UC System Explores “No SAT/ACT” Future with Mixed Results
In a letter posted to the University of California Board of Regents, a group called the Feasibility Study Steering Committee (FSSC) reviewed what would be potentially effective ways to revise the college entrance exam requirements for the UC System. FSSC investigated whether it would be possible to forever eliminate the SAT/ACT requirement (and that of any other similar kind of test) from college admissions without negatively impacting the selection process.
UC’s Report on Feasibility of Eliminating SAT/ACT Tests from Admissions
The FSSC tasked a work group, which “comprised of UC faculty, a UC student, K-12 leadership, psychometricians, UC admissions practitioners, a California State University representative, and a California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office representative,” to determine the best options for UC.
This Feasibility Study Work Group (FSWG) highlighted three potential ways that UC admissions could move forward with regards to testing requirements:
New UC-developed admissions test
No admissions test
An existing test in its current form or with modifications
FSWG quickly decided that it would be too challenging for UC to create, refine, and finalize its own admissions test.
Also, FSWG concluded that the absence of an admissions test would mean that grades, which are not standardized, would become too much of the focus for determining a student’s college readiness:
[I]n the absence of a test, admissions professionals could become over-reliant on GPA as one of the only academic indicators in comprehensive review. Some FSWG members worried that over-reliance on GPA could exacerbate grade inflation within K-12 schools. Further, since grades and GPA vary from school to school, they do not provide a standardized measurement across students of college readiness in the absence of a test. Some members of the FSWG saw value in having an additional quantitative data point in admissions and believed that opting not to pursue a test might be a missed opportunity.
After reviewing the first two options, the most promising of the three was to consider the scores of an existing test, or perhaps modify an existing test so that it meets the needs of UC admissions.
However, such usage of scores or modifications are at their earliest stages, and even though FSWG identified a test that could serve as a good basis for UC admissions -- the California state test, otherwise known as the “Smarter Balanced” 11th grade summative assessment -- the group acknowledged the drawbacks and current limitations to pursuing this option.
Namely, out-of-state and international applicants would not have taken the Smarter Balanced state test when ready to apply, and if the Smarter Balanced test is used for UC admissions, it still can create disparity between students who purchase prep vs. those who do not.
The ultimate recommendation at this point is to explore the possibilities of permanently removing SAT/ACT from the UC application requirements and substituting those tests with Smarter Balanced or something else with “lower stakes” that can be used as an additional “data point.” FSGW outlines how the stakes can be reduced:
“Allowing, instead of requiring, students to submit their SB scores as one data point in the comprehensive review process
Using the SB score as one of many data points in holistic assessment, rather than as a fixed or heavily-weighted element of admissions formulas
Exploring whether multiple testing opportunities would help prevent a single test administered on a single day from becoming a high stakes situation.”
Since the overall recommendation still leans on testing as a part of UC admissions, the FSGW admits that test scores serve a role in providing a holistic portrait of a student’s preparedness for college.
Analysis of UC’s Report
The main issue that FSGW identified -- that GPAs are not standardized -- cannot be overlooked as one of the key reasons that tests like SAT and ACT persist as a major part of college admissions, even with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vast majority of colleges have gone “test-optional” for this year’s college admissions cycle. In fact, according to Fair Test, two-thirds of ALL four-year U.S. colleges and universities went test-optional for Fall 2021 admissions. This “test-optional” position is an acknowledgement of the pandemic’s restrictions on testing, and in many cases, students simply couldn’t sit (and still can’t sit) for the SAT or the ACT.
But going “test-optional” is different from simply rejecting any submissions of SAT and ACT scores. The difference between “test-optional” and “no testing at all” is stark. As stated, two-third of colleges (approximately 1570) in the U.S. are the former, but only approximately 70 are the latter.
The marked difference between colleges that are “test-optional” and those that are “no testing accepted at all” suggests, and is further supported by UC’s feasibility committee, that SAT and ACT scores (or test scores of some kind) will remain important to college admissions officers who have to make sense of grades and other more qualitative application materials.
While test scores may not carry the same weight as they did in years prior, they are still going to clarify what cannot be standardized. And for that reason, they will remain significant (when available).
The “test-optional” stance is obviously important for equalizing the disastrous effects of the pandemic. And without this barrier to entry, applicants who never would have considered applying to places like Harvard (or any other highly selective colleges that also adopted the rule) decided to give it a try.
As a result, these highly selective colleges have seen during the November 2020 EA/ED admissions period record numbers of applications to Early Decision and Early Action -- numbers that go far beyond what has always been a trend upward in applications and a trend downward in acceptance rates.
Clearly the tests have prevented some students from even considering the Ivy League as an option -- until now. This also means more competition among seniors.
Final Thoughts on College Admissions in 2021
The bottom line for now is that even though the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up many aspects of college admissions, the fundamentals are still largely intact: grades, extracurriculars, test scores, and essays are all crucial “data points.” To what degree these “data points” have been altered in their significance is hard to say.
Adapt to the times as needed, but don’t overthink what has always been about positioning yourself to be the best candidate for your desired major at your desired college. Now is not the time to throw out the playbook on what traditionally leads to successful applications.