SAT test preparation books sit on a shelf at a Barnes and Noble store June 27, 2002 in New York City. University of California regents voted Thursday to suspend SAT and ACT testing requirements through 2024 and eliminate them for California students by 2025.

SAT test preparation books sit on a shelf at a Barnes and Noble store June 27, 2002 in New York City. University of California regents voted Thursday to suspend SAT and ACT testing requirements through 2024 and eliminate them for California students by 2025. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/TNS)

LOS ANGELES - In a decision that could reshape the nation's college admissions process, University of California regents voted Thursday to suspend SAT and ACT testing requirements through 2024 and eliminate them for California students by 2025.

The action by the nation's premier public university system could mark a turning point in the long-running national debate over whether the standardized tests unfairly discriminate against disadvantaged students or provide a useful tool to evaluate college applicants.

Some hailed the vote as a bold and visionary move to expand access and equity. But others expressed concern that dumping the tests would lead to grade inflation, admission of less-prepared students and backlash over different entry standards for different classes.

"It's an incredible step in the right direction," said Regents Chair John A. Perez.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, an ex-officio regent, called the vote "the beginning of the end" for the SAT. "We really are the first body to tackle this head on and say enough is enough."

After conflicting presentations by experts and lengthy debate, regents approved UC President Janet Napolitano's five-year plan to ease out the SAT and ACT tests and develop the university system's own assessment.

Under the plan, standardized tests will be optional for the next two years and then eliminated for California students in years three and four. By fall 2025, UC is aiming to have its own assessment. If none is developed by then, the university will drop the SAT and ACT tests entirely for California students and evaluate them using only high school grades and a dozen other factors in its comprehensive review system.

Applicants from other states and countries could continue to use those tests, or possibly a new UC assessment.

Some regents suggested that UC make the tests optional for a few years then pause to study the impact on students rather than approve a five-year plan. Regent William Um called for a vote to immediately eliminate or keep the tests. But Napolitano told regents that her plan would serve as a bridge to a new test or no test. "We need to move in a careful and studied way to a new future," she said.

While it is unclear whether other universities will follow UC's action, the university's size and status have long made it a central player in the standardized testing landscape. The 10-campus system is the largest single university source of customers for the College Board, which owns the test. Four-fifths of freshman applicants - who numbered 172,000 last year - take the SAT. The six universities that receive the most applications in the nation are UC campuses in Los Angeles, San Diego, Irvine, Berkeley, Santa Barbara and Davis.

UC's decision to require the SAT half a century ago catapulted the test to a place of national prominence, and its threat to drop it in the early 1990s prompted the College Board to revise the test.

Throughout the years, arguments over the value of the tests have intensified.

Critics argue that the SAT and ACT are heavily influenced by race, income and education levels of parents; question their value in predicting college success; and express concern about inequitable access to test prep. Those concerns have prompted more than 1,000 colleges and universities to drop the testing requirement. A lawsuit against the UC system also calls for the requirement to be dropped.

But the College Board and ACT strongly assert their tests are not biased and reflect existing inequities in access to quality education. They also say that standardized tests offer a uniform and helpful yardstick for use, in tandem with grades, in assessing students in high schools across the country.

Marten Roorda, ACT chief executive, told regents in a letter this week that suspending the test would exacerbate student anxieties, strain admissions offices and squeeze state and school budgets.

Several regents praised Napolitano for striking a compromise between the factions. "She did an excellent job threading the needle," said Vice Chair Cecilia Estolano.

Napolitano also sought to win the support of the powerful UC Academic Senate, which sets admission standards. Earlier this year, a Senate task force recommended that the university system keep the SAT and ACT for now while researching alternatives. That report was unanimously backed by the Senate assembly, made up of faculty leaders and campus representatives, 51-0, with one abstention.

In what its own researchers called surprising findings, the Academic Senate's review found that the SAT actually helps disadvantaged students gain entry to the selective UC system. That's because the way UC uses standardized test scores substantially corrects for bias by weighting them less heavily than grades and considering them as only one of many factors in the review process. Campuses adjust for socioeconomic differences and admit disadvantaged students with lower test scores compared with more advantaged peers.

Other researchers, however, have criticized the task force's findings as erroneous and ill-founded in rejecting proposals to replace the SAT and ACT with a K-12 assessment known as Smarter Balanced.

Faculty leaders were concerned that UC leaders would reject the task force report and usurp their authority in the fierce politics of the testing debate. Senate Chair Kum-Kum Bhavnani said faculty were pleased that Napolitano's plan reflected the "spirit" of their recommendations, which ultimately called for the UC to develop its own assessment, but would have concerns if all testing was completely eliminated.

UC experts will launch a feasibility study this summer to identify a new test that assesses what the university expects students to master to demonstrate readiness for college.

Meanwhile, campus officials will be left with the task of figuring out how to apply the shifting admission requirements and evaluate tens of thousands of applicants without test scores. That task may be more difficult for the Santa Barbara, Riverside and Merced campuses, which apply fixed weights to test scores.

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