Dropping the SAT and ACT? Good Luck with That

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scientist, Educational Policy Institute

News out of California is that the University of California system is dropping the ACT and SAT as a requirement for admissions into one of the country’s largest and most selective college systems, serving over 285,000 students each year.

For equity activists, this is a big win as testing has historically been shown to work against low-income and other marginalized students. However, the win isn’t perhaps as big as one might imagine. For the University of California, while not requiring the ACT/SAT, out-of-state students will still need to submit their scores. UC is recommending this because they have some comfort with the state requirement of “a-g courses” for high school graduation. These courses provide some level of standardization and quality. Beyond state borders, however, the UC cannot depend on any indicator of quality for students beyond GPA, AP testing, or SAT/ACT score since there are no national tests or even guidelines for courses.

Even so, there are questions to be raised. For instance, California students attempting to attend one of the University of California’s 10 campuses, 6 of which are listed in the top 100 universities in the world,[1] will still be relying on a very imperfect grade point average (GPA) to inform admissions. As we know, there is a big difference in a C average student and an A average student in a-g courses. Just completing the courses does not inform an admissions officer about the potential of the student. In the end, the academic ability of the student matters and GPA alludes, although imperfectly, to that potential.

Second, the UC plan requires that, by 2025, a “new admissions test” would be created for the system, with participation, if not capitulation, by the California State University system. Thus, another version of the ACT or SAT will be used in its place, putting things back to where they were until now.

It is important to understand that the development of psychometric tests like the ACT, SAT, or any other end-of-course or admissions test. It is a long, complex, and expensive process. These tests aren’t simply pulled together by a bunch of teachers writing questions around a table. The process of selecting and testing questions that can form an accurate assessment of academic progress takes years to produce at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. Rigorous tests of validity and reliability are continually conducted to measure representation of questions versus knowledge that can be trusted over time. And don’t assume UC will build the test themselves—they simply don’t have either the bandwidth or expertise. Instead, they will release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for competitive bids to create their new test, which will be responded to by the Educational Testing Service/College Board (SAT), ACT, CTB McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Harcourt. Perhaps a few others, but at this level, there are only a handful of companies around the world that can do this work effectively.

In the end, after spending millions of taxpayer funds, the new test will look like the old test, mostly because the SAT and ACT are very, very good tests. They aren’t perfect, but they do accurately measure certain aspects of learning and ability which, in combination with other academic predictors and measures, like GPA, tell a story of preparedness for postsecondary studies. \

The problem of equity is a bigger issue than merely testing, to be sure. The issue of lesser learning environments of students and socio-economic status serve as the large, dark cloud that continually hovers over educational opportunity in the United States. Data analysis from almost all standardized tests clearly illustrates the impact of educational legacy and family income on test outcomes.

No test can fix this issue. Only public policy can help level equitable learning opportunities across socio-economic levels. And still, even if public policy could do this better, it doesn’t fix income; doesn’t fix where someone lives; and doesn’t change where students go to school or how many risk factors they have. There will always be a level of inequity in terms of academic achievement and measurement.

The conclusion is not that we throw in the towel with respect to admissions policies, testing, and equity. Conversely, it means we have to continue to be diligent about lifting as many barriers to high school graduation, college going, and career building as possible. The problem here is that UC’s new requirements won’t do any of this. The best students will have the best high school GPAs; they will have taken more AP courses and score higher than other students on these tests. They will, in turn, gain admittance at UC at much, much higher rates than other students. Not quite as simple as having your photo swapped onto a rowing team pic, but nonetheless, that’s how the system works. Achievement matters, as it should. But suggesting that the UC response is a fix to inequity is mistaken.

Until the nation, as a whole, agrees to a collective high school curriculum and testing system, there will be no equity option in our schools with regard to postsecondary admissions. Even then, equity is an elusive brass ring to achieve due to so many other factors in society. I don’t see the 50 states coming to any collective terms anywhere soon.

POSTSCRIPT: Academic scholarships through the UC system will still be decided by SAT/ACT test scores. Students with academic talent will sit for the exam regardless of admissions requirements.


[1] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/best-universities/best-universities-world.

2 thoughts on “Dropping the SAT and ACT? Good Luck with That

  1. (not about coronavirus shortcuts, just 1 aspect of standardized tests)

    My father was born in 1926 into, as he phrased it in his later years, ‘the bottom rung of the working class’ in England. ONLY because of his ability to score very highly on national standardized high stakes tests was he able to stand out and be recognized by his school, by a charity, by his city, by his university as having exceptional talent. Good grades in school could not make any individual stand out like that. His rise up the ladder was enabled by rung after rung of test success.

    By mid-career he wrote a standard text on Surgical Pathology and headed the Path Dept at UCLA.

    I know that one talented young person’s rise is not really relevant to some solution for overall societal equity. Perhaps pure academic talent is no longer valued as meriting a strong hand up, is seen as unfair in many ways. But, it would nonetheless be individually tragic for a student from the ‘bottom rung’ to lose standardized, inarguable chances to show exceptional academic talent.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Great point. People often rally against these tests, but the College “Boards” were created in 1900 to actually ensure equity in admissions rather than the oligarchs.

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