In 'Incredible Step' UC Regents Suspend SAT And ACT Admissions Requirement — Possibly Forever

University of California President Janet Napolitano addressed the UC Board of Regents during its May 21, 2020 meeting. (Screenshot from University of California Board of Regents)

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The Regents of the 10-campus University of California voted unanimously on Thursday to suspend the requirement that first-time applicants submit scores from SAT or ACT standardized test scores for admission.

"I think it's an incredible step in the right direction," said UC Regents Chair John Perez.

The vote suspends the requirement through 2024 while UC studies whether to require scores from another test that UC either creates or adopts.

"By one measure this is a conversation 43 years in the making, since the 1977 adoption of the test as a weeding mechanism, as a way to decrease the number of students admitted to the University of California," Perez said.

The proposal to put the standardized test requirement on hold while UC re-evalutes its admissions criteria was first floated by UC President Janet Napolitano, who had already dropped the test requirement for applications due in the Fall 2020 because of the COVID-19 crisis. She said she was "unpersuaded" that requiring the tests for admissions "was sufficient to outweigh all of the extensive mitigation measures we employ to counteract the effect of the standardized test on certain populations."

Many of the Regents and members of the public who commented during the online Regents meeting cited research showing that the standardized tests favor students from higher-income families who can afford expensive test preparation courses.

Applicants for Fall 2020 can submit SAT or ACT results, but they aren't required to do so, and UC admissions offices may choose whether to consider those scores. The new policy extends that arrangement for another year, and adds another two years during which UC campuses will not use the standardized scores for admissions decisions even if students submit them.


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RESEARCH AND MOMENTUM AGAINST STANDARDIZED TESTS BUILDS

UC's vote comes after years of activism from advocates of low-income students of color who were buoyed by a growing body of research that suggested higher SAT and ACT scores have more to do with a student's ability to pay for preparation material and tutoring than with college readiness.

Some of these advocates reminded UC's Regents of the effects of the standardized tests during the online meeting's public comment period.

UC Regents Chair John Perez (screenshot (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez))

"The pay-to-play tests unfairly discriminate against low-income and students of color, shutting too many talented students out of the UC," said Michele Siqueiros, president of the L.A.-based Campaign for College Opportunity.

Her group supported a lawsuit filed against UC by civil rights advocates last year alleging that the entrance requirement discriminated against students who don't have the resources to do as well as students who can afford expensive test preparation.

"Many students attend summer test prep programs before they took the SAT," UC Student Association President Varsha Sarveshewar, who is a recent UC Berkeley graduate, told the Regents.

"Others including me, benefited from private tutoring. This usually cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Fun fact, when I was editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper, our biggest advertisers were test prep centers."

In the fall of 2019, UC's nine undergraduate campuses admitted more than 107,000 students. Of those admissions:

  • African American, 4%
  • Latino, 24%
  • Asian American, 30%
  • White, 21%
  • American Indians 0.4%

Percentages of Latinos and African Americans are larger in the California population as a whole and advocates say UC admissions should reflect that.

SOME REGENTS RELUCTANT TO TAKE SUCH A DRASTIC STEP

During the six-hour discussion, five UC Regents said they were either hesitant to do away with the standardized test requirement in one fell swoop, or said the requirement should stay in place since campuses have the freedom to place the scores lower on the list of admissions factors.

A UC task force released a report earlier this last year that concluded standardized test scores are not the main factor keeping low-income and minority students out of the university system.

"Both grades and test scores are predictive of a wide variety of UC outcomes, even after taking into account student background," said UCSD economist Julian Betts, who reiterated his endorsement of the task force's findings during the Regents meeting.

But the reaction to the Regents' decision to suspend the test was largely favorable.

"The UC system includes several of the world's most respected public higher education institutions," Bob Schaeffer, interim Executive Director of FairTest, a group that opposes standardized test for college admission, said in a written statement.

"FairTest expects many colleges and universities now in the process of evaluating their own admissions testing mandates to heed the message from California and adopt ACT/SAT-optional policies."

Beatriz Rafael of Inner City Struggle, an East L.A. community organization, said the students she works with as they apply for college often say the high-pressure tests are not an accurate reflection of their full high school experience

"I continuously hear my youth talk about their low test scores and the triggering, the anxiety, and impacting their self-esteem as a scholar," she said. "Those hard-working four years at a high school, doing all they can do to make themselves competitive applicants - their efforts are overlooked just by the test scores."

So when she heard the Regents voted to suspend the tests, she was excited.

"This was definitely a big step," she said. "We needed to end these inequities and consider a more holistic approach."

Eric Kim, who works at the test prep company LA Tutors, said the company offers scholarships to students who might not be able to afford the same preparation as their more affluent peers.

Kim said he was surprised that the Regents moved quickly to phase out the standardized tests, but added that it was "definitely a move in the right direction in terms of making it a more equitable, fair process for college admissions."

Still, he said he wonders about UC's upcoming effort to replace the SAT and ACT with its own test, and how the university system will ensure that it will be "more fair".

"If the UC system simply replaces one test with another, I'd be interested to see how they can remedy the concerns they had about the SAT and ACT with the implementation of their own assessment," he said.

Kim doesn't think the decision will affect LA Tutors too much in the short term because SAT and ACT prep account for about 10 to 15% of the company's business.

"If this ends up being a trend that other colleges pick up on, we would obviously have to focus our attention on some of the other tests that are out there" - like the GMAT and GRE - "as well as academic tutoring," he explained.

KPCC/LAist reporter Carla Javier contributed additional reporting to this story.