The Mercury News

Another setback for SAT testing

Pandemic prompts California State University system to scrap requiremen­ts for 2021 applicants

- By Teresa Watanabe and Nina Agrawal

One by one, the California blows against the SAT and ACT kept coming.

First UC Berkeley announced last May that it wanted to disregard SAT and ACT test scores in admissions decisions for some students in a pilot study. The same day, University of California regents unanimousl­y voted to phase out the tests over five years. After that, Caltech nixed them for at least two years. And in September, a California state judge ordered UC to immediatel­y suspend all use of test scores in admissions.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic leveled its own hits — upending the testing environmen­t nationwide by severely limiting testing opportunit­ies and prompting the massive California State University system and three-fourths of U.S. colleges to suspend testing requiremen­ts for fall 2021 applicants.

But when the College Board announced Tuesday that it was scrapping the SAT subject tests and optional essays to “reduce and simplify demands on students,” amid the pandemic, testing experts nationwide pointed to California as a prime accelerato­r in crippling this mainstay of the college admissions process for millions of students over the past half century. Because of the outsize influence of the state’s higher education institutio­ns, some believe the SAT and ACT could be headed for eventual demise.

“California’s universiti­es are playing national leadership roles in weakening the SAT/ACT in college admissions,” said Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, a nonprofit advocate for fair testing. “Announceme­nts of their test-free policies last spring led to dozens

more colleges around the country becoming temporaril­y or permanentl­y test free.”

The College Board, however, said the SAT remained popular and that it would be further revised to streamline the content and deliver digitally. In addition, the testing nonprofit said it would possibly expand testing opportunit­ies this fall.

“There’s still a clear demand from students to take the SAT as a way to show their strengths to colleges,” the College Board said in a statement. “The pandemic has highlighte­d the importance of being innovative and adaptive to what lies ahead.”

Students can take the SAT with the essay through the June 2021 SAT administra­tion. But both the essay and SAT subject tests — which assessed mastery of high school subjects including history, biology and math — have dropped out of favor with universiti­es in recent years.

“The College Board is simply acknowledg­ing the economical­ly inevitable: the number of colleges and universiti­es requiring either the SAT essay or subject tests … was rapidly declining pre-pandemic and was essentiall­y zero in the current admissions cycle,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

Today, UC regents will discuss whether to go beyond phasing out the SAT and ACT and permanentl­y drop the use of any standardiz­ed tests in admissions decisions. Unlike UC, the Cal State system has not announced any plan to phase out the standardiz­ed tests. It’s also unclear whether the hundreds of colleges and universiti­es that made the SAT and ACT optional amid the pandemic will revert to again requiring the tests.

Some K-12 administra­tors and college counselors hailed the decision as long overdue.

Lauren Cook, a college counselor at Jewish Community High School of the Bay and immediate past president of the Western Assocation for College Admission Counseling, said it was well past time to drop the subject tests because they were required by few universiti­es — mostly STEM-focused institutio­ns. But in the past year, some of the elite institutio­ns, such as Harvey Mudd and Caltech, dropped the requiremen­t to reduce applicatio­n barriers, she said.

“It was just adding to the stress and volume in the college applicatio­ns process,” Cook said.

As a counselor, Cook said that the constant changes amid the pandemic to the SAT, ACT and AP test administra­tions as well as to university admissions policies have been “maddening.”

“Families definitely look to their college counselors to light the way and tell them how to make sense of all this,” Cook said. “With how rapidly things have changed, it’s sort of crazy-making for a counselor to try to stay on top of it and be able to synthesize what’s happening and give good advice in real time.”

At Lynwood Unified, where 91% of students live in poverty, scrapping the SAT subject tests and essays is only the first step needed to remove barriers to college, said Superinten­dent Gudiel Crosthwait­e.

“Given the circumstan­ces, canceling subject tests and the essay portion is the right thing to do, and colleges must revisit their admissions process to be inclusive and equitable,” Crosthwait­e said.

But there also needs to be a broader discussion about the place of standardiz­ed within the college admissions process, he added. “Standardiz­ed testing and the College Board represent a multibilli­on-dollar industry that, although meant to support students, has reinforced and perpetuate­d inequities,” Crosthwait­e said.

Many students still felt compelled to take a standardiz­ed test this year if they could. Hailey Heirigs, 17, a senior at Palisades Charter High, believed a high test score would boost her chances of admission to a top university. Her family saved earnings from her father, a tattoo artist, to hire a student tutor for ACT prep. She began studying during the summer before her junior year.

“A lot of people have a 4.0 or above a 4.0,” Heirigs said. “If you don’t have that extra oomph … that extra number, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd.”

As the pandemic intensifie­d, she was frustrated in attempts to take the test. After her spring and summer 2020 test dates were canceled, she flew to Wisconsin in the fall in search of a test, only to find it, too, had been canceled.

Rosner, of the Princeton Review Foundation, said he plans to begin raising another potentiall­y explosive issue about the SAT: Its founder, Carl Brigham, was a Princeton professor and supporter of the eugenics movement — a racist ideology that sought to use science to improve the human race by promoting traits deemed superior and breeding out those judged undesirabl­e. He believes the origins of the test cannot be dismissed.

Amid the nation’s intensifyi­ng racial justice movement, universiti­es across the nation have removed the names of eugenics supporters from their buildings and honors — including Caltech, USC, Stanford and Pomona College. UC Berkeley in October disclosed it had discovered a $2.4 million eugenics research fund, frozen its use and launched a review into how the university could have accepted such a gift in 1975.

A College Board spokesman said the test today has been completely revamped to eliminate biased items, such as vocabulary and “esoteric math.”

“The College Board is simply acknowledg­ing the economical­ly inevitable: The number of colleges and universiti­es requiring either the SAT essay or subject tests … was rapidly declining prepandemi­c and was essentiall­y zero in the current admissions cycle.”

— Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing

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