A Big Mess

That's what the University of California has created in admissions, writes David Benjamin Gruenbaum.

May 26, 2020

Déjà vu. Just about 20 years ago, I was in the same place: about to speak in front of the University of California regents because the University of California president wanted to get rid of the SAT.

Twenty years ago, the path was so clear to me: Why would the University of California get rid of the SAT and pick a different test (there was talk of moving to five separate SAT subject tests) and doom high school students to taking two, three, or who knows how many tests, just because, given a choice, surely many other colleges would also choose a different college admissions exam? Instead of creating that debacle, I suggested this -- how about just asking the College Board to create a new SAT so as to fix the issues the UC system had with the current SAT?

You wouldn’t have believed how many people fought me. And yet, that is exactly what happened … The UC president listened to me, the UC regents listened to me, they asked for a new SAT and the College Board created a new SAT.

Now, 20 years later, I was speaking again in what I thought was the same scenario. I made what I thought were great points: If you don’t like the current SAT, why don’t you just ask the College Board to change the test? If you want to create a new UC test, why don’t you create the test first and then switch from the SAT? If that doesn’t work, why not go test optional? (I pointed out that two years ago my alma mater, the University of Chicago, had gone test optional, and the number of minority students attending the University of Chicago has already increased dramatically.)

During the final meeting before the vote, I heard regents echo some of my points, and I heard a representative of the UC faculty use solid data to defend the continued use of the SAT for UC admissions. I also felt that the people supporting the UC president’s plan really had no good answers for my questions.

I couldn’t watch the entire meeting (work and children). But every time I turned on the live conference, I felt energized by the regents’ questions, thinking, “Wow, they may actually vote this down!”

However when I heard the UC president speak, I realized what was really going on. This was never about an issue with the SAT: it was about finding a way to get more minority students into the system.

California is 38 percent Hispanic. So, some groups feel that UCLA and Berkeley, still the UC celebrities, should be 38 percent Hispanic, instead of being closer to half that amount.

And they’re right! On average, 38 percent of Berkeley and UCLA should be Hispanic. In fact, I would be happy to see UC be 100 percent Hispanic, if those were the best qualified students. Truly qualified students deserve admission, regardless of ethnicity. But what is the point of shoving in a bunch of students who aren’t prepared and will flunk out just to reach certain percentages? Twenty years ago, John Moores, then the San Diego Padres owner, spent a huge amount of his own money to fund a study that showed that many students with low test scores, regardless of race, flunked out of Berkeley. His reward? The majority of the UC regents turned their backs on him because Moores’s study didn’t fit the UC agenda. This year, the UC president commissioned UC’s own faculty to study the SAT issue, and they came to the conclusion that the SAT should be kept as part of the UC admissions process. So, facts don’t matter; agendas do.

Let me clarify my personal position: I am an independent. I see both sides of most political situations. I speak Spanish fluently, and I have taught many SAT classes for low-income students. We are all tired of the racism card. The SAT is not a racist test and supporting the SAT is not racist, just as it is not racist to consider finding ways to admit more low-income Hispanic students to one of the country’s top university systems. Everyone is just fighting for what they believe in.

But the SAT is an accurate assessment of students’ verbal and math skills, and now, at least for the UC system, it’s all gone. It was already going to be bad enough this year. UC admissions offices will have to make decisions using a mangled second-half-of-junior-year GPA. (Will they at least take my suggestion and use the first-half-of-senior-year GPA this admissions season in place of the end of junior year?)

Just think how crazy this stupid UC plan is: the UC admissions offices will have to change its admissions policy every two years. Last year, the SAT was mandatory; now it’s optional; in two years, the UC system moves to test-blind admissions; two years after that, it’s supposed to be the new UC admissions test.

Except that it won’t be.

And now where do we stand? The University of California is a public system, and yet from here out, it can completely hide how decisions are made. The SAT was a standard; GPA is a mess. We all know how uneven grading processes are at different schools. I even taught a group of students who bragged about their principal, saying that he changed everyone’s grades to straight A’s when it came time for college applications. How many other crazy GPA stories are there? High school GPA is simply not good enough by itself to determine college admission.

So, to the hundreds of thousands of California’s top students who are now officially screwed over: welcome to U don’t C.

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David Benjamin Gruenbaum, together with his wife, Heather, owns the private education company Ahead of the Class. Gruenbaum has personally prepared over 8,000 students in Gruenbaum Academy, as well as for the SAT and ACT.

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