School & District Management

UC System Takes Broader Approach To Admissions Criteria

By John Gehring — December 05, 2001 3 min read
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One of the nation’s largest university systems continues to be at the center of debate over how students seeking admission to higher education should be judged.

In recent weeks, the University of California has decided to alter its criteria for freshman admissions to give greater weight to students’ personal characteristics, while its president has again publicly criticized the nation’s most widely used college-entrance exam.

“The SAT I sends a confusing message to students, teachers, and schools,” Richard C. Atkinson, the president of the 10-campus University of California system, contended at a “Rethinking the SAT” conference, held here Nov. 16-17 at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“It says that students will be tested on material that is unrelated to what they study in their classes,” he said. “It says that the grades they can achieve can be devalued by a test that is not part of their school curriculum.”

The founding chairman of the National Research Council’s board on testing and assessment, Mr. Atkinson grabbed headlines last February when he proposed eliminating SAT scores as a requirement for admission to the 170,000-student system. In that speech, Mr. Atkinson said an overemphasis on college-entrance exams had led to “the educational equivalent of a nuclear-arms race.” (“UC President Pitches Plan To End Use of SAT in Admissions,” Feb. 28, 2001.)

The University of California is the largest market for the SAT, which is sponsored by the New York City-based College Board and administered by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J. Some 1.3 million college-bound seniors nationwide took the SAT last year.

Mr. Atkinson has proposed replacing the SAT I verbal and math exams with other standardized tests, such as the SAT II, that assess the mastery of specific subjects such as writing, biology, and history. UC’s board of regents is expected to vote on the issue sometime next spring or summer.

A recent study by UC researchers found that the SAT II achievement tests were a better predictor of first-year grades than was the SAT I. (“SAT II Better Predictor of College Success, UC Says,” Nov. 7, 2001.)

Mr. Atkinson has said that ultimately he would like to see the university adopt standardized tests directly tied to college-preparatory courses students take in high school.

A day before the university president’s address to some 260 UC faculty members, admission officers from the university system and around the country, researchers, and representatives from testing companies, the system’s board of regents approved a new “comprehensive review” admission process. It replaces a policy under which each UC campus was required to admit 50 percent to 75 percent of its freshmen solely on the basis of academic factors.

High school grades and test scores will still be important, UC officials said, but students will be evaluated more closely for such harder-to-quantify qualities as motivation, leadership, intellectual curiosity, and ability to overcome challenges, such as poverty.

While the change is expected to have little impact at the less competitive UC campuses, it likely will be a factor at the system’s most selective campuses, such as Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Defending the Test

Meanwhile, the College Board’s top executive was on hand here to defend the SAT.

“I tried to be nice when he said all those bad things about the SAT I,” Gaston Caperton, the College Board president, said half-jokingly at the conference as Mr. Atkinson sat listening in the front row. The SAT has evolved since the time when it had roots in controversial intelligence testing, Mr. Caperton said, and now provides admissions officers with a common yardstick for measuring students’ reasoning abilities.

“What the SAT was then and what it is today is as different as what a Chevrolet was then and what it is today,” said Mr. Caperton, a former governor of West Virginia who has headed the College Board since 1999. “We believe we have the best test in the world, but we believe we can be better.”

Richard L. Ferguson, the president of Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc., also addressed the conference and used the opportunity to make a sales pitch to UC faculty members and administrators. While not as well-known as the SAT, the ACT college-entrance exam was administered to some 1 million students last year.

The ACT exams assess critical reasoning and higher-order thinking skills in English, math, reading, and science. Mr. Ferguson said the ACT’s mission for the past 40 years has been to develop a test using information from curriculum surveys sent to high schools.

“The ACT is an achievement exam,” he said. “We admit the ACT is not the total answer, but it would be eminently doable to address the needs here.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as UC System Takes Broader Approach To Admissions Criteria

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