Family Background Accounts for 40% of SAT/ACT Scores Among UC Applicants

May 11, 2020

Family background factors like parental income, education, and race now account for over 40% of the variance in SAT/ACT scores among UC applicants, according to a new publication by CSHE researcher Saul Geiser. 

The study is featured as the first chapter in a new book from Teachers College Press, The Scandal of Standardized Tests: Why We Need to Drop the SAT & ACT, edited by Joseph Soares. Teachers College Press has made a copy of the chapter available here to help inform the current debate at UC over use of the SAT and ACT in university admissions.

Geiser’s chapter, “Norm-Referenced Tests and Race-Blind Admissions: The Case for Eliminating the SAT and ACT at the University of California,” summarizes UC’s experience with the SAT/ACT over the past 25 years and presents new trend data for the years 2012 to 2016. The new data were provided by UC Office of the President and update Geiser’s earlier study, published by CSHE in 2017, of test-score trends from 1994 to 2011. The updated sample includes over 1.6 million California high school graduates who applied to UC between 1994 and 2016.

Key findings:

  • Of all UC admissions criteria, SAT/ACT scores are most affected by family background.    Compared to high school grades, for example, test scores exhibit much greater statistical bias against low-income, first-generation college, and underrepresented minority applicants.  In part, this reflects differences in access to test prep and related activities designed to improve test-taking skills not taught in the regular classroom.

  • Test-score disparities have grown significantly in the past 25 years.  Together, family income, education, and race now account for over 40% of the variance in SAT/ACT scores among UC applicants, up from 25% in 1994.  (By comparison, family background accounted for less than 10% of the variance in high school grades during this entire time) The growing effect of family background on SAT/ACT scores makes it difficult to rationalize treating scores purely as a measure of individual merit or ability, without regard to differences in socioeconomic circumstance.

  • Fairness in testing requires that colleges and universities take account of socioeconomic differences in reviewing SAT/ACT scores to level the playing field for students from disadvantaged families.  UC’s “holistic” admissions process takes account of family income and education in reviewing applicants’ test scores, but in California, Proposition 209 bars UC from taking account of race. California is one of eight states to bar consideration of race and ethnicity in public university admissions.

  • Race/ethnicity has an independent statistical effect on SAT/ACT scores after controlling for family income and parental education, Geiser’s analysis shows. The conditioning effect of race on SAT/ACT scores has increased substantially in the past 25 years, mirroring the massive re-segregation of California public schools over the same period. California schools are now among the most segregated in the nation. Statistically, race has become more important than either income or education in accounting for test-score differences among California high school graduates who apply to UC.

  • If UC cannot legally consider the conditioning effect of race and racial segregation on test performance, Geiser argues, neither should it consider SAT/ACT scores. Continuing to employ the SAT/ACT under the constraints of Prop 209 means accepting adverse statistical impacts on Latinx and Black applicants beyond what is warranted by the marginal utility of the tests to predict student performance at UC. Race-blind implies test-blind admissions.


The chapter concludes with an analysis of options for replacing or eliminating the SAT/ACT in UC admissions.  These include test-optional and test-flexible, Strivers’ approach (statistically adjusting scores for SES), moving to curriculum-based achievement tests that reward content learning over test-taking skills, and employing tests for UC eligibility rather than admissions selection.  Standardized tests are fairer and more effective as a tool for “certifying competence,” Geiser argues – assessing whether applicants are academically qualified – than for selecting whom to admit from among the pool of qualified applicants. 


Read full chapter:

Book available from Teachers College Press:

The Scandal of Standardized Tests Why We Need to Drop the SAT and ACT