American higher education loves a good test.
From AP exams and SAT tests for college applicants to the GRE, MCAT or LSAT for prospective graduate students, tests are a hallmark of admissions processes in nearly every U.S. university. Yet some schools are now putting tests to the test: Following a growing number of universities nationwide, the UC system has recently chosen to phase out SAT and ACT scores in its admissions decisions.
For more than a decade, research has found that high school GPAs are better predictors of college outcomes than test scores are, and admissions decisions based on high school grades also better represent low-income, Black and Latinx students. By contrast, SAT scores correlate strongly with affluence, suggesting they reflect students’ privileges more than their abilities.
In its discussion, the UC Board of Regents raised concerns about the tests’ racial bias and related economic obstacles. Given tests’ classist, regressive effects, however, the regents erred by also advocating the UC system replace the SAT and ACT with a test of its own. While a UC test could strive to avoid existing tests’ flaws, continued use of standardized testing would replace one faulty data point with another — all without solving the essential inequity.
The College Board has tried — and failed — to incorporate an “adversity score” in its test results that sought to quantify the hardship students faced. While its failure reflects the challenge of assessing adversity, its attempted introduction suggests a recognition of tests’ limitations: Individual numbers take students’ abilities out of context.
In the quarter century since California passed Proposition 209 barring race-conscious admissions, the UC system has failed to improve minority representation on its campuses. Becoming test-blind would help the UC system abandon admissions criteria that further inhibit diversity. And while being test-optional might help students with the best scores, rejecting tests altogether would do more to level the playing field.
In place of a UC-specific test, the regents should advocate for other criteria or divert more funds toward diversity and retention of underserved communities. If education is to be the “great equalizer,” then the UC system should not be in the business of elitism; instead, the UC system should end the use of tools favoring students who can retake exams or hire costly tutors. It should not take a pandemic for universities to recognize that many students face unequal opportunities in their efforts to earn admission.
So when the UC system reimagines its admissions criteria — as it should — it must not hand privileges and advantages back to those who already enjoy them. Eliminating one test only to devise another wastes time and resources and shows the UC system has not truly learned the lesson of testing. At a watershed moment, the UC system must not get cold feet.