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UC, amid lawsuits, eyes value of SAT, ACT tests

The top of Sather Tower at UC Berkeley. (Photo: Guangli, via Shutterstock)

The University of California is facing court challenges over its use of the SAT and ACT tests to decide student admissions.

This comes as a special UC faculty group, the Standardized Testing Task Force,  prepares to release its own report on the tests in early 2020.

The litigation, in the form of a pair of lawsuits, claims that use of the tests is unfair to disadvantaged students. The suits were filed by a coalition of five community groups, four individual students and the Compton Unified School District.

The regents responded within 10 days, but the regents’ answer was not made public.

The coalition sent a letter to the UC Regents on  Oct. 28, demanding an end to the use of the tests and declaring that if the regents did not announce a halt to the tests within 10 days of the letter’s delivery, the group would sue the UC system for violating California’s state constitution.

The regents responded within 10 days, but the regents’ answer was not made public. Alisa Hartz, an attorney from the Public Counsel law firm working on the case, said that the response’s contents were “confidential.”

The two suits are similar — one was filed on behalf of the community organizations and students, the other on behalf of Compton Unified.

Specifically, the group argues that the continued use of the tests poses “unlawful barriers to underrepresented students.”

They cite Gov. Gavin Newsom as having said that the tests’ usage “exacerbates the inequities of underrepresented students, given that performance on these tests is highly correlated with race and parental income, and is not the best predictor for college success.”

The coalition argues that the SAT and ACT tests produce “meaningless results” and “disparate outcomes” that breakdown largely along race and class lines.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who is a UC regent, has also expressed concerns about the test. She said she is looking “forward to hearing from the UC Standardized Testing Task Force and discussing this at an upcoming UC Regents meeting.”

She added that she was concerned about “the data linking family income to SAT scores. As a parent of high school students, I can see how these scores might not be an accurate reflection of a student’s ability or their success in college.”

The coalition argues that the SAT and ACT tests produce “meaningless results” and “disparate outcomes” that breakdown largely along race and class lines. 

This results “in part from biases built into the development of the exams themselves” they wrote in their letter to the regents.

The College Board asserts that SAT scores are one of the best predictors of first-year college success.

The most recent version of the SAT, which has been taken by graduating classes of 2017 onward, has been designed with an effort to increase opportunities for low-income and first-generation college students. 

But the coalition argues that the harm caused by the use of these tests is not limited to their design. 

The importance of these tests to students’ academic and life success has created “a billion dollar industry… around test preparation” which can cost as much as “$8,000” the letter says.  The ACT and the College Board — the company which administers the SAT — also profit from this industry by offering their own test-prep courses and materials to students. 

The ACT and College Board say the tests are not discriminatory or biased. 

The College Board asserts that SAT scores are one of the best predictors of first-year college success, though, the coalition describes this metric as “dubious,” contending that “no university should seek to design its student body around that measure” and that “high school grades are an equal if not better predictor of first-year grades.” 

The College Board is among a number of entities that the task force has been interviewing for its report.

“Is the problem with the test or the problem of the preparation that brought the students to that?” — Henry Sanchez 

In July 2018, UC President Janet Napolitano wrote to the Academic Senate and asked them to examine the use of standardized testing for UC admissions. Robert Mays, the chair of the Academic Senate, asked 17 UC professors from different fields and campuses, as well as one graduate student to form the Standardized Testing Task Force in January 2019. The task force held its first meeting in February.

According to Henry Sanchez, the chair of the task force and a pathology professor at UCSF, the goal is to produce a set of actionable recommendations on the use of standardized testing in the UC admissions process. These recommendations, Sanchez says, will be made in the interest of ensuring that California high schools students have “access to the UCs in a fair way” and that the UCs “reflect the diverse population of California.”

The task force will also examine issues involving preparation for the test.

“Is the problem with the test or the problem of the preparation that brought the students to that?” Sanchez said. 

The task force also has been examining existing literature on standardized testing. They are interviewing people who have published in the literature as well as “admissions stakeholders” like the College Board, ACT, and Smarter Balanced.

The policies are voted on by the Academic Senate, then sent to the Office of the President and voted on by the UC regents.

The report will most likely be released in February. Sanchez also did not anticipate that the lawsuit would impact the pace of the report’s development. According to EdSource, the pace of task force’s meetings have frustrated some of the UC regents.

“We have to do homework,” Sanchez said. “We’re trying to look at this in a very systematic way, in a very thorough way.”

 The task force will send its report to the academic council. The academic council then sends it to BOARS (the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools), which creates policy based on the recommendations. The policy is sent to the nine  UC campuses for review and comment before BOARS reviews it again.

Finally, the policies are voted on by the Academic Senate, then sent to the Office of the President and voted on by the UC regents.

More than 1000 universities around the country have already done away with their requirements of the SAT and ACT in their admissions processes.

“It’s about shared governance,” Sanchez said. “This is how you get things right because you have many lenses in which you look at this particular issue or issues, whatever it may be.”

While the group behind the lawsuit is seeking an immediate end to the UC’s use of standardized test scores, “it’s not only the pace” that the coalition is concerned with, Mr. Busch says, adding, “it’s a legal issue,”  the UC system is treating it as a “policy issue.” 

 He noted that UC has studied the impacts of the SAT and ACT in their admissions process before, but  they continue to use the tests. Critics of the tests say they represent a violation of law because they are discriminatory. They also note that there is no guarantee that the UC’s own investigation will come to that conclusion, given its history on the matter. 

If the lawsuit were to land in favor of Compton Unified and other members of the coalition, “it’s hard to say” whether the legal system would require that the tests be dropped, Mr. Busch said. 

“The burden is on [the UC system] to show that the test is not discriminatory,” he said. 

Numerous universities around the country have already done away with their requirements of the SAT and ACT in their admissions processes, including the universities of Chicago and San Francisco.

The continuation of the requirement that new UC applicants submit SAT or ACT scores has been brought into question by the UC system itself over the last couple of decades. BOARS examined the issue of standardized testing in 2002 and developed testing principles that were later revised in 2010.


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