The UC System Is Being Sued To Stop Using SAT/ACT Over Discrimination Claims

Royce Hall is pictured at the University of California, Los Angeles. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist/KPCC)

Civil rights groups announced on Tuesday that they are suing the University of California over its use of standardized test scores for admission, arguing that the SAT and ACT requirements discriminate against applicants who can't afford test preparation.

"If the SAT stands for anything, it means Socio-economic Advantage Test," said Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer for Public Counsel, one of two law firms that filed the suit in Alameda Superior Court on behalf of four people and six nonprofit groups.

The lawsuit comes two months after the civil rights groups sent a letter to the UC Regents outlining their concerns, and two weeks after what Rosenbaum described as a "failed" meeting with administrators.

The suit points to research that suggests expensive preparation courses for the SAT and ACT tests lead to higher scores for students. Using the results of a test so skewed toward wealthier families as an admission criteria for a public university, the suit alleges, violates the state constitution's equal protection clause.

"SAT and ACT scores are more a factor of your preparation for those tests, your awareness from an early age to prepare for those tests, family income level, how much college is in the family DNA," said David Marks, a counselor at Sacramento Charter High School. He's not involved with the lawsuit but agrees that UC shouldn't require the scores for admission.

The Office of UC President Janet Napolitano issued a statement saying the administration has been researching the issue and is disappointed because the lawsuit was filed before a committee's recommendations are complete.

"The University of California has already devoted substantial resources to studying this complex issue and has announced the Academic Senate's Task Force will provide recommendations before the end of this academic year," the statement read.

PRIVILEGE IN COLLEGE ADMISSIONS COULD GO ON TRIAL

The decision to sue came after a meeting with UC administrators two weeks ago.

"We do so reluctantly, only after attempts to have the UC Regents end this requirement voluntarily, have failed," Rosenbaum said. He would not say what was discussed in the meeting or what the sticking points were among both sides.

The lawsuit adds a high-profile legal challenge to a practice common at many large prestigious universities across the United States. Smaller colleges have steadily eliminated standardized test scores as admission requirements. Many admission officials say an applicant's grades over the span of a high school career, types of classes taken, and extracurricular activities do better to indicate if an applicant will do well in college.

But even if UC decides to erase the test scores from admissions criteria, lower-income students will still face daunting roadblocks on their way to college.

"The school counselor-to-student ratios in some schools are 800 to 1 [or] 700 to 1, a thousand to 1 in some schools," said USC education professor Adrian Huerta. He's not involved in the lawsuit but agrees with its demands.

A VERY LARGE TEST-TAKING INDUSTRY

The companies that create and administer the SAT and ACT tests for millions of students across the country defended their tests as unbiased.

"The notion that the SAT is discriminatory is false," the College Board — which runs the SAT — said by email in October when Public Counsel threatened to sue. The College Board said it has changed the test to measure real-world skills.

"The new SAT measures students' understanding of the meaning of everyday words in context, focuses only the math that matters most for students pursuing a variety of careers, and presents real-world problems that ask students to use evidence to support their solutions," the Board wrote. "These are the skills we all use every day in college and in our careers."

The College Board said a growing number of schools are using the test to measure college readiness.