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University of California Considers Phasing Out Standardized Tests

SACRAMENTO — In a debate with major implications for the future of standardized testing, leaders at the University of California are expected to decide Thursday whether to effectively eliminate the SAT and ACT as requirements for admission at the system’s 10 schools, which are some of the most popular in the country.

The system’s Board of Regents is considering a proposal from its president, Janet Napolitano, to suspend the tests as an admissions requirement until 2024 and eliminate them after that as the university develops its own test for applicants.

The system has already temporarily suspended the testing requirement for current applicants because of disruptions created by the coronavirus pandemic, a move made by many other colleges nationwide.

Ms. Napolitano’s recommendation came after several years of pressure on the University of California system, including a lawsuit filed last year by a largely black school district in Compton, Calif., and a coalition of students and advocacy groups, who argue that the time-honored tests discriminate based on race and income.

It remains uncertain what path the regents will follow, however. A range of members, including the board chair, John A. Pérez, a former State Assembly speaker, have questioned the value of test scores. But the president’s proposal runs counter to a recommendation from the system’s faculty senate, which voted in April to keep the SAT and ACT.

And the board planned to vote only after hearing hours of testimony from political, civil liberties and testing organizations.

Ms. Napolitano’s proposal would make the tests optional for two years, then remove them entirely as a requirement for entry for in-state students, while giving the university time to develop its own customized test for admission, perhaps in collaboration with other California schools. If that test isn’t available by 2025, the university would drop standardized test scores from its admissions formula entirely.

The cry to do away with standardized testing has been growing for several years and only deepened after last year’s college admissions scandal. Opponents argue that the tests are biased against students who are poor, black and Hispanic, and too easily gamed by those who can pay for test preparation courses.

But the University of California’s decision is expected to have an outsized impact on the future of standardized testing because of the system’s size — some 300,000 students attend annually — and popularity among applicants. Six of its schools top the list of most-applied-for in the nation, with the University of California, Los Angeles, consistently the most sought after. And four-fifths of applicants to U.C. schools take the SAT, making the system the largest source of customers for the College Board.

The regents’ decision could influence other universities in California, as well. Ms. Napolitano wrote that the state’s other four-year system, the nearly 500,000-student California State University, “has indicated a willingness to work with U.C. on developing a new test.”

Standardized test scores are just one component of a complex formula for admission to U.C. schools, which includes high school grade point averages and other metrics. The state guarantees a berth to the top 12.5 percent of California high school students.

Supporters of standardized testing have argued that the ACT and SAT provide an important yardstick to assess students across disparate school districts and states. And the College Board and ACT Inc., which own the tests, say any inequities in scores reflect existing gaps in the American educational system, and are not a fault of the tests themselves.

But as California has struggled to maintain campus diversity since voters passed a 1996 ban on affirmative action, pressure has grown on the U.C. system to take action as its top campuses, such as U.C.L.A. and the University of California, Berkeley, have become almost as difficult to get into as some Ivy League schools and demographically dominated by white and Asian students.

For the last 20 years, black enrollment at the U.C. schools has scarcely broken 4 percent, though African-Americans represent 6.5 percent of the state’s population. Nearly 40 percent of the state is Hispanic, the largest ethnic group in “majority-minority” California, but only 22 percent of students in the U.C. system are.

Advocacy groups and lawsuits have been pushing colleges and universities across the country to make test scores optional in admissions, a movement that started largely at small liberal arts schools but has been spreading.

The highly ranked University of Chicago, which went test-optional in 2018, reported last year that the entering freshman class had nearly a quarter more first-generation and low-income students and 56 percent more rural students than the prior year, with about 10 percent opting against submitting test scores.

In response to criticism, the College Board proposed a new SAT scoring system last year that came to be known as the “adversity score,” which would put each student’s results into the context of that student’s school or neighborhood. But the company withdrew that proposal after being criticized for trying to distill complex factors into a single score.

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Carol Christ, now the chancellor at U.C. Berkeley, was one of the first university administrators to eliminate the SAT requirement nearly two decades ago when she became president of Smith College in Northampton, Mass. On Thursday, she told the regents that she viewed the SAT and ACT as “a biased instrument” that would only become more skewed in the wake of the pandemic disruptions.

But a U.C. faculty task force commissioned to study the impact of standardized tests found earlier this year that the SAT and ACT predicted college success within the system more effectively than high school grades or other measures.

In fact, the task force found, in many cases the tests gave a leg up to black, Latino and low-income students by offering an additional metric for admissions officers who might have rejected them because their grades didn’t meet the university’s threshold.

That task force recommended in February that the university keep the ACT and SAT, pending the development of its own standardized test for admission, a process that it estimated would take nearly a decade.

Amid pushback, Ms. Napolitano proposed that the regents split the difference, fast-tracking the new test while turning test scores into a temporary metric for out-of-state applicants, scholarships and assessing eligibility for the 12.5 percent in-state cutoff.

Faculty response to Ms. Napolitano’s recommendation was publicly neutral, but some involved in the report have privately predicted that her proposal would make admissions more subjective and confusing, and it drew fire from conservative editorial boards and testing organizations.

“These new recommendations 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,” Marten Roorda, the chief executive of the ACT, wrote to the regents, adding that dropping the tests “will make admissions much more subjective.”

Anemona Hartocollis contributed reporting from New York.

Source: NY times

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