California faces lawsuit over standardised testing in admissions

Despite system promising action soon, student advocates demand end to exams

December 11, 2019
'No admission' sign on gated fence

A coalition of students and community groups has filed a suit against the University of California to stop it using standardised tests in admissions, calling the traditional exams unconstitutionally biased.

The nation’s two main college admissions tests, the SAT and ACT, clearly favour white and wealthier applicants, the plaintiffs argued in a pair of filings in a state court near Berkeley.

The University of California system, one of the nation’s largest with more than 250,000 students, already has acknowledged concerns over admissions testing and is in the middle of assessing whether or how to continue using them.

Just last month, the chancellor of California’s flagship campus in Berkeley, Carol Christ, said she favoured eliminating the SAT and ACT as an admission requirement, given its potential to fuel inequalities.

The system was therefore disappointed by the lawsuits, said a system spokeswoman, given its academic senate was due to hear by the end of the current academic year from a task force studying the matter.

About 1,000 US colleges already have stopped using standardised tests in their admissions processes, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

They include the University of Chicago, which this year reported that the policy change produced gains in its enrolment of first-generation, low-income, rural and veteran students, while raising its average score on the SAT.

Still, in a ritual spanning generations, close to 2 million aspiring college students take the SAT each year. A similar number take its long-time rival, the ACT. Each is priced in the range of about $50 (£38) per student.

The College Board, which produces the SAT, acknowledges that its test has had problematic elements in its century-old history, such as terms familiar in more privileged families, but it said that those have been fixed.

“Gone are the infamous ‘SAT words’, penalties for guessing, and math that isn’t necessary for college work,” the College Board said in a statement in response to the California lawsuits.

The new SAT measures student understanding of everyday words in context, and mathematics that is most important to careers, the College Board said.

One of the lawsuits was filed jointly by six advocacy groups representing students and ethnic minorities. The second was filed by the school district in Compton, the Los Angeles suburb notorious for a history of violence and racial conflict.

Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney representing some of the plaintiffs, said his clients moved ahead with the suit despite the ongoing California study because the system has been describing itself as studying the matter for six decades.

The admissions testing system “enables a highly lucrative test prep industry that caters to the very wealthy”, said Mr Rosenbaum, a director of the pro bono law firm Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law.

“I’ve yet to hear an explanation,” said Mr Rosenbaum, a former professor of law at the University of Michigan, “as to why students from disadvantaged backgrounds should have to be patient with a system that locks them out of the opportunity to pursue higher education at their state’s top schools.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Presumably the disadvantaged "minorities" (who are a majority on a world scale) don't include (East) Asians, since their average SAT score in 2018 was 1223, as opposed to 1123 for whites. It is strange that the system complained about about only targets some groups.

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