Lawsuits Seek to Stop University of California Use of SAT, ACT Tests

December 16, 2019 Updated: December 17, 2019

University of California (UC) admissions policies that require all applicants to take SAT or ACT tests discriminate against disadvantaged students, two lawsuits recently filed in the Superior Court allege.

The identical lawsuits—one launched by four students and six civil rights groups, and the other by Compton Unified School District—claim that the UC is depriving “least privileged” low-income, multilingual, disabled, and underrepresented minority students of their civil rights.

The 105-page lawsuit, Kawika Smith et al v. UC Regents et al (pdf), was filed on behalf of four California students, including Smith, a low-income 17-year-old black high school student in South Los Angeles. Smith is a community activist who aspires to run for public office as either a U.S. Representative or a U.S. Senator, the document states.

“Throughout his years in school, Kawika has experienced significant trauma. He has experienced housing insecurity for much of his life and was homeless from second grade through eighth grade. Kawika is a survivor of rape and has experienced domestic violence. As a child, he witnessed a murder, and he more recently experienced the death of his brother during his junior year of high school.

“These challenges have made it extraordinarily difficult for Kawika to perform well on high-stakes tests like the SAT and ACT. His food insecurity impacted his test performance because he was not able to eat breakfast. He also knows that his past trauma directly impacts his capacity to perform on these tests,” reads the document.

Smith advocates for workers through the long-term homecare union SEIU Local 2015 and acts as a youth ambassador for Imagine LA, a nonprofit organization that works to end family homelessness and chronic poverty.

“Kawika has fought discriminatory policies at his high school and helped to bring about state legislation banning discrimination based on natural hair, Senate Bill 188,” according to the lawsuit.

Litigants also include the College Access Plan, Little Manila Rising, Dolores Huerta Foundation, College Seekers, Community Coalition and Chinese for Affirmative Action.

SAT or ACT tests have long been a source of controversy, with more than 1,020 colleges in the U.S. either abolishing the tests completely or adopting a test-optional policy, where students get to decide themselves whether or not they want to take the exams.

Last year, UC President Janet Napolitano asked the university’s Academic Senate to form a Standardized Testing Task Force to weigh the merits of requiring SAT and ACT admissions tests. The findings of that review are expected to be released in February.

In the wake of the allegations, UC spokeswoman Claire Doan said in a statement that the university is awaiting the assessment and recommendations from the task force before determining whether or not any action should be taken on the admissions test issue.

“We are disappointed that plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit when the University of California has already devoted substantial resources to studying this complex issue and has announced that the Academic Senate’s Task Force will provide recommendations before the end of this academic year,” Doan said in the statement.

The College Board denies that the SAT tests themselves discriminate against anyone.

“The notion that the SAT is discriminatory is false. As independent researchers and testing experts affiliated with the National Council on Measurement in Education have stated, any objective measure of student achievement will shine a light on inequalities in our education system. In response to discussions about the use of college entrance exams by University of California, the Council wrote: ‘Criticizing test results for reflecting these inequities is like blaming a thermometer for global warming,’” Zachary Goldberg, a spokesman for the College Board, said in a statement.

“The College Board’s focus, with our members and partners, is combating these longstanding inequalities. More than 140 school districts and County Offices of Education across California, including some of the largest and most diverse districts in the state, support using the redesigned SAT as part of their efforts to improve college readiness and break down barriers to college—connecting their students to the College Board’s free personalized practice tools and unlimited college application fee waivers,” the statement continued.

The litigants claim the College Board generates more than a billion dollars a year in revenue and suggest in the lawsuits the company is putting profits ahead of progress. However, the College Board contends that “a totally new SAT” introduced in 2016 is an achievement test that better measures what students are learning in school to prepare them for college and careers.

“We will continue to work with the University of California as it addresses the challenging task of admitting students from among thousands of qualified applicants and supporting their success when they arrive on campus,” Goldberg said. “Regrettably, the letter and the lawsuit contain a number of false assertions and is counterproductive to the fact-based, data-driven discussion that students, parents and educators deserve.”

Although the allegations are directed at the university, the lawsuits dig deep into the past, going back more than century to the founding of the SAT and the College Board’s connection to the tests over the years.

“Its creator, eugenicist Carl Brigham, based the test on previous IQ tests that purported to measure ‘native intelligence’ and aptitude, as suggested by its original name, the ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test.’ In the years following World War I, IQ tests were used to channel Black students into vocational education tracks, ‘justify[ing] educational systems that mainly reproduced extant socio-economic’ and racial inequalities,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit claims that the UC admissions process creates formidable barriers to accessing public higher education for deserving students from low-income families, students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and students with disabilities.

“The requirement that all applicants submit SAT or ACT scores systematically and unlawfully denies talented and qualified students with less accumulated advantage a fair opportunity to pursue higher education at the UC,” the lawsuits allege. “Every UC admissions cycle that evaluates applicants based on their SAT and ACT scores irreparably damages the futures of tens of thousands of students who are capable of excelling at the UC campuses of their choice and benefitting from the opportunities and supports a UC education provides, causing unjustifiable squandering of time and resources and intense stress for them, their families, and their schools.”

Mark Rosenbaum, the lawyer representing the students and civil rights groups, said in an interview with The Epoch Times that UC officials have known for decades that SAT and ACT tests contribute nothing to the admissions process and discriminates on the basis of wealth and race against “young people who are stellar students but don’t have the same sorts of privileged backgrounds” as many of their peers.

He blasted the UC Board of Regents for failing to end the alleged discriminatory practices sooner.

“It’s easy for the regents who don’t have students who suffer as a result of these SATs and ACTs. It’s easy for them to say ‘Wait, be patient’ as another admissions cycle goes by … They are keeping out of UC schools the best and brightest,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s a lawsuit to end this injustice.”

UC’s admissions requirements only serve the test-prep industry, keeps minority students underrepresented and exacerbates educational inequities between haves and have nots, Rosenbaum said.

“The UC system is way, way behind the curve when it comes to recognizing the lack of value of these tests,” he said. “You know, you have to question why they would use either of these tests at all when there is no discernible benefit when it comes to the admissions process. And, I think they owe it to the people of California. It’s long overdue.”

Eddie Comeaux, task force co-chair, said the panel has spent the better part of a year working diligently to address the admissions test listening to experts on the issue of standardized testing.

“It seems premature to file a lawsuit when in fact we’re engaged in looking at … ways we can strengthen the current model, and obviously understanding the principles of fairness and equity,” Comeaux told The Epoch Times. “It’s their prerogative, of course. I see this as an extensive approach to raising awareness about how we can have a larger conversation about college admissions. Just from what I’m reading, we are aligned in a number of ways in wanting to ensure fairness in the process.”

Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at UC Riverside, who also chairs the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), the faculty panel that sets UC admissions standards, said recently patience is growing thin among some members of the Board of Regents and state legislators for the task force results.

Despite pressure from external forces to abolish mandatory standardized testing for admissions, the task force is working diligently to complete its review of UC’s admissions policies, Comeaux said, adding the legal challenge won’t get in the way of that.

Although, he said, it is unlikely the University of California can fully eliminate all discrimination from the system, the task force is trying to minimize those biases by developing an admissions policy built on principles of opportunity, fairness, access, and diversity.

The lawsuits were filed in California Superior Court in Alameda County, where UC’s central office in Oakland is located.

Last year, more than 176,500 freshman students applied for admission to UC’s nine undergraduate schools.

California State University also requires standardized tests for admission to its 23 campuses, but CSU is not named in the lawsuits.