California collecting test scores despite axeing admissions role

System acknowledges inviting SAT and ACT results for course placement, as Berkeley analysis shows nationwide racial bias in post-admissions sorting

December 9, 2021
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The University of California system, despite touting its equity-focused elimination of standardised tests in admissions, continues to welcome test scores from applicants and then use them in course placement.

California officials acknowledged the practice but insisted that any SAT or ACT test results submitted by students seeking admission are restricted to officials outside the admissions process.

“UC remains committed to maintaining a fair admissions process that reviews every applicant in a comprehensive manner and endeavours to combat systemic inequities,” a spokeswoman for the 10-campus system said in response to questions about the practice.

The system affirmed its continued compiling of standardised test scores just as the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education documented a harmful racial bias in a related method of sorting students after the point of admission.

The analysis covering students at elite public US universities found that low-income minority students are disproportionately kept out of sciences and other mathematics-heavy majors – and the better-paying careers often attributed to them – because their freshman grades are often slightly lower than their more economically advantaged classmates.

Because universities often rely strictly on grade-point boundaries, even minor differences in freshman performance are reinforcing substantial lifelong gaps between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts, said study co-author Zachary Bleemer, a research associate at the Berkeley centre who is due to become assistant professor of economics at Yale University next year.

“These aren’t students who would need massive additional resources from the university to study in these restrictive fields,” he said. “They were doing OK, but they were booted out.”

Dr Bleemer produced the study along with Aashish Mehta, an associate professor of global and international studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Their review covered students at more than 200 public institutions – research universities with an R1 or R2 classification – from the 1970s through the present. It found those campuses with grade-related restrictions saw, on average, their shares of black or Hispanic students in science fields drop from 14 per cent to 11 per cent – a 20 per cent decline.

A separate study, involving a decade of data from just the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggested a damaging long-term financial effect. There, a 2.8 grade point average is needed to become an economics major. Wage data 10 years later showed “very big differences” in average wages between those who had a 2.8 in their early economics classes and those who had earned a 2.7 and were pushed out of the major, Dr Bleemer said.

The University of California system made it emphatically clear this past year that standardised tests would no longer play any role in its admissions processes, after growing awareness that such tests – with wealthier families much better able to afford their fees, logistics and professional preparation services – drove up racial and economic inequities in higher education.

“UC will continue to practice test-free admissions now and into the future,” the system provost, Michael Brown, told the board of regents last month after some three years of assessing the question.

Yet among its directions for students applying to California for the coming academic year, the system states on its website: “If you choose to submit test scores as part of your application, they may be used for course placement after you enrol.”

The matter is a cause of concern among high school guidance counsellors in a Facebook group, said Robert Schaeffer, the public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a leading opponent of standardised tests. California officials have explained that the test scores are kept away from admissions officers, and are used only after the admissions process to help identify students who don’t need to take some of the introductory-level courses, he said.

Using standardised tests in that manner can foster “some inequities”, although the practice seems far less consequential than using them in admissions, Mr Schaeffer said. But the strict use of grade-based barriers identified in the Berkeley study, he said, does seem to pose substantial harm to those disadvantaged students who have less support in their first year of college.

Dr Bleemer also saw the use of standardised tests in course placement as potentially exacerbating the disadvantages for first-year black and Hispanic students that he and his team identified, although he suggested that students who avoid lower-level courses because of their SAT and ACT scores probably would have fared well on grade-point average measures.

Top US public research universities may have some legitimate reasons for excluding students from popular majors based on grade-point averages, Dr Bleemer said. But in many cases, he said, universities are letting that excess demand persist for years, rather than taking steps that could include hiring more lecturers.

Universities truly facing short-term resource shortages also could use “discretionary thresholds”, meaning more holistic yardsticks that compare students on factors beyond just small differences in their grades, he said.

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