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Students can practice with a free SAT online prep program. But UC will no longer require the test or the ACT alternative.
This article was updated May 21, 8:30 p.m. with more reaction to the decision.

In a historic vote with national repercussions, the University of California on Thursday abandoned the SAT and ACT exams as a freshman admission requirement and decided to develop its own substitute standardized test by 2025.

A unanimous vote by the UC Board of Regents means that students for the next two years will have the option, but will not be required, to submit standardized test scores as part of their applications at UC’s nine undergraduate campuses. Then for the following two years, those scores will not be used at all in admission but could be looked at only for course placement and scholarships.

Meanwhile, the university will try to create its own replacement test or adapt an existing exam to better align with what students are supposed to learn in high school, such as the Smarter Balanced Assessment test now given to all K-12 students. And if that does not work out by 2025, UC will drop standardized tests altogether.

With UC’s immense size and prestige, the move represents a blow to the standardized test industry and could encourage other colleges and universities to pull away from the exams, particularly at other public universities. The move represents a victory for critics who contend the standardized tests are biased against low-income and some minority students and that affluent families buy advantages through expensive test prep tutoring. And, as the recent Varsity Blues scandal showed, some parents engaged in bribery and test cheating to get their children into prestigious schools, they note.

The new UC policy “is an incredible step in the right direction towards aligning our admissions with broad-based values the university has identified,” said regents chairman John A. Pérez, the former state Assembly speaker who is a strong proponent of increasing ethnic diversity at UC. He said the move also would help low-income students of all racial groups to gain admission along with those from rural areas around the state with low university attendance rates.

After five hours of debate and presentations in their online meeting, the regents approved UC president Janet Napolitano’s plan to move away from the SAT and ACT and to develop an alternative. The decision came despite a contrary report from UC faculty leaders who wanted the SAT/ACT maintained for at least several more years. That faculty study released in February said the tests are good predictors of college success for low income, black and Latino students and that most inequities in admission arise from not taking the right high school courses.

But in countering the faculty, Napolitano insisted it was time for more dramatic action at the 285,000-student UC system and that she expected a substitute test to emerge in cooperation with the California State University. “The right test is better than no test but a flawed test should not be continued to be required,” said Napolitano, who is leaving the presidency this summer. Students in the past had the choice of submitting scores from either the SAT or the rival ACT.

Regents on Thursday made emotional and conflicting statements about the impacts and value of testing and whether it was wise to make the change during all the other chaos resulting from the pandemic. Ultimately, however, even the regents who had expressed doubt about Napolitano’s plan voted for it as a show of unity on an important issue. The move culminated six months of discussions and competing research and, in effect, rejected the faculty report that sought to bring back the standardized tests as a requirement at least until a new test is created.

Some uncertainty remains about how the regents’ action will affect students from other states and nations, who comprise as much as 20% of undergraduates at some UC campuses. Official said they will have to decide later on whether those applicants would need to submit any test scores after 2023.

Because of the problems in education and testing posed by the pandemic, UC previously had decided to make the test scores optional for current high school juniors who would apply to be admitted in fall 2021. Some regents said they feared that making the tests optional beyond next year would backfire, giving affluent students more advantages in being able to take prep classes and submitting scores while low income students would be less likely to even take the tests. And some said they are worried that without test scores the more weight given to high school grades would lead to grade inflation, particularly in high schools in affluent areas.

Opponents of standardized tests were jubilant, even if another test may be on the way.

“The University of California’s decision sends a clear message that biased, pay-to-play admissions tests will no longer be tolerated,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, an organization that promotes college access.

“Today’s vote by the University of California Regents to phase out ACT/SAT admissions testing requirements at all U.C. campuses is a huge victory for both equity and academic quality,” Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing a group that opposes standardized testing. said in a statement. He said the impact “will be both profound and far-reaching” and probably will influence other colleges and universities.

The College Board, which sponsors the SAT and stands to suffer a large loss of test fee revenues as a result of the UC action, issued a statement Thursday. “Regardless of what happens with such policies, our mission remains the same: to give all students, and especially low-income and first generation students, opportunities to show their strength.”

The testing giant said the state needs to examine disparities in its K-12 system and how those “drive inequity in California.”

The organization noted that students would still need to take standardized tests in applying to other colleges and that, as a result of varying admissions rules, some students may decide to “limit their college options much earlier in the college search process.”

The ACT organization’s chief executive officer Marten Roorda issued a statement before the vote, criticizing Napolitano’s proposal and saying it would “further the uncertainty and anxiety of students and their families at a time when they need all the reassurances and resources we can provide.” The plan, he added, would create “more questions and concerns about fairness, equity, comparability and reliability” in college admissions.

In December, civil rights organizations and the Compton School District filed lawsuits demanding that the UC stop requiring the SAT or ACT exams for freshman admission. The lawsuits, filed in Superior Court in Alameda County, contend that the test mandate “systematically and unlawfully denies talented and qualified students with less accumulated advantage a fair opportunity to pursue higher education at the UC.”

Mainly unspoken Thursday but clearly influencing some opinions was Proposition 209, the 1996 state initiative passed by voters that bans the use of affirmative action or racial preferences in public college admissions in California. In the years right after that vote, Latino and black enrollment at UC dropped sharply. Latino numbers have recovered, although they are still well below their share of overall high school graduates in the state. Last fall, Asians and Pacific Islanders were the largest ethnic group among UC undergraduates, at 33% followed by Latinos, 25%; whites, 21%; blacks, 4%; and international students, 13%.

The divisions among UC’s leadership was much deeper than the final vote would suggest.

UC faculty Senate chair Kum-Kum Bhavnani defended the faculty report seeking to restore SAT/ACT and suggested a go-slower alternative to Napolitano’s plan. She said UC should be test-optional for 2021 admissions and then drop the requirement for 2022 while studying the impact on diversity before making any long-term decisions on subsequent years.

Bhavnani said the current tests are racially biased on their own but insisted that the bias is mainly erased by the way UC admissions officers place scores in the context of many other factors, such as a student’s family income and how a score compares to others at the same high school. Without any standardized test, parents are sure to start pressuring high schools to make sure grades are pushed higher, she added.

Regent Jonathan “Jay” Sures proposed a similar idea: not to take dramatic action before conducting a study on how next year’s testing suspension affects diversity. But his motion was voted down. Sures also said he was “very nervous” about spending what he described as potentially enormous amounts of money on creating a new test while the pandemic has badly hurt UC finances.

Another issue was raised by regent Sherry Lansing, who said that creating a replacement exam would not erase privileges. She predicted that wealthy parents will hire tutors so their children can score well on whatever new test emerges at UC.

Those arguments did not sway other regents, some of whom recalled their own struggles with the SAT exam or the anxiety their children experienced in taking tests.

Regent Richard Leib noted how his three daughters dramatically increased their SAT scores by taking costly prep courses. That showed, he said, the advantages available for students from families who can afford those tutors. He said he would happy if UC ultimately decides not to use any tests and instead focuses on the A-G courses students must take in high school if they want to apply to UC.

Campus chancellors also disagreed.

UC Riverside Chancellor Kim Wilcox said the tests provide some extra value in predicting how well applicants will do academically. He said that tests help to identify good candidates and contribute, along with other factors such as recruiting, to his campus having one of the most diverse student bodies in the system. He urged the regents to “move carefully.”

In contrast, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, a vocal opponent of the tests, said that the exams may predict success in the first year of college but that high school grades are better predictors “of long-term college success” and graduation. She said moving away from the tests would lessen anxiety about the application process and eliminate some possible corruption as shown in the Varsity Blues scandal’s examples of parents hiring ringers to take tests and bribing proctors to increase scores.

In looking for replacement tests, Napolitano said the Smarter Balanced Assessment exams could be revised and become adopted by UC admissions offices. But the faculty report released in February raised concerns about cheating on that test and the difficulty of administering it across many school districts.

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  1. JANEVETTE COLE 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for your article. It was very informative. Early on in the article, faculty members argued that “most inequities in admission arise from not taking the right high school courses”. All students in K-12 do not have access to higher courses. If only 4% of Black students are entering the UC system since the 1996 elimination of Affirmative Action, thus we have a data point providing a sufficient measure … Read More

    Thank you for your article. It was very informative. Early on in the article, faculty members argued that “most inequities in admission arise from not taking the right high school courses”. All students in K-12 do not have access to higher courses. If only 4% of Black students are entering the UC system since the 1996 elimination of Affirmative Action, thus we have a data point providing a sufficient measure to spread light on a problem with the admission process.

  2. Kendall Reilly 3 months ago3 months ago

    What's notable is that political appointees with backgrounds in fields other than education research overrode a thorough, fact-based, well-researched 200+ page expert report from faculty with formal training in statistical methods and a clear grasp of the issues. This decision reflects politics and power above expertise. The UC system seems to be moving toward open admissions, weaker and less prepared students, more resources being devoted toward remedial classes and easy majors, fewer resources for challenging, in-demand … Read More

    What’s notable is that political appointees with backgrounds in fields other than education research overrode a thorough, fact-based, well-researched 200+ page expert report from faculty with formal training in statistical methods and a clear grasp of the issues. This decision reflects politics and power above expertise.

    The UC system seems to be moving toward open admissions, weaker and less prepared students, more resources being devoted toward remedial classes and easy majors, fewer resources for challenging, in-demand classes like math and computer science and engineering that help power California’s tech economy, and a general decline in the UC system.

    If so, the U.C. student body will get worse. Instruction will have to become less rigorous. The employment outcomes and long-term earnings will get worse. U.C. will lose its prestige in graduate school admissions. The resource demands will be greater. TAs and RAs will get worse, which will impact faculty. Faculty who can leave for greener pastures will be more likely to do so.

    This political meddling could turn out to be the greatest gift the UC system could give to California’s private universities – Stanford, USC, Cal Tech, the Claremont colleges – and prestigious East Coast institutions. Within a few years, those schools may be taking more of the best students and faculty away from Berkeley and UCLA.

    Taxpayers could become less willing to support public universities when they see them being so overtly political and anti-meritocratic and heading in a downward spiral.

    State funding could be cut. Tuition could have to increase as a result. The initial bad decision could lead to a decline that will be self-reinforcing and lead to further decline.

    The irony is that California already has non-selective open admissions public colleges – the Cal State system. It’s not exactly setting the world on fire.

    Replies

    • Bo Loney 3 months ago3 months ago

      I feel like you are for the most part on target. But I feel like you are completely out of touch on demeaning the entrance requirements for Cal States right now. Maybe you are 20 years ago? Perhaps you are working on old news?

  3. Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA 3 months ago3 months ago

    Interesting. The beat goes on. Yet, this latest story of the SAT, an almost century-old test, demonstrated, at least to me, a natural progression of the SAT's decline over these many years. As I've watched its story for several decades, this latest nail in the coffin follows many moves it made that can be viewed as a slow-self-induced-suicide. I've written a complementary story about this which may be of interest to your readers. Please … Read More

    Interesting. The beat goes on.
    Yet, this latest story of the SAT, an almost century-old test, demonstrated, at least to me, a natural progression of the SAT’s decline over these many years. As I’ve watched its story for several decades, this latest nail in the coffin follows many moves it made that can be viewed as a slow-self-induced-suicide. I’ve written a complementary story about this which may be of interest to your readers.

    Please find it at https://medium.com/@miriamkfreedman/we-are-witnessing-the-sats-slow-suicide-908ef9041263

    SAT–RIP

  4. David R Graham 3 months ago3 months ago

    This is so stupid and misguided. For instance, whatever corruption exists in standardized testing, I'll bet it pales in comparison to the corruption that exists in grading (and other parts of the application process). And the corruption in grading is about to get dramatically worse. I wonder about those studies that purport to show that standardized testing is discriminatory. I'm very skeptical. What I suspect happens is that a correlation is identified and then … Read More

    This is so stupid and misguided.

    For instance, whatever corruption exists in standardized testing, I’ll bet it pales in comparison to the corruption that exists in grading (and other parts of the application process). And the corruption in grading is about to get dramatically worse.

    I wonder about those studies that purport to show that standardized testing is discriminatory. I’m very skeptical. What I suspect happens is that a correlation is identified and then discriminatory effect is simply assumed. Conflating correlation and causation is a well-known, but nevertheless common, error. Identifying differential outcomes for different demographic groups does not inherently tell you anything about the validity of the test. It more likely tells you something about the efficacy of academic preparation for those groups.

    No one (serious and worth considering) has ever suggested that standardized testing rule the day in college admissions. I have been educating myself to assist my 10th grade son in preparing for taking the PSAT and SAT in the next year or so, and I have consistently encountered the caution that standardized tests are only one possible tool in assessing college readiness (and I have sometimes encountered the advice that, as between high school grades and test scores, for instance, it is better to have a strong record in the former). Removing that tool cannot possibly make the admissions process better and fairer. (It may facilitate production of particular desired socially engineered outcome(s), which is what this is really about.)

    The contention that quality preparation for standardized testing is available only to the financially flush is simply fallacious. I am among the group that can afford to pay for a prep course for my kids. But I won’t. Of what I’ve encountered so far as I begin my foray into considering options, my son’s preparation will come from Khan Academy, a well-known free resource. I’ve no doubt that many people will continue to believe that paying buys better preparation, but that doesn’t make it so. Perhaps I will eventually conclude I’m wrong, but, as one who was a National Merit Scholarship Finalist 40 years ago, and did even better on the SAT, with a preparation regimen that consisted of refraining from partying the night before, I doubt it.

    In all of this, as always, the elephant in the room regarding achievement gap (however exactly defined) is not discussed. Culture is the single most important factor and demonizing standardized testing won’t change that a bit. Familial culture matters most. Micro-culture(s) of which a student is part can also be very important, as can larger cultural constructs.

    To the extent that anyone really cares about differential educational outcomes, you are pissing in the wind until you gain traction in addressing that.

  5. SD Parent 3 months ago3 months ago

    Grades are a meaningless metric for admission unless there is something against which to standardize them. This will just put pressure on all schools to inflate grades, making them an ineffective metric. UC leadership seems to have ignored the fact that graduating with a degree (from a UC, CSU, or other) is dependent on performance on tests and that grading is often curved in entry level courses to cull those who aren't likely … Read More

    Grades are a meaningless metric for admission unless there is something against which to standardize them. This will just put pressure on all schools to inflate grades, making them an ineffective metric.

    UC leadership seems to have ignored the fact that graduating with a degree (from a UC, CSU, or other) is dependent on performance on tests and that grading is often curved in entry level courses to cull those who aren’t likely to succeed (particularly in impacted majors). So I predict in two years the conversation will be about why certain demographics of students are failing their courses and failing to graduate.

  6. Bo Loney 3 months ago3 months ago

    So they just threw out all of the research? I predict people with money will move to districts where there are easy As resulting in more competition at those schools and the neighborhood's housing prices to increase. I feel academically gifted students (who don't test prep ) and are a benefit to the Universities are going to fall through the even bigger cracks that have just been created for them. It … Read More

    So they just threw out all of the research? I predict people with money will move to districts where there are easy As resulting in more competition at those schools and the neighborhood’s housing prices to increase. I feel academically gifted students (who don’t test prep ) and are a benefit to the Universities are going to fall through the even bigger cracks that have just been created for them. It will be interesting to see how well they do missing out on those students at their Universities. I guess there is still the CAASPP and AP tests scores to consider at entrance, if they even look at them.