SAT study guides
SAT study guides at a bookstore in Emeryville. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

The debate over whether to stop using the SAT in admissions at the sprawling and nationally influential University of California is approaching a turning point. Anti-testing groups have filed a lawsuit demanding that the university drop the requirement for students to submit scores on the exam.

This year’s Varsity Blues scandal illustrated just how far wealthy families will go to game it. And a growing number of UC regents and chancellors are publicly questioning its usefulness.

Less obvious, however, is what a post-SAT University of California might look like. Would the university simply go test-optional — letting students choose whether to submit scores — or test-flexible, accepting another standardized test in lieu of the SAT and its lesser-used cousin, the ACT? Should standardized tests be used just to decide whether an applicant is eligible for admission, or to winnow the pool of well-qualified contenders? And are test scores a necessary part of admissions at all?

The stakes are high: UC is one of the largest recipients of SAT scores in the country, and California State University, the nation’s biggest public four-year university system, could follow its lead.

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“We understand what’s at stake here because whatever decision we make will have widespread impact on admissions policy nationally,” said Eddie Comeaux, a UC Riverside professor and co-chair of a faculty committee that will make a recommendation by early next year on whether and how the university should continue to use the SAT and ACT. “So that’s why we want to get it right.”

The battle lines over the use of the test are well-defined. Critics say it unfairly locks out low-income and non-white students from selective campuses, giving an advantage to students whose families can afford pricey test prep courses.

“If UC cannot legally consider the effect or race and segregation on test performance, neither should it consider SAT or ACT scores,” said Saul Geiser, a research associate at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education who studied SAT scores for students applying to UC from 1994 to 2016. Family background — including race, income and parents’ education — accounted for nearly 40% of the variation among students’ SAT scores in 2016, he found, an effect that had grown over time. Private schools are over-represented among high schools with the highest SAT scores nationwide, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis.

The College Board, which administers the test, has argued that it provides an objective measure of students’ achievement that can help balance the wide variation in how high schools award grades. It recently developed a dashboard with information on high school and neighborhood demographics that it says will help colleges consider students’ scores in the context of the opportunities available to them.

“The notion that we would get rid of a standardized, objective measure and put all of our eggs into the high school GPA basket in the name of equity is misguided,” Jessica Howell, the College Board’s vice president of research, said at a conference on admissions policy at UC Berkeley last month.

About 60 percent of freshman applicants to UC’s fall 2019 class submitted SAT scores, 20 percent sent ACT scores, and the rest took both exams. Cal State requires the test for applicants whose high school GPAs are lower than 3.0, or who want to attend a campus or program with high demand.

UC began requiring the SAT at a time when it was becoming a top-ranked research university and seeking to free up faculty from responsibilities such as teaching and overseeing admissions, said Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.

“Part of the reason for putting these tests in place was to change the kind of life faculty members lived, and part of getting rid of the tests and having it work well would also be changing the way faculty live,” he said.

Comeaux’s committee is examining how to shape the contours of that change, though the UC regents will have the final say.

Of the more than 1,000 colleges nationally that are test-optional, the University of Chicago perhaps provides the most relevant example. The university, which typically admits less than 10% of applicants, stopped requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores last year as part of a push to increase diversity in its student body.

In addition to grades and teacher recommendations, students can submit two-minute videos explaining why they’re a fit for the school, and choose from an array of quirky essay questions. (Sample prompt: “If there’s a limited amount of matter in the universe, how can Olive Garden offer truly unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks?”)

Applications went up by one-fifth the year of the change, according to the university’s director of undergraduate admissions, Peter Wilson. The school also saw a 24% increase in the number of first-generation students who enrolled, and a 60% bump in the number of rural students. Black students made up 10% of the new class, compared with 5% of the university’s enrollment overall, and the number of veterans on campus also increased.

Some of those increases could stem from other changes the university made at the same time as going test-optional, said Wilson, including giving automatic $5,000 scholarships to all first-generation students and recruiting more heavily in rural areas. The school’s 35 full-time admissions officers read just under 35,000 applications last year.

“Every high school in the world is assigned an admissions officer, so they’re each able to read the application in the context of where the student is coming from,” said Wilson. “We have admissions officers who are trained on reading Chinese applications. People find their niches.”

It’s unclear how that level of specialization would work at UC, where UCLA alone received more than 100,000 applications for its fall 2019 entering class and some campuses hire armies of temporary admissions readers. The university’s holistic review process takes into account 14 factors, including honors and advanced placement courses, class rank and special talents.

UC could choose to add scores from the state’s 11th grade assessment test to that mix, an option endorsed by a number of education researchers and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Every California student is required to take that test, which is known as Smarter Balanced and was developed at UC. The computer-adaptive exam predicts first-year college performance about as well as the SAT but yields more diversity among students at the top of the applicant pool, according to a study by the independent think tank Policy Analysis for California Education.

“It’s more aligned to our state standards, is a richer test in terms of the content that it covers and seems to have less of a disparate impact on underrepresented minorities,” said study author Michal Kurlaender. Accepting scores from the Smarter Balanced test as well as those on the SAT and ACT for a period of time would allow researchers to learn more about how the tests compare, Kurlaender said.

Because students already prepare for the Smarter Balanced test in class, those whose families can pay for tutoring might have less of an advantage, said Michael Kirst, a Stanford education professor and former chair of the state Board of Education.

“I can work with my teacher to improve my scores,” said Kirst. “That would be a very different strategy than ‘I’m going to go off and buy tutoring at some shopping center.’”

In South Dakota, where high schoolers also take the Smarter Balanced exam, the state’s Board of Regents automatically accepts students to five of its six public universities if they score a 3 or higher on the test. High school juniors receive letters congratulating them on their admission, part of a campaign to increase awareness about college among students who might not have considered going.

But South Dakota is not California: College enrollment there has been declining, while California’s public universities turned away more than 70,000 qualified students last year due to lack of space, according to the non-profit College Futures Foundation.

And some critics of standardized testing fear that raising the stakes for the Smarter Balanced exam would just replicate the same anxiety-driven test-prep culture that currently surrounds the SAT.

“Unfortunately, the stigma is that if you do poorly on these tests, you’re not ready for college,” said Rudy Acevedo, a UCLA student and member of Beyond the Score, a student group that’s lobbying the university to ditch testing requirements in admissions altogether. “It handicaps a lot of people.”

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said she is skeptical that the university would need to replace the SAT with another exam.  “I believe a student’s high school record provides ample evidence of their performance,” said Christ, who has publicly supported dropping the SAT requirement, and oversaw Smith College’s move to a test-optional admissions policy while serving as president there. “We know California high schools really well. I’m not sure we do need a substitute test.”

One challenge of using the Smarter Balanced test in admissions could be guarding it against cheating, a phenomenon that has continued to plague the SAT even as the College Board says it has spent millions to tighten security. “The pressures that would arise under Smarter Balanced testing if it were the royal road to UC would be unimaginably intense,” College Board CEO David Coleman told CalMatters earlier this year.

The test does have one security advantage, however — students take it in their home classrooms, cutting down on the kind of cheating exposed in the Varsity Blues scandal, where test-takers allegedly hired impersonators to sit the exam for them or traveled to a test site with a bought-off proctor.

If UC chooses to de-emphasize tests, it could give more weight to other factors, such as class rank. The university already guarantees admission to students who graduate in the top 9% of their class and otherwise meet UC eligibility standards — but those applicants don’t always get into competitive campuses.

By contrast, the University of Texas sets aside space at its flagship campus in Austin for top-ranked students from high schools statewide. The policy has increased diversity on the campus by admitting more students from the most disadvantaged high schools, said Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at UC Berkeley who’s studied it, at the conference. Applicants who were admitted this way graduated at higher rates than their peers, Rothstein has found.

UC could also follow the lead of some other colleges and universities that are seeking to become more rigorous at measuring personality traits like resilience and initiative.

“There are a lot of life outcomes affected by interpersonal skills, and we can do a much better job of evaluating them,” said Nathan Kuncel, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Minnesota who consults with colleges on admissions. (Kuncel has received research funding from the College Board.)

Eloquent essays and glowing letters of recommendation, said Kuncel, actually don’t correlate well with students’ success in college and the workforce because “they are so thoroughly mulled over by other people.”

Colleges can better evaluate students’ soft skills by asking recommenders to cite specific examples of situations in which applicants excelled, or designing interviews that test how a student would react to a real-life scenario, Kuncel said.

When several community organizations and the Compton Unified School District sent a letter to UC last month threatening to file suit if the university did not drop the SAT requirement, the groups mentioned giving more weight to grades and teacher recommendations, but did not call for any specific admissions strategy.

“We know that test-optional admissions is not a silver bullet that solves all access and equity problems,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest, an advocacy group that is supporting the suit.

The groups in the coalition have a variety of views on what could replace the SAT, Schaeffer said. “We all agree that the current system needs to be replaced. The remedy is for the courts to decide.”

Regardless of which path UC takes, eliminating the SAT requirement would likely not relieve the university’s ongoing capacity crunch. In fact, it could elicit more applications from students who otherwise might be deterred by their low test scores.

“The available evidence suggests the pool will get larger and more diverse,” said Chris Nellum, senior director of higher education research and policy at The Education Trust-West. “I think the UC is going to have to ask itself, ‘Can we accommodate those folks?’ ”

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation. CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.