SAN FRANCISCO – A battle has been launched that could result in one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious state university systems dropping tests that have long held the highest of stakes for high school students.
A coalition of advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the University of California, demanding that its nine undergraduate campuses stop requiring applicants to submit results from the SAT or ACT. The long-standing aptitude tests, the group contends, are inherently biased against the poor.
“These tests are incredibly sensitive to socioeconomic status and race and have nothing to say about the individual,” says Alisa Hartz, an attorney with Los Angeles-based pro bono firm Public Counsel, which made good on longstanding plans to file the suit on behalf of a handful of students as well as a variety of groups that work in low-income neighborhoods.
Those in favor of abolishing the test requirement have some allies at the highest levels of the college system.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ recently told attendees of an education conference that the SAT and ACT contribute to “inequalities,” lending the weight of an elite college to the "test optional" movement. UC Provost Michael Brown, who also was in attendance, expressed concern about research showing the level of influence of family income and race on test results.
Christ spokesperson Dan Mogulof told USA TODAY the chancellor’s comments at the conference should not be viewed as an announcement of a new policy. They simply are consistent with previously expressed views on the topic.
The companies that run the SAT and the ACT have long been in fierce competition. The ACT used to be the more widely used test, but the SAT, administered by the College Board, overtook it in recent years. In 2018, 1.9 million took the ACT, and 2.1 million took the SAT.
The tests, which cost money to take and are designed to score aptitude in core subject areas, were in the spotlight recently when parents of some students paid disgraced education consultant Rick Singer thousands of dollars to cheat on the exams.
But the tests have been high stakes for years. Families spend thousands of dollars on the cottage industry of SAT and ACT preparatory courses. Students who can't afford test prep are at a disadvantage against wealthier peers, Public Counsel attorney Hartz says.
Starting in the fall of 2020, students will be able to retake ACT subject area tests for a fee, another move that critics say favors the wealthy. Some university officials have said they will first study the merits of accepting such a “superscore."
Over the past years, dozens of colleges and universities across the country – from small liberal arts institutions such as Colorado College to larger entities such as the University of Chicago – have decided to make SAT and ACT scores optional when considering admission.
But if the University of California, with its 280,000 students, were to go down this road, other large state systems could follow, says Robert Schaeffer, director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
“If UC goes this way, it could have a huge echo effect,” says Schaeffer, who helped Public Counsel prepare the suit but does not plan to be part of the action.
“The testing industry always viewed California as the grand prize, because it could serve as a grand marketing tool,” he says. “Ultimately, having your school be test-optional empowers students to put their best foot forward.”
SAT company: Bias is 'false'
The testing companies deny their exams are biased. University of California officials say no action will be taken until a formal review of the tests’ relevance is concluded.
“The notion that the SAT is discriminatory is false,” said a College Board statement emailed to USA TODAY. The SAT was redesigned in 2016, the College Board said, with more of a focus on “what students are learning in school that is essential for college and career readiness."
The company says it has rolled out a new feature called the Environmental Context Dashboard, which is aimed at providing school admissions teams with more context. The dashboard factors in characteristics such as the poverty level or crime rate in a student’s neighborhood.
"More than 140 school districts and County Offices of Education across California, including some of the largest and most diverse districts in the state, support using the redesigned SAT as part of their efforts to improve college readiness and break down barriers to college," the statement read.
Claire Doan, a spokeswoman for the office of University of California President Janet Napolitano, said the office had no comment on a letter sent last month by Public Council, which threatened a lawsuit if UC did not drop the test requirements.
A review of SAT and ACT relevance by a UC task force is underway, Doan said. The study is expected to be concluded by the end of the 2019-20 academic year.
But in the view of attorney Hartz, the UC system’s review of the exams amounts to "an admission that the test is discriminatory and they’re looking for an attempt to compensate for it.”
Contributing: Chris Quintana, USA TODAY
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava on Twitter: @marcodellacava
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: SAT, ACT: How University of California lawsuit could change testing