Inside the University of California’s bold move to reinvent admissions amid a pandemic
IN DECEMBER, KAWIKA SMITH, a 17-year-old high school student from Los Angeles, along with fellow students and advocates, sued the UC system. The goal? Completely reinvent the admissions process by jettisoning standardized testing forever. After a whirlwind year of protests, a pandemic, court battles, and UC policy changes, it seems like they just might pull it off.
Smith, who is Black, is a passionate student activist, the kind of kid his dream schools, UC Berkeley or UCLA, dream about. He’s a community organizer and labor activist who helped lobby the state legislature to ban natural hair discrimination. And yet he has also faced obstacles—food and housing insecurity, domestic and sexual violence, prohibitively expensive test prep—his more privileged peers might not have. The suit argues that the tests are irredeemably biased against people like Smith, or anyone who is disabled, non-white, or non-wealthy. And that was before the pandemic hit.
The arrival of the coronavirus forced the SAT and ACT to cancel numerous test dates around the country, leading the UC system—the SAT’s largest single market—and many other schools to go test optional for the 2021 school year. The virus was the last straw, but UC leaders said even before that they were facing a longer-term “crisis of legitimacy,” especially around racial equity. For example, in Fall 2019, Black and Latinx students made up 6.5 and 39.4 percent of California’s population respectively, but only 3.87 and 25.45 percent of enrolled UC students, according to university data. This May, after years of study, the UC Regents made a decisive move to address these gaps, one with national implications: They voted unanimously to phase the tests out completely over the next five years.
But test optional didn’t mean the test had lost all its influence over admissions. The suit, echoing decades of scholarship and activism in- and outside the UC system, argued that the continued use of the SAT and ACT tests, in any form, even optionally, “rations access to public higher education on the bases of race, privilege, and wealth,” especially during the pandemic.
In late August, a state court took one step closer to agreeing with that proposition, citing the especially heavy burden on disabled students. For the duration of the lawsuit, a preliminary injunction now bars the UC from considering the tests in any form of admissions or scholarship decision.
“The challenges for applicants with disabilities in the pre-COVID-19 world were substantial,” Judge Brad Seligman wrote. During the pandemic, he added, “The barriers faced by students with disabilities have been greatly exacerbated.”
In a statement, the UC system said, “An injunction may interfere with the university’s efforts to implement an appropriate and comprehensive admissions policies and its ability to attract and enroll students of diverse backgrounds and experiences.” It is now weighing whether to challenge the ruling.
Whatever happens, the conversation around privilege and admissions won’t end there. The UC system now faces a complex mandate: it must defend or alter its new admissions plan, head off a pandemic, and answer to a newly invigorated discussion about racism and systemic change in America—all while California voters consider reinstating affirmative action this November. A lot has changed in a few months; even more might change with a few more.
WITH THEIR UNANIMOUS, MAY 21 VOTE, the Regents reversed the more than 50 year history of using standardized tests in UC admissions. Under their new plan, the system would be test optional for all students until 2022, then become test blind for California students through 2024, meaning the scores wouldn’t be considered at all for admissions decisions. It allots five years to design a replacement test for California residents; if this is unsuccessful, the SAT and ACT will be eliminated from in-state admissions decisions completely.
According to Cecilia V. Estolano, Vice Chair of the Board of Regents, the combination of the coronavirus, America’s newfound willingness to talk about racism, and the support of UC President Janet Napolitano, opened a window to finally implement a change decades in the making. The move came despite a recommendation from a UC Academic Senate task force in April that the University keep the tests for now and consider creating its own replacements, a process it predicted would take nine years to implement.
The Regents clearly rejected that timeline. “A lot of us come to this with a sense of generational urgency. You can’t lose another generation of talent in the state of California,” Estolano says. “The ticket to UC is a ticket to leadership. Let’s not wait another ten years before we equitably provide that.”
Even before the injunction, experts agreed the impact of this policy change would be dramatic. Saul Geiser, the former director of admissions research for the UC system and now a research associate at Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, cautions it won’t singlehandedly erase the effects of California’s nearly unmatched levels of segregation and income inequality. But he says going test optional “will eliminate a significant barrier to underrepresented minority admissions.”
UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, who was president of Smith College when they went test optional in 2008, has long supported disentangling tests from admissions, and she understands the concerns about the lingering influence of the tests in a test optional setup.
“There is a very important task in the training of readers about how to use the test optional data,” says Chancellor Christ, “and to make sure that you’re not making assumptions about, ‘Well, this person didn’t submit scores, maybe they’re not so good.’”
But says she’s “absolutely confident” admissions officials would be able to make unbiased evaluations of the test results if need be, even when using an admittedly biased instrument.
NOW, WITH TESTS HEADING FOR THE DOOR, the UC system, and the state at large, is left with even deeper questions about fairness and admissions.
“The standardized testing isn’t going to be the only part of the application that’s going to be biased by what a student’s background is,” says Varsha Sarveshwar, a Berkeley alum and president of the UC Student Association. “There’s a degree to which it was kind of the lowest hanging fruit. We can identify a lot of systems that are even bigger factors on admissions than standardized testing.”
To leaders like Sarveshwar and Regent Estolano, that means tackling issues like segregation, school funding, and deficient curriculums. To really get at the core issue of structural racism, they both urge a return to affirmative action, which has been forbidden since the UC system voted to ban it in 1995, followed by a statewide vote to ban it with Prop 209 in 1996. Since then, the UC system has been stuck in the Sisyphysian predicament of trying to make the system more racially equitable without being able to consider race.
“We did it before,” says Estolano, who attended Berkeley Law. “We had top 10 schools that were the most diverse in the country. Then suddenly we had some of the least diverse programs in the nation. I know this because I was in the law school at the time, and I saw it in real time.”
But in the ethical labyrinth of admissions, even affirmative action has its pitfalls. The admissions equity debate is hardly settled even in places where affirmative action is legal. A high-profile federal lawsuit, for example, against Harvard University charges that its affirmative action practices systematically exclude high-achieving Asian students in pursuit of a more diverse campus overall.
“Holistic review is necessarily a subjective process. There is an inevitable element of arbitrariness,” says Geiser, especially at highly selective institutions like the UC. “We’re dealing with students who have passed all the A-G [UC admissions] requirements and achieved a high level of proficiency. It’s very difficult to choose between them.”
In fact, this tension between openness and arbitrariness led UC to the tests in the first place. The UC system has long doubted the efficacy of standardized tests in finding the best students and predicting their potential to succeed. After a two-year experiment using the tests, beginning in 1960, leaders in the Academic Senate argued they “add little or nothing” to admissions predictions. However, by the late ‘60s, with ever-increasing numbers of students, UC administrators faced pressure to find a way to manage admissions that was more politically palatable than raising GPA requirements.
As John Aubrey Douglass, a Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, wrote in a recent history of the SAT in the UC system, administrators adopted standardized test requirements “not to improve the admissions process so as to admit the best students, but to use the test as a way to offer clear criteria to deny access to students.” (The makers of the SAT and ACT maintain that the tests are valuable parts of the admissions equation, and that replacing them will harm students.)
Those days are over now, but what will replace them is an open question. One thing is for certain: when it comes to equity and admissions in the UC system, nothing will stay the same.
“Every step you can take to make the system more equitable is a good step,” Geiser says, “even if it’s only a partial step.”
From the Fall 2020 issue of California.