Like any hotbed of scholarly activity, the University of California (UC) is no stranger to rows. Recently a debate over the use of SATS and ACTS, tests used in college admissions, has spilled out from campus into the courtroom. In December, a lawsuit denouncing UC’s use of the tests was filed in the Alameda County court. On February 3, a commission reviewing admission procedures recommended that UC should resist calls to abandon tests. More than 1,000 colleges across America have made submitting test scores optional for many students, though hardly any are completely “test blind”. UC is by far the largest institution to consider abandoning them. UC’s size (it has about 220,000 undergraduates) and prestige means others will watch what it does carefully.
First administered in 1926, SATS have faced criticism for favouring the wealthy since the 1940s — an irony, since they were originally adopted by Harvard to expand its intake beyond the boarding schools of the north-east. While the College Board, which owns SATS, has worked hard to eliminate egregious advantages for children from wealthy families — gone are the questions about oarsmen and regattas — there has been a persistent correlation between test scores and socio-economic status and race.
Academics have reached no consensus on how well the tests predict student success at university. Most agree on two things: that high-school grade point average (HSGPA) is the best predictor of college success and that tests, when combined with grade averages, make predictions more accurate. How much tests add is disputed. The College Board claims that the additional predictive power offered by the SATS is significant.
This controversy goes to the heart of an age-old question. Should universities consider themselves primarily as centres of academic excellence, and therefore strive to accept the students most likely to excel academically? Or should they accept a broader mission to improve society, which could mean sacrificing some academic excellence in the pursuit of a different definition of equality?
The plaintiffs’ arguments imply that no amount of predictive validity justifies the use of the tests in admissions. They allege that UC’s use of tests that are “demonstrably discriminatory” against “talented and qualified students” from poor families, under-represented minorities and students with disabilities, is illegal under California law. “Use of the SAT and ACT is not just indefensible policy,” argues Mark Rosenbaum, counsel for the plaintiffs; “it is illegal wealth- and race-discrimination.”
In January 2019, long before the lawsuit, UC commissioned a task force to review its admissions procedures. It found that the tests are as good as or better than high-school grades at predicting student outcomes. For under-represented minority students, youth from poor families and students who were the first in their family to go to college, tests are better predictors of success, as measured by subsequent undergraduate grades.
It concluded that the tests are not the main culprit. Three-quarters of the opportunity gap is attributed to factors that precede admission, most notably failure to complete required courses in higher secondary education.
Far from exonerating UC, the report validates the decision to file suit, argues Rosenbaum. The report merely shifts the blame for the inequalities in the UC system away from the “unlawful use of discriminatory and meaningless tests” and onto the California public school system. Given the sensitivity of the issue, the suit will be controversial and closely followed. It is unlikely to produce a satisfactory outcome. After decades of debate, experts are still unable to agree on either the facts or the morality of the matter. Given this, what hope have the courts?