This year’s college admissions cycle might be over, but universities are already preparing for the next one. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities across the country have temporarily suspended standardized testing requirements for the upcoming cycle. On May 21, 2020, the University of California (UC) did the same when its Board of Regents unanimously voted to eliminate SAT/ACT testing requirements for California freshman applicants until 2025.
UC’s decision is a step in the right direction for applicants in the high school class of 2021, especially since the pandemic has prevented many juniors from taking the SAT/ACT this spring. With social distancing guidelines likely to reduce capacity at testing centers in the fall, not every student will be able to submit test scores in time.
College Board, the organization administering the SAT, recently announced that they will not offer an at-home SAT because it would require “three hours of uninterrupted, video-quality internet for each student, which can’t be guaranteed for all.”
It’s a conundrum to say the least, and UC’s proactive move ensures that applicants without standardized test scores will not be disadvantaged.
However, unlike other universities, UC took it a step further by suspending SAT/ACT requirements for not only one year, but for five years, as they develop their own test that “better aligns with the content the University expects students to have mastered for college readiness.”
If UC does not have an alternative assessment ready by 2025, they will eliminate standardized testing requirements for California applicants. Such a move would be unprecedented within higher education, not only for UC, but for every other university in the country. Some colleges already started de-emphasizing standardized tests before the pandemic, and UC’s decision could encourage others to do the same after the 2020-2021 cycle.
Simply put, it’s not a decision to be taken lightly, and on paper, it seems to be well-intentioned. UC wants to eliminate SAT/ACT requirements to further their mission of educating the entire California public. There has been a consistent disparity between the racial makeup of California high school graduates and that of admitted UC freshman; underrepresented minority students account for 59% of California high school graduates, but only 26% of admitted students.
As a public institution, there’s no doubt that enrolling a freshman class reflective of the state’s diversity is imperative. Yet, it’s questionable whether eliminating standardized testing is the best way to do so, especially when the Standardized Testing Task Force (STTF), the faculty body tasked with investigating the efficacy of the SAT/ACT, recommends the opposite.
The SAT/ACT are often criticized for being tests that favor the wealthy. The rich can bribe test proctors, falsify score reports and even hire professionals to take the test in hopes of a higher score. But many of the reasons for the disparity are more subtle.
Families of higher socioeconomic status have access to resources that can lead to higher scores, including test prep classes and multiple testing sessions. In their report, the STTF even acknowledged that “differences in standardized test scores between different demographic groups are often very large.”
However, the STTF also found that UC admissions compensates for differences in average SAT/ACT scores among demographic groups, due to a practice known as comprehensive review, which allows admissions officers to assess applicants by considering what was available to them. UC uses this practice by comparing applicants relative to their high school and ensuring that some inequities with standardized test scores are reduced.
Furthermore, the STTF found that “at UC, test scores are currently better predictors of first-year GPA than high school grade point average.” Therefore, it seems odd that UC is willing to forego standardized testing completely if an alternative cannot be found, given its ability to be easily weighted and its correlation with first-year college success.
After all, UC’s rationale for a new test is that the SAT and ACT do not accurately measure college readiness, but STTF’s findings suggest the opposite. The STTF, however, did not mention test scores as being accurate predictors for college success after the first year, and UC should resolve this problem not by completely revamping the tests, but by providing more support for first-year minority students.
On the other hand, the elimination of the SAT/ACT would lead to a greater emphasis on grade point averages as the sole quantitative metric, which can produce unexpected consequences.
Disadvantaged groups tend to score lower on standardized tests and have lower GPAs, but the STTF found that admissions “did not appear to compensate for GPA” in the same way that it did for test scores.
One of the strengths of the SAT/ACT is that their content is universal and their grading is standardized, making it easy to adjust for. Yet, the STTF stated that “California high schools vary greatly in grading standards,” making GPA comparisons troublesome, because a 4.0 at one school may not mean the same at another.
Wealth disparities affect every single part of the application, so UC’s elimination of standardized tests does not guarantee that disadvantaged groups will be better represented.
Of course, UC announced that they would be searching for an alternate assessment that better measures college readiness in a way that isn’t as dependent on family income. Nevertheless, it raises questions about why UC is only dedicating five years to this effort when the STTF reported that widespread implementation of an alternative would take about nine years. By making this statement, UC suggests that standardized testing is expendable, when, in fact, it is not.
The STTF concluded their report by stating that many factors lead to underrepresentation at UC, of which 75% can be attributed to “factors rooted in systemic racial and class inequalities that precede admission,” including a failure to complete the A-G high school courses required for admission at UC.
To an extent, test scores contribute to the lack of diversity at UC, but completion of A-G courses contribute disproportionately to underrepresentation. After all, there isn’t a minimum cutoff for test scores at UC, but there is one for high school courses.
Knowing this information, UC’s effort would be better spent working with the state education system to increase access and completion of the high school courses required for UC admission, because test scores do not explain differences in the admission rate of underrepresented minority students. The A-G courses do.
Access to standardized tests, however, are a different problem for some students, and UC can rectify this dilemma by practicing test-optional admissions, much like they’re doing this year, while they push for school districts to offer more free SAT/ACT testing sessions during school hours.
UC should not eliminate the tests entirely. Such a solution is short-sighted and ignores the wealth inequities that pervade every other aspect of the admissions process. It’s easy to scapegoat a single quantitative metric as the sole reason for underrepresentation, but it’s not as easy to find long-term solutions that eliminate racist systems and give students of color the resources to succeed.