School

Is the SAT the Wrong Villain in College Admissions?

A crowd of students in front of Berkeley's Sproul Hall
Berkeley High School students assemble in front of Sproul Hall on the University of California–Berkeley campus for a protest on Nov. 9, 2016. Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage

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This month, the University of California system had decided to chuck standardized tests from its admissions process, for good. This is a long time in the making, as UC has had a tortured relationship with the SAT for decades: The New York Times first carried a headline saying the system was looking to abandon the test in 2001. At that time, UC’s then-president didn’t trust the SAT to be a true measure of intelligence; the concerns being voiced led to further discussions on whether the exam served as an admission barrier to students who come from low-income backgrounds or were first-generation students from underrepresented demographics. Now, UC has said it’s getting rid of standardized tests for the sake of equity, to open up its most elite state colleges to more kids from different backgrounds. Not only has the debate has become nastier, but the next steps are also of concern: One of the country’s largest university systems is trashing the SAT, but is what’s replacing it any better? On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Teresa Watanabe, who covers higher education for the L.A. Times, about who really benefits from trashing the SAT. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: The University of California has always had outsize importance for the people who administer the SAT. When the UC system first embraced the test, back in 1968, the test was so massive that it ended up changing college admissions everywhere else—which is why ending the use of the SAT now seems to have such high stakes. What’s happened here is a yearslong drama, involving warring academic factions.

Teresa Watanabe: It was really the UC move to require it that catapulted the exam into a place of national prominence. In 2013, Janet Napolitano, former secretary of homeland security, came in as UC president and asked the system’s Academic Senate in 2018 to undertake yet another review of the SAT—to see exactly how UC was using the test and whether changes were needed to make sure that it was not serving as an unfair admission barrier.

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In February 2020, the Academic Senate came out with a recommendation to keep the test because it said the SAT actually does help underserved minorities and low-income students gain admission to UC.

I thought the SAT discriminated against diverse communities and households with lower incomes and. Tell me more about what these academics were saying.

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The academics were saying that whatever biases the SAT itself had, the way the UC system was using it counteracted those biases. For instance, UC was admitting more students from underserved communities with lower test scores than students from more resourced communities—so it was basically trying to correct for the bias by admitting students with lower scores, for instance. It took into account that students from low-income backgrounds or from underserved communities didn’t have opportunities to do the test prep, take all these practice tests, etc. Soo the UC Academic Senate found that—given the fact that admissions officers were evaluating students based on their schools, their backgrounds, their communities—the SAT was actually giving them a boost.

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My understanding is that there’s this other UC-specific finding: that there were certain high school courses the system wanted potential students to have taken. Students from minority communities might not have taken those courses because they might not have been offered at these schools, so therefore, the test gave the students another way to prove they were college-ready.

The Academic Senate found that much of the reason underserved minorities and low-income and first-generation students were not being admitted to UC at the same rates as other candidates didn’t have to do with the test. It had to do with the fact that they were not completing these college prep classes that you see required for admission. There were some students who maybe didn’t complete those classes or maybe had lower grades in that coursework—but they got a test score, so the test was actually helping them be admitted.

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So if the recommendation from this group is to keep the SAT, how did we get to a point where now the UC system is getting rid of it?

Well, the conclusion to keep the SAT sparked this huge firestorm of debate and lot of pushback. There were other faculty members who completely opposed the Academic Senate conclusion and in fact produced a dueling report that said the Academic Senate committee had failed to factor in demographic information. And if you do that, you show that the SAT and the use of it is an admission barrier. So you have these wars between separate faculty arguing over whether the Academic Senate conclusion was correct. You had this huge uproar, and then the UC regents, a few months later in May of 2020, voted to eliminate standardized testing requirements.

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The regents gave the university system five years to eliminate testing requirements, but they did leave one option open: for UC to use a different test, or to develop its own, one that would be free from the problems of the SAT. But this month, provost Michael Brown declared the end of testing for admissions decisions at a meeting. A university task force had found that an alternative test would be expensive to develop, take years to dream up, and perhaps not even address concerns about equity. I’m so confused by the idea that the test was an admission barrier if reporting from these academic groups found that the test helped people get in. Do we know who’s right?

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The system got more applications for fall 2021 than ever before in the history of the university, more than 200,000 freshman applications. It was also the most diverse applicant pool ever.

An opportunity to apply, though, is different than actually being admitted. What happened once the university had to make a call about who’s in and who’s out?

Yeah, because there were record admissions for fall 2021, there were also record rejection rates. Because there were so many more people applying, the acceptance rate did fall at UC, and it fell at almost every campus. However, UC said that in spite of this, the class of those admitted was the most diverse ever in the history of the college. You had fewer people getting in, but more diverse representation getting in.

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I think the thing that is troubling about the idea of getting rid of the SAT from admissions is that the test might be a useful data point for certain kids. I interviewed Jumaane Williams, who’s running for governor of New York, a while back. He’s a lifelong New Yorker who is Black and has Tourette’s, and he talked about the fact that he got into a specialized high school in New York City only because it was exclusively a test-based admission. He just wouldn’t have had access to a good education, he said, without the test. I wonder if people in California are talking about that too.

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Well, that is exactly why UC started requiring the SAT back in 1968: It was a way to allow in students who may not have the grades but have some kind of academic potential. I have talked to students who’ve said, Well, this sucks because I’m a good test taker, whereas my grades were not that good. There is going to be a group of students who are able to show their potential through things like standardized tests, and they’re not going to have that opportunity anymore.

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But one of the big worries about relying on grades so heavily now is all the research that shows grade inflation occurs at a higher rate in affluent communities. So, to think that getting rid of the SAT is going to get rid of the role of wealth and privilege in admissions is probably not realistic, because people with resources will figure out a way to gain an advantage. The other hot-button issue that’s the elephant in the room is what this is going to do to Asian American applicants or students who are accepted into UC, because Asian Americans have been disproportionately admitted to UC. The regents, without saying so, really want to increase Black and Latino student representation. If you have only so many seats, what does that do? It probably means you’re going to start narrowing Asian American admissions. So a lot of Asian Americans are really, really concerned about that as well.

So, while it may be good for a broad swath of students, it will probably also disadvantage another, probably smaller group of students. It’s a really difficult issue, and I think that’s why some places have stayed with a test-optional process. Because if you happen to be a good test taker and want to use that to show your potential or your fitness for this college, you can submit it and it will be looked at and considered.

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