The UC system — with 10 campuses — announced last year that it would stop requiring test scores for admissions purposes, but a settlement in spring in a lawsuit against the system led to a permanent decision that included financial aid as well.
The 2019 lawsuit was filed by a coalition of school districts, students, parents and advocacy groups, and it argued that the use of SAT and ACT scores for admissions was discriminatory, affecting underrepresented minority students, multilingual learners and students with disabilities. The organizations that own the SAT and ACT — the College Board and ACT Inc., respectively — have denied their exams are discriminatory or biased.
For years, a test-optional movement in higher education has been building, allowing students the right to submit scores as part of their applications — or not include them. The coronavirus pandemic put that movement into overdrive, with most four-year colleges and universities dropping an SAT or ACT test score for admission for fall 2021.
Now, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit group known as FairTest, two-thirds of U.S. colleges and universities are saying they will not require admissions test scores for those applying to be freshmen in fall 2022.
Meanwhile, the University of California system announced last month that for fall 2021, without using SAT or ACT scores in admissions, “students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups comprise 43 percent of admitted California freshmen, the highest proportion of an incoming undergraduate class and the greatest number in UC history at 36,462.”
Below, David Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, looks at the recent arguments against the university system’s decision and details the positive outcome he sees emerging. Kirp is a frequent contributor to The Answer Sheet and the author of “The College Dropout Scandal.”
By David Kirp
The University of California stirred up a hornets’ nest when it dropped scores from the SAT or ACT as an admissions requirement. While UC is not the first institution to make this decision — Smith College and New York University are among the first-movers — because of UC’s prestige and size, other schools are likely to follow suit.
UC’s decision is good news for anyone who believes that higher education should fulfill its historic mission as an engine of social mobility.
A not-so-made-up story casts the decision in human terms:
Imagine two high school seniors who have taken the SAT. The first — let’s call her Maria — is a second-generation immigrant. She lives in the hardscrabble neighborhood of East Los Angeles with her mother, who works as a housekeeper, and her three younger siblings. Because her mom is working full time, Maria takes care of her brothers and sisters after school. Only 70 percent of Maria’s classmates will graduate — that’s leagues below the national average — and only 20 percent of those graduates will go to college.
Maria, who has earned straight A’s in high school, has her heart set on highly selective UCLA. Despite the fact that she is taking the SAT without any test preparation, she scores in the top 50 percent.
Ashley, who lives a couple of Zip codes away, in Beverly Hills, also wants to go to UCLA. She attends Harvard-Westlake, a tony, $42,000-a-year prep school where every student gets a diploma and almost all of them are admitted to top-tier colleges. Since she was a sophomore, Ashley has had concierge help in crafting her college application. A $300-per-hour tutor prepped her for the SAT, and she scored in the top 90 percent.
Which applicant should UCLA admit?
Research shows that grades are the best single predictor of how well a student will do in college, and grades are not as strongly affected by a family’s wealth and education as standardized tests. The College Board, which develops and administers the SAT, counters that a combination of grades and test scores is an even better predictor of who will fare well in college.
That conclusion paints with too broad a brush.
Researchers at UC’s Riverside campus — where nearly half the students are underrepresented minorities and 60 percent receive Pell grants — found that students with average SAT scores and top high school grades were almost as likely to graduate as their classmates with similar high school grades who had aced the test.
Critics foresee Armageddon if the SAT is eliminated. Writing recently in Inside Higher Ed, Larry Su, English professor at the City Colleges of Chicago, predicted that the change will “leave American students unprepared for college, hinder minority students’ finishing of education, send a wrong message about what American institutions of learning value, destroy America’s fundamental beliefs in hard work and personal accountability, and further put America’s national and international interest at risk.”
While that lengthy bill of particulars is a familiar plaint in academe, it lacks any factual basis. Will doing away with the SAT requirement undermine Maria’s work ethic or lead to Chinese dominance in higher education? I doubt it.
Writing in the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan makes a different argument — UC’s decision will harm minority students. The SAT, she asserts, “was a Hail Mary pass for many smart kids who, for whatever reason, didn’t do well in high school.”
“In 2018, about 22,000 students ‘tested in’ to the UC,” she wrote. “Almost half of those students were low-income, and more than a quarter were Black, Latino, or Native American. The UC has now taken this lifeline away.”
“Flanagan severely misunderstands how UC admissions works,” Yale economist Zachary Bleemer, who has spent years parsing the data, told me.
“In fact, fewer than 100 students got into UC just because of their SAT score, and the best available evidence suggests that eliminating the SAT has a negligible (and perhaps slightly positive) effect on the admission of disadvantaged students,” he said.
Graduation rates in the UC system may drop slightly because of the university’s decision. But students who otherwise wouldn’t have made the cut, because of their low test scores, will benefit greatly. As Bleemer’s research shows, they are far more likely to graduate than students with a similar record who enrolled at one of the less selective California state campuses. Six to eight years later, they are earning $15,000 more.
For these students, the engine of mobility is up and running. Meanwhile, Harvard-Westlake will make sure that its students will end up at top-notch schools.
Eleven national organizations recently called on U.S. News & World Report to stop using average SAT and ACT scores in its college rankings.
“Using average scores of incoming students to rank an institution has never made sense, but is even more preposterous during a deadly pandemic,” said the open letter signed by groups including the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Those counselors, who are in the admit-and-deny business, should surely know.
(Correction: Fixing the first reference to Caitlan Flanagan)