Why the University of California’s Decision to Uproot the Testing Requirement Matters

Featured Artwork: LA Johnson

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The COVID-19 pandemic has presented ongoing challenges to universities and students alike for academic semesters to come. Among the numerous changes universities have undertaken in the name of pandemic relief, one of the most notable has been the revolutionary decision made by the University of California Board of Regents to suspend the SAT/ACT testing requirement for a number of years. While other universities like Cornell, Amherst, and Williams have waived the testing requirement for the 2020-2021 application cycle, the University of California has taken it a step further.

The suspension temporarily waives the SAT/ACT requirement for freshmen California applicants up until Fall 2024. The University of California Board hopes to replace this requirement with a new test that determines college readiness. However, they state that if a new test is deemed unsuitable, the testing requirement will be waived altogether starting from Fall 2025 for California applicants.

As a low-income identifying college student, I was immediately struck by the importance of this change. This is a really big deal.

For years, standardized testing has stood as a barrier to low-income and first-generation students. First-generation and low-income students are statistically likely to score lower on the SAT/ACT than their wealthier and well-connected peers. Countless studies have shown that wealth is positively correlated with higher test scores. Essentially, this means that students from wealthy and educated families receive better scores, and as a result, are more likely to receive admission to universities than low-income and first-generation students. 

Seems unfair? American higher education is entirely so. Unfairness and inaccessibility are cornerstones of the college admissions process, especially when it comes to the case of low-income and first-generation students. 

The difference is that wealthy students have access to resources like tutors, expensive prep classes, and books, which help them get better test scores. Additionally, wealthy students are more likely to have spare time to study and sign up for repeat tests. Most low-income students only receive fee waivers for a designated amount of tests and even then are less likely to take repeat tests because they can’t afford to give up an extra Saturday that could have been used to help out the family or go to work. First-generation students face similar problems, where they lack structural support and guidance to navigate the convoluted college admissions process. 

For the most part, test scores masquerade as measurements of intelligence but in reality are egregious forms of wealth discrimination that essentially punish students for their lack of resources. They are in no way indicative of college readiness or predictors of academic success. Low-income and first-generation students receive disproportionately low test scores on standardized exams, which goes on to have detrimental effects on their academic careers down the line. College admissions should not rely on test scores that penalize applicants for their socioeconomic background. 

That’s why the University of California’s decision is so significant. It has the potential to open the window of opportunity for low-income and first-generation California students and include them in a way they haven’t been before. The decision is just the beginning in the call for universities to distance themselves from the tests, especially in the aftermath of the notorious 2019 college admissions scandal. 

This decision has the potential to spark massive reform in the college admissions process. The University of California is a well-respected chain of public institutions known for excellence and prestige. While it may take some time to play out, the fact that such a renowned university-system has completely turned its back on the SAT/ACT has incited surprise across mainstream media. This comes amid a wave of institutions implementing test-optional policies in the past and for the upcoming application cycle due to COVID-19, which suggests that more and more universities are turning away from the tests altogether.

The University of California’s decision should be recognized as a step in the right direction. We don’t know what the new test will look like and how it will be different from the SAT, but we do know that California applicants don’t have to worry about the SAT hurting their chances for admission because of their financial background. For now, we can only hope that the new test will be more equitable to students and promote equality of opportunity. Although the new policy changes only apply to domestic California students, it shows that the higher education system is becoming aware of its own failings in terms of admissions. 

All in all, the delegitimization of the SAT is imperative to making the college admissions process fairer.  We can’t expect to reform American higher education until low-income and first-generation students are sought out for opportunities that strive to include them. A test that can be swayed by wealth and connections will always be unfair to those who are less fortunate, which is why the University of California’s decision represents a changing tide. Universities are beginning to realize the weaknesses of standardized testing, and hopefully over time will be pushed into making a permanent change. 

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