The governing board of the University of California (UC) voted unanimously Thursday to largely abandon the SAT and ACT as a condition for admission to its campuses. 

UC’s decision, ratified with 23 regent votes, represents a major loss for testing operators, which lobbied hard for the board to preserve the requirement. 

The system’s size and prominence in the higher education landscape suggests its move will influence other institutions to eliminate entrance exams. California is the largest testing market for the SAT, said Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest).

It also signals that the campaign to shift the country’s colleges away from the use of standardized tests in admissions is advancing. 

“It has a profound and long-reaching impact,” Schaeffer said. 

Opponents of the tests have long contended they disadvantage certain students, citing racially biased questions and a proliferation of exhaustive tutoring, which many low-income students can’t afford. UC was sued last year by advocates of students who made such arguments, but the system’s move away from the SAT and ACT does not end the lawsuits against it. 

For the next several years, UC will continue to use the exams to determine eligibility for its guaranteed admissions program and certain scholarships, as well as placement in some courses upon enrolling.

Dozens of schools have temporarily eased their testing rules in light of the ongoing health crisis. Prior to the pandemic, other institutions removed the requirement permanently, a sign that support for test-flexible policies was building. More than 1,220 institutions have gone test-optional for fall 2021, according to FairTest.

UC’s next steps

UC will develop or find a replacement admissions exam within five years. For the next two academic years, its campuses will accept and review test scores but not mandate them. In the two years after that, they will not consider them for in-state students. In the fifth year, all applicants would take the new assessment. If the system could not pick a replacement test, however, then it would still do away with the SAT and ACT for California students, while out-of-state students may need to submit their scores. 

The system received more than 172,000 freshmen applications for fall 2020.

The plan, which comes from UC President Janet Napolitano, serves as a compromise between system and faculty leaders, the latter of whom supported keeping the testing requirement in place for at least five more years. 

While several regents said during the meeting that they were ready to drop the tests more quickly than the timeline Napolitano proposed, others drew attention to the fact that her proposal did not match the faculty group’s recommendations.

Kum-Kum Bhavnani, the faculty representative to the regents, was explicit in her comments during the meeting, saying the tests are racist. But she called for the system to not outright ban them. Rather, she said, UC should be test-optional for two years to give it time to study admissions results, and then reassess its policies with the incoming system president. Napolitano’s tenure ends in August.​

Crafting a new exam might cost the system tens of millions of dollars during a period of extreme financial strain, some regents said. Napolitano stressed during the meeting, however, that UC has not determined the cost of a new test. Based on information faculty provided, some sort of admissions test is needed, she said, but the system is not prepared to drop the SAT and ACT immediately. 

Some regents also questioned whether a new test would address the system’s equity issues, and if it would differ from the SAT and ACT in that regard. 

A task force that studied the system’s use of the SAT and ACT in admissions found that about 37% of in-state freshmen admitted to UC campuses in 2019 were Latino, black or Native American. Meanwhile, 59% of California high school graduates were in those minority groups.

UC institutions have historically considered whether a student comes from a disadvantaged background and have “compensated” for differences in test scores by examining other aspects of their academic performance, according to the task force report. UC looks at 14 factors for admissions, though not race. Affirmative action in admissions is banned in California.

While some board members continued to refer to the task force’s report throughout the meeting, others noted that a large body of research has confirmed students’ scores on the SAT and ACT are tied to their families’ income. 

“This is an equity issue,” said Hayley Weddle, the student regent, noting that many other institutions were watching UC’s decision and that the system was lending to an “inequitable and predatory enterprise.”

Test makers aren’t pleased. 

The College Board said in an emailed statement that the move will force many students to take multiple entrance exams, including the SAT or ACT, and possibly the new test from UC. California is home to elite private institutions, such as the University of Southern California (USC) and Stanford University, which typically ask for the tests, though USC has temporarily suspended the requirement in light of the pandemic. Most students who enroll in a UC school also apply to California’s private colleges, according to the College Board.

“Regardless of what happens with such policies, our mission remains the same: to give all students, and especially low-income and first generation students, opportunities to show their strength,” the nonprofit’s statement reads.

Schaeffer, of FairTest, derided the College Board’s remarks as a scare tactic. 

“They’re trying to create a boogeyman of a test that possibly could be created down the road,” he said. UC will begin a feasibility study this summer to try to identify the new test. Schaeffer said he doubts the system will be able to create one that solves the issues of fairness and equity that many have identified with standardized assessments. 

The head of the ACT told the regents in a letter earlier this week​ that suspending use of the ACT and SAT will confuse students and raise questions of fairness by making admissions more subjective. Marten Roorda, the ACT’s CEO, wrote to the board criticizing the proposal and arguing it would strain the system’s budget.

“[T]hese new recommendations will further the uncertainty and anxiety of students and their families at a time when they need all the reassurances and resources we can provide,” Roorda wrote.

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