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University of California takes huge step toward dropping SAT and ACT from admissions

A scene in March on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

The University of California took a giant step Thursday toward dropping the SAT and ACT from its undergraduate admissions process, as its governing board unanimously approved a plan to suspend testing requirements for the next two years and then omit test scores from the review of in-state applications in 2023 and 2024.

The momentous 23-to-0 vote from the Board of Regents means the prestigious public university in the nation’s most populous state will be “test-optional” for students across the country who are now high school sophomores or juniors. Then, with certain caveats, it will be “test-blind” for California students who are now in eighth and ninth grades.

How the university will handle testing policy for out-of-state applications in 2023 and 2024 remains to be determined, UC officials said. The university, which has nine undergraduate campuses, will also study whether to adopt a new admission test by 2025.

UC’s action, overriding the views of some faculty skeptics, delivered a resounding blow to the power of two standardized tests that have long shaped American higher education. It could influence the testing policies of other colleges and universities.

Board chairman John A. Pérez said the vote would “create urgency to creating better, equitable outcomes in our admission process.” UC President Janet Napolitano said the SAT and ACT are out of step with the needs of California. “Generally the right test is better than no test,” she said during the debate. “But a flawed test should not continue to be required.”

Regent Jonathan “Jay” Sures said the SAT is “a racist test, no two ways about it.” But he urged the university to take a slower approach, gathering data from a test-optional experiment, before making a final decision. The board voted down that idea.

The College Board, which owns the SAT, has larger market share in California than ACT and has long viewed UC as a partner. Thursday’s action was a sharp rebuke to a nonprofit testing organization that says it is dedicated to promoting college access.

“Regardless of what happens with such policies, our mission remains the same: to give all students, and especially low-income and first-generation students, opportunities to show their strength,” the College Board said in a statement after the vote. “We must also address the disparities in coursework and classrooms that the evidence shows most drive inequity in California.”

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Marten Roorda, chief executive of the ACT testing organization, called UC’s plan “irresponsible.” Roorda, in a telephone interview, said he is “not too worried” about the growing number of colleges that have chosen to go test-optional because he believes many students will continue to take the tests and send scores. But he criticized the test-blind proposal, saying it would force admission officers to give more weight to application essays and extracurricular activities.

“To be quite honest, that is high-risk,” Roorda said. “Then you fall back on what you would call the subjective parts of the application. That is the part that can be most easily gamed, especially by wealthy families.”

Researchers have long found a link between family income and test scores. Students from affluent backgrounds, who have more access to test preparation and academic resources, tend to score higher on the exams.

Under the UC plan, SAT and ACT test scores could still be used in the next few years to help California applicants calculate their eligibility for a guaranteed admission program that directs students to campuses with lower demand and available seats.

Thursday’s action followed a more modest measure UC took in April. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted SAT and ACT exams for many high school juniors, the university at that time suspended its testing requirements for students seeking admission for fall 2021.

Faculty skeptics worry about what will happen when two familiar credentials are abruptly omitted from the review of more than 113,000 in-state applications a year. The top scores of 36 on the ACT and 1600 on the SAT are instantly recognizable to the general public and admission insiders alike. Few selective colleges and universities are test-blind, although a growing number have ended testing requirements or suspended them because of the pandemic.

“Are we doing the right thing for the right reasons?” asked Henry Sánchez, a University of California at San Francisco professor who co-chaired a faculty task force that recently recommended keeping the testing requirement for the next several years. “You have to look in the mirror to ask that question. Be honest with ourselves. Not politicize it, not play games.”

The task force studied whether the SAT and ACT exacerbate inequities in education, as critics of the high-stakes exams often claim. But its report found UC admissions officers take into account where students went to high school when they consider test scores, seeking to identify those who performed “exceptionally well given available opportunities.”

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Critics of the SAT and ACT say the grades and rigor of high school courses offer a stronger guide to whether students are prepared for college. Advocates say scores can add important context to an application and a reality check against grade inflation.

With undergraduate campuses in Berkeley, Los Angeles and seven other locales, UC is a formidable presence in public higher education. Its name is recognizable worldwide, and its policies often carry weight with schools elsewhere that are competing for the same top students and faculty.

Substantial changes to UC’s testing policy will “have a gargantuan effect” in California and beyond, said Holden Thorp, editor in chief of the Science family of journals, who was previously provost at Washington University in St. Louis and chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Thorp said UC commands attention, in part, because it draws so many applicants — more than 172,000 for fall 2020. Many of those students simultaneously apply to other big-name schools around the country.

“Los Angeles and San Francisco are places where every major university and liberal arts college goes hunting for students,” Thorp said. Those schools might have to weigh the risk of sticking with a testing policy at odds with UC’s.

The UC debate comes as many selective schools are edging away from long-standing testing requirements. Most top-ranked liberal arts colleges are test-optional for at least the next year. Some major research universities are moving in that direction, too. Cornell University has suspended its test-score mandate for 2021 applicants.

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Last week, the public College of William & Mary in Virginia announced a three-year test-optional experiment. School officials said the move was in the works before the coronavirus crisis. They also stress the school is not test-blind.

“We will still consider test scores as part of the holistic review, if they are submitted,” said Henry Broaddus, William & Mary’s vice president for strategic initiatives and public affairs. “But we don’t want them to be a barrier, especially as students respond to the current pandemic.”