What Happens if the UCs Drop the SAT and ACT Requirement Permanently?

Matt Larriva
May 11, 2020

The Current Status

The UC system has dropped the SAT and ACT requirement only for the 2021 applicants. Students applying  for later years (e.g. Fall 2022) still must take the tests as per the UC’s guidelines. The faculty support reinstating the test requirement and voiced their opinions in a letter to the UC regents. Still, in a wave of testing-optional popularity, what would happen if the UC system dropped its testing requirement permanently? 

The existential threats facing the tests

It started with the Varsity Blues scandal, in which prominent families paid huge sums of money for their kids’ acceptances into top colleges. Already a polarizing topic, the fairness and validity of standardized testing was thrust back into the forefront public discourse. 

Established colleges like the Universities of California (UC) began raising the question of whether to keep or eliminate standardized tests as a criterion in the admissions process.

Then COVID19 answered the question before the regents of the university system could. Because The CollegeBoard and ACT were forced to cancel a number of test dates, the UC system followed suit by canceling their SAT and ACT requirement. 

Specifically, the UC system said this: 

The University recognizes the challenges that students are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, in response, UC is suspending the standardized test requirement for students applying for fall 2021 freshman admission.

Students applying for fall 2021 are not precluded from taking standardized tests (SAT or ACT) and sending scores if they are able. Doing so can support their statewide UC eligibility, application for certain scholarships, and help them fulfill some University graduation requirements. Campuses will adjust their internal processes accordingly to ensure that no student is harmed in admissions selection should they not submit a test score. This modification to the test requirement is not intended as an admissions policy shift but is rather a temporary accommodation driven by the current extraordinary circumstances.

While they note that their decision is temporary, our goal is to examine the impact to the institutions if they choose to make standardized testing optional permanently.

Pros & Cons of Standardized Tests

A common inquiry asks why we need standardized tests in the first place. The simple answer is that grades are not equal. Despite being on the same scale, an A+ does not mean the same thing in all schools; a 1600 on the SAT is unambiguous. 

Insurify’s data scientists compared the GPAs of high school students in different states and found that on average, South Carolina’s high school students have the highest GPA in the nation. While this should imply strong educational outcomes, South Carolina has neither the highest high school graduation rate nor SAT score. In fact, South Carolina’s high school graduation of 83.6% is slightly lower than the national average high school graduation rate of 84.6%, and South Carolina’s average SAT score of 1030 is also lower than the national average SAT score of 1059. In short, GPAs do not accurately represent the capabilities of students or present the whole picture. 

Standardized tests combat the problem of grade inequity by providing an objective and reliable measurement of academic performance. Unlike grades, which vary from school to school, standardized tests like the SAT and ACT compare the academic performance of students on the same assesment. Each student is tested on the same material under identical testing conditions. There is also little to no grading bias when it comes to these tests as all the questions on the SAT and ACT have only one right answer, whereas most school grades and letters of recommendation are given out by human teachers, who are subject to a greater degree of variability.

Still, these tests have their flaws. Opponents of standardized tests have long argued that the SAT and ACT are unfair and put lower-income high school students at a disadvantage, with wealthy students scoring much higher on the SAT on average due to advantages, such as tutors, afforded by their finances. Furthermore, harsh criticism of standardized tests has escalated after government authorities discovered that dozens of wealthy parents were involved with bribery and cheating on college admissions tests, strengthening the idea that it is easy to cheat on the SAT. But contrary to popular belief, this type of scenario is quite uncommon. 

Given the validity of arguments in pro and con, some schools find that a testing-optional policy splits the difference. This is not the case.

What happens after a school makes testing optional

In recent years, many colleges have dropped standardized tests from their admission requirements. The effects of their decisions shed light on the debate of whether standardized tests are truly beneficial to colleges and students.

A study performed by Hiss, Syverson, and Franks found that test-optional colleges were more likely to increase student diversity and attract more applicants. Be that as it may, it is possible that this increase in diversity was due to better marketing strategies or intensified efforts to recruit minority students.

In fact, a study conducted by Belasco, Rosinger, and Hearn has found the exact opposite. They concluded that test-optional policies did not actually increase a college’s economic and racial diversity. If anything, the test-optional policies only made it more difficult for students to be admitted and may have been an attempt to improve a school’s rankings. Because schools received more applications after becoming test-optional, they rejected more applicants, which lowered their acceptance rate and made them seem more exclusive. 

Furthermore, schools that adopted test-optional policies reported an increase in average SAT and ACT scores, probably because students with lower SAT and ACT scores decided to not submit them. An increase in exclusivity and average test scores leads to a higher ranking, because those who publish college rankings deem selectivity and high test scores as a measure of the school’s quality. 

An open question is, what will schools look at in lieu of test scores? The elimination of the SAT and ACT would leave admissions officers with less information on hand when judging an applicant. The current system considers (in this rough order) grades, extracurricular activities, test scores, personal statements, teacher recommendations, miscellaneous. Removing test scores from this equation would implicitly place higher weight on extracurricular activities as a factor in admissions. To whatever extent test scores and wealth are correlated, extracurricular activities are exponentially more. While test prep may be expensive, it is dwarfed by the cost of a lifetime of piano lessons and club sports. 

Instead, colleges are more likely to find success at creating an accessible admissions system with other measures such as terminating legacy status, which boosts applicants with close relatives who have attended the college. Harvard researcher Michael Hurwitz “[estimates] that the odds of admission for applicants with legacy status are 3.13 times the odds for those without legacy status.” He also could not find a direct correlation between an applicant’s academic strength and his or her benefit from legacy status. In other words, legacy status gave qualifying students an unwarranted advantage in the admissions process. 

It is not clear whether test-optional policies improve campus diversity, but what is certain is that these policies have little to do with making the overall admissions system equitable for all. 

The “Fairness” of the College Admission System

The college admissions process has been challenged several times in the past. Historically, landmark Supreme Court cases such as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) have debated the constitutionality of affirmative action. In these cases, the court ruled that consideration of race in admissions was constitutional, while racial quotas and admissions systems awarding points on the basis of race were unconstitutional. 

Despite the fact that the court has supported affirmative action in the past, there are people who try to dispute it even today. In 2018, Students for Fair Admissions, a group that opposes racial consideration in college admissions, filed a federal lawsuit against Harvard in which it claimed that race-conscious admissions policies are unconstitutional and discriminate against Asian-American applicants. However, in 2019, Judge Allison Burroughs upheld previous court decisions on affirmative action and ruled that Harvard’s admissions policy was not discriminatory. 

These cases demonstrate that making college admissions policies satisfactory to everyone is almost impossible. In a heterogeneous nation like America, differing views and opinions are inevitable, and people will naturally find it hard to unanimously agree on the matter of what is considered fair. 

Alternatives to the SAT and ACT

Without the SAT and ACT, colleges will have to find new ways to evaluate their applicants or choose to heavily rely on GPAs to assess their academic potential and strength. Some options that colleges can consider are to create a test themselves or look at state assessments. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to say if these alternatives will solve the heart of the problem.

One plausible substitute for the SAT and ACT is college specific tests where the UCs would make their own entrance test. This approach may strain possible applicants as they would have to worry about passing a test that only applies to the UCs. Applicants would also study for a standardized UC test for naught if they do not get into the UCs. On the other hand, the SAT and ACT are universal tests that are applicable to all American colleges and even some prestigious higher-level institutions abroad.

Instead of creating a new test, the UCs can replace the SAT and ACT with already existing standardized tests such as the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP). The CAASPP would be the easiest to implement and makes the most sense as it already tests high school students in California during their sophomore or junior year, and the UC system consists of universities in California. However, the Los Angeles Times reports that “Nonresident students constitute about 13% of UC’s total undergraduate student body.” Implementing this test for out-of-state and international students may prove to be a hurdle as the CAASPP only applies to California residents. 

If not tests, what else? Those exasperated by standardized tests propose a college application that is more focused on the individual. Some possible options include interviews or video responses. These kinds of methods allow admissions officers to see students’ distinct characteristics, instead of just reading about them on paper. For some outgoing individuals, this idea could be beneficial, but many outstanding individuals may suffer from this type of assessment if they less socially confident. All this to say nothing of the well-documented bias that is the halo effect.

Unfortunately, there is no foolproof solution for the college admissions system, as every type of assessment has its own set of merits and demerits. 

Conclusion

Both supporters and opposers of standardized testing have fairness at the core of their argument. The supporters want a fair way to evaluate students in a landscape of broad grade inflation, while the opposition argues that the tests only show us socioeconomic divides that we should strive to bridge. 

While standardized tests do indeed favor the wealthy, they do so because education favors the wealthy, unfortunately. These standardized exams are merely symptoms of problems in our society as a whole, including income inequality and the intense competitiveness of the modern college admissions system. Eliminating the tests will not eliminate inequality, but it would eliminate a standardized metric of evaluation that many students legitimately use to demonstrate their academic capabilities.

Dropping the SAT and ACT will not mend faults in the UC admissions system, but it may impair the UCs in their ability to assess applicants in an efficient and accurate manner. The ramifications of such a decision should be deeply considered by the UCs before they make a final decision.