Opinion: The University of California system needs standardized testing

Originally published in La Plaza Press


In an effort to support low-income students and those impacted by school closures in the wake of COVID-19, the U.C. system is taking action to reduce the importance of standardized testing, namely the SAT and ACT exams offered by the College Board and the American College Testing (ACT) organization respectively. UC will be test optional for 2021 and 2022 applicants and test blind in 2023 and 2024. UC President Janet Napolitano sent out a memo to the U.C. Board of Regents detailing a plan for UC to find or create a standardized exam that more accurately tests what U.C. schools expect by 2025. However, this test may be given to California students only. Napolitano says, “If U.C. is unable to either modify or create a test that meets these criteria and can be available for applicants for fall 2025, U.C. will eliminate altogether the use of the ACT/SAT for freshman admissions”. According to the memo, the options for out-of-state applicants will be determined in 2025. 

(MIA ARANDA/ La Plaza art)

The largest issue with U.C.’s plan is that the SAT and ACT are the most objective predictors of academic success in college. It is true that higher-income students have an advantage in standardized testing, but this edge exists in all facets of college applications. Richer students are also more likely to get better grades, be involved in more extracurriculars, win more awards, and have access to more resources that aid them in the application process. The difference between standardized testing and the other aspects is in the name: standardized testing is standard for everyone. This cannot be said for any other factor that colleges may consider. One’s grades are additionally impacted by their teachers, course difficulty, and other factors which create grade inflation or deflation. If a student’s GPA was 3.95 unweighted, but they scored a 1150 on the SAT, it would be evident to colleges that the student benefited from grade inflation and is not as prepared for college as their GPA would suggest. Because the U.C. system is removing their benchmark of comparison, unqualified students such as the one previously detailed have a greater chance of acceptance. Conversely, a student that was hurt by grade deflation (3.7 unweighted GPA and a 1500 SAT for example) is more likely to get rejected than they should be. A wealthy student is presumably going to live in a wealthier area where extracurriculars are easier to access than in a lower-income area. It goes without saying that awards directly correlate with wealth as richer students are going to have better grades and test scores. Wealth also ensures the ability to pay for standardized tests, have a good home situation, purchase review materials, and even hire tutors. Yet, the U.C. system has not elected to stop considering these relatively unreliable, unfair aspects of college applications. 

Clearly, family income has a significant impact on a student’s SAT score. These scores fall on a 600-2400 scale, but the College Board now uses a 400-1600 scale. The 1300-1700 score range shown in the chart translates to a 870-1150 score range on the modern scale. In 2019, the average SAT score was 1060. (via The Washington Post)

If U.C. comes up with a test by 2025, it will have the same problems as the SAT and ACT. There is no way that U.C. can compensate for inequity in test scores caused by discrepancies in wealth. In fact, it will put even more stress on students applying to a variety of schools, some of which might still consider the SAT and ACT for admission. In that scenario, students would have to prepare and pay for at least two of those exams. Again, wealthier students would still have the ability to take the tests multiple times and access better resources. It would be even harder for low-income students to pay for all the tests they need to take and study for all of them adequately. The U.C. system must also ensure that any test they use must be equivalent in difficulty to the SAT and ACT. If out-of-state students have to send SAT/ACT scores while in-state residents submit U.C. exam scores, the tests must be comparable to avoid any more inequality.

As U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ said in November 2019, “[The SAT and ACT] really contribute to the inequities of [the U.C.] system.” Unfortunately, U.C.’s solution to the least flawed aspect of their system fails to address these inequities while creating even more problems for the low-income students it is supposed to benefit.

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