University of California System Ordered to Suspend Use of SAT and ACT Scores for 2020-21 Admissions

09 SEPT 2020

A Californian Court has ordered the University of California to suspend all use of SAT and ACT scores in their 2020-21 college admissions, siding with students with disabilities unable to access the tests during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, Judge Brad Seligman of the Alameda County Superior Court ruled that the University of California (UC) can no longer use ACT and SAT tests as a determinant for admissions for the foreseeable future.

The court found that the "test optional" policy at most UC campuses fell afoul of Californian anti-discimination laws, disadvantaging students with disabilities and less-privileged backgrounds.

The reasoning goes that it is these kinds of students who were least able to obtain accommodation and travel arrangements to attend the test during the pandemic. In-turn, it is these students who do not have the opportunity to optionally disclose their scores, and could not have their applications given favourable treatment if they had a great score. The only fair conclusion therefore was to do away with the tests.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen unprecedented change in the college application process. Remote classes, closed high schools and cancelled testing dates have led many colleges, including all 8 Ivy League colleges to make the SAT or ACT requirement optional. This court ruling is another interesting new chapter to the story.

In context, the UC system was one of the first universities to adopt a test-optional policy in late-April extending to 2021-2022, and in late-May announced that they were hoping to phase out the requirements over the next four years. Practically what the court ruling has done is nothing more than compel UC to do something they already planned to do, albeit much more abruptly. UC has expressed the possibility that they may challenge this decision in an appeal.

The ruling is potentially more significant for the discussion around the SAT and ACT’s place in the US college admissions process more widely. When it is considered that the University of California system is the largest university system in the US, boasting prestigious universities such as UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and UC Irvine, the decision is rather monumental, and potentially sets the stage for court challenges against universities in other US states.

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What are the Implications?

Many of the positive impacts are reflected quite clearly in the judgement itself.

There are no doubts that it is difficult for students with disabilities or from less-wealthy backgrounds to attend the tests themselves, given travel and accomodation is just not feasible during COVID-19. Ordering the university to not consider the scores, even when optionally disclosed, will create a more level-playing field for all students.

It has also been well-known for many years that students have disproportionate access to study resources for the SAT and ACT, with research consistently showing that students from wealthy backgrounds score disproportionately higher than students from low-income families. Thus, some suggest that the tests have become unfair, and that the tests themselves should be permanently phased out.

However, some think that the elimination of standardised tests might be detrimental to the idea of a holistic and fair admissions process. These thoughts are shared by the University of California, who said in a statement that it "respectfully disagrees with the Court's ruling."

"An injunction may interfere with the University's efforts to implement an appropriate and comprehensive admissions policies and its ability to attract and enroll students of diverse backgrounds and experiences," the spokesperson said.

At the heart of this argument is the fear of high-school grade inflation.

Top colleges have always wanted to attract and admit the most gifted, intelligent and driven students from around the US (and the world), and traditionally the SAT or ACT has been the fairest way to compare the diverse array of students’ academic talent.

Without recourse to the standardised test scores, colleges will likely have to place a greater emphasis on high school grades, which many consider to be subjective, as well as intentionally inflated by schools to increase their students’ chances of college admission.

What is going on in the UK admissions system right now is a further warning of the difficulties using high-school grades for university admissions, where widespread moderating procedures intended to limit the effect of grade inflation have instead meant that thousands of students missed out on their dream universities.

A large proportion of these students were from less-privileged schools, and were scaled down based on the school’s past performances. Clearly, this is the opposite effect eliminating standardised testing would hope to achieve.

In the UK, they have since rectified the situation, and up to 10% of students have had their grades upgraded under a revised grading model.

Thus, it is clear that if the University of California system, as well as the broader US educational system plans to move away from the SAT or ACT, they will need a plan beyond simply using grades.

The answer is most likely to keep standardized testing in some form or another, improving it so that it can be a better gauge of academic performance for people of all backgrounds. Indeed, the UC system has been planning to create their own standardized test, which they believe will “better align with the content the University expects students to have mastered for college readiness".

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