U of California task force says don’t go test-optional just yet

A panel appointed by the University of California’s Academic Senate to assess the system’s standardized testing requirements has recommended that UC continue requiring applicants to submit ACT and SAT scores. The 18-member task force released its highly anticipated report on February 3 “amid enormous legal and political pressure” to drop the test requirements, the Los Angeles Times reports. 

Approximately 1,000 other universities around the country have made the decision to go test-optional, citing evidence that scores are correlated with socioeconomic background and parents’ education level. Given UC’s size and influence—more than 176,500 students apply to the system each year—observers have said the university’s decision could sway how other institutions view the role of standardized testing in college admissions. 

Why keep requiring SAT and ACT?

Following a year-long investigation, the task force concluded that dropping UC’s test requirement “could have significant, unanticipated, and undesirable effects on the profile of matriculating classes.” Specifically, models showed that simply dropping the tests would produce classes with lower grade point averages and a lower chance of graduating within seven years, Inside Higher Ed writes. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted several key explanations from the report, including the panel’s finding that at UC, test scores more accurately predict outcomes like dropout rates than high school grades. The assertion runs counter to emerging evidence that high school GPAs are stronger predictors of college success.    

Related: If California goes test-optional, could grades alone predict academic success? >

The report also cautions that using grades alone would be “problematic,” given inconsistency in schools’ grading patterns and the potential for grade inflation. The task force notes that high standardized test scores enabled UC to admit around one-quarter of the low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minority students whose GPAs would otherwise have been too low to qualify them for guaranteed admission. Moreover, the report says, having some students submit test scores while others opt out could reduce UC’s ability to compare individual students’ scores against typical scores from their local high school.

UC’s panel emphasized that the comprehensive way in which the system reviews applicants allows it to reduce test-related disparities. At all score levels, the report said, “students from disadvantaged groups have a higher probability of being admitted than students from advantaged groups.” 

Some demographics still underrepresented on UC campuses

The panel clarified that it is not saying that “consideration of test scores does not adversely affect [underrepresented minority] applicants.” The system’s student body doesn’t yet reflect the diversity of the state. In 2017, 31 percent of UC freshmen were African American, Latinx, or Native American, compared with 61 percent of California high school students.

Ultimately, the task force called for further research. The report also suggested that UC could develop its own admissions test, a process that could take nine years, and recommended widening GPA-based eligibility. Currently, the top 9 percent of each California high school’s graduating seniors receive guaranteed admission to the UC system.

What’s next?

UC’s Academic Senate will review the report and submit a recommendation to UC President Janet Napolitano, who, in turn, will share her recommendation with the Board of Regents. The board will make a final decision this spring. 

Noting the pressure on UC to go test-optional, including a lawsuit filed against the system,  Inside Higher Ed writes that “the task force’s report makes the administration’s final decision much harder to predict.” The LA Times writes, however, that “any rejection of the faculty’s final recommendations by the board… would overturn traditional practice and spark a political firestorm.”

Commenting on the findings, the College Board, which owns the SAT, said the report “shows that the thoughtful and responsible use of testing by the University of California promotes diversity and success.” Meanwhile, Bob Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest, which opposes standardized testing requirements, questioned the panel’s findings and called for an independent analysis of its data sets. 

Ultimately, the panel’s recommendation “was disappointing” for “the many yearning to see the first signs of a test-optional revolution in the Golden State,” writes The Chronicle. 

Northern Illinois U heads opposite direction

Just as UC’s panel reaffirmed the system’s commitment to standardized testing requirements, one university announced that it would eliminate them. Northern Illinois University says it has adopted a “test-blind” policy, meaning that it will stop reviewing test scores entirely. Instead, the university will guarantee admission to any applicant with a GPA of 3.0 or higher and will use high school grades to determine merit scholarship eligibility.

“Test-blind is our way to translate to students that we are going to take action on very compelling national and institutional research,” Quinton Clay, the university’s director of admissions, told The Chronicle of Higher Education

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