UC Ruling: Helping Some, Hurting Others


Because of a ruling handed down by a federal judge August 31, The University of California will not be allowed to use SAT or ACT test scores in the coming admissions cycle.  The ruling is based on a concern that students with disabilities may be at a disadvantage in the admissions process due to their inability to receive full testing accommodations during the pandemic.  The judge has ruled that if some students cannot access their mandated accommodations, even in a test-optional admissions cycle, then no students will be able to use test scores to strengthen their applications.

Judge Brad Seligman found the arguments presented by the plaintiffs compelling.  Some of the plaintiffs were students unable to access their guaranteed accommodations.  Although no students are required to submit test-scores to UC during the next two admissions cycles, the plaintiffs felt they’d be at a disadvantage if they did not submit scores. One of the named plaintiffs, Gary W., argued that he “is not applying this year because he cannot take the SAT.” However, he’d be “happy to apply” if UC adopted a test-blind policy.

Eliminating testing from the admission equation may help Gary W., but it may also hurt many others, including students from underrepresented backgrounds. Many first generation and low-income students have for years relied upon testing to help secure access to UC schools.  As the comprehensive report issued by UC’s Standardized Testing Task Force made abundantly clear, testing has helped thousands of first-generation and low-income students secure admission to UC schools, especially in cases where their high school grades or rigor alone left admissions wanting further evidence of readiness. According to the task force:

“…the SAT allows many disadvantaged students to gain guarantees of admission to UC. As a share of all students in disadvantaged groups who are guaranteed admission to UC, the percentages who earn this guarantee due to their SAT scores range from a low of 24% for Latino students to highs of 40% and 47% for African-Americans and Native Americans.”

If we are to completely eliminate testing for all students, there is a reasonable chance diversity at UC will decline. The injunction granted in this case may help level the playing field for some, but may inadvertently create barriers to access for others.  

Leaving the test-optional policy in place would have allowed all students the opportunity to apply with or without test scores.  Within the UC system, different schools announced their own policies for managing testing well before the ruling was issued.  UC Berkeley had no intention of using test scores in admission, UC Riverside planned to consider test scores, if submitted, as one of many factors for admission, and UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis had planned to give students with robust testing a “second look.” These policies were decided based on the unique admissions profile of each campus, no doubt with the findings of the Task Force study and the role of testing in helping or hindering access at that particular school.

Strong test scores were not required by any school, but they were going to be a potential “plus factor” for several UC schools during this admissions cycle.  The ruling took issue with a plus factor not being universally available to every applicant.  Strong test scores are not unique in their ability to serve as an optional plus factor. Not all students have access to the exact same opportunities due to their unique circumstances.  Eliminating an optional admissions factor from consideration because it is not universally accessible sets a new precedent in admissions.    

This injunction only affects this round of admissions at UC, but it may have long-term consequences for the system. UC will now have to admit a class without test scores and with grades compromised by the pandemic. After the pandemic, when we return to some semblance of normalcy, UC will have its own particular challenges as it navigates its relationship with testing, with or without the SAT and ACT.

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