Cal State University moves to drop SAT admission requirement

California State University trustees strongly indicated Wednesday they will permanently scrap SAT and ACT testing requirements for admission — a move that would align the nation’s largest four-year higher education system with the University of California, which dumped the standardized exams it criticized as biased and of little value.

At a board meeting Wednesday, not one trustee on the 12-member educational policy committee voiced opposition to a recent recommendation by a systemwide admission advisory council to drop the tests. The council of students, faculty and administrators found the assessments less effective than high school grades in predicting college success, while producing disparate results for underserved students and creating undue stress.

The full Board of Trustees will vote on the proposal in March and, if approved, the council will craft a new admissions formula and suggest when to begin using it, with Chancellor Joseph I. Castro making the final decision.

“The issue of SAT and ACT testing has overwhelmed students and families for a long time,” said Trustee Diego Arambula, a longtime public school and nonprofit educator. “To see that a GPA alone actually has better predictive power makes it abundantly clear to me that if we can clear this all off of the plates of young people and their families who are already going through such stressful times right now … it’s in the right interest of our communities.”

For Trustee Yammilette Rodriguez, the testing issue is personal. She said she attended a small rural school without the support to guide her pathway to college and missed SAT and ACT registration deadlines. She had to attend a community college, although she had a 4.0 GPA, instead of her preferred route to enroll directly in a four-year university.

“This is my story,” she said of the admission council recommendation. “So as someone who navigated the college system by myself — and know that I share that story with so many students — I thank you for saying that we are going to increase pathways for all students. This was brave, and I’m glad that we did it.”

The Cal State move comes as more than 1,800 colleges and universities have dropped standardized testing requirements for admissions — nearly 80% of all four-year U.S. campuses that award bachelor’s degree, with most making them optional due to the pandemic. UC is the most prominent university system to permanently eliminate the requirements. A Cal State decision to do likewise would cement California’s place in the national vanguard of developing test-free, more equitable ways to assess a student’s readiness for college.

The College Board, which owns the SAT, and ACT Inc. argue that their tests are valuable tools to help predict college outcomes and any disparate results based on race, income and parents’ educational levels are rooted in long-standing educational inequities in neighborhoods and schools. The College Board this week unveiled an all-digital exam that is shorter, more concise and cheat-proof.

But the new format does not change the CSU recommendation because “the test really remains the same,” trustees were told by Sylvia A. Alva, executive vice chancellor of academic and student affairs.

The 23-campus Cal State system, which educates 477,000 students, has suspended testing requirements for the last two years due to the pandemic. Campuses have replaced the eligibility index composed of grades and test scores with multiple factors, including high school grade-point average in 15 required college preparatory courses, overall coursework rigor and extracurricular activities. High school context may also be considered — a school’s share of low-income students, for instance, and whether it is near a CSU campus for priority consideration.

If trustees approve the proposal, the admission advisory council would refine the eligibility index formula, recommending to Castro a minimum required GPA, factors used for scoring and timeline for rollout. Campuses with more applicants than seats in any or all programs would retain flexibility to choose which factors to consider.

Cal State Long Beach, for instance, one of the system’s most competitive campuses, does not review any applicant with a GPA below 3.0 or consider non-academic factors, such as work experience, military service, extracurricular activities or socioeconomic status. Cal State Los Angeles, by contrast, will consider applicants with GPAs as low as 2.0 and consider those additional factors.

Standardized test scores, if submitted, could continue to be used to place students in math and English classes after they are admitted. For students without SAT or ACT scores, campuses are using overall GPA or a statewide assessment taken by public school students for placement.

During the 50-minute discussion, trustees raised several questions, including how to maintain the university system’s academic quality without test scores. Trustee Jack Clarke Jr. asked what to say to those who argue “we’re watering down the admission requirements, particularly in the areas of the hard sciences and mathematics?”

“What we’re saying is that taking a rigorous pattern of coursework … and doing well in those courses is the best predictor of preparing for and doing well in college,” Alva said. “And so it really is about then looking at the strongest predictors and then rounding out … [with] talent and motivation and context to ensure that we stay closely aligned with our core values in the CSU for access, opportunity and inclusive excellence.”

Academic Senate Chair Robert Keith Collins told trustees that his faculty group was preparing to formally support the proposal and that members were confident they could work with K-12 educators and one another to ensure that students were prepared for college and could succeed at Cal State. “This was something we all came to consensus on and something we’re prepared to engage in for the benefit of the students of the state of California,” Collins said.

Students also voiced support.

Student Trustee Krystal Raynes, a Cal State Bakersfield senior, said the Cal State Student Assn. is generally supportive but has not yet formally endorsed the proposal and wondered whether dropping the testing requirements could trigger an influx of students and further crowd campuses.

April Grommo, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management services, said applications might increase “a little bit” but that Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed funding this year to increase enrollment. Newsom’s proposed 2022-23 budget would provide $81 million to Cal State to increase California student enrollment this fall by 9,434 students.

Grommo also told trustees that the admission advisory council opted against recommending optional testing requirements because that would send “mixed messages” to students. “So you really end up in a situation where students feel that they need to take an SAT or ACT in order to get some advantage within the admissions process,” she said.

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