In summary

Marten Roorda, ACT: Test equity and fair access to higher education must be meaningfully evaluated and addressed on an ongoing basis. But attempting to fix the problem by reducing or eliminating standardized testing such as the SAT or ACT will create several unintended consequences that need to be fully considered.

By Marten Roorda, Special to CalMatters

Marten Roorda is chief executive officer of ACT, mroorda@act.org. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

California’s global economy and competitive workforce have been shaped in part by the state’s outstanding public university system and a shared commitment to the state’s entrepreneurial roots. To preserve California’s status as the fifth largest economy in the world, we must continue investing in a prepared and educated workforce.

Our elementary and secondary education system faces many challenges: lack of funding, safety concerns, ballooning class sizes and overburdened teachers. It’s no wonder that among all these challenges, school districts, particularly those attended largely by underserved students, grapple with adequately preparing students for college. 

The education of our nation’s younger generations needs serious attention. And yet, despite systemic issues in the system, standardized testing has become a convenient, albeit misguided, focal point for addressing inequities.  

The University of California Board of Regents is tasked with the enormous job of evaluating the use of standardized testing in the college admissions process, a deliberation that has become strained by a lawsuit claiming discrimination in the use of SAT and ACT scores in admissions assessments. 

A preliminary report issued yesterday by the UC’s Standardized Testing Task Force recommended that the UC system not move to a “test optional” approach due to the potential this move has to create a number of unintended consequences.

Without a doubt, test equity and fair access to higher education must be meaningfully evaluated and addressed on an ongoing basis. But attempting to fix the problem by eliminating standardized testing will create several new issues that need to be fully considered.  

Grade inflation is already a problem, particularly in wealthy districts and private schools where college counselors are provided, tailored learning resources are offered, and assertive parents negotiate with teachers. Relying more heavily on grade point averages will make admissions decisions more subjective.

Another reality is that some students are better at testing than excelling in the classroom. For these aspiring students, removing standardized testing would have the reverse effect of closing doors that would have otherwise been opened by their test scores. 

Universities that have adopted test-blind or test-optional standards tend to be much smaller than UC schools and have the capacity to use more personalized admissions criteria, such as in-person interviews and video introductions. 

This academic year alone, nine UC undergraduate campuses have enrolled more than 185,000 California students, a 10% increase from 2015. With this record-breaking number of applicants, UC institutions need to have all the tools available to make more holistic admissions decisions, not less. 

Lastly, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium has been promoted by some as an alternative to the SAT and ACT. 

However, the preliminary report by the task force also asserts that this test is limited to a few states, which eliminates the ability to compare students and school districts across the nation on an apples-to-apples basis.

Nearly every industrialized country relies on some form of standardized testing to measure student progress as a key indicator of global competitiveness and advancement. 

Relying on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium would not allow such comparisons. It would also perpetuate the same pattern of scoring differences for underserved students while further burdening California teachers.

Access and equity are big challenges in postsecondary education. Every student should have the tools and resources they need to succeed. 

As a non-profit research organization with 60 years of experience, ACT takes great pride in ensuring that our test is fair to all students, putting each question through a rigorous internal and external review process to guard against biases across demographics and geographies. 

We provide more test prep resources to students than ever before and offer nearly 55,000 fee waivers annually to low-income students in California, with a value worth more than $3.7 million. 

We know there is more work to be done. ACT stands ready to work with California leaders to implement a viable solution to equitable college admissions, one that avoids teacher burnout and added stress.

Let us collaborate to provide the next generation of students, job seekers and employers with the learning resources, assessments, research and credentials needed to succeed. 

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Marten Roorda is chief executive officer of ACT, mroorda@act.org. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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