The UC announcement on Wednesday followed a growing number of prominent colleges that have temporarily or permanently stopped requiring prospective students to submit SAT or ACT scores.
With its renowned undergraduate campuses in Berkeley, Los Angeles and seven other locations, UC is a major force in public higher education around the world. Its policies are often influential outside the Golden State.
The onslaught of the novel coronavirus led to major cancellations of SAT testing this spring and the postponement of an ACT national session in April, disrupting the plans of high school juniors seeking to line up credentials for college applications in the fall. With shutdowns and stay-at-home orders proliferating, there is mounting uncertainty whether ACT and SAT testing sessions scheduled for June can occur.
The College Board, which owns the SAT, has said it plans to add testing dates later in the year to help college-bound students.
“We’ll be flexible in making the SAT available in school and out of school as soon as the public health situation allows,” the College Board’s chief executive, David Coleman, wrote in a message to higher education leaders. The ACT is also making contingency plans but says “the safety of students and test center staff is ACT’s top priority.”
Admission testing is by no means disappearing. Many elite private universities and public flagships, including the universities of Maryland and Virginia, continue to require an ACT or SAT score.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, UC was in the middle of a fierce debate over standardized testing. In February, a faculty task force released a report recommending that the system keep the requirement for SAT or ACT scores because it found that the exams are good predictors of academic success. The report also suggested that UC look into developing its own exam for applicants.
That debate is likely to intensify as the UC Board of Regents reviews testing policy this spring.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley, a UC regent who is the chancellor of the huge California community college system, favors scrapping all consideration of admission tests. “The best choice is to just cut the rope, find a better tool to make admissions decisions, and free families and students from this burden,” Oakley said.
Wednesday’s announcement on testing only affects high school juniors who are considering UC. Systemwide, the university received more than 172,000 applications for freshman admission for the class entering next fall. Students can apply to more than one campus. UCLA drew the most freshman applicants — 108,000 — for an entering class of roughly 6,000.
In the announcement, UC said it is also easing letter-grade requirements for applicants and recently admitted students related to what are known in California as the core “A-G” academic courses, in subjects from history to visual and performing arts. That is an acknowledgment that school closures could scramble the transcripts of college-bound students.
The test-optional movement had been gaining steam in recent months. All public universities in neighboring Oregon are now test-optional. And the coronavirus has pushed other schools to take similar steps: Boston, Tufts and Case Western Reserve universities — all private, competitive and highly regarded — have announced the suspension of SAT/ACT requirements.
Enrollment chiefs say they are keen to lighten the load on high school students at a time of profound social and economic upheaval. They do not want to heighten worries about admission testing when families have much more fundamental concerns about health and safety.
To stick with the old rules “is just elevating the anxiety they already have about their college search,” said Kelly A. Walter, associate vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at Boston University. “And I wanted no part of that.”
BU draws more than 60,000 undergraduate applicants a year and ranks 40th on the U.S. News & World Report list of top national universities. This week, Walter announced a one-year suspension of its testing requirements.
Tufts, ranked 29th by U.S. News, is suspending its testing requirements for three years. That will affect all students now in high school.
“If applicants would like us to consider their exam results as one component of their candidacy, we will do so in a nuanced and contextual way,” Tufts said. “If students choose not to submit exam results, we will evaluate their candidacy in a nuanced and contextual way without scores.”
Davidson College in North Carolina, 17th on the U.S. News list of top liberal arts schools, also is halting test-score requirements for three years.
“Hey, I’m looking at you, high school kids,” said Christopher Gruber, Davidson’s dean of admission and financial aid. “There’s so much that is going on. Any opportunity that a college or university has to be able to bring clarity to a student right now is a gift.”
Neil R. Chyten, president and founder of a Massachusetts-based college counseling and tutoring company, predicted UC’s action will have a huge impact.
“The University of California is a leader," he said. "People watch them. I think this is going to lend credibility to the movement to make the SAT and ACT optional, at least for now.”
Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a longtime critic of the SAT and ACT, said colleges that had been on the fence about admission tests might be emboldened to try a new approach.
“This could well be the tipping point that leads to hundreds of schools dropping the requirement next year for fall 2021, creating a national experiment that shows that test-optional works everywhere,” Schaeffer said.
But UC officials sought to focus on their schools at this moment. “The University’s flexibility at this crucial time will ensure prospective students aiming for UC get a full and fair shot — no matter their current challenges,” UC President Janet Napolitano said in a statement.