The University of California System Abandons the SAT/ACT: Will SUNY Follow? How Will Prospective Students Be Selected?

In a historic move likely to have national repercussions, the University of California Board of Regents voted … 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 debate over college admissions has been ongoing for years, many years: Are the current tests discriminatory? Can you create a non-discriminatory test? Are other methods, for example, class standing discriminatory to another class of students?

The Scholastic Aptitude Test, the SAT, has been around, in many forms, since the 1920s.  The SAT (and the more recent ACT) have been the gatekeepers determining admission to colleges. Elite colleges have required higher scores and have made allowances for legacy students, students of alumni, commonly contributors to the school.

The research is overwhelming re the discriminatory impact of current “standardized” tests.

The evidence for a stubborn race gap on this test does… provide a snapshot into the extraordinary magnitude of racial inequality in contemporary American society.

 Standardized tests are often seen as mechanisms for meritocracy, ensuring fairness in terms of access. But test scores reflect accumulated advantages and disadvantages in each day of life up the one on which the test is taken. Race gaps on the SAT hold up a mirror to racial inequities in society as a whole.

 Equalizing educational opportunities and human capital acquisition earlier is the only way to ensure fairer outcomes.

The evidence that the SAT has a “disparate impact” is clear.

A 2015 analysis from Inside Higher Ed found that in each of the three parts of the SAT (reading, writing and language and math), the lowest average scores were among students from families who make less than $20,000 in family income, while the highest averages were among students from families who make more than $200,000.

  SAT scores showed continued patterns in which white and Asian students, on average, receive higher scores than do black and Latino students. And, as has been the case for years, students from wealthier families score better than do those from disadvantaged families.

 In December, 2019, a long awaited law suit was filed challenging the use of the SAT and the ACT in California,

“Rather than fulfilling its vision as ‘[a]n engine of opportunity for all Californians’ and creating a level playing field in which all students are evaluated based on individual merit, the [University of California] requires all applicants to subject themselves to SAT and ACT tests that are demonstrably discriminatory against the State’s least privileged students, the very students who would most benefit from higher education,” the lawsuit states.

“These discriminatory tests irreparably taint UC’s ostensibly ‘holistic’ admissions process, …The mere presence of the discriminatory metric of SAT and ACT scores in the UC admissions process precludes admissions officers from according proper weight to meaningful criteria, such as academic achievement and personal qualities, and requires them instead to consider criteria that act as a proxy for wealth and race and thus concentrate privilege on UC campuses.”

Rather than defending the lawsuit, the California Board of Regents is planning to abandon the tests.

A growing list of colleges has made their application process “test optional,” see list of colleges here.

If you abandon the use of the SAT and the ACT, how do you select students?

The California Board of Regents laid out a plan, that includes attempting to create non-discriminatory tests.

In the meantime the system will become “test optional,” although prospective students can seek admission under current rules,

California [residents] 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.

 If the new process results in fewer Asian and White students and more Afro-American and Latinx students will the plan be challenged in the courts? 

 The Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote supported the University of Texas “Top Ten Percent Plan,” the Court wrote,

 Top Ten Percent Plan was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. … Previous precedent had established that educational diversity is a compelling interest as long as it is expressed as a concrete and precise goal that is neither a quota of minority students nor an amorphous idea of diversity. In this case, the Court determined that the University of Texas sufficiently expressed a series of concrete goals along with a reasoned explanation for its decision to pursue these goals along with a thoughtful consideration of why previous attempts to achieve the goals had not been successful. The University of Texas’ plan is also narrowly tailored to serve this compelling interest because there are no other available and workable alternatives for doing so.

With the retirement of Justice Kennedy (a “yes” vote) and the addition of Justices Gorsuch and Gallagher (probable “no” votes) the California plan will have to be carefully crafted.

The federal court challenge to the New York City; the use of the Discovery Program to admit greater numbers of Afro-American and Latinx students to the Specialized High Schools is still alive in the courts, although stumbling,

Plaintiffs argue that the Discovery program changes, though facially neutral, discriminate against Asian-Americans because the changes disproportionately hurt Asian-Americans and, critical here, Defendants intended the changes to do so. The Court finds that Plaintiffs are not likely to succeed in showing discriminatory intent and the program changes are thus likely subject to rational basis review. As a consequence, Plaintiffs are not likely to succeed on their equal protection claim.

I anticipate a long and winding road.

Will the New York State SUNY Board consider following the same pathway?

To the best of my knowledge the SUNY board has shown no interest in the issue; although as the COVID catastrophe begins to wind down and we begin to return to the “new normal” the issue may begin to surface.

For every applicant admitted another applicant is rejected, the number of seats is a constant: Can you devise a plan that is acceptable to all applicants and the courts?

In New York City the answer is “no” for the Specialized High Schools: a complicated and contentious issue involving race, class and ethnicity; will it be different in California? Or SUNY?

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