UC looks for better way on tests
With classrooms emptied by the coronavirus, universities are moving uncertainly on doordie admissions tests embodied by the SAT and ACT exams. While the situation drifts, University of California President Janet Napolitano is tiptoeing toward a solution that postpones the crucial tests while drawing up a better version.
It’s a vision worth exploring. No higher education tool is taking more knocks than the sweeping exams that aim to sum up a student’s abilities and accomplishments. On top of that enduring debate, the pandemic has erased testing dates until the fall, meaning highschoolers may catch a break by skipping the hourslong rite of passage.
More fundamentally, it’s now open season on the fillthebubble exams that measure math, writing and thinking skills. Critics have long doubted the tests, noting the link between high scores and race, income and parental education. Also in the picture is a cottage industry of exam tutors and college counselors, plus the flatout cheating by wealthy parents caught in the Varsity Blues scandal.
The virus outbreak is bringing on a showdown that’s loomed for years. Napolitano is using the crisis to create a fragile consensus on crafting a better way to judge applicants. The stakes couldn’t be higher: UC is the country’s leading public system, making whatever it does the goldplated answer to a difficult question. A long list of public and private universities are putting the tests on hold or making them voluntary while the pandemic rages.
Her solution walks a fine line. The exams will be optional for the next five years, by which time UC will come up with its own test that avoids the traps of the present evaluations. What those tests will look like is unknown, but the intention is obvious. Lowincome students and others in lowperforming schools will have a way around the current tests that favor betteroff testtakers.
The UC faculty isn’t entirely sold. It overwhelmingly passed a measure asking the administration not to drop the exams while devising a new test over nine years. In a report, the professors argued the fateful tests are used selectively without undue harm to disadvantaged applicants. Keep the tests and boost the academic help to prepare for them, they argued. Now the faculty is relenting and accepting Napolitano’s proposal and shorter timetable. Her plan goes before the Board of Regents on Thursday.
The future admissions process could be a finely tuned, socially neutral measurement of a student’s potential. It could broaden the campus population, encourage more students to apply and assure families of fair consideration no matter their address or tax bracket. It would put California ahead of the rest of nation in meeting the challenges of standardized testing.
But it’s complicated. The testing companies are offering changes to stay in the game via reduced fees for lowincome students and free testprep courses. The industry is heeding the pressure heightened by the pandemic’s shutdown of its central business.
Also other uncertainties may remain in judging a student. The anxietyproducing student essay can still be polished by outside helpers, teacher recommendations are decidedly subjective, and grade inflation could tweak a student’s gradepoint average. An objective test outside these wavering measures can offer a reasonable but not necessarily definitive prediction of how students will do in the campus classroom.
Moving toward a new test offers UC a chance to change the channel on distracting problems. This fall will see more online classes, not inperson lectures and classes that students expect. Talking up a more fair test blunts the harm done by the bribery and cheating scandal that touched UC admissions and involved millions in illegal payments by welloff Bay Area and Hollywood parents. More than ever, the public is ready to hear about an overhaul of a mysterious, uncertain path to landing a campus slot.
As the pandemic has done in many facets of life, it’s causing a crisis for college admissions. But in this instance, the challenge could be a welcome one in finding a better way to measure a student seeking a slot at the nation’s top public university.
UC President Janet Napolitano is challenging the value of entrance exams.