A University of California task force of professors recommended last week that the system keep the SAT or ACT in the admissions process, for now, but how much influence will the panel's recommendations have?
That's the key question -- not only in California but for many colleges and universities going test optional.
The committee report is a recommendation. The University of California system's president's office issued a statement that said in part that a final decision would be made in May, but it didn't share an opinion on whether the recommendations would be followed.
"The Senate’s faculty membership systemwide will review the report in February and March before submitting a final recommendation to President [Janet] Napolitano, who will bring the issue to the UC Board of Regents. The university aims to continue deliberating the role of standardized testing in our admissions process through a careful, fact-based approach so as to arrive at the most informed decision possible," the statement said.
In addition, the chancellors of the Berkeley and Santa Cruz campuses and the chief academic officer of the university system have -- before the faculty report -- endorsed going test optional.
The College Board, which owns the SAT, backed the report. "The standardized testing task force’s evidence-based report shows that the thoughtful and responsible use of testing by the University of California promotes diversity and success," the College Board said in a statement. "This report celebrates the UC admissions professionals who use judgment and context to ensure that test scores advance underrepresented students."
But the push for colleges to go test optional in admissions continues.
On Friday, the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska approved a new admissions system in which applicants will be admitted to the university's three campuses if they have a 3.0 high school grade point average. If students are under the age of 23 and want financial aid, they still must submit either SAT or ACT scores. The university's campuses are in Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney.
And this year, since last year's switch to test optional by the University of Chicago, has seen a record number of colleges go test optional, including Indiana University and Colorado College.
Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (a long-standing critic of standardized testing) said he didn't want to predict what the University of California would do. But he said there was "no negative impact on test-optional admissions" generally. Seven colleges have gone test optional this winter, the most for what is usually the slowest season of the year, he said.
Aaron Taylor, executive director of AccessLex Institute Center for Legal Education Excellence, said the University of California, if it accepts the faculty recommendations, will have missed an opportunity "to actually measure the extent to which test scores predict outcomes among their students. A test-optional policy could be adopted on a provisional or time-limited basis, say five years, and during that time, campuses could compare outcomes, such as persistence and graduation rates, between students who were admitted with test scores and those who were admitted without test scores."
The panel of the University of California that reviewed the SAT and the ACT was appointed by the UC Academic Senate. While the authors considered what it might look like for the large public university system to go test optional and not require SAT or ACT scores in the admissions process, they ultimately declined to endorse that option.
Pressure has been mounting on the UC system to hop on the test-optional train, as more than 1,000 other institutions -- including the University of Chicago and George Washington University -- have done. A lawsuit against the system, alleging that the standardized tests are biased and exacerbate inequality, is pending.
Critics of using standardized tests in admissions often point to differing scores among demographic groups. Minority and low-income students on average perform worse on standardized tests than their white and more affluent peers do. Using the tests perpetuates long-standing inequities, critics say, and the tests themselves are often not a great predictor of college success. Some research suggests that high school GPA may be more predictive of academic success in college than standardized test scores are.
The task force acknowledged that the system doesn’t fully represent the diversity of the state of California. In 2017, when 61 percent of California high school students were from underrepresented minority groups, only 31 percent of UC freshmen were from those groups (this category does not include Asian students). At Berkeley, the system’s most selective institution, only 18 percent of freshmen were from underrepresented groups.
In producing the report, members of the task force reviewed previous research and literature on standardized testing and also conducted empirical research themselves.
“The task force did not find evidence that UC’s use of test scores played a major role in worsening the effects of disparities already present among applicants and did find evidence that UC’s admissions process helped to make up for the potential adverse effect of score differences between groups,” the report said.
The report's authors concluded that UC admissions officers already were doing a fair job evaluating a student’s standardized test score in context of their demographics.
“For any SAT score, students from disadvantaged groups have a higher probability of being admitted than students from advantaged groups,” the report said. Campus admissions officers appear to be comparing a student’s test score not against the average for UC applicants, but against the average for similarly disadvantaged groups.
“The SAT allows many disadvantaged students to gain guarantees of admission to UC,” the report said, analyzing data that suggested that 24 percent of Latino students and 40 percent of African Americans who earned guaranteed admission did so due to their test scores.
"The original intent of the SAT was to identify students who came from outside relatively privileged circles who might have the potential to succeed in university," said the report. "This original intent is clearly being realized at UC."
Furthermore, authors said, analysis showed that test scores were better predictors of outcomes for underrepresented groups than for majority groups.
Dropping the tests without any other changes, the authors concluded, would result in an average incoming student with a lower first-year GPA, lower probability of graduating within seven years and a lower GPA at graduation. Subsidies and waivers for California students would need to increase to account for the average student taking longer to graduate. Providing support for at-risk students would be more difficult, they said, because those students would be harder to identify.
The UC system has a two-factor admissions process. The first step for students -- determining simple eligibility to the system -- is based only on test scores and high school GPA. The second step, which uses 14 different factors, determines admission to a specific UC campus.
The report recommended other concrete steps for the university system to take. Those approaches included expanding the number of students who are admitted through the state’s Eligibility in Local Context pathway. The system currently admits the top 9 percent of every high school based on GPA, but the task force recommended increasing that number.
Also among the recommendations was a suggestion that the system develop its own assessments. These new tests could be more predictive of success at UC and show smaller disparities between student groups than current standardized tests, allowing the system to admit a student body that would be more representative of the state, the report said. But development of those tests would take approximately nine years.
William Hiss, former dean of admissions at Bates College, said the move by UC faculty members likely is not a setback for the test-optional movement. “I would expect systems and institutions to make their own decisions,” said Hiss, who was the principal investigator on a large study suggesting tests fail to identify talented applicants with potential to succeed.
Ultimately, the report indicated some tension at the university system.
“UC does not believe that it can, by its own admission policies, single-handedly rectify the large differences in academic preparation among high schoolers that relate to family income and race/ethnicity,” the report said. “But given that UC has always faced two mandates -- to strive to admit prepared students who at the same time reflect the state’s diversity -- UC does strive to do its part to amend these inequalities.”