An unusual dispute about the value of the SAT as a tool in college admissions has flared in California — this one among academics at a time when the influential University of California system just waived the requirement for SAT/ACT scores for fall 2021 applicants because of covid-19 and is considering more broadly what to do with these exams.

Members of the UC Academic Senate have now voted to maintain the testing requirements for at least five years, saying they believe that the university system does not use the tests in a discriminatory way as researchers in the past have long said. But three admissions experts who are researchers within the UC system have issued detailed analyses explaining why they believe the Senate conclusion is wrong, and, if followed, would “waste both time and taxpayer dollars.”

For years educators and researchers have debated the ability of SAT and ACT scores to predict how well a student will do in college. The College Board and ACT, Inc., which own the SAT and the ACT, respectively, both say their tests are strongly predictive of college performance.

But researchers have long said that family income, race and the mother’s education level strongly influence outcomes. And in recent years there has been a growing movement in which there are now more than 1,100 colleges and universities that have moved to test-optional admissions policies.

The Compton Unified School District, as well as other parties, demanded in a letter to UC leaders that they stop using SAT and ACT test scores as admissions requirements, saying the exams illegally discriminate against underrepresented minority students, multilingual learners and students with disabilities. And some members of the system’s governing Board of Regents have expressed frustration with the continued use of the scores for admissions.

In 2019, 37 percent of the California resident students in the admitted UC freshman class — and 26 percent of all admitted students — were Latino, African American or Native American students. But about 59 percent of the state’s high school graduates were from those groups.

During the covid-19 crisis, the UC system and dozens of other schools have announced test-optional admissions policies for a least a year, but the University of California was already analyzing its admissions requirements in relation to test scores.

Last year, UC President Janet Napolitano asked the school’s Academic Senate to investigate the issue and a task force was put to work.

In February, that task force released a report saying that the UC system uses the test scores in a way that does not discriminate but that may help identify blacks, Latinos and students from low-income families who might otherwise be overlooked. Still, in a seemingly contradictory recommendation, the 18-member Standardized Testing Task Force (STTF) called for the creation of a UC-specific admissions test that could take nine years to fully implement.

This month, the Academic Senate voted on recommendations in the task force report. Kum-Kum Bhavnani, chairman of the Assembly of the Academic Senate, recently sent a letter (see text below) to Napolitano saying that senate members supported the continued mandatory use of SAT/ACT scores in college admissions. It calls for new actions to be taken to ensure fairness and that in five years the policy be reviewed. His letter says in part:

T]he Academic Senate is committed to the undergraduate mission and greater access for applicants who have not been able to access the University in the past. The Senate is also sensitive to public concerns and assumptions that standardized tests are intrinsically discriminatory and advantage higher income students. It also understands that data-based decision-making about academic promise should be balanced by a broad consideration of how the University’s purpose, goals, and missions are best served.
The Assembly was persuaded by the analyses conducted by members of the STTF which demonstrated, perhaps counter-intuitively, that UC’s use of standardized test scores within their local context protects the admission eligibility of the very populations about whom there is concern, and ensures that under-represented, low-income, historically minoritized, and other similar populations are eligible for admission at UC.
Assembly members were convinced by the report’s conclusion that the University uses standardized tests responsibly and appropriately by considering scores in context, through an inclusive review process that embraces a broad definition of academic promise. Assembly was also persuaded by evidence that standardized tests have value above and beyond other metrics; that other pre-college factors – including availability and fulfillment of A-G subject requirements – explain the substantial variance in the eligibility of applicants, and their success at UC thereafter; and that the major barrier to college access is not the SAT/ACT, but access to quality education and resources at the K-12 level.

But three researchers within the UC system — Michal Kurlaender from the University of California at Davis, Sarah Reber from the University of California at Los Angeles and Jesse Rothstein from the University of California at Berkeley — disagree with the Academic Senate in a statement (see text below). They say in part:

Admissions policies that put substantial weight on SAT scores create barriers to admission for students from underrepresented groups and lead to less diversity. A fair admissions system would not place as much emphasis on SAT scores — which are proxies for opportunity — as the UC does now. UC campuses could put greater emphasis on high school grades without creating grade inflation that would undermine the fairness or validity of admissions decisions.
Expanding the number of students who meet the Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) cutoff will do little to change admissions outcomes or increase diversity. Students who are in the top 9 percent (by GPA) of their high school class qualify for the ELC program and are “guaranteed” admission to “a UC campus that has space.” In practice, this guarantee only applies to UC Merced and few students enroll in the UC by this path. A more effective ELC policy would require every UC campus to guarantee admission to some percentage of top students from every California high school.
Too quick dismissal of Smarter Balanced (SBAC) assessments in UC admissions ignores their potential. The SBAC is a professionally developed set of tests administered to all public high school students that is designed to measure how well they have mastered state academic standards. Using the SBAC for admissions would send an important signal: The best way to prepare for college is to master what is taught in the state’s K–12 schools. The task force identified several practical issues that would need to be addressed for the UC to use the SBAC in admissions, in addition to or instead of the SAT/ACT; these could be resolved through a productive collaboration with K–12.
The suggestion that the UC spend close to a decade developing a new test is wasteful and misguided. The UC has the chance now to form a partnership with K–12 on admissions and academic expectations that would strengthen both systems and provide a service to students who aspire to attend the state’s 4-year colleges. Greater reliance on other validated measures of college readiness—such as GPA and the SBAC—could improve equity while simultaneously aligning the now-disjointed expectations of high schools and universities.

Here is the letter sent to Napolitano from the Academic Senate, and following is the letter sent to her and other UC officials that disputes the Academic Senate’s findings.

And here is the letter from three researchers disputing the findings of the Academic Senate: