Civil Rights Groups Sue Berkeley for Test-Score Discrimination

University Testing

Lawyers for African American, Latino and Pilipino students have filed a class-action federal lawsuit on behalf of minority applicants who were excluded from the University of California (UC) at Berkeley due to its emphasis on test scores and Advanced Placement (AP) courses.


The litigation charges that "UC Berkeley admissions readers assign unjustifiable weight to SAT (or ACT) and SAT II test scores and place undue reliance upon insignificant differences in SAT (or ACT) and SAT II test scores in ways that erect unjustifiable barriers to qualified applicants." In addition, plaintiffs claim the procedure "grants unjustified preferential consideration to applicants who have taken certain courses that are less accessible in high schools attended largely by African American, Latino, and Pilipino American students."


The suit specifically focuses on an admissions formula adopted after any consideration of affirmative action was barred by a state Board of Regents resolution and a voter-passed ballot question. It notes that over 750 minority applicants with grade point averages of 4.0 or better (on a scale which gives extra credit for honors and AP courses) were denied admission in 1998.


"Rewarding applicants with slightly higher SAT scores who had access to AP courses simply because of where they attended high school doesn't reward merit, it rewards privilege," explained Kimberly West-Faulcon of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NAACP-LDF).


"Even when affirmative action was in place, parts of the Berkeley admissions process were unfair to African American, Latino and Pilipino American applicants," added Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) counsel Joseph Jaramillo.


Berkeley's admissions procedures also have been criticized for gender bias for reliance on test scores. A forthcoming journal article concludes that the rules cost between 200 and 300 females admission each year, a problem that apparently exists at other "flagship" state universities which weigh SAT or ACT results heavily in evaluating applicants (see Examiner, Summer 1998).


Admissions reformers did chalk up a modest victory when, as expected, the California legislature passed and Governor Gray Davis signed into law a plan to automatically admit into the state university system any student who graduated in the top 4% of his or her high school class, without regard to test scores (see Examiner, Winter 1998-99). But this reform is not likely to have a significant effect at the most competitive campuses, such as Berkeley, since test scores still will heavily influence which specific students will be admitted to the top institutions.


Rios, et al. v The Regents of the University of California was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco. In addition to the NAACP-LDF and MALDEF, plaintiffs are represented by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California. FairTest provided assistance to the attorneys with research on testing and admissions issues.