Eliminating the ACT and SAT Won’t Fix What’s Wrong With Education

The University of California is hurting the students it’s trying to help by eliminating objective measures for admissions.

On Thursday, the regents of the University of California voted to phase out the SAT and ACT tests as a requirement for admission across all nine of its undergraduate campuses, which make up one of the country’s biggest and historically most prestigious state systems. While the tests had been deemed optional for next fall as a result of the pandemic, the decision to eliminate them permanently was driven by progressive intentions. It’s a mistake for many reasons, not the least of which being that it will hurt the same students it’s intended to help.

The rationale for this move was, of course, the pursuit of greater equity in the form of a more diverse student body, one that “looks like California,” and the assumption, as regent Jonathan Sures asserted, that the SAT (and presumably the ACT) is “inherently racist.”

In abolishing the future use of those tests, the regents went notably farther than a number of colleges that have made admissions “test optional,” meaning that students could submit their scores for consideration if they wish. Although the UC system will function that way for the next two years, Thursday’s decision says that, when the time comes to consider admission for young Californians now finishing their eighth and ninth grades, no test scores will be considered. (It’s unclear as yet how the campuses will handle out-of-state applicants, who represent a sizable fraction of enrollees, particularly at high-status Berkeley and UCLA—and who also pay much more in tuition.)

Meanwhile, the university will look into developing a new and ostensibly “fairer” test to deploy starting in 2025 but with no commitment that this will actually happen. Says President Janet Napolitano—a former Democratic governor of Arizona and homeland security secretary in the Obama administration— “Generally the right test is better than no test, but a flawed test should not continue to be required.” Or now, apparently, even considered.

What’s cockeyed here is that it’s not the SAT and ACT that are “flawed.” There’s no denying that scores tend to correlate with test-takers’ socioeconomic circumstances and often with their race, but that’s not because the tests are biased. It’s because in California, as elsewhere in the United States, the K-12 education system has shown itself incapable of producing remotely equitable academic outcomes among racially and socioeconomically diverse students.

 Consider, for example, that on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the “Nation’s Report Card”—among the Golden State’s eighth graders in 2019, an overall 30 percent were “proficient” (or better) in reading, somewhat worse than 33 percent for the nation as a whole. But when we look at group performance, we find that 45 percent of California’s white students and 57 percent of Asian students made it to that level, but just 10 percent of black pupils and 19 percent of Hispanics did so. Which is to say, fewer than one in five students in those two huge minority groups was truly literate when they entered high school. Is it any wonder that their SAT and ACT scores, a few years later, average far below those of their white and Asian classmates?

Like most universities, leaders and faculty at the University of California—and legislators who furnish much of its budget—want its undergraduate demographics to be more “representative” than today, when Latino students have actually come to outnumber whites but both are dwarfed by Asian enrollments, and just 4 percent of undergrads are African-American. Because a referendum back in 1996 barred the use of racial preferences in California public colleges, UC admissions officers have striven to diversify their entering classes, and in fact have succeeded better at this than kindred institutions in other states. But not well enough for equity hawks and social justice impresarios, who comprise large fractions of the university’s professoriate and leadership.

Not all, though. There was considerable dissent across the campuses over this issue, and the regents’ decision flies in the face of a faculty task force that—just a few weeks earlier—urged that admissions testing be brought back after the current COVID-forced testing hiatus.

Most professors want academically prepared students in their classrooms, young people ready to succeed in bona fide college-level academics. That means “proficient” (or better) in all the core skills one should possess at the end of high school and a solid knowledge base in subjects they will study further. Yet the regents chose to shoot the messenger rather than push hard on the unwelcome message: that California’s schools are failing to educate their students of color well enough to place them on a level playing field when the time comes for college.

By doing away with admissions testing, however, on grounds that it’s biased against minority and lower-income applicants, the university is bringing a host of new problems upon itself, its faculty, its academic reputation, and ultimately its state. Four such problems will prove especially vexing.

For one, it means more focus on other elements of the application process: course grades, teacher recommendations, student essays, extracurricular activities, and all the rest. Far from enhancing equity, this works to the advantage of privileged kids, whose parents will now arrange for essay coaches, private soccer trainers, and all manner of rarefied out-of-school activities. The test-prep firms may take a hit but what a bonanza awaits those who coach fencing and conduct summer study tours to exotic places. In the end, hard-pressed campus admissions teams, lacking truly comparable and objective metrics across applicants and high schools, will substitute subjective judgments based on hasty reading of individual portfolios, tucked into which are clues as to kids’ ethnicity.

Second, as at Harvard and elsewhere, there will be backlash among angry Asian-American families and their well-educated daughters and sons, whose rejection by UC will in fact constitute a form of reverse discrimination.

Third, the university’s classrooms will contain more ill-prepared students, which will force instructors to simplify what they teach. It won’t be termed “remedial,” yet more of it will cover what should have been learned in high school. This is apt to lead to gradual lowering of academic standards, resentment by better-prepared students, more dropouts by discouraged kids whose admission to UC did not, in fact, signal their readiness for college work, and eventual trouble with graduate-school admission and employment, if it becomes clear that a UC bachelor’s degree does not mean what it once did.

Fourth—perhaps obvious but worthy of emphasis—state policymakers and education leaders will feel even less pressure to fix what ails California’s schools. The pushback against true education reform was already intense, much of it coming from the state’s powerful teacher union. The drive by many families to prepare their children satisfactorily for UC’s competitive, test-linked admissions process was a valuable countervailing force. Now that force will weaken, to be replaced by pressure to elevate kids’ grades and ingratiate themselves with reference-writing teachers.

It’s ironic that on the same day the regents voted to make UC admissions more subjective—and inevitably more vulnerable to favoritism and influence peddling—Californians Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli agreed to plead guilty to fraud conspiracy charges in connection with their involvement in the college admissions cheating scandal known as “Varsity Blues.” Though the University of Southern California, to which their daughters were accepted, is a private institution and hence not directly touched by the regents’ vote, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how UCLA and Berkeley and their fellow campuses will be even more vulnerable to kindred forms of chicanery and mischief in the future.

This doesn’t just bid fair to tarnish one of our biggest and most respected university systems. By its example and influence, it diminishes all of American higher education. 

Chester E. Finn Jr. is the distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and also senior fellow at Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Photograph by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.