A California school district and advocates are calling on the University of California system to stop using SAT and ACT test scores as requirements for admission, saying the exams illegally discriminate against underrepresented minority students, multilingual learners and students with disabilities.

Attorneys representing several parties — including the nearly 26,000-student Compton Unified School District, three students, and the Community Coalition, a nonprofit that addresses pressing issues in South Central Los Angeles — sent a letter to the governing board of the nine-campus system demanding it “immediately stop this discriminatory practice” or face a lawsuit.

The value of SAT and ACT scores has long been debated, with research showing that family income, race and the mother’s education level strongly influence outcomes. The UC system is already examining its use of test scores in admissions, and many in higher education believe its decision could influence other schools to stick with the tests or abandon them.

Among the charges in the letter: test questions are culturally biased, students with disabilities do not have the same access to test locations as other teens, and the test scores are “but a proxy for socioeconomic status and race.”

The organizations that own the SAT and ACT — the College Board and ACT Inc., respectively — denied their exams are discriminatory or biased.

College Board spokesman Zachary Goldberg wrote in an email:

The notion that the SAT is discriminatory is false. Any objective measure of student achievement will shine a light on inequalities in our education system. Our focus, with our members and partners, is combating these long-standing inequalities. … We will continue to work with the University of California as it addresses the challenging task of admitting students from among thousands of qualified applicants and supporting their success when they arrive on campus. Regrettably, this letter contains a number of false assertions and is counterproductive to the fact-based, data-driven discussion that students, parents and educators deserve.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said in an email:

The ACT test is not discriminatory nor biased. We work diligently to make sure the test questions are not biased against any group of students and are fair to all who take the test. Group differences in test scores mirror differences found in most other measures of educational attainment and success (e.g., college grades, graduation). And research has repeatedly shown that ACT scores are predictive of and related to important educational outcomes including college grades, retention, and graduation. ACT test results reflect inequities in access and quality of education, shining a light on where they exist. Blaming standardized tests for differences in educational quality and opportunities that exist will not improve educational outcomes.

The letter to the UC Board of Regents says the exams have “minimal predictive value” of college performance — which the College Board and ACT reject — and that the tests discriminate against different groups of students in several ways. The exams, it says, “measure socioeconomic status and race” instead of “ability or mastery of curriculum,” in part because of biases built into their development. The tests, the letter alleges, “systematically” exclude items on which minority students perform well and use word-heavy math problems that put multilingual students at a disadvantage.

It also says test conditions are discriminatory, noting that not all test sites permit accommodations such as Braille, time extensions and other measures to help students with disabilities. Use of the ACT and SAT for admissions “is an unlawful practice in violation of the California Constitution’s equal protection clause and numerous state anti-discrimination statutes, and it is barring our clients from equal access to higher education,” the letter alleges.

The letter says if UC regents do not act on the demand, the parties will file what would be the first lawsuit in the country aimed at forcing an accredited college or university to stop using the SAT and the ACT as admission requirements. While most schools do have such a requirement, about 1,050 colleges and universities — about 40 percent of the total — have stopped requiring scores from these exams, with nearly 50 taking such action from September 2018 to September 2019.

UC spokeswoman Claire Doan said, “We have no response to the letter at this time.”

Last year, UC President Janet Napolitano asked the school’s Academic Senate to investigate the issue, and a task force has been working for months. Doan said recommendations from the panel are expected during the current school year.

An indication that some California policymakers are frustrated with the ACT/SAT score debate came at a recent Board of Regents meeting. The Los Angeles Times reported board Chairman John A. Pérez “startled meeting participants” when he asked the UC system’s general counsel whether regents had to wait for the faculty senate’s task force to finish a review before acting on the issue.

Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) vetoed a bill that would have allowed public high schools to substitute the SAT or ACT in place of an 11th-grade accountability exam now given. In his veto message, he said that “their use exacerbates the inequities for 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.”

Here’s the letter sent to the UC regents: