Public Comment

What We Don’t Know About Changing UC’s Admission Standards

By Doug Ose
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 11:07:00 AM

The University of California Board of Regents is considering a set of sweeping changes to the UC system’s admissions criteria. Among the proposed changes is the elimination of SAT Subject Tests as an admissions requirement. Unlike the more comprehensive SAT, subject tests are focused on one of 20 different academic areas ranging from physics and chemistry to languages and fine art.  

Critics of subject tests argue for maintaining high academic standards and promoting diversity. A closer look tells a different story, one the regents and the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), which proposed the changes, aren’t talking about. 

A September 2008 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling noted that, “there are tests that, at many institutions, are more predictive of first-year and overall grades in college and more closely linked to the high school curriculum, including the College Board’s AP exams and Subject Tests.” Eliminating subject tests in light of this research defies common sense. 

Further confounding common sense is a 2001 report by University of California researchers who studied some 80,000 student records and concluded that SAT Subject Tests combined with high school grades were among the best predictors of college success.  

Some call subject tests a “barrier” to admission in the UC system. What we’re not told is the main reason cited for getting rid of them is that some students don’t know the tests are required. This staggeringly simplistic rationale raises legitimate questions about the wisdom of the regents’ willingness to consider admitting to the UC system students who cannot understand the most fundamental step of entering college which is to apply for it. The answer is for UC to better communicate its admissions requirements, not eliminate them. 

Diversity is also used as an argument for eliminating subject tests. The facts show that subject tests play a critical role in admitting thousands of deserving minority students. Data compiled by the College Board, which administers SAT Subject Tests, shows that 10,010 students were admitted to the UC system in 2007 as a direct result of subject tests. These students had marginal scores on their SATs yet scored 700 or more on their subject tests, demonstrating tremendous knowledge and merit.  

Among these students last year were more than 4,800 children of Hispanic, Mexican-American, or other Latino heritage, and more than 3,700 students from Asian, Asian-American or Pacific Island backgrounds. To say that eliminating subject tests will improve diversity simply does not hold water. 

Another goal of the proposed changes is the desire for a “more holistic admissions system.” However, eliminating empirical measures like SAT Subject Tests could produce disastrous results. A “more holistic” admissions program is underway at UCLA with potentially illegal fallout amid allegations of violating Proposition 209, which banned race-based admissions to California’s public colleges.  

Professor Timothy Groseclose resigned from UCLA’s Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools in August citing evidence that, “strongly suggests that UCLA is cheating on admissions,” and claiming the committee is engaged in a “cover-up” to prevent disclosure of illegal activity. Why would the Board of Regents even contemplate changes that invite similar mischief at other campuses? A system-wide scandal of this nature would plunge UC into chaos and degrade its reputation.  

Changes to the UC admissions standards affect the lives of thousands of students, the integrity of the institution and will have an impact for years to come. Revising these standards demands thoughtful deliberation, not the approach of UC regent and former Paramount Studios CEO Sherry Lansing who confessed during the Sept. 18 regents meeting, “I became a regent to get the SATs eliminated.” If this is the new standard for determining admissions to the UC system, we all have reason to be concerned for the future of the University of California and its legacy of excellence. 

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Doug Ose is a former U.S. Congressman, representing California’s District 3.