At UC, standardized testing gets critical look

A student grapples with the timed SAT. (Photo: Have a nice day photo, via Shutterstock)

The University of California, grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, will make academic testing — such as the SAT and ACT  — optional for the Fall 2020 admissions cycle.

But that policy may be short-lived: Next month, the Board of Regents will meet to decide the future of standardized testing in UC admissions beyond 2020.

For years, educators and civil rights organizations have criticized the value of the standardized Scholastic Aptitude Test and American College Testing in UC admissions. They argue that the tests are a measure of privilege and have a disproportionately negative impact on low-income students of color.

The issue evolved long before COVID-19, but the tests have drawn new scrutiny because they typically are given to large numbers of students gathered in a single place, raising questions of social distancing.

“The report continues to acknowledge the negative impact the test is having on students.” — Audrey Dow

In July 2018, UC President Janet Napolitano asked the Academic Senate to examine the use of standardized testing for UC admissions. Robert Mays, the chair of the Academic Senate, assembled a task force of 17 professors and one graduate student, who gathered in February 2019.

Controversial task force report
Nearly a year later, the task force released a 228-page report recommending that UC continue using the SAT and ACT in admissions. It suggested that the university continue to investigate other ways to improve racial and economic diversity on campus, while simultaneously considering the development of a substitute test over the next nine years.

The report also noted that there is some value in test scores. Test scores, the report said, were actually better predictors of success at a UC campus for underrepresented groups than for majority groups.

Audrey Dow, the senior vice president of The Campaign for College Opportunity, called the claim faulty, arguing that “we know” the tests favor those “who can buy higher scores.” She added that the report’s recommendation shocked her.

“I think when you read the task force report the shock continues,” Dow said. “The report continues to acknowledge the negative impact the test is having on students.”

The report itself, however, is not a ringing endorsement of the standardized tests or the UC admissions process. It notes that there are “large disparities” in UC admissions in  “race, ethnicity and class.”

The report examines the disparities in test scores, acknowledging that the scores are often a measure of wealth and privilege. It noted that low-income students of color are not afforded the same resources and opportunities as their peers, making it more difficult to earn a higher score.

The addendum recommends that the UC begin to move towards eliminating the current testing requirement policy much quicker than nine years.

These students, the report says, are also often victims of a “stereotype threat,” a phenomenon that puts low-income students of color at risk of underperforming on a test because racial stereotypes say they will underperform.

Eddie Comeaux, a professor of higher education at the UC Riverside and co-chair of the task force, said they felt it was important to underscore the barriers low-income students of color face. Ultimately, he added, the task force felt comfortable “showing that there is some value in test scores,” while juxtaposing it “with information on how this is rooted in racism.”

Other task force members disagreed.

Dr. Patricia Gándara, an education professor at UCLA and one of the task force members on the  report-writing team, said she felt the legitimate concerns were “buried” in a lengthy report that few people will have the time to read.

Gándara and her colleague Jonathan Glater drafted an addendum to the report, which was signed by a total of six force members but not included in the original report. She posted the addendum on her Facebook profile the same day the report was released.

The addendum recommends that the UC begin to move towards eliminating the current testing requirement policy much quicker than nine years, which had been proposed.

Nearly 60 percent of California high school graduates fall under the UC’s Underrepresented Minority category.

“We felt that there needed to be a greater sense of urgency about what we did and that we should not be continuing the status quo,” Gándara said.

Those who signed the addendum did not see “predictiveness” as a good enough reason to keep the tests. Gándara believes predicting how a student might perform in their first year or whether they’ll graduate should not be driving admissions policy.

Gándara urged UC to continue researching other metrics that might better assess student potential and improve diversity in admissions.

Nearly 60 percent of California high school graduates fall under the UC’s Underrepresented Minority category (African American, Latino and Native American), according to the report. Yet, they account for only one-third of UC admitted resident freshmen.

“We need to be educating the population that we have and we’re not doing that in an adequate sense right now because of the highly competitive nature of admissions and the way that we set up the system,” Gandara said.

Is test-optional the best option?
Standardized test scores are just one measurement of 14 criteria UC uses to evaluate applicants in an admissions process they call “holistic review.”

According to Comeaux, GPA has become a poor predictor of student success because of grade inflation.

Holistic review is meant to ensure that no single factor plays a deciding role in how an applicant is assessed. It is supposed to correct for racial, gender and socioeconomic disparities in standardized testing.

For example, an 1150 SAT score from a student at a low-resourced high school and the same score from a student from a well-resourced high school would be evaluated differently.

Dow argued that attempts to correct for disparities in SAT/ACT scores are further proof that the testing requirement needs to be eliminated altogether.

“I think that again if we’re relying on a test that has to be compensated for so that it doesn’t hurt students then that’s not a tool we should be using,” Dow said.

Comeaux says eliminating the test scores would only shift the wealth and privilege embedded in the system to another cognitive measure, like the grade point average, or GPA.

According to Comeaux, GPA has become a poor predictor of student success because of grade inflation and those who usually benefit from grade inflation are the people with greater “social capital.” Extra-curricular activities he says are also another measure of wealth and privilege.

Six of the nine undergraduate campuses use holistic review.

“There is no civil rights law or policy that we can put in place that would eliminate all of the privilege and wealth disparities that exist within the system,” Comeaux said.

He added that the UC should continue improving upon its admissions policies to eliminate as many of the disparities as possible.

The task force did not recommend going test-optional immediately because there was not enough research on how it might impact the university. The Fall 2020 admissions cycle presents an opportunity to study the impact., says Comeaux, who also chairs the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS).

Dow and Gándara would also like UC  to examine how each campus evaluates test scores as part of the holistic review process. They say that each campus uses holistic review differently.

Six of the nine undergraduate campuses use holistic review, according to Comeaux. UC Riverside uses more of a “machine-read.” UC Santa Barbara and UC Merced use more of a “hybrid” model. Comeaux said that BOARS will also recommend that all nine campuses move to use holistic review.

From May 19 to May 21, the Board of Regents will decide how the UCs should continue using standardized test scores. UC President Janet Napolitano will present the board with her recommendation.

UC has to contend with a lawsuit demanding that the test score requirement be removed from the admissions process.

According to Comeaux, the Academic Council voted against the nine-year time frame in its April meeting. They will recommend that the UC revisits the report in five years.

Regent Eloy Oakley Ortiz, who is also the chancellor of California Community Colleges, says he’s looking forward to hearing from “researchers in the university that have a differing opinion than the task force recommendation.” He wants to hear more about the disproportionately negative impact the tests have on low-income students.

“I think the evidence is pretty clear, speaking personally as a regent, across the nation that the SAT and the ACT put an amazing amount of pressure on students and families, and it has a disproportionately negative impact on low-income families, particularly families of color,” Oakley said.

He added that he “didn’t see the value” in continuing to use testing that “favors students and families who come from high levels of wealth.” However, he is unsure how the other regents feel.

If the regents vote to continue using the SAT and ACT, they will still have to contend with the lawsuit demanding that the test score requirement be removed from the admissions process. The lawsuit was filed by Compton School District and other activist groups in December 2019 in the Superior Court of Alameda County.

Amanda Savage, an attorney for Public Counsel, one of the law firms representing the groups who are suing the UCs over the tests, said she felt the report acknowledged one of the lawsuit’s core claims, “that the outcome of the UC admissions process is a significant underrepresentation of black, Latinx, and Native American students at UC.”

Savage added that it also recognizes “that standardized test scores contribute to the exclusion of underrepresented minority students” from the UCs.

Oakley could not comment on the lawsuit, but said that the regents are taking the claims “very seriously.”

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