grades vs AP exam passage rates by high school and student demographics (including income and ethnicity). While the district focused solely on the equity gap in passage rates, the data demonstrated issues with grade inflation … Read More

    The majority of courses at the UCs demands academic rigor from students. While there is no perfect standardized test, without standardized testing, grading inconsistencies cannot be normed. For example, San Diego Unified looked at its AP course grades vs AP exam passage rates by high school and student demographics (including income and ethnicity). While the district focused solely on the equity gap in passage rates, the data demonstrated issues with grade inflation relative to AP performance, primarily at schools with large populations of African American, Latino, and low-income students. Regardless of what is/are the factors contributing to this trend, this data creates concern that GPA alone would not be indicative of whether these students would be prepared for the rigor of college.

    While the SBAC could function as a standardized test, it’s safe to say that at this point the majority of students – particularly the same demographics that perform more poorly on the SAT and ACT – are not doing well. The SBAC results are also dependent on the quality of teaching to the “new” standards, and given the mediocre state support, school districts and their teachers have not uniformly invested in the necessary teacher professional development nor in evaluation of whether their teachers have adopted the new educational standards. Has there been a study comparing high school GPAs, SBAC scores and SAT or ACT scores?

    Finally, a rigorous analysis of the UC student data should also include what students studied and whether they succeeded. There is a huge difference in the rigor between the courses needed for STEM majors like Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science, and various Engineering versus liberal arts majors like History, Communications, foreign languages, and various VAPA. Do students with lower standardized test scores succeed in all majors or only in non-STEM fields? How would eliminating or lowering the weight of standardized test scores contribute to the overall graduation rate of STEM majors, for which there is already a workforce shortage?

    Fundamentally, while the state and school districts put forward the idea that every student should go to college, the UCs and CSUs combined can only take 20% of the students who graduate high school each year. Saying yes to certain students means saying no to others, so it’s not just about which students the UCs accept but also who they are going to reject to be able to do that.

  6. el 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I hope they take the time to do a very thorough assessment of the exams and their relative value. I think a good score on a test like this is more interesting and predictive than a poor score. That is, (scandal involving high income parents aside), kids who do well on these tests are generally very talented and capable in a way that may not be apparent from their grades, and in particular these exams can … Read More

    I hope they take the time to do a very thorough assessment of the exams and their relative value.

    I think a good score on a test like this is more interesting and predictive than a poor score. That is, (scandal involving high income parents aside), kids who do well on these tests are generally very talented and capable in a way that may not be apparent from their grades, and in particular these exams can surface kids that might not otherwise stand out.

    That said, I don’t think a bad score contains the same information. There are a lot of reasons a capable student might do poorly on the exams – the time pressure, the unfamiliar environment, the need to write essays in pencil instead of on a computer, simply being sick that day, and the stress of EVERYTHING MATTERS TODAY. Students who have shown that they’re diligent day to day but bomb these exams may still be very capable when they are given time to complete the work and more control over their own environment.

    We should always remember how different the experience is for different students. Taking the test at your own high school is a totally different experience than having to drive an hour to a strange location and figure out your way around. The ability to take it multiple times is an advantage. In the last few years, we’ve had kids impacted by major natural disasters in the fall which possibly prevented them from taking the exam at all, or certainly kept them from doing their very best. The challenge of the exam, and cost to take it, is far from equal, and a simple fee waiver does not level the playing field.

    Curiously, I’ve also started wondering how much the simple experience of taking the test is helpful for preparing students for college. Being able to perform at a particular time of day with a time limit in unfamiliar surroundings and little leeway for accommodations is part of the college exam experience currently and getting a taste of that and building some confidence may be part of the value in having them.

    The way CSU is using them now is for impacted programs and for giving a second look to students with low GPAs. That seems like a potentially interesting approach and I assume UC is consulting with them and the data they have to see how that has worked out. There is also certainly a large cohort of students who took the SAT and were rejected from UC but accepted to CSU and attended a CSU campus – if that data is available it could be informative. The sad fact is that UC does not have enough slots for all the students who would be successful there. The question is, how do you decide?

    Certainly there is also huge money made around the SAT ecosystem and you can bet there will be a lot of resistance to dropping it for that reason alone.

  7. Louis 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Getting rid of standardized tests requirement is a great way to reduce Asian-American enrollment, which is the goal.

    Replies

    • J. Owen L. 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Do you have any evidence for this?