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How UC’s Board of Regents overturned the use of the SAT and ACT

On May 21, the University of California Board of Regents voted unanimously to phase out use of the SAT and ACT over the next 5 years for in-state applicants. The decision, a culmination of a multi-year internal review of the UC admissions process, comes amidst a wave of test-optional announcements from universities across the country. Still, the decision came as a surprise to many observers, because it conflicts with a unanimous vote of the UC Academic Senate and recommendations made by the UC Standardized Testing Task Force to preserve SAT and ACT testing at UC. In addition, the decision goes well beyond the test-optional policies that have made news in recent weeks, putting the large university system on a challenging path to create its own admissions test within five years or operate without the use of standardized testing for California residents. To fully understand the UC decision and its potential impact for students, we have to look at the complete picture, including the history of the review and voting process.

The Task Force Report and Faculty Vote

In early 2019, the University of California empaneled a Standardized Testing Task Force (STTF) composed of faculty to study the impact of testing on UC admissions. The STTF was asked to make several key determinations, including: (1) how well the SAT and ACT assess student readiness, and (2) whether the SAT and ACT requirements promote diversity and opportunity. The UC System has been struggling to build a student body that represents the diversity of the state, and determining the role played by the admission tests is an important step to remedy this issue. The STTF, however, did not find testing to be the singular culprit many thought it might prove to be. 

In February of this year, the STTF issued a 200+-page empirical report that demonstrated the predictive value of the SAT and ACT in UC admissions, finding that testing was a strong predictor of college performance and was not detrimental to underrepresented students within the UC’s multi-factor admissions process. Per UC’s own data, eliminating the testing requirement would likely decrease student preparation, retention and graduation and may decrease diversity. The report resulted in a defense of the use of the SAT and ACT at UC, a critique of the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) test as a potential admissions test, and a proposal to potentially develop a UC-specific admissions test over the next 9 years.

Based on this data the UC Academic Senate voted unanimously (51-0) in April to preserve SAT and ACT testing for five years.

President Napolitano’s Proposal

In May, outgoing UC president Janet Napolitano proposed a plan that conflicted with the STTF recommendations and faculty vote, calling for UC to eliminate the use of the SAT and ACT for admissions within five years. Per this proposal, UC would be test-optional for the next two admissions cycles and test-blind in 2023-2025 (though testing would still factor into placement, scholarships, and the statewide eligibility guarantee). In 2025, UC would “cease any use of the SAT or ACT altogether” for in-state students. In lieu of these tests, Napolitano proposed integrating a modified SBAC into admissions and creating a new test within 5 years.

On May 21st the UC Regents voted unanimously to support President Napolitano’s proposal. 

The Board of Regents Meeting and Vote – May 21

While the Academic Senate voted unanimously in favor of maintaining the SAT and ACT for the next five years, the Board of Regents held a less favorable view of testing. Regents Chair John A. Pérez, an outspoken critic of the SAT and ACT, questioned the need for the task force’s analysis at a July 2019 meeting: Are we required to wait for the Academic Senate to complete its work before we decide whether or not to eliminate standardized tests as a requirement for admission?” He went on to add: “I clearly have some predispositions on where I think we should be on this.”

Pérez is critical of the resource disparity that gave some students advantages in preparation for these tests. The Vice-Chair on the Board of Regents, Cecilia Estolano, shares Pérez’s perspective. In the July 2019 meeting, she added “the one thing standardized tests predict is your income, and we don’t need more studies.” These tests use a “clearly flawed methodology with discriminatory impact.” 

May 21 Presentations

The Board heard from several members of UC Admissions and faculty and some outside perspectives. UC Berkeley took center stage with notable SAT/ACT critic, Chancellor Carol Christ, invoking the Varsity Blues scandal as indicative of what is wrong with admissions. She advocated conducting a two-year pilot that would compare testing and test-blind cohorts. Jesse Rothstein, professor of public policy at Berkeley, criticized admissions testing and questioned the findings of the Academic Senate. Linda Darling Hammond, President of the California State Board of Education spoke to the lack of Common Core alignment of the SAT and ACT. 

Kim Wilcox, Chancellor of UC Riverside spoke in favor of using the tests in admissions. Regarding the purported bias of the tests, he stated that just as family income correlates with test scores, so too does it correlate with “nearly every other measure we use for evaluating admissions: High School GPA, access to AP coursework, completion of or even access to the A-G curriculum, extracurricular activities and others are all correlated with family income and geography.” He continued, “If all of the measures are biased or at least correlated with family wealth and background, then which ones should we use…or will eliminating one biased measure from a group of biased measures improve our selection process?” “We rely on the SAT in admissions and at the same time we’ve been very successful in recruiting and supporting a highly diverse student body.”

Julian Betts, Professor of Economics at UC San Diego, advocated keeping testing as part of the process. Sylvia Hurtado, Professor of Education at UCLA, focused on reducing the emphasis on testing and removing fixed-weight formulas to allow more flexibility in admissions. 

Members of the Academic Senate and STTF made the case to preserve testing at UC. Faculty representative and Chair of the Academic Senate, Kum-Kum Bhavnani, strongly supported the continued use of the SAT and ACT. Prof. Henry Sanchez, Co-Chair of the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) wanted an evidence-based approach. Prof. Eddie Comeaux, Co-Chair of BOARS, spoke of the value of the tests to preserve diversity at UC. Minority applicants to UC perform significantly worse on their A-G course grades, which has a greater effect keeping them out of the university than the disparity in testing. Comeaux spoke of the systemic differences in K-12 education, and how vulnerable communities have less access to educational resources. The problem is “not the tests.” 

The strongest empirical defense of testing came from Prof. Andrea Hassenstaub, a member of the STTF. The analysis was clear: when UC students are stratified by High School GPA, students with higher test scores attain higher grades at UC: test scores make a unique, independent contribution to predicting academic performance at UC. SAT and ACT scores carry information about students that is not redundant with GPA. This finding held when students were stratified by income, race, and parental educational level: higher test scores predict higher freshman GPAs and final GPAs and graduation rates. Hassenstaub was emphatic: the data is profoundly clear that these assessments are “not simply a wealth test.” 

Prof. Lio Cai, statistician on the STTF, reported that the Smarter Balanced assessment was not an appropriate test for UC students. He spoke of the issue of the SBAC’s limited item bank, which would increase the likelihood of item exposure, cheating, and more testing scandals. Additionally, he noted that the SBAC will reveal the same gaps, if not wider ones, along racial and ethnic lines. 

May 21 Debate

Following the presentations, individual regents were able to opine on Napolitano’s proposal. From the get-go, major disagreements emerged. Many regents showed deep skepticism of ignoring the faculty’s findings and adopting Napolitano’s proposal. 

Regent Jay Sures critiqued Napolitano’s plan. He asked, What evidence do we have that we even have the ability to create a test that would be better than the SAT or ACT?” Sures wanted to study the outcomes of the test-optional admissions now underway due to COVID before voting on this proposal. 

Regent Charlene Zettel commented that if we eliminate the tests and put more focus on AP and IB classes, don’t those too take place “in well-to-do school districts that are resourced?” and wouldn’t they perpetuate the same problems? 

Regent Hadi Makarechian asked Napolitano why she was not agreeing with the task force and questioned whether we should wait until the next president comes in to address this issue. He also asked why we should “mess with” the tests at this particular time when we have “such small resources?” 

In the afternoon, Napolitano made the case for her proposal. She clarified that she was in favor of testing, but disliked using the SAT or ACT: “I reached many of the same conclusions as the faculty, mainly that our admissions process is generally better with a test than without one. I also, however, concur with the faculty that there are limitations to the current suite of tests, and by that I mean the SAT and ACT, and that we can and should use tests that better meet our own standards.” Napolitano’s chief complaint was the correlational data between a student’s race and socioeconomic status and test score. She wanted to explore creating a new test and proposed that UC conduct a feasibility study of this project, to be completed by January 2021.

Napolitano painted the two possible scenarios following the feasibility study: “we conclude a new test is really not feasible and stop that project altogether, or, more likely, we would have designed a pathway forward to a new test.” She proposed modifying the SBAC to “better measure the content of courses and preparation of students in California for their college readiness,” and proposed collaborating closely with California State University. 

Following Napolitano’s comments, each Regent had 5 minutes to voice their concerns or support. Many of the regents were critical of the plan.

Regent George Keifer: I have been “very torn by the President’s recommendation, which I find fundamentally inconsistent with the Task Force’s recommendation.” “Most people thought the faculty task force would come out for abandoning the standardized tests pretty quickly, instead they came out with a detailed, data-rich, very, very deep examination.” Surprisingly, testing “was not a major source of bias…and that in some cases…it was helpful with respect to diversity and helpful to many of the admissions officers. This seemed to be an inconvenient fact.” “If I had my druthers, I’d be supporting the faculty recommendation.” 

Sherry Lansing: “I am a believer in data and in science. And all of the data that I have listened to from the faculty says that the test …is not an impediment” to diversity at UC. “I also believe in holistic and comprehensive review.” “I think a new test is going to have the same problems” and “we cannot afford to spend $100 million on a new test.”

Hadi Makarechian was “really torn on this question of no test and test.” He considered the test to be something akin to a driving test, to help determine who is qualified to be on the “UC highway of education.” He was worried about dropping the test and thereby letting in less qualified applicants who could jam things up and create significant costs for the university.

Jonathan “Jay” Sures had the most blistering criticisms: “I’m not a fan of the SAT; I’m really not. I think it’s a flawed test….I think there are many issues with it. But I do think that facts do matter. Let me say that again. Facts matter and data does matter. We went to the faculty and asked for their opinion and their presentation, and they presented data. I think the data was interesting, and I think we need to look at it.” He continued: “I don’t like the concept of creating a new test because I can see a disaster waiting to happen there, and I don’t want to be part of a disaster.” Jay proposed 2 years of test-optional admissions, then examine the data and the diversity outcomes: “we can get the data, and see how we are doing and then make a more definitive decision based on the information that we have.”

Janet Reilly referenced the STTF conclusion that dropping standardized tests would likely decrease student preparation, academic success at UC, retention rates, and graduation rates. She asked Napolitano whether some sort of test was a necessity, and Napolitano affirmed that “generally speaking the right test is better than no test, but a flawed test should not continue to be required.”

Charlene Zettel argued, “We know that the SAT is not a perfect test, but it seems that the faculty experts have said that it is an indicator of graduation completion, and time to degree and success at UC….I’m going to fall on the side… [of] our faculty experts in this regard. I don’t like mandating an end to the SAT. I would like to see that we would have a date for an alternative assessment, but to put a drop-dead date on it is a concern when we have so minimal resources, we are staggering under the Covid budget cuts….Do we want to just pull the rug out on one tool that has been used, that has not been used to discriminate against people, that I’m aware of, and that has actually been used to help a broader amount of people?”

Kum-Kum Bhavnani reminded the group that “Using the SAT in the way that the UC uses it protects the diversity of applicants.” “We all agree we need a new test, the report said that.” “So let’s do the feasibility study…let’s look at the data that is gathered and see how that affects diversity.” She warned that dropping testing would lead to GPA inflation and wealthier families zeroing on attaining particular GPAs for admission. She wanted to keep test-optional for one year, test-blind for one year, conduct the feasibility study and look at the data. She mentioned that when the data comes in, “There will also be a new president who can also be part of this discussion.”

John A. Pérez reiterated his position to the group: this motion “deserves our overwhelming support.” 

Regent Sures made a motion to amend Napolitano’s proposal: “Take the president’s proposal of test-optional for two years, stop it at that, and look at the data after one year, so we can make a data-driven decision once we’ve been in a test-optional phase.” To this proposal, Pérez responded: “It is your absolute right to make that motion; I think that it will likely fail.” To which Sures replied, “Thank you for encouraging me so much.” 

Sherry L. Lansing seconded Sures’s proposal: “I cannot ignore the recommendations of the Academic Senate and also the recommendation of Chancellor Wilcox and his enormous success at Riverside….I cannot ignore the data that they are presenting.” “I’m also encouraged by comprehensive and holistic review which minimizes the test, and finally I believe that any new test will be subject to the same problems of people paying to prepare for it or in some way getting advantages.” “I believe that we have a unique opportunity…to do a pilot…to get the data… and to see how hopefully it helps us with diversity.”

The Board voted on Sures’s motion, and the “No” vote ruled the day. Regents Sures, Zettel, Blum, Makarechian, and Lansing supported the amendment, but 18 members voted it down. At this point, Pérez called for the final vote on Napolitano’s proposal and everyone, to a person, fell in line to support it. Lansing, an obvious critic of the proposal, was transparent, “I’m going to vote yes, I don’t want to abstain, I want to join in unanimity with the board and support this motion.” Zettel added: “I will go with my colleagues and build consensus and go with a Yes vote.” Sures and the others decided to follow the move to vote with unanimity in spite of their obvious objections. The Regents voted 23 “Aye”s and zero “No”s to pass Napolitano’s proposal to eliminate the use of the SAT and ACT for California residents by 2025.

Implications

Most of the educators who will be working with UC students wanted to preserve SAT and ACT testing requirements, but the Regents, by and large, are not educators. They are CEOs, CFOs, lawyers, private equity partners, corporate advisors, govt. officials and heads of lobbying firms. They accepted the narrative that tests were hurting diversity, when UC’s own institutional data proved this was not so. 

Solving issues of diversity, access, and fairness is incredibly important, now more than ever. The tests appear to be an easy target; they are easy to rally against, and they seem like a potentially quick fix. But, as Prof. Eddie Comeaux recognized, the problem runs much deeper. The structural problems and disparate economic resources are driving the divide in UC admissions, and dropping the tests may even exacerbate this problem. The Regent’s sweeping decision may give the UC a false sense of having addressed these deep-seated problems.

The debate behind the UC decision reflects a larger national debate about the role of test scores in ensuring a fair, equitable, and holistic admissions process, and we don’t expect this conversation to end with the UC decision. As some of the UC testing critics point out, test scores correlate with parental income and education levels, a reality that results in racial and socioeconomic disparities in test results. These inequitable test results across groups can be seen as the tip of the iceberg, reflecting systemic disparities at every level of the educational system. We all have a role to play in either perpetuating or dismantling these disparities within our unique spheres of influence. 

At the college level, admissions offices need to correct for these disparities in their admissions processes. This means adjusting for bias in testing, and also in every other aspect of the college application where systemic differences in opportunity have an impact. If not, campuses across the U.S. will not have the fair representation or diversity that most institutions of higher learning aspire to create.

A new and improved test in 5 years?

The odds are slim that UC can develop a better, more predictive test that will not create a culture of test-preparation or reflect the same performance differences the SAT and ACT reveal, especially in a time of massive budgetary constraints. Modifying the SBAC, which the STTF noted has plenty of its own issues, may create new problems and solve none of the old ones. The STTF stated they would need nine years to develop a new test for UC, but now UC will have to find a way to do it in five years, almost half the time the professors, statisticians, and psychometricians called for. Several of the Regents, by their own words, are averse to any form of admissions testing and would be happy to see this project fail. Napolitano believes testing is beneficial and wants this project to succeed, but she may well be disappointed once the feasibility study emerges or once efforts get underway to develop and successfully launch a new, improved test by 2025.

A state-by-state testing model?

A new test may create an added burden for California students. Unless they are exclusively preparing to apply to UC or CSU, they may well have to prepare for the California test as well as the SAT or ACT. If other states follow the California model, you may have students preparing for California tests, and Ohio tests and private schools may enter the fray, developing their own tests. Other countries do not follow this model. It seems like a fool’s errand for every state or private institution to invest scarce resources to develop a customized assessment which may be no better than the national assessment. 

SAT and ACT tests will still be a factor for many UC students

By Napolitano’s plan, the UC will continue to factor in testing during the test-optional window for the next two admissions cycles. For 2023-2025, testing will no longer factor into admissions decisions for California residents, but the tests can still affect placement, scholarships and the statewide eligibility guarantee. For out of state or international students, testing could still be a factor in admissions. Even after 2025, the plan calls to “eliminate” the use of standardized tests for California residents but doesn’t specify admissions criteria for non-residents.

UC dropping the SAT and ACT will have ripple effects

The University of Chicago’s decision to go test optional influenced other schools to do the same, and we expect the UC decision to have a similar ripple effect. While we will not likely see many colleges decide to develop their own assessments due to the enormity of the project and low likelihood of success, we will probably see even more colleges pursuing a test-optional path. Hopefully, they will do so based on their own findings and institutional data. Every college is different and every college admissions office uses testing differently. What works well for one school may not work well for another and the best path is for each school to make holistic changes that empower its admissions team to tackle the issues of equity, representation, and diversity that are at the root of these changes.

California has set its path. Time will tell if it can create a better version of the SAT or ACT and build diversity by moving away from these established assessments.


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