In  a report released today, the Academic Senate Standardized Testing Task Force recommended against the effort underway in Calfiornia to make standardized tests optional for public college applicants.
Photo: Maureen Downey/AJC
Photo: Maureen Downey/AJC

Much-awaited California report advises: Keep the ACT, SAT admissions requirement

The ACT and SAT ought to remain admission requirements at University of California campuses, according to a report from faculty leaders released today. 

A year in the making and awaited by both sides of the testing question, the preliminary faculty recommendations represent a setback for critics  who insist the ACT and SAT are better indicators of family income and parent education than student merit. 

Those critics felt a decision by California to drop testing requirements would lead other states to follow suit.

In its findings, the Academic Senate Standardized Testing Task Force recommended against the increasing attempts -- both in the courts and in the public square -- to make standardized tests optional for public college applicants in California.

In November, UC Berkeley chancellor Carol Christ came out in favor of abandoning the SAT/ACT requirement. In December, the Compton Unified School District filed a lawsuit against the University of California, alleging the testing mandate discriminates against college applicants with disabilities, low-income students and racial and ethnic minorities.

The task force said its research didn’t show the use of test scores worsened the effects of disparities already present among California applicants because the admissions process blunted the potential adverse effect of score differences between groups when necessary. 

The task force wrote there were “pragmatic concerns about how campuses would evaluate and compare applicants who submit standardized test scores relative to applicants who do not; whether and how campuses would impute, explicitly or implicitly, test scores to applicants; and ethical concerns about how to treat students in the two groups fairly. The current UC admissions practice of putting each applicant’s test scores into context by comparing them to all applicants from the same school, thus allowing readers to identify students who performed exceptionally well given available opportunities, could no longer be used if students could choose whether or not to submit their test scores.”

The faculty review set out to answer key questions about admissions tests.  Among them: How well do the University of California’s current standardized testing practices assess student readiness?

Here is a key passage that contends the SAT and ACT are more reliable predictors of student performance in college than high school grade point average, especially in light of  growing grade inflation:

Standardized test scores aid in predicting important aspects of student success, including undergraduate grade point average retention, and completion. At UC, test scores are currently better predictors of first-year GPA than high school grade point average, and about as good at predicting first-year retention, undergraduate GPA, and graduation. and higher likelihood of graduating within either four years (for transfers) or seven years (for freshmen).

Further, the amount of variance in student outcomes explained by test scores has increased since 2007, while variance explained by high school grades has decreased, although altogether does not exceed 26%. Test scores are predictive for all demographic groups and disciplines, even after controlling for high school GPA.

In fact, test scores are better predictors of success for students who are underrepresented minority students, who are first-generation, or whose families are low-income: that is, test scores explain more of the variance in undergraduate GPA and completion rates for students in these groups.

One consequence of dropping test scores would be increased reliance on high schools grade point average in admissions. The Standardized Testing Task Force found that California high schools vary greatly in grading standards, and that grade inflation is part of why the predictive power of high school GPA has decreased since the last UC study.

A big issue for critics of testing has been the racial and ethnic disparities on California campuses. 

In 2019, only 37% of in-state students in the admitted freshman class were Latino, African American, and Native American. Yet, about 59% of California high school graduates were underrepresented minorities.

The report addressed that concern and  whether standardized tests contributed:

Analysis of admissions results by the Task Force concluded that UC considers students’ contexts when evaluating test scores. Applicants from less advantaged demographic groups are admitted at higher rates for any given test score as a result of comprehensive review, which is a process that evaluates applicants’ academic achievements in light of the opportunities available to them and takes into consideration the capacity each student demonstrates to contribute to the intellectual life of the campus.

The point was not what the Task Force expected before we commenced our data analysis. Task Force members took note of the average differences in test scores among groups and expected to find that test score differences explain differences in admission rates. That is not what we found.

Instead, the Standardized Testing Task Force found that UC admissions practices compensated well for the observed differences in average test scores among demographic groups. This likely reflects UC’s use of comprehensive review, as well as UC’s practice of referencing each student’s performance to the context of their school.

The Task Force found that test scores appear to receive less weight in admission than high school grades: for example, for every campus, the admit rate is much higher for applicants with high high school GPAs and low SATs than for those with high SATs and low high school GPAs

The recommendations go now to the full Academic Senate and then to University of California President Janet Napolitano in April.  The final decision will then be made by the University of California Board of Regents.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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