Opinion: Standardized college tests still pose problems for the UC system

Liang Graduated from University of California, San Diego in Physiology and Neuroscience. She recently moved out of college town and now lives in San Francisco.

Standardized tests have long been under scrutiny for allegations of bias against students of color and those with disadvantaged incomes. The COVID-19 pandemic shed more light on this issue when many testing opportunities were canceled, resulting in a disparity of opportunity for applicants.

The colleges were aware of this; Many have responded by creating “blind test” or “test optional” application courses, where students do not have to submit a test score concurrent with their applications. For many colleges, these changes are temporary, a reaction to the pandemic that continues so far during the undergraduate application cycle in fall 2021. However, for the University of California system, this change in admission criteria is here to stay.

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In May 2020, the University of California Board of Regents voted to suspend the application for the ACT and SAT Standardized Tests for new applicants in California’s Admission Admission Standards until 2024 to allow the creation of a new standardized test. Then this month, the UC system announced that it was unable to find a suitable alternative to the SAT and ACT. UCLA Vice President Michael Brown explained that if another test is created and deemed appropriate, the UCSD system “certainly could consider adopting such a thing in the future, but we’re not developing a test, and we don’t know a single thing” that exists at this time.

I have two main problems with this change. The first: UCLA presents its plan by either relying on a new standardized test that does not yet exist, or not relying on it. This seems like without an answer – of course, the only options are to either use a standardized test or not. There is no middle ground in this case. I understand that the UC board is trying to be flexible, but I’d like to see the board fully support one resolution, without giving itself too much room and leaving this gray area.

There are ramifications for either track – if this future test were to be implemented, students caught between phasing out the previous SAT/ACT and gradually starting the new test would have been exposed to very different criteria than applicants from other years, creating more disparity between students prospective. If UC isn’t, what’s the point of this round trip? Instead, the resources and budget that were wrongly spent on creating a test that doesn’t pay off could have been invested in the faculty and students who need it most.

My second problem with this acceptance changed: I don’t see how being “test blind” would create equality – students with test scores have a more powerful application than students who don’t. Those who are not will be disproportionately affected, and UCSD states that standardized test scores submitted will be used for other decisions, such as scholarship distributions.

Scholarships often play a large role in a student’s decision whether or not to go to university, which does not completely separate standardized tests from playing a role in admission decisions. If we assume that a higher test score gives the student more scholarship, the problem still remains. Disadvantaged students do not have the luxury of spending exorbitant amounts on test preparation classes and books that high-income students might have, resulting in low grades and scholarship, perpetuating the problem, just through a different mechanism.

While I would like to believe that standardized testing creates opportunities for students to demonstrate their college readiness, there is no denying that the test has been shown to be a better indicator of social capital than competence. I worry that the new test will be subject to the same fallacies as the SAT and ACT, to the detriment of students of color.

If only the content of the exams were to change, what would prevent the excellent students from continuing to reap their social and economic benefits? The College Board itself insists that the variance in test scores is due to differences in preparation and not intrinsic test biases (although the research shows otherwise, too). Even if this is considered true, it makes sense to me that issues with the current SAT and ACT would persist on any new test, no matter how the content changed.

Even with the bumps in the road, I am optimistic for the future students and wish them good luck. Only time will tell how these changes will affect their experiences. I look forward to seeing what happens in the next few years, but I’m sure UCSD will have no shortage of applications due to this change.

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