Atlantic: California schools dropping the SAT is going to backfire

The Atlantic published a pretty powerful piece today by Caitlin Flanagan about the decision of California’s UC system to stop using the SAT for admissions. You may recall that the UC system ditched the tests in May in response to a lawsuit filed in 2019. The tests have been labeled “racist metrics” by opponents, though I’ve argued that tests don’t really create problems so much as reveal their existence. Flanagan argues along similar lines but also points out that the evidence anyone is being prevented from going to college in California by the SAT is pretty slim.

The truth is that no high-school graduate in California is denied higher education because of a test score. The UC schools are some of the most competitive in the state, but the Cal State system has more than twice as many campuses and costs about half as much to attend, and some locations have an admission rate of almost 90 percent. Students reluctant to earn a degree from the “lesser” system may avail themselves of the best deal in American higher education: Earn a 2.4 GPA in the requisite courses at a California Community College, and your ability to transfer to a UC campus is guaranteed. Not a single standardized test need ever be taken.

More to the point, there’s no reason to think dropping to the SAT will help the minority students it is supposed to help. Flanagan suggests it will likely backfire because SATs were often a backdoor for admitting bright minority students from high schools that don’t even offer college prep classes required by the UC system looks at for admissions:

The biggest barrier to getting into the University of California is not the SAT; it is, again, the GPA. Because students at underfunded schools have such limited access to college counseling, they often assume that if they want to go to the UC, they should keep an eagle eye on their GPA. What many don’t know is that, to be eligible, they must complete a series of 15 college prep classes called the A-G requirements. Good grades in other classes don’t count. (And—shockingly—some high schools don’t even offer all the A-G requirements.)

There was a loophole these students could use, and it involved test scores: The course-load requirement could be waived for those who did well enough on the SAT or the ACT. This was a Hail Mary pass for many smart kids who, for whatever reason, didn’t do well in high school or did well but not in the A-G classes. In 2018, about 22,000 students “tested in” to the UC. Almost half of those students were low-income, and more than a quarter were Black, Latino, or Native American. The UC has now taken this lifeline away.

Furthermore, Flanagan points out that currently black students are 4% of undergrads and make up 5% of K-12 students in the state. Similarly, white students are 21% of undergrads and 22% of the K-12 students. Hispanics are 25% of undergrads and 55% of K-12 students. That leaves one group that is considered overrepresented in the UC system:

Twelve percent of K–12 students are Asian or Pacific Islander, compared with 34 percent of UC undergraduates. Aligning enrollment with state demographics would require cutting the share of those students by almost two-thirds. It would mean getting right with contemporary concepts of anti-racism by reviving one of California’s most shameful traditions: clearing Asians out of desirable spaces.

Anyone who doubts this is the goal of progressives only needs to look at the San Francisco School Board which recently ended competitive admissions at Lowell High School because Asians made up 51% of the schools population even though they were only 29% of the local school population. In the mind of critics, that meant the school wasn’t diverse enough. One of the members of the board that fast-tracked this change said explicitly that meritocracy was racist and that Asians were adopting “white supremacist thinking” to get ahead.

Finally, Flanagan points to this 225 page report which the UC system commissioned. Published in January of last year, the report concluded that the system should not stop the use of standardized testing for admissions. Here’s what the report said the results of dropping the tests would be (from page 85): [emphasis added]

  • The average student admitted would have a lower first-year GPA, a lower probability of persisting to year 2, a lower probability of graduating within seven years, and a lower GPA upon graduation. The reason for this is that UC would no longer be able to use admissions tests to identify, within socioeconomic groups, the students most likely to succeed.
  • UC would have a lessened ability to deliver academic and socio-emotional supports to freshmen because it would no longer be able to identify as accurately the students at risk of faring poorly at UC.
  • The impacts on diversity depend largely upon how the remaining 13 admission factors were used in admissions. Our analysis in the recommendations section later in this report suggests that expanding Eligibility in the Local Context, a program that admits the top 9% of graduates in each high school as ranked by GPA, would modestly improve diversity. But countering this is the fact that many underrepresented students who are currently guaranteed admission to UC through the statewide eligibility criteria would probably no longer be guaranteed admission. These students, who are guaranteed admission through the statewide index but not by the Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) program, by definition have been admitted based on their SAT scores. The numbers of disadvantaged students who would lose guaranteed admission if UC dropped SAT tests is surprisingly large. In 2018, about one quarter of low-income, first-generation and underrepresented minorities who were guaranteed admission to UC earned this guarantee solely by virtue of their SAT scores. African-American and Native American students would be especially hurt by dropping the SAT: among the students guaranteed admission to UC, 40% of African-Americans and 47% of Native Americans won their guarantee because of their SAT scores. Figure 3B-1 and surrounding text explains these surprising facts.
  • The average subsidy that the state of California would provide to California students through subsidized tuition (and complete tuition waivers for lower income students) would need to rise due to a longer time to graduation for the average student. Furthermore, the total subsidy expenditure per Bachelor’s graduate would rise, not only due to longer time to graduation, but due to a larger percentage of undergraduates not graduating. These increased subsidies may be socially desirable; we merely note here that there is a financial consequence from dropping admissions tests.
  • The UC Regents have long had a policy that out-of-state undergraduates must “compare favorably” to in-state undergraduates. UC takes this requirement seriously, and has used the SAT and ACT test results as objective measures of academic preparation. Comparing resident and non-resident students based solely on GPA would be very difficult and unconvincing, given that grading standards differ in other states, and especially so, in other countries.

Finally, here’s the chart showing the students from various groups who received admissions thanks to the SAT:

It’s difficult to see how this is not going to backfire on some of the students it was intended to help.