Editorial: UC dumped college entrance exams. Big mistake

BERKELEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 09, 2019 - Sather Tower, also known as the Campanile, is seen against the backdrop of San Francisco from the UC Berkeley campus in Berkeley, California on Sept. 09, 2019. (Josh Edelson/For the Times)
Sather Tower on the UC Berkeley campus. (Josh Edelson / For The Times)

The SAT and ACT college admission exams are riddled with problems in their current form. Though they can be helpful predictors of whether students will succeed in college, they shut out too many bright and otherwise qualified candidates because those who can spend the money for private tutoring will almost always have the edge in getting higher scores. More affluent students also can pay to take the tests over and over to get their best possible scores.

So, it’s understandable, if not ideal, that the University of California dropped them for acceptance decisions.

But now UC has decided it will not use any entrance exam. Not the state’s standardized test for 11th graders. Not an exam that UC designs itself. University officials concluded any test would be prone to bias and the state’s Smarter Balanced exam would provide only modest additional useful information.

This nonetheless is a problematic decision, especially after a committee of faculty leaders concluded in 2020, after expansive study, that the SAT and ACT were worth keeping and could help diversify the student population. UC should reconsider this policy and use at least one test as part of its admission process, though it should be free to students with a few no-cost retries.

Grade inflation is widespread at affluent high schools, creating an inequitable situation. The holistic review UC uses for admission that can count any number of factors that the admissions officers happen to find appealing is even more subjective than course grades.

A test score can be an important check against straight-A report cards or a more lackluster transcript — which is what the faculty committee concluded three years ago. If a student has glowing grades but flubs a test badly time after time, that raises legitimate questions about how earned those grades were. And a student who performs well on the test but has weak grades might have had teachers who were tougher graders. Likewise, the student might be the sort of independent soul who would make a brilliant university student but doesn’t do well with the regimented rules and limited course offerings of high school.

A 2019 study found that colleges that adopted a test-optional admissions policy (which isn’t what UC is doing; it will not look at students’ scores on any entrance exam) did not increase the diversity of their student populations and that the main effect was to increase the number of applicants, which helps colleges look good in some ranking lists.

The problem with entrance exams is when they are used to give a student with a higher score a major boost over one with a lower one. Rather, entrance exams should be used to confirm that students have mastered what they need to know in order to tackle university courses.

One way that UC could use standardized entrance exams fairly is to calculate a test score range that would indicate a student has what it takes to succeed in college, and then rely on grades and other factors. This is similar to how many prestigious colleges do it.

An applicant wouldn’t get extra “points” for a score beyond proficiency, which should tamp down the parental race to spend thousands on the best test tutors and endless taking of the test. Once a student does well enough to qualify, there would be no point to trying to improve the score.

It’s a shame that the university asked for a well-researched study of the issue by faculty and then decided to ignore their recommendations without considering the ways in which college entrance exams could be used to make better and fairer decisions about which applicants receive the coveted acceptance email.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.