What began as a letter urging the UC system to cease the use of SAT and ACT scores in admissions resulted in a lawsuit that accomplished just that, and more.
Following mounting evidence that the SAT and ACT serve as indicators of race and wealth in university admissions, three students backed by several organizations sent a letter to the UC system in October 2019, according to Amanda Mangaser Savage, a staff attorney with the Opportunity Under Law project at Public Counsel, a law firm representing some Smith plaintiffs. The letter claims that the tests discriminate against underrepresented students, a reality exacerbated by unequal access to exam preparation, and that admissions decisions can be reasonably made without them.
“This is not a discretionary policy decision; it is a legal obligation, and it is urgent,” the letter reads. “The use of these exams is an unlawful practice in violation of the California Constitution’s equal protection clause and numerous State anti-discrimination statutes, and it is barring our clients from equal access to higher education.”
In response, the UCOP informed the petitioners that the Academic Council’s Standardized Testing Task Force, or STTF, had been looking into the matter since January 2019, Savage said.
Seeing as though the UC Board of Regents did not address the letter at its November meeting, the petitioners filed Kawika Smith v. Regents of the University of California that December. STTF’s report, which was released the following month, concluded that the consideration of SAT and ACT scores may have adverse effects on the admission of underrepresented applicants.
The regents decided in May that UC campuses could choose either “test-free” or “test-optional” policies for fall 2021 and fall 2022 applicants, according to UC Office of the President spokesperson Stett Holbrook. Consideration of scores in admissions would also cease beginning with fall 2023 applicants; however, they would continue to be factored into scholarship and eligibility decisions until 2025.
In the eyes of the Smith plaintiffs, this was not soon enough.
“The argument underpinning our case is that the admissions policy when you use SAT and ACT scores is discriminatory, so when you go to test-optional, you haven’t really altered the underlying issue,” said Rekha Radhakrishnan, a spokesperson for the Public Counsel.
As a result, the court ordered a preliminary injunction Sept. 1, requiring the UC system to cease use of the test scores for fall 2021 applications. The UC system complied, though it “strongly disagreed” with the decision, Holbrook said.
However, as exemplified by recently released UC system applicant data, the university received a record-high number of fall 2021 applications from underrepresented students, with UC Berkeley alone seeing a 38% increase.
On May 14, the two sides reached a settlement, which extended the university’s test-free policy through 2025, according to a Public Counsel press release.
The only exception is that students may choose to submit scores after they are admitted for course placement or advising purposes, or to fulfill the English subject-matter requirement, Holbrook added.
Savage noted that the implications of this historic decision reach far beyond the university.
“The settlement really raises the stakes immensely, not just for universities in California, but for universities across the country,” Savage said. “Given what research has clearly demonstrated about the SAT and ACT, that because they’re proxies for wealth and race rather than a student’s ability to succeed in college, what justification other than entrenching existing privilege does any university have for continuing to rely on these discriminatory metrics?”