In summary

The University of California Board of Regents has done away with standardized testing as part of its admissions considerations for at least five years. In that time the system will see whether it can create its own test that’s more equitable to students of all backgrounds.

It’s time’s up, pencils down for the SAT and ACT tests at the University of California.

In a historic move likely to have national repercussions, the University of California Board of Regents voted today to stop requiring students to submit college-entrance tests the SAT or ACT for admissions purposes. The vote was a unanimous 23-0.

The system has given itself until the fall of 2025 to develop a bespoke standardized test for California residents. If the UC cannot create a new test that better aligns with what students learned in school, it’ll drop the testing requirement completely for Californians.  

The exams have long been the focus of critics who say they are racially biased, and that they give a leg up to wealthier students whose families can afford expensive test preparation. 

The landmark decision reverses more than 50 years of the UC’s reliance on standardized tests to determine who gets into the vaunted public-university system, whose nine undergraduate campuses regularly appear on lists of the top institutions in the country. The decision also parts with the recommendations of the influential Academic Senate, which supported use of the SAT and ACT earlier in the spring.

For six hours regents asked testing experts detailed questions about the purpose of the admissions tests, their ability to predict college success, and whether they’re a fair measure of what students actually know. 

Both backers and detractors of using the SAT and ACT agreed rampant racism plagues the K-12 education system. The disagreement was over whether the tests can compensate for those systemic biases.

“The main reason we are looking at SATs is because they are racist,” said Kum-Kum Bhavnani, chair of the Academic Senate. “No one disputes that.” But she stressed that a senate report released in February found that “the way in which the UC uses them stops them from being racist (and) actually provides some independent indicator of possible ways of thinking about the work.”

UC President Janet Napolitano said she was “unpersuaded that the value-add of the SAT and ACT was sufficient to outweigh” all the efforts the system makes to mitigate the correlations between test scores and family incomes and racial backgrounds of students. 

The new rules 

The revised admissions rules, spearheaded by Napolitano in a plan she unveiled last week, spell out different realities depending on whether a student is a California resident or not between now and 2024: 

  • For all students, the SAT and ACT will be “test-optional” in the admissions process until 2022. Students who don’t submit a test score won’t be penalized. 
  • For the 2023 and 2024 school years, the UC will not consider test scores from California students for admissions purposes.  
  • California students can still submit test scores to become eligible through the “statewide guarantee admissions,” which combines high school grades and test scores to give students a spot in any campus that has space if the student is in the top nine percent of applicants. 
  • Students can submit their test scores for certain scholarships and placement in courses.
  • Out-of-state students will be governed by the “test-optional” rules until 2024.
  • The essay and writing portions of the SAT and ACT requirements are  dropped beginning next year.
  • Non-resident students may still have to take the SAT or ACT in 2025 and beyond. They may also be able to take UC-designed test if it’s ready in time. The rules for non-resident students, who make up nearly 20 percent of undergraduates, are an open question.

The system will look into creating something new or adapting an existing test, such as the Smarter Balanced exam that public high school students already have to take as part of state K-12 standards. Whatever the UC comes up with may also be adopted by the California State University, a system of 23 campuses that educates nearly twice as many undergrads. 

Napolitano, who is scheduled to leave her role as president this summer, urged the board and academic senate to “drill down into factors that contribute to the disproportionate representation, or un-representation, of students from underserved communities within our student population,” She said. “We are a public university, after all.”

The UC Student Association largely supported the vote, but voiced concern about the role testing would play in other areas of decision-making, including whether students without SAT or ACT scores  “will be at a disadvantage when it comes to consideration for scholarships,” said a letter the association shared with the regents yesterday. 

“I believe this test is a racist test, there’s no two ways about it.”

Jonathan Sures, UC Board of Regents

The association also fully opposed any placement test. “While we understand the desire for a universal, standardized metric, it is hard to imagine that a new standardized test would somehow evade all the equity concerns of the SAT and ACT. Thus, we are skeptical about the implementation of a new test.” That’s a sentiment many regents shared, both those who signalled early support and opposition to Napolitano’s plan. 

The value in test-prep, said Varsha Sarveshwar, current president of the University of California Student Association, is that “a student has to set aside time in the evenings and weekends for weeks, if not months. I have that discipline today, as a 22 year old, but I sure didn’t have it when I was 16. When you pay for test prep, you paid to turn standardized testing into a class.” That may be a given for wealthier students, but it’s largely out of reach for poorer ones. “That is a classist and racist expectation,” she said. 

The chancellor of the state’s 115 community colleges, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, reminded the regents that the UC already admits students without the need for tests: the tens of thousands of students of community colleges who transfer into the UC each year based on their college grades and classes they took. Another regent quipped that maybe all students should pass through community colleges first before entering the UC.

Out with the old

The UC joins a fast-growing list of colleges and universities that have moved to make these tests optional in the admissions process in the past few years, including the highly selective University of Chicago. 

It also made its decision in spite of public lobbying from the ACT, which in recent months took to commentaries in California news outlets, including this one, warning about the consequences of removing a testing requirement in admissions. Doing so “will further the uncertainty and anxiety of students and their families at a time when they need all the reassurances and resources we can provide,” wrote the CEO of the ACT, Marten Roorda, this week in a letter to regents. The testing companies say a standardized test offers a point of comparison that high school grades alone cannot provide. Both the ACT and SAT extolled the power of using grades and scores in tandem to measure a student’s ability to perform well in college. 

Roorda in the past has also warned that doing away with standardized testing removes a check on grade inflation in high schools — something that’s more prevalent in wealthier districts and private schools “where college counselors are provided, tailored learning resources are offered, and assertive parents negotiate with teachers.”

A long time coming

The drumbeat to scrap the SAT and ACT has been a constant within the UC stretching back at least two decades. In 2001 then-UC President Richard Atkinson called for the system to stop using them for admissions decisions and replace them with another exam. In the past year, both UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and Board of Regents chairman John A. Pérez questioned use of the tests.

“They really contribute to the inequities of our system,” Christ said last year.

During the regents meeting today, UC Regent Jonathan Sures was direct. “I believe this test is a racist test, there’s no two ways about it.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a member of the UC regents, vetoed legislation last year that would have allowed school districts to use the SAT or ACT as a replacement for state standardized tests. Using the national tests “exacerbates the inequities for underrepresented students, given that performance on these tests is highly correlated with race and parental income, and is not the best predictor for college success,” he wrote in his veto message

Regents member and chancellor of the California Community Colleges Eloy Ortiz Oakley has waged a campaign against the SAT for several years, using the hashtag #dropthesat in Tweets. “SAT predicts wealth, is a sorting tool & robs hard working Americans of billions of $’s for test prep,” he wrote in one post.

The saga of the SAT and ACT has been one of seesawing momentum between backers and detractors of the testing requirement for admissions. 

Core to the arguments has been whether the SAT and ACT amplify racial disparities. Data about California SAT-takers in 2019 from the makers of the test, the College Board, show that while 12% of Hispanics and 9% of African Americans scored a 1200 or higher on the SAT, 45% of whites and 55% of Asian-Americans did the same. 

The regents’ decision to scupper the tests is at odds with the recommendations of the Academic Senate, an influential body within the UC system, which in April voted to keep the SAT and ACT as admissions requirements for another five years until they could study the question again. 

“The major barrier to college access is not the SAT/ACT, but access to quality education and resources at the K-12 level,” wrote Kum-Kum Bhavnani, the chair of the Academic Senate in a letter to Napolitano after their April meeting.  

Those decisions were based on data from a report released in February, which found whatever impact the SAT could have on racial disparities in admissions is neutralized by the UC system’s comprehensive admissions process.

That over-correction didn’t exist for high school grades. Low-income students and those from under-represented communities had lower high school GPAs than did wealthier students, but “UC admissions process did not appear to compensate for (high school GPA) as it does for test scores,” the task force report said.

Critics of the report include Saul Geiser, former director of admissions research for the UC system. In May, Geiser displayed new data showing that 40% of the variation in SAT scores among UC applicants can be explained by student demographics like family income and race. By comparison, only 9% of the differences in high school grades can be explained by  student background. 

Napolitano said that the UC will review the feasibility of a new test by January of next year. She said the system could conclude that a new test is unfeasible and reverse course.

Correction 9/22/20: An earlier version of this story mistakenly attributed a quote from UC Regent Jonathan Sures to Board of Regents chairman John A. Pérez.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource...