RIP to the SAT

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S1: If you’d told me as a junior in high school that the SAT was going away, I’m pretty sure I could imagine my response pure, unfiltered joy. I spent hours prepping for this thing. I can still remember the slightly deflated feeling I got when my score was not exactly what I was hoping for. So when I heard that the University of California system had decided to chuck standardized tests for good? I kind of assumed teenagers were blasting out gleeful TikToks and burning their prep books. Theresa Watanabe, who covers higher ed for the L.A. Times, says That was kind of true.

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S2: I mean, when I sent out this tweet that you see had ended permanently ended standardized testing and the thing took on a life of its own like more than two million impressions and twenty four hundred likes because people, there’s just passionate feelings out there. No one hooray relief like the S.A.T. doesn’t accurately depict who I am or what my potential is. But on the other side, there are those who pushed back and said, this is the end of use quality. They’re going to just let in a bunch of unqualified students and they’re just doing this for political correctness. And you know, things got actually pretty heated and racial in some corners of the internet.

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S1: Sounds nasty.

S2: Yeah, it was getting pretty nasty.

S1: It got nasty because the University of California had said it was getting rid of standardized tests for the sake of equity, the UC system wanted to open up its most elite state colleges to more kids from different backgrounds. But Theresa says U.S. has had a tortured relationship with the SAT for decades. The New York Times first carried a headline saying the system wanted to trash the test back in 2001 and concerns being voiced back then. They sound nothing like today’s debate.

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S2: The U.S. president at the time was Richard Atkinson, and he had actually been concerned about the SAT, you know, from the 1940s when he was a University of Chicago undergraduate.

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S1: Atkinson didn’t trust that SAT to be a true measure of intelligence. He also hated that when he went to visit his seventh grade granddaughter. She was already prepping.

S3: She had a corpus of quite obscure words to memorize, and then she proceeded to construct verbal analogies using the words. I was amazed at the amount of time and effort involved, all in anticipation of the S.A.T.. Was this how I wanted my granddaughter to spend her study time now?

S2: And when he became president in 2001 of the U.S. system, he decided to make a splash. And he delivered a speech at a national education conference announcing that U.S. was looking at eliminating the use of the S.A.T. general test.

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S3: Clearly, the topic hit a deep chord in the American psyche. Over the course of the next several months, I received hundreds of letters from people describing their experiences with their SAT. I was on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. I was in a debate on Good Morning America. The major magazines such as Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report had covered stories.

S1: All this publicity brought a swift reaction from the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the SAT.

S2: I can only imagine panic in the College Board boardroom at the prospect of losing their number one customer. And so basically, the College Board agreed to overhaul the test and they agreed to adapt it to U.S. and specifically President Atkinson’s concerns. But, you know, again, nobody ever stops arguing about the exact right. And so, you know, they actually started deciding that, well, even with these changes, we’re still not satisfied. And so that’s when you began to really see this intensified focus on what are these tests doing to exclude or serve as admission barriers to students who are who come from low income backgrounds, who are first generation students who come from underrepresented minority groups?

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S1: Twenty years later, you see, is not so interested in a compromise today on the show. One of the country’s largest university systems is getting rid of the SAT. But before you get too excited about that is what’s replacing it any better? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Theresa Watanabe says the University of California system has always had outsized importance for the people who administer the SAT when the system first embraced the test back in 1968. It ended up changing college admissions everywhere else, too, you see.

S2: Put its stamp of approval on the test. And from there, it did start exploding in popularity in terms of what colleges were requiring. And now, as you know, the vast majority of colleges do require that asset. So it was really the U.S. move to require it. That is what catapulted that exam into the place of national prominence.

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S1: And that’s why ending the use of the SAT now seems to have such high stakes. What happened here is a years long drama involving warring academic factions, but it starts once again with an emboldened college president. This time, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano,

S2: U.S. President Janet Napolitano comes in. And in 2018, she asks the academic Senate to undertake yet another review of the city to see exactly how U.S. was using the test and whether changes were needed to make sure that it was not serving as an unfair admission barrier.

S1: So the academic Senate got to work, but within a year. Regents at the University of California, many of whom had long opposed standardized testing, were getting antsy.

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S2: There was this completely unscripted exchange at the Board of Regents meeting, where the faculty were still doing their review. They had not even come out with their recommendation yet, and the Board of Regents chair at the time, John Perez, asked the U.S. council Are

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S3: we required to wait for the academic Senate to complete its work before we decide whether or not to eliminate standardized tests as a requirement for admission?

S2: Was that were you growing? Were you throwing down the gauntlet and then the region vice chair said one thing we all know, we probably don’t need

S1: any more study

S2: or discussion of. Yeah, we don’t need any more studies. We don’t need any more research. And a bunch of region started chiming in about how we already know that the city, you know, is discriminatory. What do we even need all this research for? And Napolitano actually said, I would caution the board just let the academic Senate finish its work, and I think

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S4: they need to have the opportunity to finish it.

S2: When I saw that outburst at that meeting and I saw the board chair, the board vice chair and a bunch of other regents jumping in and saying, What do we even need this for? Let’s just vote and do do away with it. That’s the meeting. Worth it, OK? The city is going down. There’s no way with this lineup of regents they’re going to continue using it.

S1: Theresa says despite this overeager board of Regents and a political appetite to get rid of the test, the academic Senate continued on with their work and eventually delivered recommendations.

S2: In February of 2020, they came out with their recommendation to keep the test because they said, actually, it does help. Underserved minorities and low income students gain admission to, you see.

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S1: Hold it, hold it.

S2: Yes, yes.

S1: I’m so confused because I thought that the S.A.T. discriminated against households with lower incomes and diverse communities. Tell me more about what these academics were saying.

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S2: So the academics were saying that, you know, whatever biases the SAT itself had, the way the UC system was using it counteracted those biases. Hmm. So for instance, you see was admitting students from underserved communities with lower test scores than those from more resource communities. And so they were basically trying to correct for the bias by admitting students with lower scores. For instance, I remember at one campus, I think 50 percent of Latinos who scored a thousand were admitted to versus about one third of whites who scored one thousand in the S.A.T. and so they were taken into account that students from Low-Income backgrounds or from underserved communities who didn’t have those opportunities to do the test prep, you know, and who couldn’t afford to take all these practice tests and this and that, you know, they were correcting for that bias. And so the U.S. academic Senate found that given the fact that UC admissions officers were evaluating students based on their schools, their backgrounds, their communities, it was actually giving them a boost.

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S1: My understanding is that there’s this other very U.S. specific finding that there were certain courses that the U.S. system wanted potential students to take. I don’t know what they’re called and other states in California, I think they were called AG courses, and students from minority communities might not have taken those courses because they might not have been offered at their schools. And so therefore, the test gave them another way to prove that they were college ready.

S2: Yeah, that is correct. In terms of what the academic Senate found, that review committee found that three fourths of the reason that underserved minorities and low income and first-generation students were not being admitted to UC at the same rates didn’t have to do with the test. It had to do with the fact that they were not completing this course of college proprietary classes that you see required for admission, which are called a through G. And so they found that there were some students who maybe didn’t complete that or maybe had lower grades in that course work, but they got a test score. And so the test was actually helping them be admitted.

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S1: So if the recommendation from this group is to keep the S.A.T., how did we get to a point where now the U.S. system is getting rid of it?

S2: Well, needless to say, the academic Senate conclusion to keep the S.A.T. sparked this huge firestorm of debate. A 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, then you do show that the city and the use of it is an admission barrier. So you have these S.A.T. wars between separate faculty arguing over whether that conclusion was correct. Sounds like a food fight. Yeah, it was. It was a huge, huge debate and fight and people attacking people. It was very lively. And yeah, so you just had this huge uproar. And then the UC Regents, a few months later in May of 2020, voted to eliminate standardized testing requirements.

S1: The university regions gave the system five years to eliminate testing requirements, but they did leave one option open for UC to use a different test or develop one of its own. One that would be free from the problems of the SAT. But this month,

S4: and in accordance with the Regents May 2020 Directive, UC will continue to practice test free admissions now and into the future.

S1: Provost Michael Brown declared the end of testing for admissions decisions at a Board of Regents meeting. A university task force found an alternative test would take years to dream up, would be expensive to develop and probably wouldn’t even address the concerns about equity.

S2: Is this the end of the issue?

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S4: It’s the end for now.

S2: OK, OK, so we will not.

S1: In this video, you see Provost Brown nod silently, Teresa reported. This moment was conclusive and wrote that the issue was definitely settled at UC. I’m so confused by the idea that the test was an admission barrier, if reporting from these academic groups actually found that the test helped people get in. Do we know who’s right? Well, I

S2: mean, if you look at the full 2020 applications that you see, I got more applications for fall 2021 than ever before in the history of the university, more than 200000 freshman applications. And it was also the most diverse applicant pool ever.

S1: Well, so 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?

S2: Yeah, and because it was record admissions for fall 2021, it was also record rejection rates. So because there were so many more people applying for seeds, the acceptance rate did fall at UC. However, they do say that even though it got harder to get into a U.S. campuses, the class of those admitted was the most diverse ever in the history of U.S.. So you had fewer people getting in, but more diverse representation? Correct.

S1: When we come back, who really benefits from trashing the SAT? I think the thing that is troubling looking at the idea of getting rid of the SAT is from the admissions menu is that there might be a useful data point for certain kinds of kids. Like I interviewed this guy, GMAT Williams, who’s running for governor of New York a while back. He’s black. He grew up in New York City, he 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. And, you know, because he had Tourette’s, he was a known as a quote unquote behavior problem in school. His teachers, you know, had trouble with him. He just wouldn’t have had access to a good education, he says, without a test that sort of made his achievement into a simple number on the page. And I wonder if people in California are talking about that, too.

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S2: Well, that is exactly why you see started requiring the SAT back in nineteen sixty eight. It was a way to allow students who may not have the grades but have some kind of academic potential. It gives them another way into the system. And yes, I have talked to students who said, Well, this sucks because I’m a good test taker, whereas, you know, my grades were not that good. And so there is going to be a group of students whose grades are not that great, but who are good test takers, who are able to show their potential through things like a standardized test. And they’re not going to have that opportunity anymore. One of the big worries about relying on grades so heavily now is all the research that shows grade inflation occurs and grade inflation occurs at a greater rate in affluent communities. And so to think that getting rid of the asset 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 to gain advantage, whether it’s pressuring teachers to give their little kid in a not a big deal. So there’s that issue and then the other hot button issue that nobody talks about, but is 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 disproportionately in not only get admitted but also enroll at UC, whether there’s a city or not. And you know, the regents without saying so, really want to increase African-American and Latino student representation. And you know, if you have only so many seats, what does that do? It probably means that you’re going to start pushing down or narrowing Asian-Americans. 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 disadvantage another probably smaller group of students. So it’s just it’s a really difficult issue, and I think that’s why some campuses have stayed with test optional. Because if you happen to be a good test taker and you 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. But at UC, they’re not even going test optional. They are dropping the test. They’re saying this will have no place at all.

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S1: When will we know whether getting rid of the S.A.T. or standardized testing in general and the UC system has changed things in terms of how diverse the student body is, how equitable things are on campus?

S2: Well, we’ll already be able to to say how it has increased diversity. You see, will be coming out with their actual enrollment data, probably in the next few months. It usually comes out around January, so we’ll be able to see that all of the campuses probably have enrolled a more diverse class. But what’s going to be really interesting to watch is looking at first year persistence, first year grades. How did these students who were admitted without an to score? How did they do? Did they complete their courses? Did they get decent grades? And if it shows that there was no drop off or decline in performance, then that will be a strong indication. That test scores, in fact, can be eliminated with no, no negative effect. But if you see that higher than normal students dropping out or grades plunging, then you know that may give people pause about, all right, well, what do we do? I don’t think they’re going to bring the city back at UC anyway, but it’ll probably just require UC to really shore up their academic support, you know, offering more tutoring and offering more mentoring and offering more services for students to help them catch up and and do well in that first critical year of college.

S1: You’ve laid out how unknown things are when it comes to the tradeoffs of having the SAT as an admissions requirement or not having it. And it just makes me wonder a little bit like what do you think ultimately killed the SAT in the U.S. system? Was it concerns about equity? Was it something else? It sounds to me like it’s just politics, like like it’s it may be that the tea. Kept some kids out. It may be that it helped some kids in, but in the end, the decision about whether this thing should go wasn’t about those facts. It was about how it looked. And politicians making a decision. Yeah, we’re just going to get rid of this.

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S2: Well, I mean, I will tell you that the academic Senate chair of the admissions committee, it’s known as bors, which is a horrible acronym. And the chair of it is this UC Riverside professor named Eddie Como and Eddie. Actually, I think he probably supported dropping it. But he did say after the decision was made that politics and public perception drove the decision more than data, but quote that ship has sailed. In other words, there was nothing the academic Senate could do anymore because the regents had had already decided. But he did say politics and public perception is what drove it more than the data that the academic Senate had meticulously researched.

S1: Theresa Watanabe, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: Theresa Watanabe covers education for the Los Angeles Times. And that is our show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Carmel Delshad, Danielle Hewitt and Elaina Schwartz. We’re led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can track me down on Twitter at Mary desk. I hope you had a great holiday. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.