UC Moves Toward “Achievement” Tests

K-12 Testing

When University of California (UC) President Richard Atkinson first proposed dropping the SAT I requirement for UC applicants in February 2001 (see Examiner, Spring 2001), many hailed the announcement as a historic move against standardized testing. Yet a new set of recommendations issued by the faculty board in charge of UC undergraduate admissions policy upholds – and possibly even expands – testing requirements for applicants to the nation’s largest public university system.


In a discussion paper submitted to the Academic Senate, the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) responded to President Atkinson’s proposal by outlining a set of guidelines regarding the use of standardized tests in UC admissions. The paper affirmed Atkinson’s critique of the SAT I, pointing to the exam’s poor ability to predict college performance and its lack of relation to high school curriculum as two major weaknesses. The faculty group corroborated the findings presented by both the test’s manufacturer and independent researchers – high school grades are the best predictor of success in college. It also debunked the “diamond in the rough” claim often offered by the College Board to justify its product: “BOARS sees no evidence to corroborate the theory that the SAT I has special value because it can identify students who have not performed well to date but in fact have innate ability that will show itself in college.”


However, the BOARS recommendations fall far short of dramatically rethinking the role of standardized exams in the UC admissions process. While it does move away from using what are often termed “aptitude” tests, such as the SAT I, the paper endorses the continued and expanded use of “achievement” tests. The UC system currently requires applicants to submit the SAT I or ACT, along with SAT II exams in writing, mathematics, and a third subject of the student’s choice. Under the new BOARS proposal, applicants would be required to take a three-hour “core achievement exam” covering mathematics and language arts (reading and writing, with a writing sample) plus two one-hour exams in specific content areas. BOARS acknowledged that no current exam meets these guidelines, but indicated that adaptations of the ACT and SAT II subject tests might fit this profile.


Although BOARS said a desire to reduce the testing burden on applicants was one of its principles, California students may end up spending even more time and money on admissions exams than they currently do. The new recommendations would require applicants to take five hours of tests. At best, this may slightly reduce the testing time students are required to endure. However, many applicants will undoubtedly feel compelled to take additional exams because they are applying to schools that require a third SAT II or that do not recognize scores from the new, UC-specific exams, or to qualify for a “merit-based” scholarship, or to meet NCAA eligibility requirements.


The faculty board expressed concern about the ways standardized tests harm students from underrepresented backgrounds. Included in its recommendations is a requirement that any test used be “fair across demographic groups.” However, the means for achieving this end are not clear. The report acknowledges, “The members of BOARS are well aware that they cannot eliminate this level of ‘disparate impact’ admissions tests have on students from socio-economically disadvantaged circumstances.”


Passage of the BOARS proposal is uncertain. Initial reaction from the UC Regents, the group with the final say on the system’s admissions policies, was mixed. Regent Ward Connerly predicted that the July vote on the proposal would be “pretty close.”


BOARS says it favors use of “achievement” tests like the ACT and SAT II over the SAT I. But a new FairTest fact sheet demonstrates this distinction is largely illusory (see p. 2). The SAT I, SAT II, and ACT all have weak ability to predict academic performance in college. Each is highly coachable, advantaging students who can afford to spend $800 or more on test preparation classes. They all have a similar format, disadvantaging groups such as females and English as a Second Language learners who tend not to perform as well on timed, multiple-choice exams. Large score gaps persist between students of different racial groups, leading to bias in admissions and financial aid formulas that utilize rigid test score requirements. The exams place the financial and time burden on students rather than admissions offices, making them cheap sources of information for colleges but high-investment hurdles for students. Finally, all three admissions tests assess applicants on a narrow range of topics, covering only a small portion of the learning students engage in over four years of high school.


The high correlations between “aptitude” and “achievement” admissions test scores (.89 - .92 between the SAT I and ACT, and .84 between SAT I and SAT II) point to the exams’ underlying similarities. Since even “aptitude” test manufacturers admit their exams measure acquired knowledge, the conceptual distinction is illusory, particularly since the different tests are all designed to rank and sort test-takers.


While the BOARS proposal is a laudable critique of the SAT I, the recommendation to substitute a modified ACT or SAT II does little to make the UC admissions process more accurate in predicting college performance or more equitable to applicants from racially and economically diverse backgrounds.


• The BOARS proposal is available at http://www.ucop.edu/news/sat/boars.html