The Board of Regents of the University of California spoke as one when it scrapped the Scholastic Aptitude Test in a virtual meeting last month.
“I believe the test is a racist test,” said one regent, Jonathan Sures, whose day job is co-president of the United Talent Agency in Beverly Hills. “There's no two ways about it.”
Unsurprisingly, given comments like that, the regents voted 23-0 to eliminate the SAT over the next five years -- a victory for the system's president, Janet Napolitano, who has long called for scrapping its use in university admissions.
But very surprising to some at UC was this: The regents' decision flouted a unanimous faculty senate vote a few weeks earlier to retain the SAT for now -- after a year-long study by a task force commissioned by Napolitano herself found the test neither “racist” nor discriminatory nor 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 – actually helped increase black, Hispanic, and Native American enrollment at the system's 10 campuses. The report recommended that their use be continued.
“To sum up,” the task force report determined, “the SAT allows many disadvantaged students to gain guaranteed admission to UC.”
The contradictory, lopsided votes raised the question: 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, according to numerous interviews with people concerned, is that the urgency of political momentum against the tests -- reflecting a wider national mood of racial grievance -- proved irresistible and swept away the research and data.
Now the university system faces the challenge of mollifying public opinion while coming up with a solution -- a test alternative or none at all -- that isn’t worse than the perceived problem, much in the way Black Lives Matter-inspired moves to “defund the police” raise obvious challenges of ensuring public safety.
Eddie Comeaux, a professor of education at UC-Riverside and co-chair of the faculty task force, said in a Zoom interview that “many of us thought that the process might be a political one.”
“There were several very prominent figures whose public statements made pretty clear their opposition to tests even before the task force started its undertaking,” he said. “The regents' vote was kind of preordained. There wasn't even much debate at the regent's meeting.”
“We know their minds were already made up because they said so publicly,” Kip Tellez, a professor of education at UC-Santa Cruz and one of the drafters of the task force report, said.
The regents, with ultimate authority over the governance of UC, are made up of unpaid political appointees, all but two of them on the current board named to their posts by Democratic governors, several of them by current incumbent Gavin Newsom, who has made no secret of his opposition to the SAT. Last year, for example, Newsom vetoed legislation that would have allowed school districts to use the SAT, instead of the state's own 11th grade tests, saying the SAT exacerbates inequalities for under-represented students.
Requests for interviews sent to the Board of Regents and to Napolitano's office were declined.
At the meeting last month, regents were given five minutes each to present their views, and a few did express some interest in the special task force's findings, but all of them in the end went along with the anti-test mood, testament perhaps to the power of the progressive, racialized narrative to sweep away opposition.
“I very much appreciate the task force's work and the database it put together,” one regent, Maria Anguiano, said, making the kind of argument that won the day, “but I also believe in peer review as part of the research process, and there's been decades of research showing that SAT scores are mostly correlated with wealth and privilege, so I can't support this use of this tool. It's an exclusionary and filtering mechanism.”
Perhaps ironically, standardized tests were originally 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 academic researchers 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 strongest correlation is with wealth, not success in college,” Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of California's huge network of two-year community colleges, told the 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. There is research that finds private tutoring gives rich kids an unfair leg up, and research showing that tutoring actually has an almost negligible effect on scores. While there is no doubt some correlation between scores and family wealth, an even stronger correlation may be between scores and the level of educational advancement within a student’s family. That would be one reason why many Asians from modest economic backgrounds have been acing the test — and getting into UC in numbers far above their proportion of the population.
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, or URMs, and nearly half were low-income or first-generation students.
Breaking down these numbers, 24% of Hispanics, 40% of blacks, and 47% of Native Americans who gained admission to UC did so because of their SAT scores, not despite them, the task force found.
“The original intent of the SAT was to identify students who came from outside relatively privileged circles who might have the potential to succeed at university,” the report said. “This original intent is clearly being realized at UC.”
A far greater barrier to admissions than a student's performance on standardized tests, the task force determined, is the low numbers 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' May meeting. “Students with lower grades are just not let in. This appears to be where URMs are getting cut out in the admissions process.”
Despite this finding, many opponents of tests, including several of the regents who spoke at the May meeting, advocate using high school grades as the key admissions measure, rather than test scores.
The task force’s report rebuts another frequently made criticism of standardized tests – that they are poor predictors of college success.
“Test scores don't just help predict freshman grades,” Hasenstaub said. “They also help to predict retention, graduation rates and final GPA, and this is true of students subdivided by income, race and family educational history.”
Ironically, even though the regents seemed to be against testing altogether, their decision technically left open the possibility that testing will continue at UC. Napolitano even told the meeting, “Our admissions process is better with testing than without it.”
The proposal adopted by the regents requires a feasibility study to determine if a new and better test can be devised within five years, one that, as Napolitano put it, would “more closely align with what we expect incoming students to know to demonstrate their preparedness for UC.” Only if the university fails to come up with such a test would standardized testing be eliminated altogether.
Some members of the task force and most of the regents certainly seemed to think a new test was a good idea. “I don't think we'll have a perfect test,” said Patricia Gandara, an associate professor of education at UCLA, “but I do think we have the technology to enable students to do better in a test that they can actually learn from.”
But others on the task force and even a few of the regents asked how a new test would avoid the flaws of the old ones, among them that it would still give advantages to the rich over the poor, that it would be expensive to create and administer, and that it would cause the same anxiety among students as the SAT and ACT.
“Why wouldn't we just be exchanging one evil for another?” asked Sherry Lansing, the former Hollywood movie producer and a member of the Board of Regents.
Li Cai, a UCLA psychologist and statistician, said creating a new test, or modifying the existing test California students now take to measure their progress, would be very expensive.
“You'd spend $150 [million] or $175 million, and at the end of the day, you'd end up with more or less the same thing,” Cai said in a Zoom call with RCI conducted after the regents meeting.
“It's just a smoke screen,” Haim Weizman, a chemistry professor at UC-San Diego and a member of the task force, said during the same Zoom call. “The regents didn't want to make a new test. They wanted to make a statement.”
At bottom, the debate has to do with something indisputable, which is that, with the notable exception of Asians, there are far fewer minorities and low-income students admitted to UC than their proportion in the population. According to the task force report, 37% of UC's students are under-represented minorities, but they make up 59% of California's graduating high school classes.
Years ago in California, the main way of redressing the balance was affirmative action, giving preferential treatment in admissions, especially to black applicants. But in 1996, a constitutional amendment known as Proposition 209, which banned consideration of race, was adopted by voters.
For a while, minority enrollment at UC did decline as a result of Prop 209, but in recent years it has actually gone up, thanks to what's known as “comprehensive” or “holistic” evaluation, by which the various UC admissions departments can use up 14 factors in an applicants' profile, test scores being only one of them.
Theoretically, race is not one of those factors, but in actual practice the admissions departments give preferential treatment to students from low-performing high schools and less affluent neighborhoods or to applicants who would be the first in their families to go to college, which often translates as black, Latino, or Native American students.
“Scores are interpreted differently for different groups,” Hasenstaub said. In fact, she noted, the average SAT scores of admitted black students is 200 points lower than their white and Asian counterparts – on a scale of 1600. “Low scoring applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds are admitted when applicants from advantaged backgrounds wouldn't be,” Hasenstaub said.
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.”