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22 May, 2020 20:08

California university system burnishes ‘woke cred’ by ditching standardized tests…and dodges a looming lawsuit

California university system burnishes ‘woke cred’ by ditching standardized tests…and dodges a looming lawsuit

The University of California system has dropped standardized testing as an admission requirement, an unprecedented move that could spell the end of the SAT and ACT. While achingly ‘woke’, it won’t solve the inequality problem.

The ten-campus public university system voted on Thursday to axe the SAT and ACT standardized tests from its admission requirements for the next two years and plans to drop it entirely for in-state students after that. 

The move strikes what could very well be a crippling blow to the testing empire that has dominated the highly competitive college admissions landscape for decades, and it’s being hailed by some as a win for diversity and equal opportunity. But not only will it not help disadvantaged students – the only immediate beneficiaries will be the university administrators themselves.

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The UC Board of Regents’ unanimous decision to drop the tests appears to have been based less in careful evaluation of the potential consequences than in classic “never let a good crisis go to waste” liberal opportunism crossed with a good bit of arse-covering. The Covid-19 pandemic interrupted the 2020 testing schedule, leading UC to cross off test scores as a requirement for 2021 application; the proposal to ditch the scores entirely cited the “likely ongoing impacts” of the pandemic on students and schools. Students can still submit test results, but after 2022, they will no longer even be considered as part of in-state applications. And after that, the state hopes to roll out its own admissions test.

Why now? The UC system was sued in 2019 over the use of standardized test scores in admissions by advocacy groups accusing it of discrimination-by-proxy – using test scores as a stand-in for income, race, and parental education. Citing the words of Governor Gavin Newsom himself, the plaintiffs charged the system with violations of the state equal protection clause and various discrimination codes.  

Earlier this week, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman ruled that the case against the UC system could go forward. The timing, it seems, is not a coincidence.

Critics have long decried standardized tests as racist, classist, ableist, and every other PC pejorative in the book. But a study conducted this year by the UC system itself found that minority, low-income and first-generation students were actually admitted at a higher rate than more privileged students with the same test scores. 

Perhaps surprisingly, given the prevailing wisdom, those same disadvantaged students’ SAT and ACT scores were better predictors of college success than high-school grades – though students with both high test scores and good grades obviously fared the best. Admissions staff, the study found, were already factoring in outside circumstances in considering applications, and weighting non-test components (extracurriculars, GPA, essays) accordingly.

Essentially, the UC study found that standardized testing does not keep disadvantaged students out of college – and the Board decided to ditch it anyway, because the opportunity presented by the coronavirus was too good to pass up. Scupper looming legislation and appear virtuous?! For all the shiny woke patina of the board’s decision, it’s less about giving poor and minority students a leg up than it is about keeping money in its pockets – and its reputation intact.

Unlike smaller private schools who’ve dropped standardized tests, like Sarah Lawrence and Smith College, UC’s self-serving decision is likely to have a powerful ripple effect. The sheer size of its network – 172,000 students applied for a place in the freshman class in 2019 – translates to unparalleled power in setting educational trends. 

The UC system is credited with (or blamed for) bringing the SAT and ACT to national prominence in the first place, and the state’s schools are the largest source of revenue for the College Board, which owns the tests and runs a very lucrative test prep industry. Jettisoning them – and developing its own proprietary test – will save the system a lot of money.

Certainly, standardized testing has taken on far too much significance in the American public school system. Even elementary school kids now spend a sizable chunk of their school year filling in small bubbles on answer sheets, while parents who can afford it splurge on tutors and test prep classes in the hope of giving their child the advantage they need to get into a “good school.” But acing the tests doesn’t require outside preparation – in a functional schooling system, at least, students learn how to read, reason, and do mathematics in class. California, unfortunately, does not have a functional school system.

The College Board – which is admittedly biased – pointed out that inequality begins long before students sit down to take the SATs, countering that their tests weren’t the cause of the problem, but merely shone a light on it. “We must also address the disparities in coursework and classrooms that the evidence shows most drive inequity in California,” the group said in a statement.

With 11 of the 26 worst-performing school districts in the US, the state was actually sued in 2017 for failing to correct a “literacy crisis” that teachers and students in three especially low-performing schools accused of “dragging down the nation.” At its nadir, 96 percent of one Los Angeles school’s students were proficient in neither English nor math.

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But doing away with standardized testing is not going to fix that problem. It merely kicks the can down the road, forcing colleges to pick up the slack and teach young adults to read and do basic math. Indeed, ditching the tests opens the door to runaway grade inflation, with nothing to stop poor-performing schools from merely grading their students on a curve and sending their “high achievers” into the UC system whether or not they can read or write.

Prizing a superficially-diverse student body over a competent one ends up disadvantaging everyone in the class: the high achievers lose patience and tune out, the low achievers struggle to keep up (and tune out), and the teacher starts daydreaming about alternate career paths, handing out As and Bs because it’s easier than trying to fix a lifetime of substandard schooling. Graduates – assuming they do graduate – emerge utterly unprepared for the real world. Perhaps the UC system will hire them?

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.