Howard Gold’s No-Nonsense Investing: Standardized tests increased minority admissions in California, but state universities dropped them anyway

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

That quote, which has been wrongly attributed to John Maynard Keynes, speaks to intellectual honesty that’s all too rare these days. On the left and the right, it’s more likely to be “When the facts change, I double down. What are you going to do about it?”

That was evident in the decision by the University of California to end standardized testing as a criterion for admission to its nine undergraduate campuses. UC has gone further than other universities in not just making test scores optional for admission, but not considering them at all.

The decision, however, came after an exhaustive 228-page report last year by a panel of UC academics commissioned by then-President Janet Napolitano to examine whether standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are equitable and indicate college readiness. Conventional wisdom holds that standardized tests are biased toward the wealthy and don’t have much predictive value. Some even call them racist because Black and Latino students’ test scores have consistently lagged behind those of whites and especially Asians.

But the task force — co-chaired by eminent Black and Latino professors — spent months poring through data and interviewing statisticians, admissions directors and others, and found that standardized tests were good predictors of future academic performance, as good as or better than high-school grade point average (GPA). They also helped thousands of applicants from underrepresented minorities get into UC who wouldn’t have been accepted using GPA alone.

Grades vs. standardized tests

“Overall, both grades and admissions test scores are moderate predictors of college GPA at UC,” the report said. “The predictive power of test scores has gone up, and the predictive power of high school grades has gone down,” probably because of grade inflation in high school.

Students who had high test scores also had high graduation rates, but “the lowest-scoring students typically do not perform well at UC. … At UC, each of the primary success measures is clearly correlated with, and predicted by, scores on standard college admissions tests,” the report found.

And not just for wealthy kids, either.

“Test scores contribute significant predictive power across all income levels, ethnic groups … and across all campuses and majors,” the report said. “We found that test scores were better predictors of outcomes for underrepresented groups than for majority groups.”

Plus, standardized test scores, which were part of UC’s multi-factor admissions process, increased diversity at some of America’s leading public universities.

”Admission tests find talented students who do not stand out in terms of high school grades alone,” the report found. “The SAT allows many disadvantaged students to gain guarantees of admission to UC.”

Low-income students

How many? Some 22,613 students were admitted to UC campuses from 2010 to 2012 (the period it studied to trace full college outcomes) based on a formula that included test scores who wouldn’t have gotten in by GPA alone. Of those, 25% were members of underrepresented minority groups and 47% came from low-income families, or more than 5,000 and 10,000 additional students, respectively.

The report, which passed the Assembly of the Academic Senate by 51-0, also was endorsed strongly by UC’s admissions directors.

But anti-test advocacy groups were unmoved and other stakeholders who were convinced tests were inequitable or racist held their ground. In May 2020, outgoing President Napolitano, who had previously served as Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, recommended dropping standardized tests in UC admissions. The UC Board of Regents voted to eliminate the tests as admissions requirements starting in 2023. A recent settlement of a lawsuit accelerated that timeline, so the nine UC campuses will no longer consider standardized tests in undergraduate admissions.

UC declined to provide someone to interview by deadline.

‘Ship has sailed’

The two co-chairs of the task force had mixed feelings.

“I’m comfortable, I’m not looking back. I think the ship has sailed and you see us moving on,” said Dr. Eddie Comeaux, a professor at UC Riverside. He said the evidence points to continuing inequities in admissions. “There are decades of research that speak to the structural barrier to standardized tests, specifically the correlation to wealth,” he said. “These students who have historically been excluded saw tests as a barrier,” even though the report found that low GPA in required courses was a bigger obstacle to admissions to UC than test scores for underrepresented students.

This year, when the test requirement ended, UC campuses got a staggering 203,700 applications for freshman admission, 32,000 more than the previous year. And, like other colleges and universities across the country, UC saw a significant rise in applications from Black and Latino students, which will likely result in a somewhat more diverse freshman class.

Still, Comeaux agreed with the report’s finding that “roughly 75% of the opportunity gap arises from factors rooted in systemic racial and class inequalities that precede admission: lower high school graduation rates … lower rates of [course] completion … and lower application rates.”

“And there is structural racism in our educational system where we have a separation of the have and have not,” Comeaux said, but he stopped short of calling the tests themselves racist.

‘Public appeasement’

“There are a lot of barriers upfront, then, how can you be prepared for any standardized tests? The cards are stacked against you,” the other co-chair, Dr. Henry Sanchez, a pathologist who teaches at the UCSF School of Medicine, told me.

But, he added, “if you have all these barriers put in over decades, do you think you’re going to change it by one law? One change in policy?”

“Are you doing this for public appeasement or really getting at the underlying core issues?” Sanchez continued. “If you get rid of the test, now what? You’ve got to consider the impact for not just this class, but a generation of children going through public education. Are they going to be prepared for what society wants and needs?”

The pandemic has prompted a massive experiment with standardized testing in higher education. We may not know for a few years whether students who didn’t submit test scores but were admitted to colleges and universities will succeed there. But based on what happened at UC, don’t expect people to change their minds if the facts change. That ship sailed long ago.

Howard Gold is a MarketWatch columnist who writes regularly about college admissions.

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