As I wrote in January, the whole University of California system was planning to abandon the usual standardized tests used to assess applicants from high school (SATs and ACTs). They did this despite a committee convened earlier to study the problem, which recommended that these standardized tests be retained as they were better predictors of college performance than were grade-point averages. The University ignored the advice of its own committee. As I wrote then,
Recently, the University of California decided to eliminate tests like SATs as requirements for in-state applicants, making them optional for the next two years. Then, in 2023, students will not be allowed to even submit those scores. This happened despite the recommendation of both its own Chancellor and a panel convened by the University system itself, both of which recommended that SAT-like tests be retained as mandatory for applicants. The only reason that the University could possibly have for overriding its own panel’s recommendation is that test scores highlight racial disparities and could exacerbate at the U of C if considered in a largely meritocratic admissions system.
For reasons I can’t fathom, the University of California, after ditching the SATs and ACTs, recommended that the system devise its own standardized test, to be implemented in 2025. But. . . [now] they’ve decided they can’t do that in a timely fashion, and so the U of C is likely to ditch all standardized tests—for good. This has already happened in over 1,000 other colleges and universities (roughly a quarter of higher-education institutions in the U.S.), a wholesale dismantling of the meritocracy. (n.b.: I don’t think that test-scores or grades should be the sole criterion for college admissions, as there are other criteria of achievement that aren’t measured by these statistics.)
The number of colleges that don’t require test scores for admissions has now risen to 1,815, approaching half of all colleges and universities.
According to an article in the Los Angeles Times (below), another committee convened to study what alternative tests might work came up with the answer “no go.” And this is the result (click on screenshot to read, or make a judicious inquiry if you’re paywalled):
UC Provost Michael Brown declared the end of testing for admissions decisions at a Board of Regents meeting, putting a conclusive end to more than three years of research and debate in the nation’s premier public university system on whether standardized testing does more harm than good when assessing applicants for admission.
“UC will continue to practice test-free admissions now and into the future,” Brown said to the regents, during a discussion about a possible alternative to the SAT and ACT tests.
Testing supporters argue that standardized assessments provide a uniform measure to predict the college performance of students from varied schools and backgrounds. But UC ultimately embraced opposing arguments that high school grades are a better tool without the biases based on race, income and parent education levels found in tests.
I’m not sure what they mean by “biases based on race, income, and parent education levels”. Of course those factors affect scores, but scores are partly there to try to determine which factors affect performance. And SAT scores are also a way to identify minority students whose grades might not be great but have high performance on standardized test. As for bias, as far as I know the SAT has indeed vetted its questions for racial bias and eliminated any that could be construed as reflecting on racial “culture.”
Everybody knows, but nobody admits, that the tests were nixed because minorities scored worse than whites or Asians. Thus, if you used the tests as criteria for admission, Hispanics and blacks would have lower chances of getting in. Here are total SAT scores from 2018 broken down by sex and ethnicity. As you see, Asians are the highest by far, followed by whites, mixed-race students and then Pacific Islanders and Hispanics (about a tie) and then blacks, who are about tied with Native Americans.
In California a recent referendum failed to overturn a state law stipulating that race cannot be considered in admission to state colleges.
This puts administrators in a conundrum, for if you use SATs as a major criterion, you wouldn’t even come close to “equity” in the class (i.e., students represented in about the same proportions as ethnic groups occur in the population). That’s why they ditched the SATs and are going to a more “holistic” system where you can use assessments based on less stringent criteria as well as subjective measures. The school won’t admit all this, but it’s a wink-wink nod-nod action. Instead, they make noises about the use of SATs leading to a “test-prep industry” which could “further exacerbate social inequities among low-income students unable to pay for such training.” But you can get training for free, and even the paid training has been shown to have at best a minimal effect on average SAT scores.
Here’s what they propose to “step up other ways to achieve equity in admissions” since the standardized tests are considered “biased”. Note the greater scope for subjectivity in some areas:
Without testing requirements, Drake added, UC attracted a record-breaking number of freshman applications for fall 2021 — more than 200,000 — and admitted the most diverse class ever. UC admissions officers have said they were able to thoroughly evaluate the flood of applications without test scores, using 13 other factors in the system’s review process, such as a student’s high school grade-point average, the rigor of courses taken, special talents, essays and extracurricular activities.
The faculty committee said UC should step up other ways to advance equity in admissions. Recommendations included a closer partnership between UC and the K-12 system with greater access to college-preparatory courses required for admission; more state funding for academic preparation programs, and enhanced monitoring to make sure UC is reaching underserved high schools.
The report also called for more funding to help UC thoroughly assess applications, provide anti-bias training for application readers and strengthen supports to help students complete their degrees.
While they don’t admit the purpose of ditching SATs and ACTs, they do say the tests should go bye-bye because they are tainted with racism:
Board Chair Cecilia Estolano called her vote to eliminate SAT and ACT testing requirements one of her proudest moments as a regent. She said the next pressing task is to double down on ways to prepare more students for UC admission and support them once enrolled.
“We know we’re dealing with generations of educational inequity baked in discrimination, baked in structural impediments to our students,” she said. “If we’re going to continue to try to expand educational access in an equitable way … we have to provide the supports to enable our students to succeed.”
One note: not all high schools are doing away with standardized tests:
And UC’s decision does not spell the end of SAT and ACT testing in California. Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second largest school district, still administers the test to its high school students and counselors advise them to take it to maximize opportunities to apply to other colleges.
Now Berkeley isn’t doing all that badly with racial inequities in graduation rates:
UC reports its overall six-year graduation rate to be about 84 percent by last year. The UC rate was 75 percent for black students, about 77 percent for Latinos, 89 percent for Asian and Pacific Islanders and 86 percent for whites.
But there are still racial disparities of about 10%. And in terms of the student population itself, with data taken only from Berkeley, we find substantial inequities in racial proportions:
The enrolled student population at University of California-Berkeley, both undergraduate and graduate, is 30.2% Asian, 26.8% White, 14.1% Hispanic or Latino, 5.36% Two or More Races, 2.13% Black or African American, 0.153% American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.148% Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders.
So what to do? Berkeley doesn’t want an all-Asian-and-white student population, and neither do I. The question is whether you should aim at pure equity, which means considerable lowering of the bar for admissions standards. It’s the usual tradeoff between merit and affirmative action, though California is forbidden to use the latter measure in any explicit way.
This is a tough problem, but it doesn’t help to throw out one measure of merit, and a good one: the standardized tests. My own view is that schools should set a bar above which all students are considered “qualified”. Then you have a pool of students who will survive and thrive at Berkeley. What to do with the pool? I believe that Steve Pinker suggests just having a lottery for admission within the pool, so that, if you’re above the bar. any extra merit won’t gain you a higher chance of admission.
I don’t favor the lottery. I favor affirmative action in the pool above the bar: not just giving minority students higher weight than others, but also other underrepresented students who could enrich the classes, like older students, veterans, and so on. Sadly, that kind of affirmative action for race is, as I said, outlawed in California.
The Supreme Court ruled in the Bakke case that race can be considered as a criterion for admission because diversity was seen as an innate good. I favor it as a form of reparations for the terrible way we treated minorities in the past, as well as ensuring that students have role models for success. The latter presumes that Berkeley students, for example, will get visible and good positions in society, and some will become professors. That’s why I also favor affirmative action in hiring. But again we have the problem of trading off credentials versus equity.
But the point of all this is that one way to assess quality—standardized tests—is being removed from not just California schools, but many American colleges, medical schools, and so on. I see that as unjustified if the tests are not themselves racist, and I don’t think they are. (Kendi, however, would assert that unequal outcomes is prima facie evidence that the test are racist.).
It’s better to have more rather than less information on students, though it seems some people prefer less. Then adjustment for racial balance can take place in the way I see it. Yet one thing we cannot do is lie to ourselves about why we’re deep-sixing these tests. What is the downside, really, of requiring SATs and ACTs?