California to Reduce SAT Emphasis

University Testing

Barring a sudden change in the political climate, California is about to follow Texas' lead in admitting to its state university system all in-state students who graduated near the top of their high school classes without regard to SAT scores. As part of his inaugural speech, incoming Governor Gray Davis embraced a plan to guarantee college seats for the top four percent of seniors from every high school in the state. For students with lower grades, the weight given to SAT I Verbal and Math scores would be cut by half.


Similar to Texas, which automatically admits the top ten percent of high school graduates and treats SAT results as a relatively minor factor for other applicants (see Examiner, Summer 1997), the California reforms are designed to enhance admissions of students from under-represented minority groups and low-income backgrounds. According to state education department projections, the number of minorities admitted to the California university system under the proposal would increase by about 10%.


Davis' announcement follows preliminary design of new admissions rules by state agencies. The initiative responds both to significant declines in African-American and Latino enrollments and pressure from state legislative leaders (see Examiner, Spring 1998). Last year, FairTest and other admissions reform advocates recommended such changes in invited testimony before the California State Senate's Higher Education Committee.


The state Board of Regents is expected to give final approval to the top-4% plan at its March meeting. Even long-time affirmative action critic Regent Ward Connerly, who spearheaded the Proposition 209 campaign which banned consideration of race in admissions, is said to be "leaning toward" supporting the proposal. Governor Davis has the power to (re)appoint more than half the Regents over the coming three years.


Despite the generally positive thrust, there are several regressive elements in the California admissions reform package. Most conspicuously, more weight would be given to SAT II subject test scores, despite the lack of independent evidence that the one hour, multiple-choice exams fairly and accurately measure knowledge of a topic or predict college performance. Among the most severe critics of the SAT II is National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts, a professor in the University of California system (see Examiner, Fall/Winter 1995-96). Another potential source of ongoing inequity is the inability of applicants from poor districts to take honors and AP courses which are given bonus points in calculating high school grade point average.


In addition, Governor Davis endorsed a new high school graduation exam requirement as part of his education reform package. Though details of the testing proposal were vague, basing any high-stakes decision solely on the results from one test violates many standards for proper exam use (see Examiner, Fall 1998).


-- For further information about "test score optional" admissions, see FairTest's recent report, Test Scores Do Not Equal Merit.