Equity or Education?

College admissions have been steeped in controversy for years with wrangling over which measures best identify desirable applicants. A typical application requires transcripts, essays, recommendations, and results from standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. The latter are now at the forefront of current debate, including one taking place in California.

The University of California system began requiring applicants to take the SAT in 1960. Recently, there have been discussions regarding the use of test scores in scholarship or admissions decisions, from making submission optional (spurred by COVID-19 limitations) to ending the required submission. 

Increasingly, the motivation to change requirements no longer focuses solely on the student but is driven by concerns that family income, parents’ education, and race can adversely affect test scores.

UC Riverside Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox contributed to the debate with a Los Angeles Times op-ed titled “Dropping the SATs could make UC admissions more biased.” He included the findings of a faculty task force, which recognized that the UC system has been able to offset such bias by including other relevant factors in admissions. He argued that inequities could be made worse because test elimination would cause a greater reliance on grades, thus driving grade inflation, or result in more affluent families hiring tutors for their children.

While the task force’s findings and recommendations were persuasive, in May 2020 the UC Regents suspended the standardized test requirement for all California freshman applicants until fall 2024 and announced a plan to design a new test in time for 2025 admissions. If the deadline is not met, standardized testing requirements for all California students will be eliminated. 

Included in the Regents’ statement was the explanation that “the changes are aimed at making available a properly designed and administered test that adds value to the admissions decision process and improves educational quality and equity in California, even in these challenging times.” Six months later, the Regents ended consideration of test scores when awarding Regents and Chancellor’s scholarships.

The most recent change halting any future possibility of testing requirements is the result of two lawsuits filed in May 2019 in a California Superior Court by individuals and groups, and the Compton Unified School District. The 105-page complaint chronicled how the UC admissions process “creates formidable barriers to access to public higher education for deserving students from low-income families, students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and students with disabilities.” The complaint included the student plaintiffs recounting hardships that arguably prevented their admittance to a UC school.

The UC Regents and UC president Janet Napolitano entered into a settlement agreement last month before going to trial. Included in the settlement was a provision for “Payment of Attorney’s Fees and Costs.” The Regents (insert California taxpayers here) will pay $1.25 million jointly to the people who filed suit along with the attorneys and law firms who represented the plaintiffs.

On the substance, the settlement agreement grants the plaintiffs’ request to eliminate any standardized test results in the application process. This, of course, raises serious questions. Are these actions in the best interest of students? Will these changes achieve the equity so prized by the Regents? Will the university expand capacity to accommodate students from select groups? Are we masking failed schools and social policies by eliminating tests that measure achievement without regard to distinguishing factors such as race, ethnicity, or family background? How do we initiate discussions about improving underperforming schools if objective measures are eliminated?

The irony of this debate about educational quality and equity is that California had a well-designed system to accommodate students of different abilities and interests. The 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California to address “the development, expansion, and integration of the facilities, curriculum, and standards of higher education, in junior [community] colleges, state colleges, the University of California, and other institutions of higher education of the State, to meet the needs of the State during the next ten years and thereafter” outlined the mission of each institution.

These institutions were intended to be parts of a whole, but the Regents and Napolitano have lost sight of this. The elimination of standardized tests is the latest misguided and detrimental effort to achieve equity and seat a diverse class. Lost on them is the longstanding problem of mismatch. Too many students attend schools where they are less likely to thrive and from which they may not graduate. 

Community college may be better suited to students with lesser academic skills. If successful at that level, they can apply to transfer to a Cal State or UC school. The conclusion from the Regents’ actions is that it is not about student success but satisfying an unachievable vision of equity, thus distracting from seeking remedies for student underachievement.


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About Elizabeth Eastman

Elizabeth Eastman holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate School, an M.A. in Liberal Education from St. John’s College, and a B.A. in French Literature and Civilization from Scripps College. She has taught in political science and history departments and in the liberal studies programs at colleges and universities around the country. She was the 2020-21 senior scholar in residence at the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization in Boulder, Colorado.

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