In historic action, UC moves to drop SAT/ACT and develop a replacement exam for admissions

May 21, 2020

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

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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