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Ignoring the Evidence
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Ignoring the Evidence

The University of California has decided to drop college admissions tests—that is a bad idea.

· 5 min read

On May 21st, 2020, the University of California (UC) Office of the President issued a press release announcing that UC, one of the largest public universities in the US, would no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores to be considered for admission. UC announced that it would be “test optional” for fall enrollment in 2021 and 2022. Beginning in fall 2023 and 2024, UC would be “test blind,” meaning that neither the SAT nor the ACT would be considered in the admissions process, although the scores from those tests could still be submitted for consideration for purposes such as course placement and determination of scholarships after the student had been admitted. UC also announced its intention to “undertake a process to identify or create a new test that aligns with the content UC expects students to have mastered to demonstrate college readiness for California freshmen.”

By taking the step of becoming first “test optional” and then “test blind,” UC has joined a growing list of US colleges and universities that are not requiring SAT or ACT scores for consideration in the admissions process. The website, fairtest.org, now lists more than 1,700 “test optional” US colleges and universities and over 80 that are “test free.” The number of schools in each category has been rising yearly.

Those who had been following UC’s deliberations about retaining or abandoning standardized-admissions tests may be surprised by the UC announcement. After all, in July 2018, UC President Janet Napolitano had “asked the Academic Senate to undertake a study to ‘examine the current use of standardized testing for UC undergraduate admission; review the testing principles developed in 2002 and revised in 2010; and determine whether any changes in admission testing policies or practices are necessary to ensure that the University continues to use standardized tests in the appropriate way.’” The 225-page report that resulted was released on February 3rd, 2020, and it completely undermined UC’s decision to phase out and eliminate consideration of college admission test scores.

In the admissions process at UC campuses, 14 factors were being considered before a decision was made to admit a student. Some of those were traditional academic factors such as high school grade point average (HSGPA) and SAT or ACT scores. A variety of non-academic factors were also considered, such as “background, opportunities, and socioeconomic status (such as first-generation, family income, and academic opportunities in their local school), as well as more difficult to quantify factors such as a student’s trajectory of improvement and the strength of a student’s extracurricular activities.” This was being done as part of a “comprehensive review” of each applicant.

The evaluation of the UC admissions process by the UC Academic Council Standardized Testing Task Force (STTF) “found that standardized college admission test scores aid in predicting important aspects of student success including undergraduate grade point average (UGPA), retention, and completion.” STTF found that test scores were better predictors of first-year college grade point average (GPA) than were HSGPA.

The reason for this is that, over the years, high-school grades have become steadily inflated so that it has become harder to use HSGPA to distinguish excellent students from good students. Statisticians refer to this phenomenon as “restriction of range” or the “ceiling effect.” To see a demonstration of this, consider that grade point averages in the US usually have a maximum of 4.0 (A). The maximum score on the SAT is 1600; the maximum score on the ACT composite is 36. There are far more students applying to college with a HSGPA of 4.0 than with an SAT score of 1600 or an ACT composite score of 36. Therefore, STTF found that grade inflation had diminished the ability of HSGPA to predict success in college since 2007, whereas college admission test scores retained their predictive ability. It is worth noting that, in recent years, HSGPAs have been increasing across the US while SAT and ACT scores have remained flat.

One of the reasons UC President Napolitano ordered the study of the UC admissions process was to see if use of admissions test scores unfairly discriminated against any group. However, STTF found that:

Test scores are predictive for all demographic groups and disciplines, even after controlling for HSGPA. In fact, test scores are better predictors of success for students who are Underrepresented Minority students (URMs), who are first-generation, or whose families are low-income: that is, test scores explain more of the variance in UGPA and completion rates for students in these groups. One consequence of dropping test scores would be increased reliance on HSGPA in admissions. The STTF found that California high schools vary greatly in grading standards, and that grade inflation is part of why the predictive power of HSGPA has decreased since the last UC study.

STTF also found that the UC admissions process placed considerably more weight on HSGPA (despite it having lost its predictive value over the years) than it did on admissions tests (which had retained their predictive value). STTF’s report stated that, “Applicants from less advantaged demographic groups are admitted at higher rates for any given test score as a result of comprehensive review. The point was not what the STTF expected before we commenced our data analysis.”

STTF’s report also showed that the UC admissions system engages in a process referred to as “race norming.” For example, in the UC admissions process, an SAT score of 1000 gives a Latino student a 50 percent chance of admission and a white student a 30 percent chance. A white student must obtain an SAT score of 1200 to have the same 50 percent chance of admission that a Latino student has with a score of 1000. The report further stated that, “Students with poor test scores are at especially high risk of leaving UC within one year” and, “Students with poor test scores are at especially high risk of leaving UC with no Degree.”

STTF’s report listed other ways in which admission test scores were helpful to the UC admissions process. Each admissions season, UC makes offers of admission to graduating high-school students. The number of offers it makes is based on the percentage of students it thinks will accept the offers compared to the number of places available for new students. UC had found it beneficial to use admission test scores to predict the acceptance rate. It had also found admissions tests useful when evaluating the academic qualifications of students from outside California who wish to enroll in the UC system. STTF found, for example, that out-of-state students had only slightly higher HSGPAs than California high-school students but had much stronger admission test scores.

After completing its review and analysis, STTF’s report stated, “although some advocates of reform to admissions will call for making SAT and ACT scores optional, we believe that such a move could have significant, unanticipated, and undesirable effects on the profile of matriculating classes.” STTF’s report concluded that, “The Task Force does not recommend that UC make standardized tests optional for applicants at this time.”

Nevertheless, three months later, UC’s administration pulled the plug on use of the SAT and ACT in the admissions process. The reasons for dropping the SAT and ACT were not clearly expressed, but several UC officials stated that they thought that the SAT was “racist,” although they provided no evidence to support that claim.

In a two-part article (here and here) for Psychology Today, cognitive psychologist Andrew R.A. Conway criticized UC’s decision. “In sum,” he concluded, “there is simply no evidence in the task force report to support the claim that the SAT is systematically biased in favor of certain racial/ethnic groups.” By moving toward “test free” admissions without consideration of scores on standardized college admissions tests, UC is moving away from what most of the industrial world’s colleges and universities have been requiring.

More than 20 years ago, psychologist Douglas Detterman wrote, “It is somewhat ironic, and a fact often lost in the debate over the role of tests, that standardized tests were adopted by colleges and universities to increase fairness in the admissions process.” He added, “Test scores indicate a problem that needs to be corrected, but the problem will not be corrected by eliminating tests.”

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