A new lawsuit in California contends use of the SAT/ACT is not merely bad policy; it violates the California Constitution and anti-discrimination statutes.
Photo: ERIK LESSER/AJC
Photo: ERIK LESSER/AJC

Should colleges ditch the SAT and ACT?

Lawsuit contends tests discriminate against low-income kids and students of color

Is the SAT unfair to students of color and those from low-income families? That’s the contention of a new lawsuit against the University of California.

Plaintiffs in Kawika Smith v. Regents are the Compton Unified School District, six advocacy organizations, and four student plaintiffs.

The suit goes beyond the current trend of colleges making submission of SAT and ACT scores optional; it wants the massive California public college system to cease using the standardized tests to evaluate and admit applicants.

“I feel like I’m being minimized to a test score. These tests don’t reflect the way that folk like me are leading effective change in our communities that have been historically disenfranchised,” said Kawika Smith, a senior at Verbum Dei High School, in a statement. “The SAT and ACT amplify existing inequities in education by allowing students in wealthy areas to pay for expensive tutors and test prep – opportunities which students in my underserved community could never afford.”

“It is time for us to pivot — to stop ignoring the research and the harmful impact of not changing what has obviously unequally impacted students who otherwise would excel in college,” said Micah Ali, president of Compton Unified School District and president of California Association of Black School Educators. “I have seen it happen to countless students – their dreams deferred. No more. Not again. To not make a change is to be complicit in intentional harm that is being perpetrated against our most vulnerable students.”

The College Board’s 2018 data for California test takers show that 44% of white students scored 1200 or above, compared to only 10% of black students and 12% of Latinx students. Asian students have the highest scores but there are subgroups within that broad grouping that post lower than average scores. “For our young people from historically marginalized communities, the use of SAT and ACT to judge them and their potential is like educational redlining and causes even more trauma to them,” said Dillon Delvo, executive director of Little Manila Rising, a plaintiff in the case. 

This is not a fringe movement; many people are raising concerns about high-stakes testing and the use of a single score to decide a student’s worth and potential. Research suggests scores best measure family income, which explains the 400-point gap between the richest and poorest test-takers. Higher income families live in areas with top schools and are able to invest more in academic boosts,  such as tutors, math camps and ACT/SAT prep.

At an education panel last month, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said SAT and ACT scores “really contribute to the inequities of our system.” The University of California Academic Senate is reviewing the use of standardized tests for university admission, which the state’s Board of Regents will later consider in a decision on whether to change state policy on testing requirements.

Saying the lawsuit escalates the conversation from a policy one to a legal one, Mark Rosenbaum, directing attorney at Public Counsel, a nonprofit law firm, said in a statement, “Use of the SAT/ACT is not merely bad policy; it violates the California Constitution and anti-discrimination statutes, and is therefore legally and morally impermissible. Students should not have to endure the stress and expense of preparing for and taking the SAT, and the admissions process should no longer be contaminated by this discriminatory metric.” 

The lawsuit against the University of California Board of Regents “meticulously documents how the ACT/SAT test score requirement discriminates against low-income, historically disenfranchised minority, and disabled undergraduate applicants,” said Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director at FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “The complaint's data and arguments should persuade not only leaders of the University of California but their peers at many other institutions to eliminate reliance on biased and inaccurate standardized exams." 

In an interesting op-ed this weekend in the Washington Post, University of California at San Francisco assistant professor Stacy Torres recalled her own score on the test -- 1160 out of 1600 – and endorsed eliminating the SAT to give a broader range of kids a chance at higher education.

She wrote. 

Even discounting the cheating involved in the college admissions scandal, it’s clear that wealthy, sophisticated parents can give their children a lawful advantage by paying for test coaching or helping secure special accommodations, such as extra test time.

Like the students in the UC lawsuit, I faced hardships that didn’t help my scores. My family’s low income made me eligible for a fee waiver for the exam, but we couldn’t afford adequate heat in our house, let alone my school-sponsored test prep course or other tutoring. I prepared with a used Barron’s SAT prep book and handmade flashcards, and racked up lackluster practice test scores. That year, my mother died, leaving a raft of medical bills and upending family life. I made it to the exam only due to the kindness of a neighbor, who gave me a ride to the test site. I scored much more poorly on the SATs than anyone who saw my straight-A report cards (11th in a class of 611) would have expected.

While a growing list of colleges have adopted test-optional admissions, most selective schools, including Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and Emory, still require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores.

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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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