California Currents

Critics vow to fight on despite report urging UC to keep SAT, ACT in admissions

Students mingle around UCLA's Royce Hall. UC regents will debate whether standardized tests should still be required. (Photo by Fermin Leal/EdSource Today)

The University of California should continue to require that applicants for undergraduate admission take standardized college admissions tests like the SAT and ACT, a much-anticipated faculty task force report has recommended. But opponents say they will continue fighting the testing mandate both in court and at the UC Board of Regents.

Unmoved by the new report, critics say that the exams are biased against Latino and black applicants and hurt their admissions chances at UC’s nine undergraduate campuses.

The UC faculty study released Feb. 3 says that standardized exams remain good predictors of students’ success at UC at a time when grade inflation in high schools makes it harder to choose potential university freshmen. In fact, the report insists that test results actually help identify many talented Latino, black and low-income students who otherwise might be rejected because their high school grades alone were not high enough.

However, Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for the Los Angeles-based law firm Public Counsel, which is among several parties suing UC over the exams, criticized the task force report for “its shifting of the blame for the inequities in UC admission from UC’s unlawful use of discriminatory and meaningless tests to the California public school system.”

“Rather than blame California’s students, their families and communities, and their teachers, the University should eliminate all reliance on these discriminatory and meaningless tests, and instead work with the State K-12 system to whatever degree necessary to fulfill UC’s mandate to build a student body that reflects the broad diversity of the State,” he said.

Final decision could come in May

The debate will continue within UC over the next four months. The full faculty’s Academic Assembly is scheduled to make a recommendation in April to UC President Janet Napolitano, who will then deliver her recommendation to the regents board for a final decision in May.

According to a statement from Napolitano’s office, “the University aims to continue deliberating the role of standardized testing in our admissions process through a careful, fact-based approach so as to arrive at the most informed decision possible.”

The College Board, which sponsors the SAT exams, said in a statement that the report showed that “the thoughtful and responsible use of testing by the University of California promotes diversity and success.”

The public release of the task force’s 228-page report is “merely at the start of a process,” Kum-Kum Bhavnani, chair of the system’s Academic Senate, said in a press conference Feb. 3. The final decision “remains to be seen” and will require much more review and deliberation, said Bhavnani, a UC Santa Barbara sociology professor.

The task force insists that UC’s comprehensive review in admissions, which looks at such additional factors as family income and a students’ hardships, compensates for test score differences among racial and ethnic groups.

Other reasons, such as not taking the right pattern of high school courses, are much more important than test scores in influencing why Latinos and blacks are enrolled at the university in numbers that are below their share of California high school populations, according to the report.

“The Task Force did not find evidence that UC’s use of test scores played a major role in worsening the effects of disparities already present among applicants and did find evidence that UC’s admissions process helped to make up for the potential adverse effect of score differences between groups,” the study says.

‘Student diversity could actually decline’

In fact, “perhaps counterintuitively,” the report says that test scores were better predictors of UC grades and graduation for underrepresented groups than for majority groups. And it raised the possibility that “student diversity could actually decline” without test scores in a state that already produces tens of thousands of high school graduates each year with GPAs exceeding 4.0, bolstered by honors credits and Advanced Placement courses. Grade inflation is most pronounced at wealthy high schools, it notes.

However, the task force kept alive the possibility of making the tests optional in the future and recommended that UC conduct additional research about that possibility.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a standardized test watchdog group critical of the SAT and ACT, challenged the task force’s position that test scores are better predictors than high school grades of freshman year grade point average. He said that finding contradicts other research, such as that by Saul Geiser, former director of admissions research for the UC system.

While he had hoped for different findings from the task force, Schaeffer said he expects opposition to persist. “The lawsuit against the University of California, which we played a big role in helping build, will continue to move forward,” he said.

In exploring other admissions issues related to testing, the UC faculty task force suggested that UC update the statewide index used to identify UC-eligible students, and possibly expand what is known as the “Eligibility in Local Context (ELC)” which admits students in the top 9 percent of each high school based on their high school grades alone. A new level of 12.5 percent may be explored. The other path to eligibility is based on a state-wide formula that used both high school grades and test results.

In a surprising idea, the report said that UC might develop its own alternative exams over the next nine years that “will assess a broader array of student learning and capabilities than any of the currently available tests.” Such new tests “may enable UC to admit classes of students more representative of the diversity of the state,” according to the task force.

But the faculty group steered far away from a suggestion that it replace the SAT and ACT with the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced Assessment administered to high school students. Its members were “deeply concerned with a wide range of risks” that the university would expose itself to if it adopted the Smarter Balanced test as an admission requirement. These include test security and inconsistent implementation of the test across states.

In January last year, the Academic Senate representing UC faculty established an 18-member Standardized Testing Task Force, at Napolitano’s request. It was asked to evaluate “without prejudice or presupposition” whether the university and students are “best served by our current testing practices.”

Henry Sanchez, a UC San Francisco pathology professor who was co-chair of the task force, said the group did not take an internal vote on the final document, but instead built a consensus through much research and discussion. “Are there going to be people on the task force that may not agree with every component? That may be true but I think if you look at it, the recommendations are based on solid, thoughtful and mindful discourse,” he said at the press conference Feb. 3.

The task force’s recommendations ran contrary to the views of several top UC officials, including UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, who have argued in favor of eliminating the use of the admissions tests. By virtue of UC’s size and prestige, a decision to eliminate the test requirement there is likely to impact universities nationwide.

Lawsuits filed

In December, civil rights organizations and the Compton School District followed through with their threat and filed lawsuits demanding that the UC stop requiring that applicants take the SAT or ACT entrance exams for freshman college 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.”

The 23-campus California State University also requires standardized test scores for freshman application. The litigants said they did not seek to change CSU’s policy now since they expect that it will change if UC ends the SAT or ACT mandates.

* EdSource reporter Louis Freedberg contributed to this report.

Story originally published by EdSource.