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University of California, Berkeley

University of California president Janet Napolitano last week proposed a revision in the way the system admits students: a five-year plan to gradually reduce and eliminate the role of the SAT and ACT in admissions. They would be replaced by a new test to be developed by the system in what could be the greatest challenge to the SAT and ACT to date.

These days, many colleges are going test optional, some because of the COVID-19 pandemic and only for a year or two. The University of California proposal is admittedly influenced in part by the pandemic, but work on the UC system plan started before coronavirus arrived in the United States, and it is designed to outlast the virus. As such, it could represent much more of a threat to the College Board and ACT than the temporary test-optional plans, because the University of California is so large and prestigious.

University of California campuses include the nearly impossible-to-get-into Berkeley and UCLA, but in recent years admission has become more difficult throughout the system. And California public colleges are barred from considering race in admissions -- resulting in very low numbers of black students and low numbers of Latinx students (relative to their share of the California population) at Berkeley and UCLA. The system has an overrepresentation of Asian Americans.

And the impact of race and ethnicity on the actions of the Board of Regents -- which is expected to approve the plan -- is significant. Many minority organizations don't like (to put it mildly) the SAT and the ACT. They are expected to back the plan. As are some Asian American groups. But other Asian groups are expected to oppose it, fearing that SAT and ACT scores are tools that help secure spots for Asian Americans.

"While we acknowledge that this recommendation is multi-faceted, the university would be remiss not to offer students flexibility beyond one admissions cycle. During this period, UC will learn what it can about how its own policies can advance (or limit) student achievement, access, school choice behaviors and educational outcomes," the plan said. "The university can also exercise its leadership in making available to students a properly designed and administered test that adds value to admissions decisions, enhances equity and access for more students, has a positive impact on student preparation, and does so in a manner that reduces the social and monetary burdens associated with the currently required ACT/SAT tests."

The Plan

These are the major elements of the plan.

  • For freshmen entering in 2021 and 2022, Napolitano proposes the UC system become test optional. (The system has already done this for 2021, citing COVID-19.) Students who opt to submit SAT or ACT scores will not have to submit the SAT writing test.
  • For freshmen entering in 2023 and 2024, UC would be test blind, meaning that SAT and ACT scores would not be used in admissions decisions for California residents. Out-of-state applicants could use the new test or the SAT/ACT. Historically, few colleges have gone test blind, but UC would only in part do so. That's because UC applicants could continue to submit SAT and ACT scores during this period for use in awarding scholarships, and for the state guaranteed admissions provision that grants admission to those in the top eighth of California high schools.
  • For freshmen entering in 2025, a new admissions test would be created and used instead of the SAT and ACT. All California students would take the test to apply, and it would be made available to private schools and out-of-state schools to use. Nonresidents and international students could submit either SAT/ACT scores or scores on the new test.
  • If no new test is available by 2025, the state will go fully test blind and eliminate the role of standardized testing in admissions.

The new test may also be embraced by the California State University system. Tim White, the chancellor of Cal State, has "indicated a willingness to work with UC on developing a new test," the proposal said.

"Because a UC test would provide feedback to schools about student performance in a range of academic subjects, it can potentially lead to increased academic rigor in high school courses generally, thereby ensuring that all students -- not just those identified as college-bound -- have access to a rigorous academic curriculum," the plan said.

There aren't very many details on the new test, which is crucial to the plan's success.


A faculty panel that reviewed UC admissions released a report in February that recommended keeping the SAT and ACT in testing, but suggested that if a better test could be created, that would be ideal.

Kum-Kum Bhavnani, chair of the systemwide Academic Senate and a professor of sociology at the Santa Barbara campus, said she didn't view Napolitano's recommendations as inconsistent with the faculty panel's. The faculty panel saw the creation of a new test as an expensive, complicated process, she said, and wondered about the "commitment" to it.

With Napolitano's support, if the Board of Regents endorses her view, that would be different. The commitment would be clear, she said.

Li Cai, a professor of education at UCLA, said he strongly supported the president's recommendations. He said the University of California system could easily gain support from others who want an alternative to the SAT and ACT but don't want to pay for it alone.

"While the [faculty] task force found that standardized tests have provided a useful tool to support the admissions process in admitting a more diverse pool of admits than the UC would have gotten, and to a substantial degree, admissions practices compensate for differences among student demographic groups -- we know we can do better," Cai said. "There is evidence that a new assessment system based on simulations and real performance can reveal much more about students’ reasoning, potential, problem solving and critical thinking skills -- all factors important to college and career success."

He added, "This new UC assessment will be an admissions test as opposed to a K-12 school accountability test as mandated by federal education legislation. It will be a high-stakes assessment -- it, along with other factors, informs the admission of a specific applicant to the highly selective UC system, and to a degree, the applicant’s success at a UC campus and beyond."

At the same time, the proposal is also attracting the support of those who would like to see standardized tests gone from admissions.

Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest: the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said that as UC manages admissions in the next few years, "standardized testing advocates will have an opportunity to create a new exam, presumably from scratch." He added, "That will be a very difficult task. In our nearly three and a half decades of monitoring standardized testing, FairTest has never seen an exam that is a better, fairer predictor of undergraduate success than applicants' high school records are."

The College Board has not commented (at least in public) on the UC president's proposal. The board had earlier praised the faculty panel for saying that testing should be maintained. "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 at the time. "This report celebrates the UC admissions professionals who use judgment and context to ensure that test scores advance underrepresented students."

ACT released a statement that said of Napolitano, "Her position contradicts those of the UC's standardized testing task force."

The statement added, "ACT respects the right of every college to determine its own admission policies, particularly in the midst of a crisis such as COVID-19 where flexibility and managing disruption is paramount. Despite the immediate effects of COVID-19 on admissions, it is clear that ACT scores add meaningful insight and significant value above and beyond other factors used in the college admission process. ACT scores are the only measure of academic readiness that is standardized and comparable across districts and states, and research shows that they are highly predictive of a student's first-year college success, retention and graduation. We encourage colleges to consider multiple factors, including test scores, in a holistic admissions process to ensure that students can showcase their strengths, offsetting weaker [grades] or enhancing stronger ones."

Wenyuan Wu, director of administration at the Asian American Coalition for Education, said that his organization is opposed to UC removing the SAT and ACT from the admissions process.

"Eliminating ACT and SAT masquerades underlying problems behind deteriorating quality of education in underrepresented communities," Wu said. The proposal "falsely correlates standardized test performance with socioeconomic backgrounds and race." He added, "Asian American students have consistently performed well on SAT, in spite of vast within-group diversity and prevalent poverty in many Asian American communities."

The Board of Regents will take up the issue Thursday.

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