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UC versus the SAT, and what it means

John Aubrey Douglass, Senior Research Fellow - Public Policy and Higher Education, Center for Studies in Higher Education | June 24, 2020



In a shot heard around the country, on May 21, 2020, UC’s Board of Regents suspended the requirement and use of standardized tests, including the SAT and ACT, for freshman applicants.  UC will be test optional for campus selection of freshman in fall 2021 and 2022, and “beginning with fall 2023 applicants and ending with fall 2024 applicants, campuses will not consider test scores for admissions selection at all, and will practice test-blind admissions selection.”

The Regents, along with some 1,200 other universities and colleges, had already dropped the requirement for 2021 following the College Board’s and ACT’s cancelling of testing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Regents have requested that the Academic Senate and the universities administration attempt to develop a new test or adopt the existing Smarter Balance test of high school students in time for the fall 2025 entering class that better aligns with college readiness. But if they fail in this endeavor, UC will eliminate the standardized testing requirement for California students.

The Board’s vote is the seeming culmination of a nineteen-year debate over the role of standardized test scores for determining eligibility to apply to the multi-campus UC system, and in the process a campus uses to admit students.

Why the SAT?

In an initial act of provocation in 2001, UC President Richard Atkinson, a psychometrician, asked why California’s premier multi-campus research university should require the SAT for freshman admissions. The SAT dominates the market and its purveyors, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the College Board, claim that it is an important predictor of a student’s success in America’s colleges and universities. That’s what it is all about, right?

A university study initiated by Atkinson and developed by Saul Gaiser rebutted the claims of the College Board. At least within the University of California with some 150,000 undergraduates scattered among then eight undergraduate campuses, the SAT was not a very good predictor of academic performance based on the grades of students during their freshmen year – when the curriculum is more uniform than the sophomore and later years as students enter their major.

Grades in school, along with some evaluation of a student’s socioeconomic circumstance and achievements in that environment, proved to be a better predictor of academic performance and persistence to a degree.

In the end, however, Atkinson’s threat to drop the SAT I prompted ETS to revise elements of the test, and to add a new writing component. With those changes, many critics of ETS’s mainstay test, including University of California officials, were essentially forced into an extended period of reevaluating the worth of the revised SAT I – a process that culminated in the 2020 vote by the Regents.

Opponents of the wide spread use of the SAT have long claimed that the SAT promotes needless socioeconomic stratification: the test favors students from upper income families and communities, in part because they can afford a growing range of expensive commercially available test preparation courses and counseling.

The Regents’ 2020 decision echoes this conclusion.Taking the SAT

Yet as I chronicle in a new CSHE research paper, UC has an even longer history of concern with standardized testing. In fact, UC was relatively slow in adopting the SAT as a requirement in admissions when compared to other universities with selective admissions, public or private. Not until 1979 were test scores used to determine “UC Eligibility,” and not until the 1980’s were they used by some campuses for actual admissions decisions.

Informed by this history, I offer a few observations on the Regents May 2020 decision.

Political Dimension Not New

First, as the value of higher education increases for the individual, and for society in general, the difficulties of allocating a scarce and highly sought public good, admission, grow more intense for selective universities. Because there are generally conflicting interests in setting and influencing admissions policy at selective public universities, such as the University of California, policymaking has an inherently political dimension.

Determining admission criteria is not simply a rational choice; it is, in some form, a reflection of the internal and external politics that shape the policy behaviors of a university.

In the case of the University of California, requiring the SAT is part of a larger set of admission requirements that, over time, policymakers adopt or modify to fit perceived institutional goals and oftentimes in reaction to the concerns of major stakeholders. Hence, the story of UC and standardized tests reflects changing conditions and perceptions of different policymakers.

Arbitrary Decision-Making?

Another axiom that is largely lost in the debates over the usage of test scores and a growing array of admissions requirements: Highly selective public universities may attempt to create relatively transparent admissions criteria, but in the end much of the decision-making is arbitrary.

For example, UC Berkeley, before the COVID-19 pandemic, received approximately 87,000 applications for the 2019-20 academic year, almost all of which were UC Eligible (a sliding scale of grades in required courses and test scores), a majority with 4.0 GPAs or higher (inflated by honors and AP courses).

Yet only 14,600 or so applicants were accepted to Berkeley. Some 60 percent of those admitted will enroll elsewhere, with a net enrollment target of around 6,500 students. That means rejecting some 73,000 generally highly qualified and talented students, who would statistically do very well at Berkeley.

This ratio of applications to actual admits is similar at UCLA and UC San Diego and a number of other UC campuses. Indeed, only UC Merced now admits nearly all UC Eligible students. The arbitrary nature of admissions decisions helps explains how a student might be rejected at UCLA but admitted to Berkeley, or vice versa.

No matter how you build it, when you have this ratio of talented and accomplished students asking for entrance to Berkeley, or to other highly selective UC campuses, there are going to be arbitrary outcomes.

Redistributing a Highly Sought Public Good

Third, the intent of this change in policy is to provide greater access to underrepresented groups. Translated, that means an opportunity to redistribute what is essentially a zero sum: access to a selective public university that does not have the finances to grow significantly in enrollment and has a mandated limit under the California Master Plan for Higher Education to accepting students from the top 12.5 percent within the state’s the high school graduating class.

The unanimous action of the Regents was justified largely because of the claim that standardized tests discriminate against underrepresented minority and low-income students at UC. While the intent of the Regents’ verdict is to boost underrepresented groups, specifically Chicano/Latinos and African Americans, it will require less representation among “overrepresented” groups, specifically Asian Americans who generally have benefited from the use of SAT scores in the campus selection process.

Berkeley, for UCLAexample, desires to increase its Chicano/Latino population, stating an aim to become a Hispanic Serving Institution by 2028 – a Federal designation in which Chicano/Latinos represent 25 percent or more of the total enrollment at a college or university. In fall 2019, Berkeley enrolled a total of 43,204 students, of which 5,855 where Chicano/Latino, or 13 percent.

Whether at Berkeley or the entire UC system, and by virtually any measure, Asian-Americans (a broad category with significant variation in socioeconomic background) are significantly “overrepresented.” An anticipated decline in international students might provide more enrollment room for underrepresented groups.

But one might speculate that dropping standardized tests in determining UC eligibility and campus admissions will increasingly favor the state’s largest underrepresented group: Chicano/Latinos currently represent 39 percent of California’s population and are projected to be over 47 percent by 2050. Why else pursue ending the SAT at UC?

The Regents and the Senate

The fourth observation: The Regents’ unanimous vote ignored the key recommendations of UC’s Academic Senate, the body designated since 1921 to set admissions policies. The Senate, the representative body of the faculty enshrined in the universities 1868 Organic Act, recommended retaining the SAT and ACT in setting UC eligibility and for campus selection of students for admission. Under the Bylaws of the Regents, the Senate has the responsibility to “set the conditions of admissions.”

In February 2020, a Senate appointed Standardized Testing Task Force (STTF) submitted its 227-page report to the Senate’s Academic Council and then to its systemwide legislative body, the Assembly.

The Task Force found, despite the conclusion of earlier Senate and UC Office of the President studies, that UC’s current admissions process, including the SAT requirement, did not discriminate and actually “protects the admission eligibility of the very populations about whom there is concern.”

Further, UC’s comprehensive review in admissions includes additional factors such as family income and a students’ hardships, compensate for test score differences among racial and ethnic groups. “Perhaps counterintuitively,” the report concluded, test scores are better predictors of UC grades and graduation for underrepresented groups than for majority groups.SAT Pic

The Task Force final recommendation? Retain the test requirements for determining UC eligibility and for campus admissions decisions for five years and then “revisit whether the added value of the SAT/ACT still holds.”

Criticism of the Task Force’s study quickly emerged, including the charge that it was methodologically flawed and overly relied on ETS and College Board sponsored research that consistently argued for the validity of the SAT.  Jesse Rothstein’s comments, for example, focused on the predictive validity, or lack thereof, of the test and stated that much of analysis of the Task Force was “factually incorrect, and I do not believe that any of these conclusions are supported by the evidence.”

Whatever the merits of the Task Force report, the Regents verdict raises internal questions of the purpose and future of shared governance – the last overt disagreement over a major change in admissions policy was the politically driven 1995 vote by the Regents to end affirmative action. At present, it is unclear if this is an unfortunate one-off, or the beginning of a pattern.

A Pre-Determined Result?

By the time of the Regents’ meeting in May via video conference, the politics of the decision was seemingly pre-determined.

A core group of Regents, long versed in UC’s difficulties in expanding the enrollment of Chicano/Latinos and African Americans at campuses such as UCLA, Berkeley, and San Diego, viewed the SAT as a major political obstacle and favored its elimination.

This included the Chair of the Regents, John A. Pérez, a former Speaker of the California State Assembly. Board of Regent’s Vice Chair Cecilia Estolano and Regent Eloy Ortiz Oakley (Chancellor of California’s Community Colleges) also stated their support for dropping the SAT, along with UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and UC Provost Michael Brown.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided an unusual circumstance and considerable momentum for the cause. Because of the pandemic, students could not take the SAT or ACT. This unusual circumstance led campuses throughout the U.S. to drop the requirement, either temporarily or permanently. Advocates for ending its role in selective admissions became louder, backed by a growing body of research.

And like the 1995 vote by the Regents to end affirmative action at UC, political ambitions of two Regents may have played a role – a decisive end to standardized tests and leadership in that cause helps positions them for a possible campaign for the US Senate seat that will be vacated by Dianne Feinstein.

In the weeks before the Regents’ meeting, President Napolitano provided a proposal that purported to be “based on the findings and recommendations” of the Task force, and one might assume in coordination with Pérez.

But in reality it differed considerably, conforming to the pressure from key Regents to end the use of standardized testing and forming the Board’s final decision: test optional for campuses selection of freshman in fall 2021 and 2022, and “beginning with fall 2023 applicants and ending with fall 2024 applicants, campuses will not consider test scores for admissions selection at all, and will practice test-blind admissions selection.”

The Future?

Was the vote by the Regents made by weighing conflicting analysis on to positive and negatives of the SAT and alternatives? Or was it driven by political momentum that view standardized testing as a real and symbolic barrier to greater equality, led by a seasoned political operative as Chair of the Board of Regents?

Or does it relate to an operational pathway to change the composition of UC’s undergraduate student body? It seems that all these variables were at play.Sather Gate

Certainly, procedurally there was no need to rush to a Regental vote, particularly as UC already suspended use of standardized testing for fall 2021, and with a new UC president soon to be announced. But politically, the stars where aligned.

One might predict that the Asian American community, and specifically its advocates, will awaken to the potential impact of eliminating the SAT and ACT. Legal cases will likely make their way charging the University, and specifically the Regents, with violating various aspects of constitutional law.

One might also conclude that the debate over the use of standardized testing at UC, and at other selective colleges and universities, is not over. The Regents’ decision may well be revisited over time, with some consideration of the Senate’s position and with an eye toward the views and political lobbying of major stakeholders.

One reason is that the analytical and political challenges to developing any new test will be great; abandoning testing altogether will likely benefit one group over another.

Again, the distribution of a highly sought public good is fraught with challenges that will not go away easily – particularly in a litigious society scarred by growing inequality such as ours.

Copyright 2020 John Aubrey Douglass, all rights reserved


John Aubrey Douglass is Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley. The historical analysis in this essay is adopted from the book The Conditions for Admissions: Access and Equity and the Social Contract of Public Universities (Stanford University Press).