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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).

Comments to “UC versus the SAT, and what it means

  1. Great piece! I am also wondering about the global impact of that decision, especially in the countries where standardized tests only recently became the primary criterion for admission as a measure to fight corruption and increase transparency (e.g., post-Soviet countries or China). Will other countries or universities follow?

  2. A very fair and balanced article. One reality that the author mischaracterizes is that UC Regents prohibited affirmative action due to the state-wide political pressure to do so. In the aftermath of the Los Angeles Civil Unrest of 1992 and the white backlash, California saw the passage of Proposition 187 and 209 as well as the re-election of conservative Governor Pete Wilson. While it may surprise some of the younger readers, California in the 1990s led the nation in policies that targeted undocumented immigrants and affirmative action. Additionally, the Latino Caucus attempted to end the ban on affirmative action in 2017 as well as eliminate the standardized test requirement in UC admissions. This effort failed spectacularly when Asian American parents rallied against the effort as they saw the effort as a thinly-veiled attempt to swap higher-scoring Asian American students with lower-scoring Latino students. Faced with an unexpected pushback, the Latino Caucus dropped the issue.

    Clearly, we’re now in a different political space. In light of the Covid-19 Crisis and the Murder of George Floyd, both Latino and African American political leaders will seize the moment and attempt to get rid of standardized tests and affirmative action in UC admissions. It is fair to say that Asian Americans are politically divided over affirmative action, but if the politics of UC admissions seem clearly anti-Asian American with data and stories to support it, then we may be in for a major political realignment in the state. Today, Asian Americans are overwhelmingly Democratic, but the UC admissions issue is potent enough for masses of Asian Americans to reconsider their partisanship. If the state’s embattled Republican Party can refashion itself as the party that will ensure fair play for the educational aspirations of Asian Americans in the state, we may see a significant shift. The major question is whether California’s Republican Party will revert to a party of white backlash or a party of racially-blind meritocracy that will not impose a ceiling on the Asian American pursuit of their American Dream. Given the demographic growth of Asian Americans and Asian American voters, we might find very soon if white plus Asian American is bigger than African American plus Latino in California’s electoral landscape.

    Currently, Latino and African American activists are planning to put up a state proposition to bring back affirmative action in the 2020 election. If California’s Republican Party has any hope for relevance, they should reach out to all the Tiger Mom’s in the state. A contrite GOP that’s committed to racial inclusion without picking winners and losers fuelled by an energized base of Asian American voters who feel that their political leaders are selling them out to Democratic activists could change California’s politics yet again. As an Asian American Democrat myself (and a Cal alum), I feel ambivalent about all of this. Yet, I know two things: one, the hopes and dreams of hard-working Asian American young people are precious and no one has the right to put a ceiling on it, and two, California’s politics serves everyone best when we have a competitive partisan landscape. The Democratic Party in the state is out of control when it happily throws one part of its constituency under the bus and treats one of the greatest university systems as spoils of political victory. On this last note, I would remind all of the Berkeley administrators from Carol Christ down. We are paying close attention. Don’t play favorites with race. Asian Americans have gone through too much sacrifice to have our aspirations trampled on.

  3. You are right. The Senate’s Task Force found these types of differences among the different majors and the SAT math as a more powerful predictor of grades and persistence rates. That was part of their analysis and conclusions.

    Focusing on the freshmen year is also inadequate, and I have said as much in earlier publications. Besides grades and completion rates, universities now have much more data on the academic and social engagement of students at research universities.


  4. Nothing about establishing admissions policies for UC or any selective public university or system is simple and straight forward. This blog post and the working paper upon which it is based walk the reader through a 30 year struggle to create an admissions policy that does not simply mirror the economic and social status of applicants, but comes closer to being representative of California’s increasingly diverse population while maintaining high academic standards and transparency of the process.

    The use of standardized test scores as a major admissions criteria became one of the focal points of the debate and Douglass helps unwind the complex history of how it has evolved and identifies the major actors and interests that have influenced the process leading up to the decision by the Board of Regents to eliminate the use of SAT/ACT standardized tests in admissions.

    This blog explains how complex and challenging admissions policy reform is for the University of California. There is always a political dimension, but this is placed in the real world context of huge numbers of applicants and the inevitability of results that appear to be arbitrary. When there is no agreement between the faculty committee appointed to assess the value of SAT, university administrators and members of the Board of Regents it complicates the decision process and even tests the governance practices of the university that would normally require that faculty judgements prevail.

    Thanks for elucidating the many nuances and lesser known aspects of what is behind the recent highly publicized decision of the regents to end use of the SAT test in admissions.


  5. Math SAT scores would seem intuitively to be a predictor of success for Engineering majors, and for other majors with a significant computational dimension such as accounting.

    “the SAT was not a very good predictor of academic performance based on the grades of students during their freshmen year”

    Freshman classes barely represent the engineering curricula that will challenge engineering majors in sophomore-to-senior classes in highly technical subjects.

    Thus due diligence for this radical change for UC admission should also verify that Math SAT scores do not specifically predict and correlate with success for Engineering Majors.

    However, if further, deeper analysis shows that Math SAT scores do predict success for Engineering Majors, then Math SAT should be retained as part of the UC admission application for these highly technical, highly computational majors.



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