UC looks for bet­ter way on tests

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - INSIGHT - LETTERS TO THE EDI­TOR

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.

Leah Mil­lis / The Chron­i­cle 2016

UC Pres­i­dent Janet Napoli­tano is chal­leng­ing the value of en­trance ex­ams.

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