NORM-REFERENCED TESTS AND RACE-BLIND ADMISSIONS: The Case for Eliminating the SAT and ACT at the University of California by Saul Geiser, UC Berkeley CSHE 15.17 (December 2017)


Of all college admission criteria, scores on nationally normed tests like the SAT and ACT are most affected by the socioeconomic background of the student. The effect of socioeconomic background on test scores has grown substantially at University of California over the past two decades, and tests have become more of a barrier to admission of disadvantaged students. In 1994, socioeconomic background factors—family income, parents’ education, and race/ethnicity—accounted for 25 percent of the variation in test scores among California high school graduates who applied to UC. By 2011, they accounted for 35 percent. More than a third of the variation in SAT/ACT scores is attributable to differences in socioeconomic circumstance. Meanwhile, the predictive value of the tests has declined with the advent of holistic review in UC admissions. Holistic review has expanded the amount and quality of other applicant information, besides test scores, that UC considers in admissions decisions. After taking that information into account, SAT/ACT scores have become largely redundant and uniquely predict less than 2 percent of the variance in student performance at UC. The paper traces the implications of these trends for admissions policy. UC has compensated for the adverse impact of test scores on low income and first-generation college applicants by giving admissions preferences for those students, other qualifications being equal. Proposition 209 prevents UC from doing the same for Latino, African American, and Native American applicants. California is one of eight states to bar consideration of race and ethnicity as a factor in public university admissions. Yet UC data show that race has an independent and growing effect on test scores, after controlling for other socioeconomic factors. The growing correlation between race and test scores over the past 25 years reflects the growing segregation of Latino and black students in California’s poorest, lowest-performing schools. Statistically, race has become as important as either family income or parents’ education in accounting for test-score differences among UC applicants. Using the SAT and ACT under the constraints of Proposition 209 means accepting adverse impacts on underrepresented minority applicants beyond what can be justified by the limited predictive value of the tests. If UC cannot legally consider race as a socioeconomic disadvantage in admissions, neither should it consider scores on nationally normed tests. Race-blind implies test-blind admissions. The paper concludes with a discussion of options for replacing or eliminating the SAT and ACT in UC admissions.

Publication date: 
December 18, 2017
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)