The regents of the University of California spoke as one when they unanimously scrapped the Scholastic Aptitude Test in a virtual meeting last month.
“I believe the test is a racist test,” said one regent, Jonathan Sures. “There’s no two ways about it.”
But the regents’ decision flouted a unanimous faculty-senate vote a few weeks earlier to retain the SAT for now, after a yearlong study by a task force found the test neither “racist” nor discriminatory and not an obstacle to minorities in any way.
The 228-page report, loaded with hundreds of displays of data from the UC’s various admissions departments, found that the SAT and a commonly used alternative test, ACT (also eliminated), helped increase black, Hispanic and Native-American enrollment at the system’s 10 campuses.
“To sum up,” the task force report determined, “the SAT allows many disadvantaged students to gain guaranteed admission to UC.”
So how could the liberal governing board of a major university system reject the imprimatur of its own liberal faculty researchers and kill a diversity accelerator in the name of the very diversity desired?
The answer: The urgency of political momentum against the tests proved irresistible and swept away the research and data.
Standardized tests were created about 100 years ago by what became the College Board to provide qualified Jews, Italians, Irish and others a better chance of getting into elite institutions dominated at the time by privileged, well-connected, mostly Protestant families. The idea was that the test created a national standard by which all students from all parts of the country and backgrounds could be compared.
But over the years some minority groups have scored significantly lower on the test than others. This has led many educators, civil rights activists and some academics to argue that the tests are racially biased obstacles to the goals of opportunity and diversity.
They say the tests favor affluent families, most of them white, who are able to pay for things like private tutoring and summer enrichment programs of the sort that are out of reach for poorer families. This was the prevailing view among the UC regents.
The debate, far from new, is complicated and something of a scholarly maze with numerous research studies seeming to support one or another side of the question. But there was little ambiguity in the findings of the rebuffed UC faculty task force — scholars from different fields who in almost any context would be considered solidly liberal and who studied the SAT specifically as it is used in the University of California system.
According to their report, the UC system in 2018 admitted 22,613 applicants with weak grades but strong SAT scores. A quarter of those students were members of under-represented minorities, and nearly half were low-income or first-generation students.
Breaking down these numbers, 24 percent of Hispanics, 40 percent of blacks and 47 percent of Native Americans who gained admission to UC did so because of their SAT scores, not despite them, the task force found.
A far greater barrier to admissions than a student’s performance on standardized tests, the task force determined, is the low number of minority students who attend high school without completing the college prep coursework required to even be considered for admission at UC.
But among those who do qualify for the applicant pool, it’s more often their low grades rather than their test scores that get them rejected.
“UC doesn’t cut anybody any slack on his grades,” Andrea Hasenstaub, an associate professor and neuroscientist at UC-San Francisco and one of the drafters of the task force report, told the regents’ at May's meeting. “Students with lower grades are just not let in. This appears to be where [minorities] are getting cut out in the admissions process.”
Despite this finding, many opponents of tests advocate using high school grades as the key admissions measure, rather than test scores.
Many students who would not qualify for admission because of their low grades get places in the UC system because their SAT scores are over a certain threshold, even if those scores are lower on average than students from more privileged backgrounds. This explains the task force findings, as the report put it, that “the SAT allows many disadvantaged students to gain guarantees of admission to UC.”