Fatima Martinez knows there's a lot riding on her SAT score.
"My future is at stake," says the Los Angeles high school senior. "The score I will receive will determine which UC schools I get into."
But that may not always be the case.
A lawsuit expected to be filed Tuesday is challenging the University of California system's use of the SAT or ACT as a requirement for admission. A draft of the document obtained by NPR argues that the tests — long used to measure aptitude for college — are deeply biased and provide no meaningful information about a student's ability to succeed, and therefore their requirement is unconstitutional.
"The evidence that we're basing the lawsuit on is not in dispute," says attorney Mark Rosenbaum of the pro bono firm Public Counsel. "What the SAT and ACT are doing are exacerbating inequities in the public school system and keeping out deserving students every admissions cycle."
Public Counsel is filing the suit in California Superior Court on behalf of students and a collection of advocacy groups.
The University of California system has long debated dropping the tests, and some university leaders have expressed their support. At an event in November, Carol Christ, the chancellor of UC Berkeley, said, "I'm very much in favor of doing away with the SAT or ACT as a requirement for application to the University of California." UC Berkeley was quick to clarify that comment didn't signal a policy change.
UC spokesperson Claire Doan couldn't comment on the lawsuit because it hadn't been filed yet. She says a special faculty task force is currently investigating the use of standardized testing in admissions, and the university system is "waiting for the assessment and recommendations from the ... Task Force before determining whether any steps should be taken on this important issue."
The university has been evaluating the requirement through a policy lens, but the lawsuit argues it's a legal issue: "This policy illegally discriminates against applicants on the basis of race and wealth, and thereby denies them equal protection under the California Constitution."
The University of California serves more than 250,000 students and is one of the largest school systems in the country. About 50 years ago, the system adopted the SAT as a way to weed out applicants — a decision that helped elevate the test to a national standard.
But research has since shown that SAT scores are strongly linked to family income, and a student's high school academic record, regardless of what school they attended, does a far better job of predicting college success.
The College Board, the organization behind the SAT, says grades and test scores function together, providing "more insight into a student's potential to succeed than either measure alone." Research conducted by the College Board maintains that SAT scores are predictive of success in college. The ACT says its test is not biased. In a statement, it tells NPR, "Blaming standardized tests for differences in educational quality and opportunities that exist will not improve educational outcomes."
Nonetheless, more and more schools are turning to test-optional admissions policies. In 2019, nearly 50 schools dropped the standardized tests from admissions requirements, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an advocacy group that has long been critical of standardized testing. Those schools joined a pool of about 1,000 colleges across the country. One of those colleges, the University of Chicago, claims the decision to go test-optional — along with increased financial aid — has led to an increase of first-generation and low-income students on campus.
"If the University of California were to go ahead and drop the testing requirements, it would have profound and widespread effects in the college admissions arena," says Bob Schaeffer, director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. "If University of California can go test-optional, pretty much any school could."
Still, attorney Rosenbaum acknowledges that optional testing won't completely solve the problem.
"There probably is no playing field less level than the journey to go to college and higher education — and the SATs are a part of that," Rosenbaum says. "But they're not the whole story."
He hopes the lawsuit will fuel a larger conversation around college admissions.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A lawsuit filed today against the University of California system seeks to eliminate SAT and ACT test score requirements from admission. NPR first reported this complaint, which argues that these tests are biased and provide no meaningful information about a student's ability to succeed in school and are therefore illegal. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports the case affecting so many schools could have far-reaching implications.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: If you've applied to college, you know how important these tests can be. They're essentially gatekeepers.
FATIMA MARTINEZ: I believe my future is at stake.
NADWORNY: Fatima Martinez is a senior in Los Angeles, and she knows there's a lot riding on her SAT score.
MARTINEZ: The score that I will receive will determine what colleges I can get into, including private and UC schools.
REYNA EDISS: With limited time, it's hard to answer all the questions correctly.
NADWORNY: That's Reyna Ediss, a high school senior from Santa Ana, Calif. She gets super anxious before tests, but she doesn't test super well. But her high school grades are great, and she's already taking classes at a community college.
EDISS: I feel like the exam results may not accurately represent my potential and college readiness as a student.
NADWORNY: Plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed today agree. They argue that these tests are far more likely to predict family income than if you're ready for college.
MARK ROSENBAUM: The evidence that we're basing the lawsuit on is not in dispute.
NADWORNY: That's attorney Mark Rosenbaum of the pro bono firm Public Counsel. They're representing students and a collection of advocacy groups in this lawsuit.
ROSENBAUM: What the SAT and the ACT are doing are exacerbating inequities in the public school system and keeping out, as I said, tens of thousands of deserving students every admissions cycle.
NADWORNY: The testing companies behind the ACT and the SAT maintain the tests aren't biased. But nevertheless, more and more schools are going test optional. Just this year, about 50 colleges announced the tests wouldn't be required in admissions. The University of California has long debated this issue. Nearly 50 years ago, they played a crucial role in the expansion of the SAT as a national standard. But even back then, there were concerns about limiting access. And just last year, the president of the UC system, Janet Napolitano, ordered a faculty task force to study the use of standardized tests in admissions. Leaders within the UC system have come out in favor of dropping the tests.
Here's Carol Christ, the chancellor at UC Berkeley, speaking at an event last month.
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CAROL CHRIST: I'm very much in favor of doing away with the SAT as a requirement for application.
NADWORNY: Christ's comments don't signify policy. And a spokesperson for Napolitano said the UC system doesn't plan to make any decisions until their faculty task force issues a report. But the UC system serves more than 250,000 students, so its size makes whatever it does important for the rest of the country.
BOB SCHAEFFER: If the University of California were to go ahead and drop the testing requirements, it would have profound and widespread effects in the college admissions arena.
NADWORNY: That's Bob Schaeffer, director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an advocacy organization that's long been critical of standardized testing. But going SAT or ACT optional may not eliminate the power of the tests. If you have a good score and it's optional, that can still help you.
ROSENBAUM: There probably is no playing field less level than the journey to college and higher education.
NADWORNY: Rosenbaum said there are so many other issues in the college process, stemming from inequities in K-12. So if you drop the SAT, you still got to figure out other metrics for college admissions. That can be tricky. High school grades are often a good predictor of success, but grade inflation varies widely.
ROSENBAUM: My hope is that this case plays some part in terms of really having a thoughtful, meaningful, honest dialogue about who benefits from higher education in this country.
NADWORNY: Will the lawsuit be enough to push the University of California system to drop the tests? The UC task force investigating that question, it's expected sometime next spring.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR AND 9 THEORY'S "CHAMELEON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.