Options for Eliminating Test Scores in University of California Admissions

December 19, 2017

December 18, 2017 - A new CSHE Research and Occasional Paper (ROPS) by Saul Geiser, “Norm-Referenced Test and Race-Blind Admissions,” lays out the case for eliminating SAT and ACT scores as admissions criteria for the University of California. Geiser is a Research Associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education and former director of admissions research for the UC system.

Of all admissions criteria, scores on nationally normed tests like the SAT and ACT are most affected by the socioeconomic background of the student, according to the analysis. The effect has grown over time, as shown in UC applicant data dating back over two decades, explains Geiser.  “In 1994, socioeconomic background factors—family income, parents’ education, and race or ethnicity—accounted for 25 percent of the variance in test scores among California high school graduates who applied to UC. By 2011, they accounted for over 35 percent. More than a third of the variation in UC applicants’ test scores is attributable to differences in socioeconomic circumstance.”

Meanwhile, he notes, UC’s adoption of holistic review in admissions has had the unintended consequence of diminishing the predictive value of the tests, according to the analysis. The chief value of norm-referenced tests like the SAT and ACT is that they provide a tool for admissions officers to rank applicants by their predicted probability of success in college. Yet holistic review has expanded the amount and quality of other information in applicants’ files, beyond grades and test scores. After taking that other information into account, SAT/ACT scores have become largely redundant and predict less than 2 percent of the variance in UC student outcomes.  

Geiser’s analysis traces the implications of these findings for UC admissions policy.  UC has been able to offset the adverse socioeconomic effects of test scores on low income and first-generation college applicants through admissions preferences for those students, other qualifications being equal. UC is barred by Proposition 209 from doing the same for Latino, African American, and Native American applicants. California is one of eight states to bar consideration of race as a factor in public university admissions, either through state referenda, legislative action, or gubernatorial edict.

“Yet UC test-score data show that race has an independent and growing influence on SAT/ACT scores, after controlling for other socioeconomic factors,” states Geiser in his study. “The growing correlation between race and test scores in the past 25 years mirrors the growing segregation of Latino and black students in California’s poorest, lowest-performing schools. Statistically, race and ethnicity are now as important as either family income or parents’ education in accounting for test-score differences among UC applicants.”

Using test scores under the constraints of Proposition 209 means accepting adverse impacts on underrepresented minority applicants beyond what can be justified by the predictive validity of the tests, according to Geiser’s analysis. “In barring consideration of race as a factor in admissions, Proposition 209 has effectively barred consideration of how other admissions factors—like SAT and ACT scores—are themselves conditioned by race. If UC cannot legally consider race as a socioeconomic disadvantage in admissions, neither should it consider SAT or ACT scores. Race-blind implies test-blind admissions.”

The CSHE research paper concludes with a discussion of possible options for replacing or eliminating test scores at UC, including test-optional admissions, replacing the SAT and ACT with curriculum-based achievement exams, or eliminating test scores in admissions selection.  

For access to the article, please visit: http://cshe.berkeley.edu/rops-by-year

Information on author: Saul Geiser is a Research Associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley and former director of research for admissions and outreach for the UC system.

Contact: Saul Geiser sgeiser@berkeley.edu