The University of California Versus the SAT: A Brief History and Contemporary Critique, by John Aubrey Douglass, CSHE 8.20 (June 2020)


On May 21, 2020, the University of California (UC) Board of Regents unanimously approved the suspension of the standardized test requirement (ACT/SAT) for all California freshman applicants until fall 2024. UC plans to create a new test that better aligns with the content the University expects students to have mastered for college readiness. However, if a new test does not meet specified criteria in time for fall 2025 admission, UC will eliminate the standardized testing requirement for California students. The Board’s decision is the seeming culmination of a 19 year debate over the role of standardized test scores at UC. Opponents of the widespread use of the SAT have long claimed that the SAT promotes needless socioeconomic stratification: The test favors students from upper income families and communities, in part because they can afford a growing range of expensive commercially available test preparation courses and counseling. The Regent’s 2020 decision echoes this view. Yet UC has an even longer history of concern with the standardized testing. In fact, and as discussed in this essay, UC was relatively slow in adopting the SAT as a requirement in admissions when compared to other selective universities, public or private. This provides the basis for a brief discussion of the current politics related to admissions at UC. Setting admission policy is not simply the result of rational policy solutions; they are, in some form, a reflection of the internal and external politics that shape the policy behaviors of a university – particularly at highly selective public institutions with greater levels of expected accountability and expectations than their private counterparts. Another axiom that is largely lost in the debates over the usage of test scores and a growing array of admissions requirements: selective public universities may attempt to create relatively transparent admissions criteria, but in the end much of the decision-making is arbitrary when choosing among a large pool of highly qualified candidates. I then offer a number of observations: First, that changes in admissions policies focused, to some extent, on equity and greater access to underrepresented groups means redistribution of what is essential a zero sum, access to a selective public university. Second, that the path to the Regent’s 2020 vote ignored the recommendations of UC’s Academic Senate, designated by the Regents to set admissions policies. The Senate, UC’s representative body of the faculty, recommended retaining the SAT and ACT in setting UC eligibility policies and for campus selection of students for admission. This raises internal questions of the purpose and future of shared governance.

Publication date: 
June 23, 2020
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)