Step forward for UC standardized testing policy reveals an uncertain future

Vanessa Zamorano/Highlander

The University of California Board of Regents announced they will be commissioning a study to examine the relationship between the SAT and ACT tests and college success at a Sept. 24 meeting on the UCLA campus, amid speculation that the system may be considering making the tests optional in admissions applications. The Regents’ willingness to recognize the fundamental shortcomings of these tests as flawed predictors for student success is refreshing, yet it leaves a number of critical questions unanswered about the future of a college admissions process that, for better or for worse, has been marked by relative continuity and predictability for the past several decades.

The University of California is facing pressure to scrap the standardized test requirement. A major study of 28 different unnamed colleges and universities by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that when these schools dropped the SAT/ACT requirement, the institutions saw increases in the number of applicants that were Pell recipients as well as from “racial and ethnic groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in college populations.” Furthermore, a number of distinguished colleges and universities, like Pitzer College, New York University, George Washington University and the University of Chicago, have already dropped the requirement.

In line with this momentum, the UC Student Association has pushed for the dropping of the standardized test requirement in line with its goals to advance equity outcomes in admissions. Caroline Siegel-Singh, president of the association, said that “we see the SAT and ACT as a gatekeeper to keep certain students out.” Regent Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of California Community Colleges, has also endorsed the tests’ abolition, saying “it’s more a measure of wealth than it is of preparedness, and it really does nothing to help a University determine who is the best applicant – so I think it should just be gone.”

There is a growing body of evidence that supports Ortiz Oakley’s position: The NACAC study found that high school grades are the single most important predictor of college success, and while the report found that standardized test scores paired with high school GPA “do a marginally better job” of predicting college success, there is much debate on whether that measure of success is evenly distributed across different student populations. A separate study by the same group reported “with almost 123,000 students at 33 widely differing institutions, the differences between [SAT/ACT] submitters and non-submitters are five one-hundredths of a [college] GPA point, and six tenths of one percent in graduation rates. By any standard these are trivial differences.”

What the SAT and ACT do predict incredibly well, however, is a family’s income, education levels of the test taker’s parents, likelihood of being of Asian or white ethnicity and whether the test taker had previously taken the PSAT, an additional, preparatory paid exam. These measures of course aren’t enough cause to justify the scrapping of tests alone. The fact that the tests are an inferior measure of academic achievement to just high school GPA, paired with the natural feedback loop of exclusivity it seems to create with wealthy, educated, white and asian families, presents very reasonable grounds to call for the repeal of the tests as a mandatory admission factor.

After all, wealthier and more-resourced students enjoy significant advantages in the realm of standardized tests. The tests themselves typically cost $64.50 and $67 per test for the SAT and ACT with writing sections, respectively. Wealthier students enjoy a lot more flexibility in knowing that they can take the tests multiple times with less worry about their or their family’s finances. Even more unequal is the test-prep industry, where students and parents willing to spend on their test scores are capable of buying top-tier or repeated instruction that many of their less privileged peers could never gain access to. Siegel-Singh shared an experience of her own on this phenomenon, saying that high scores can be “bought,” and claiming that a friend of hers spent $7,000 on SAT test preparation and as a result was able to increase her score by 400 points – close to a perfect score.

The SAT and ACT are clearly flawed, and are often said to favor the ability of students to “beat the test” rather than demonstrating their knowledge. To drop the SAT and ACT in their current form as rigid requirements would be an academically, socially and morally just decision by the University of California, a conclusion that is hopefully supported by the study recently commissioned by the Regents.

On the other hand, although the dropping of the SAT and ACT as requirements has been met with minimal enrollment and admission challenges for colleges and universities that have done so as of yet, it also seems clear that more widespread shedding of the tests as admissions requirements does have the potential to upend the continuity of the admissions process the country has seen for the past five decades. Former Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust has famously said “We could fill our class twice over with valedictorians,” and the College Board has reported that 47 percent of all high school students in the country graduate within the range of an A+ to A- average.

The primary value of these tests is that they help distinguish further between the vast numbers of students that have comparable GPAs, especially those who might have graduated with the same GPA with a very different level of rigor in their studies. The issue of course, is that in doing so, the tests typically do just distinguish between wealthy, educated, white or asian students and others, giving preference to the former.

In the absence of these tests as a sorting mechanism, however, it’s very conceivable that college admissions could become drastically more unpredictable, and much more weight would be placed on the other parts of students’ applications, like their essays and descriptions of their activities. These concerns become even more salient after reading UC President Janet Napolitano’s statement, which noted that reviews of how the UC uses tests and whether any changes need to be made is now even more important as the university system has increased the pool of candidates eligible for admission and is experiencing “an unprecedented growth in demand.” Perhaps this is what the system needs to demonstrate fairness to underrepresented populations, yet such a concept is untested on a national scale and should not be taken lightly.

Making the test submission optional seems like a reasonable and constructive, if imperfect, solution. While it will likely increase the presence of underrepresented student populations, it conceivably could segregate the means by which two different groups prepare for and apply to their higher education. Nonetheless, it would balance the scales between traditional and historically underrepresented student groups, and would grant students more flexibility in putting together their application.

A potential way to help preserve the continuity of how admissions have worked for the past several years while avoiding the aforementioned problems, would be to firstly remove the requirement of submitting an SAT or ACT, and secondly introduce new, superior forms of standardized testing. Less important are the specifics of such a test and more important is one, or even multiple, standardized tests that do accurately predict college success without being linked so clearly to parents’ education, wealth and race. The introduction of a test such as this is obviously a tall order; however it is surely possible, given the variety of ways in which students can showcase their potential.

One way to assist in the process would be to better integrate this standardized test directly into activities and curricula in students’ own high schools. Doing so could offer more equitable standards of instruction, and utilize school resources to increase financial accessibility for all students. Of course private preparation services would still exist for those willing to buy it, but at least all students would get a baseline of cursory preparation. In essence, the route to outcomes on the test would become much more similar to GPA, where every student goes through a normal class, but also may purchase private tutoring if they choose to.

As for the actual structure of the test, uniformity of a single test, with a choice from a variety of subjects for the test taker to focus on, could provide much needed equity and consistency for and amongst students, especially if test preparation became an integrated portion of these high schools themselves. A wide use of examinations similar to the SAT Subject Tests, however, could also offer increased flexibility to students who may struggle on parts of a general examination but have an exceptional ability in a subject they’d like to demonstrate. Accompanying this change however, would require similar commitments to public instruction and affordability, not to mention that colleges and universities would necessarily need to value these examinations more than they do currently.

Another group of examinations that act in generally the same manner, yet are not widely considered in admissions decisions, are Advanced Placement (AP) examinations. AP exams fulfill one of the previously mentioned requirements for an updated standardized test, as the preparation for the tests is taught for a nearly an entire academic year in a normal class setting. AP examinations are highly rigorous and are indicative of academic commitment to and mastery of a subject – colleges and universities should value them more highly when evaluating admissions. The possibility of this arrangement, however likely, would be highly beneficial for students looking to showcase their interests, skills and record to colleges on a more individualized level. One major hurdle that would additionally need to be cleared in this process however, would be the exorbitantly high cost of taking AP examinations, currently set at $94 per exam.

Current standards of testing for college admissions are broken; the fact that over 800 colleges and universities in the country do not require any test, while all others unconditionally do, shows the extent to which there is division regarding the topic and how many institutions are turning away from the flawed SAT and ACT today. Reviewing the SAT and ACT is a critical step that the UC Regents have rightfully taken, yet larger questions regarding the future of testing for admission decisions still remain.

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