Debate underway whether University of California should require SAT and ACT for admissions

October 7, 2019

Students can practice with a free SAT online prep program. But UC will no longer require the test or the ACT alternative.

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:

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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