Whither Meritocracy? University of California Scraps the SAT.

COMMENTARY Education

Whither Meritocracy? University of California Scraps the SAT.

May 19th, 2021 4 min read

Commentary By

Lindsey M. Burke, Ph.D. @lindseymburke

Director, Center for Education Policy

Mike Gonzalez @Gundisalvus

Senior Fellow, Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum Fellow

A California court just eliminated one of the ways in which students can show merit: through the SAT and the ACT. kylewolfe / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

For all of the shortcomings of standardized tests these college entrance exams attempt to approximate an objective assessment of a student’s capacity.

For the bright student from a low-income family, the chance to demonstrate his promise on a standardized test can be the ticket to college.

The ability to do academic work should determine who gets into college, not race, national origin, sex, or any other immutable characteristic.

“Don’t lie to yourself about how much effort you’re putting in,” says Amisha, a student from New Jersey who scored a 1540 on her SAT, adding: “If you’re putting in minimal effort and telling yourself that it’ll be enough—chances are it very well won’t be.”

“Visualize yourself attending your dream college whenever you feel demoralized,” advises Rushil, an Abu Dhabi student who scored a 1570 on the SAT out of a possible 1600 after prepping for nearly 75 hours.

These two students put in hours upon hours of hard work and diligent study to be successful on the SAT. Yet, if they hoped to demonstrate their college potential next year to, say, the University of California, Berkeley, they’d be out of luck. That’s because a California court just eliminated one of the ways in which students can show merit: through the SAT and the ACT.

The public University of California System’s Board of Regents announced its decision as the outcome of a settlement agreement Friday that will prevent the UC System from considering SAT or ACT scores for admission and scholarship decisions through at least 2025.

The board already had planned to begin a phaseout of the SAT and ACT, although students still would be able to voluntarily submit test outcomes. But as The New York Timesreports, students sued the UC System in 2019, pushing back against even the voluntary submission of scores.

The settlement announced Friday was the resolution of the 2019 lawsuit, which claimed the tests were biased against minority and low-income students.

For all of the shortcomings of standardized tests—and the particular problems with the College Board, which owns the SAT—these college entrance exams attempt to approximate an objective assessment of a student’s capacity to do college-level work. Getting a good score reflects hard work and often is rewarded with admission to a chosen college.

The immediate question is what colleges will use in the place of the SAT and ACT. Something will fill the void, and that likely will mean a greater emphasis on service learning projects, sports, extracurricular activities, and personal essays—and race and national origin.

For the bright student from a low-income family who didn’t have access to those opportunities, though, the chance to demonstrate his promise on a standardized test can be the ticket to college.

Take the case of Chinese Americans, the vast majority of whom are either the foreign-born first generation (63% of some 5 million Chinese Americans) or their children. Of that huge foreign-born population, only 44% speak English proficiently.

Studies show, however, that as parents and students, they avail themselves of the SAT and other tests such as the ACT—originally known as American College Testing.

Asian Americans, for example, are 12 percentage points more likely to retake the SAT or ACT than white students, according to this study. (Asian American is a general category that includes a large number of different groups; because it is used often, it generates the most data.)

Asian Americans also have the highest rate of participation in test preparation. This is not something reserved only for the well-off. Almost 47% of low-income Korean Americans took a prep course, according to researcher Julie Park.

In other words, these immigrant families, with few connections in their new country, are doing everything they can to ensure that their children have a better life. Standardized tests can reflect that drive and help put these students on the ladder to upward economic mobility.

And success they are having, getting into the most prestigious institutions in America at an astounding rate. This explains in part why Asian Americans led the opposition in California last year to Proposition 16, which would have reinstituted affirmative action in the state but was roundly defeated 56% to 44%.

This isn’t to say that the SAT or ACT perfectly reflect students’ ability to be successful in college. And more meaningful alternatives such as the CLT—the Classical Learning Test—have cropped up in recent years as alternatives to the longtime testing giants as a result.

Nor is it to say that the College Board in particular doesn’t deserve scrutiny. David Coleman, architect of the widely derided Common Core national education standards, became president of the College Board after imposing the mediocre standards on students across the country. Upon arriving at the helm, one of his first major changes was to  align the SAT more closely with the Common Core national standards.

The College Board’s Advanced Placement courses in European history, U.S. history, and world history also have been “grossly politicized to the left,” as the National Association of Scholars’ David Randall puts it.

But California’s move isn’t born of a desire to correct course on assessments and identify better tools for screening applicants to the UC System. It’s born of a desire to abandon meritocracy, to align the state’s policies with the broader goals of critical theory.

The ability to do academic work should determine who gets into college, not race, national origin, sex, or any other immutable characteristic.

The SAT and ACT, though flawed, are tools for identifying that ability. And that is reason to excoriate what California has done to hardworking students who aspire to pursue all that America has to offer.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal.