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California Students Are Suing the UC System for Requiring the SAT and ACT

The students and a group of organizations claim the tests amount to “unlawful discrimination” against minority and low-income high schoolers, among others.

by Maxwell Strachan
Dec 10 2019, 5:33pm

A coalition made up of students, organizations, and Compton Unified School District is suing the University of California for requiring prospective students to submit their SAT and ACT scores, tests that the group calls “highly” and “demonstrably” discriminatory against minority, multilingual, and low-income students, as well as students with disabilities.

“It is time for us to pivot — to stop ignoring the research and the harmful impact of not changing what has obviously unequally impacted students who otherwise would excel in college,” Micah Ali, president of Compton Unified School District, said in a statement. “I have seen it happen to countless students – their dreams deferred. No more. Not again. To not make a change is to be complicit in intentional harm that is being perpetrated against our most vulnerable students.”

The lawsuits, expected to be filed Tuesday, come after multiple top UC officials announced their own opposition to the use of the standardized tests and could set off a protracted legal battle over the admissions process at the largest state college system in the country.

The coalition claims that the SAT and ACT test scores are too highly correlated with socioeconomic characteristics like race, parents’ education, and family income, and subsequently violate various other antidiscrimination statutes including the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution.

“UC’s continued use of a flatly discriminatory metric is not only bad educational policy; it is unlawful discrimination” the group states in its complaint. “The requirement that all applicants submit SAT or ACT scores systematically and unlawfully denies talented and qualified students with less accumulated advantage a fair opportunity to pursue higher education at the UC.”

One lawsuit is being filed by Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm, on behalf of four California students, as well as groups including College Access Plan, College Seekers, Community Coalition, and the Dolores Huerta Foundation. The Compton Unified School District is filing a separate lawsuit.

Citing past research, the coalition argues that by requiring the tests, the UC system is hindering the potential of well-qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Most of the UC campuses take what they call a “holistic” approach to the admission process, in which “no single factor plays a deciding role in how an applicant is evaluated.”

But by mandating that the tests are even one of those factors, the UC system is indirectly giving preference to wealthy and white students and “irreparably” tainting the “ostensibly” holistic approach, the group argues.

As one example of the effect of outside variables on test scores, the group cites research showing that a prospective student’s family income, education, race and ethnicity has become increasingly predictive of his or her SAT and ACT test score since 1995.

1575997287487-Screen-Shot-2019-12-10-at-120112-PM
A chart included in the group's complaint.

“The mere presence of the discriminatory metric of SAT and ACT scores in the UC admissions process precludes admissions officers from according proper weight to meaningful criteria, such as academic achievement and personal qualities, and requires them instead to consider criteria that act as a proxy for wealth and race and thus concentrate privilege on UC campuses,” the complaint states.

The group also claims that the “SAT’s extensive use of word-heavy math problems places multilingual learners at a disadvantage relative to their native English-speaking peers,” and that the tests violate the California Disabled Persons Act due to “the ‘speeded’ nature of the tests.

The lawsuits come as the University of California performs an in-depth review of research into whether SAT and ACT test scores accurately predict success—the results of which are expected by the end of the school year. Considering that, a spokesperson for the UC Office of the President, Claire Doan, said the school system was "disappointed" by the proposed lawsuits.

But in recent weeks, the chancellors of UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz have already said they believe the tests to be too discriminatory to be useful, a sentiment shared by the UC system’s chief academic officer and the chair of the UC’s board of regents, John Pérez.

“The initial information that I’ve seen shows that the highest predictive value of an SAT [score] isn’t in how well a student will do in school, but how well they were able to avail themselves of prep material,” Pérez recently told The Los Angeles Times.

Outside of the UC system, a growing number of colleges and universities are deciding to make the test submissions optional. All told, 40 percent of all four-year colleges and universities are now “test-optional,” including more than half of U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 liberal arts colleges, according to The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest. One such school, the University of Chicago, saw a 20 percent jump among low-income and first-generation students who committed after it made the switch.

On Tuesday afternoon, ACT CEO Marten Roorda said in a statement that it was "inappropriate to blame admissions testing for inequities in society."

"We don’t fire the doctor or throw away the thermometer when an illness has been diagnosed. Differences in test scores expose issues that need to be fixed in our educational system," he added. "The ACT is a crucial measure for universities to consider in admissions decisions. Standardized tests are the only college readiness indicator to make achievement and merit comparable across schools, districts and states. ACT will continue working with educational institutions and leaders to ensure fairness and improve education outcomes for all."

The College Board, which administers the SAT, did not return a request for comment, but has aggressively fought back against any allegation that its tests are “discriminatory.” “Any objective measure of student achievement will shine a light on inequalities in our education system,” the College Board has said. Nevertheless, both test-makers have tweaked their tests in an attempt to make them as fair as possible. This year, the College Board announced the creation of an additional “adversity score,” meant to sum up a child’s school quality and the poverty and crime rates where they live.

In the eyes of those who are filing the lawsuits, however, no tweaks to the tests will solve the underlying socio-economic issues that they create in the UC admissions process.

“With its mission of providing public higher education to all Californians, the UC would never explicitly decline to admit a student because the student is low-income, a first-generation college applicant, or a member of an underrepresented minority group, the group states.

“But that is precisely the result of UC’s decision to consider SAT and ACT scores: an admissions process that rations access to public higher education on the bases of race, privilege, and wealth.”

This post has been updated to include mention of the Compton Unified School District's role in the lawsuits and comment the school district's president, the UC Office of the President, and the ACT.

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