A 2019 lawsuit alleging that the University of California’s “test-optional” admissions policies violated civil rights statutes and Californian constitutional provisions was settled in favor of the plaintiffs on May 14, 2021. The ruling bars UC campuses from considering SAT or ACT scores in their admissions received between Fall 2021 and Spring 2025.
“The Regents’ stubborn insistence over generations upon usage of the SAT and ACT despite indisputable evidence that these exams only measured family wealth cost hundreds of thousands of talented students of color a fair opportunity to matriculate in their state’s system of higher education,” said Mark Rosenbaum, one of the attorneys representing students in the case, to EdSource.
During that period of time, the UC system plans on completely phasing out the SAT and ACT by the spring of 2025 through a three step plan:
2020-22: Standardized Tests Optional for All Applicants
Students applying for college admission during these cycles have the choice on whether or not they include their test scores including the SAT Essay and ACT Writing portions. Applicants will not be penalized for omitting said results, with more emphasis being placed on other parts of an application like one’s class rank or grade point average. Test scores are no longer required when applying for Chancellor’s or Regents scholarships as well.
2022-23: The University of California System Becomes Test Blind for California Students
While still expected to remain test optional for out-of-state and international students, UC schools will become test blind for Californian applicants. However, schools may require students to submit ACT or SAT scores for non-admission purposes, such as determining which courses students ought to enroll in or whether or not a student is eligible for certain scholarships.
2025: UC Institutes An Alternative Standardized Exam
By the Fall of 2025, students will need to take a UC-specific standardized test that is still under development. No details have been released regarding the proposal, and it is unknown yet if international students will take the new UC exam, submit ACT/SAT scores, or have no testing requirement.
“Today’s decision by the Board marks a significant change for the University’s undergraduate admissions,” said former UC President Janet Napolitano in a statement issued last May. “We are removing the ACT/SAT requirement for California students and developing a new test that more closely aligns with what we expect incoming students to know to demonstrate their preparedness for UC.”
The lawsuit against the UC system, Smith v. The Regents of the University of California, began as a letter directed to the UC system in October 2019 that claimed that standardized testing discriminates against underrepresented students and is exponentially made worse by unequal access to test preparation. Contributors to said letter were students like Kawika Smith, a senior at Verbum Dei High School, who said that standardized testing requirements are threatening his dreams to get into a good college.
“I won’t be a competitive student, even though the SAT doesn’t give a true account of my potential,” Smith told the LA Times.
The high school senior had a 3.56 GPA, three associate degrees from Los Angeles Southwest College and a plethora of leadership positions and community service activities. Simultaneously, he was ill-prepared for the SAT by his high school and bombed several SAT practice tests because he had no money for breakfast and was distracted by his hunger. He and his mother, a home-care worker who earns just $23,000, can’t afford elite test prep courses or tutoring.
The UC system acknowledges that inequality of performance is an issue. The Standardized Testing Task Force called together by the UC Academic Senate in 2020 produced a report that found the system overlooks students from low-income families and students of color during admission based on test scores.
The findings of the task force coincided with UC admissions data from 2019 that found that 59 percent of high school graduates were Latino, African-American, or Native American. However, only 37 percent of admitted UC freshman students were from those groups, indicating a vast disparity of opportunities attributed to barriers to education akin to the SAT or ACT.
History shows that these barriers were carefully constructed to bar minorities from succeeding. Renowned eugenicist and proponent of standardized tests Carl Brigham, claimed that African Americans were ranked lower on the racial, ethnic, and cultural spectrum. Testing, he found, showed the prowess of the “the Nordic race group” and warned about the “promiscuous intermingling” of new immigrants within the American gene pool.
Amanda Mangaser Savage, a staff attorney representing some of the Smith plaintiffs with the Opportunity Under Law Project, found that the barring of standardized testing was the first step towards addressing historical and present inequities in enrollment.
“The settlement really raises the stakes immensely, not just for universities in California, but for universities across the country,” Savage said to UC Berkeley’s The Daily Californian last Saturday. “Given what research has clearly demonstrated about the SAT and ACT, that because they’re proxies for wealth and race rather than a student’s ability to succeed in college, what justification other than entrenching existing privilege does any university have for continuing to rely on these discriminatory metrics?”
The UCSD Guardian reached out to the UCSD Office of Admissions to understand where UC San Diego stands on this issue. In its response, the university reportedly looks eagerly toward the release of the fall census to see what role the absence of testing has on student demographics.
“UC San Diego has long been committed to using a holistic review process to assess first-year applications, which proved to be a critical asset during this time of change and made it easier for us to pivot when test scores were removed from the process,” wrote LeShane O. Saddler, UCSD director of admissions. “UC San Diego seeks to understand each student applicant within the context of their background and experiences. This year we looked even deeper into each of the other factors considered, learning more about schools, what’s available to the applicant, rigor and the context of the applicant’s educational environment.”
The Office of Admissions also noted that the University of California reviews all applications based on now 13 holistic factors, ranging from GPA and number of honors courses to special talents, achievements, awards and academic accomplishments in light of life experiences. In previous cycles, test scores were just one factor to consider, albeit an important one.
Sannuth Rao, a first-year studying economics in Eleanor Roosevelt College told The Guardian that he found that the removal of standardized tests within the admissions process could omit an important marker of academic capability within the context of higher learning.
“Essentially, by taking a measure of one’s capability, which is what the SAT or ACT is supposed to do, you’re saying essentially that ‘you will increase the number of underrepresented minorities by taking away another factor that shows academic competence,” Rao stated. “What you’re implying is that underrepresented minorities are simply not good enough at testing to get in on that kind of a merit and that you have to take that away for them to look good on paper […] That can be seen as racist.”
He goes on to say that standardized test scores are an important way applicants show their value to universities through an economic concept called “signaling.” Signaling occurs when an “insider within the market” — someone who has information that others do not have — triggers selling or buying behavior by displaying a marker of success. According to Rao, a high SAT/ACT score “signals” that a student is academically capable and thus will do well in an elite college or university.
More than 1,400 accredited colleges and universities will not require students applying for Fall 2022 admission to submit test scores according to The National Center for Fair & Open Testing. The University of California’s decision to omit test scores from will effectively make the UC system the first test-blind collegiate system in the United States.
Photo taken for The UCSD Guardian.