The University of California Is Lying to Us

Does getting right with contemporary concepts of anti-racism mean reviving one of the state’s most shameful traditions?

Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Caitlin Flanagan is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She is the author of Girl Land and To Hell With All That.

Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET on July 29, 2021

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” is the cry that once stirred a nation to action, but out here in the crumbling state of California, we’re at a lower ebb. A hobbled people rally to a revolutionary whimper: “Put your pencils down.”

In May, the University of California announced an immediate end to the use of standardized testing in admissions and scholarship decisions at the nine schools in its system that accept undergraduates. It is a move so widely hailed by the administrators and faculty that you know someone’s getting hustled, and in this case the marks are the state’s low-income Black and Latino students––the very ones whom the new policy is supposed to help. The university has long claimed that it is “shaped and bounded by the central pervasive mission of discovering and advancing knowledge.” What’s one more lie?

The university has averred that standardized tests discriminate against low-income Black and Latino students; its evidence is that these students tend to perform worse on the SAT and ACT than students from other racial and ethnic groups. If we were to think about this assertion rationally instead of emotionally, we would have to face what California has done: consigned its most vulnerable students to some of the worst K–12 schools in America. There can be no more obvious example of state-sponsored discrimination than the condition of these schools, which, decade after decade, have robbed students of 13 years and given them little in return. All the standardized tests do is reveal the obvious outcome of our cruelty. Saying it’s the tests’ fault is like feeding children a poisoned sundae and then blaming the cherry on top for making them sick.

Do the tests prevent low-income Black and Latino students from getting college degrees? This is the charge of a lawsuit filed in 2019 and settled by the university in May that claimed that requiring test scores for admission “actively prevent[s] Plaintiffs from accessing public higher education and its attendant opportunities.“

Only the counterrevolutionary impulse would lead anyone to want to douse the flames of social justice with the fire retardant of fact. But the truth is that no high-school graduate in California is denied higher education because of a test score. The UC schools are some of the most competitive in the state, but the Cal State system has more than twice as many campuses and costs about half as much to attend, and some locations have an admission rate of almost 90 percent. Students reluctant to earn a degree from the “lesser” system may avail themselves of the best deal in American higher education: Earn a 2.4 GPA in the requisite courses at a California Community College, and your ability to transfer to a UC campus is guaranteed. Not a single standardized test need ever be taken.

Here are some more of the fiercely held arguments for dumping the tests: Test scores don’t reflect the character-forging aspects of life as a poor teenager; the tests force students from underfunded schools to compete against “affluent whites” who can afford expensive test prep; high-school GPA is a much better predictor of students’ ability to succeed in a UC program anyway.

These are not facts. They are assumptions, all of them flawed or flat-out incorrect.

First, poor students were not pitted against rich students. One of the ways the UC system found to work around the state’s ban on affirmative action was to evaluate a student’s test scores relative to those of other applicants from the same school. You didn’t need to be a top test taker in California to be UC-bound. You just needed to be a top test taker compared to your classmates. Moreover, UC admissions adopted a system of “holistic review” to take into account the hardships that applicants faced, allowing students to express themselves in essays that are read by an army of readers.

Second, while high-school GPA has been found to be more predictive of success at college than standardized test scores at some schools, the exact opposite turns out to be true for students at UC schools. There, standardized test scores say more about which applicants are likely to earn a degree and to do it in less than eight years; they also correlate strongly with students’ GPA at the university.

The biggest barrier to getting into the University of California is not the SAT; it is, again, the GPA. Because students at underfunded schools have such limited access to college counseling, they often assume that if they want to go to the UC, they should keep an eagle eye on their GPA. What many don’t know is that, to be eligible, they must complete a series of 15 college prep classes called the A-G requirements. Good grades in other classes don’t count toward eligibility. (And—shockingly—some high schools don’t even offer all the A-G requirements.)

There was a loophole these students could use—a Hail Mary option for smart kids who, for whatever reason, didn’t do well in high school or did well but not in the A-G classes—and it involved test scores. In 2018, about 22,000 students earned guaranteed admission to the UC based on their test scores, meaning their high SATs compensated for low GPA. Almost half of those students were low-income, and more than a quarter were Black, Latino, or Native American. The UC has now taken this lifeline away

How do I know all of this? Because unlike the regents, who enthusiastically voted to eliminate the tests for the first time in 2020, I did not ignore the findings of a 225-page report that was prepared for them at the request of the UC’s then-president, Janet Napolitano. This report, by the Academic Council’s Standardized Testing Task Force, was based on years of UC admissions data and was the product of a tremendous amount of work by a formidable team of experts in statistics, medicine, law, philosophy, neuroscience, education, anthropology, and admissions.

The scholars determined that the obvious challenges faced by low-income Black and Latino students were poverty and poor K–12 education. And they found that the UC’s use of standardized tests did not amplify racial disparities. They agreed that the university should continue using test scores in admissions, but recommended that the UC begin developing its own test, which would be designed to meet the needs of both students and the institution.

Why did the regents completely ignore this report? I have a guess. People in power today would much rather do something that seems to promote “equity” than make an evidence-based choice that could lead to accusations of racism. This is the kind of infuriating policy decision that looks like it is going to help poor, minority students but will actually harm them.

A spokesperson for the UC says it is still analyzing data to “learn how we can improve our efforts to recruit and retain a diverse student body that is representative of California.” But what additional analysis could it possibly perform that would exceed what its own stupendously accomplished task force already conducted? And what would it take to make the school “representative”? Four percent of undergraduates in the UC are Black, compared with 5 percent of K–12 public-school students statewide. Twenty-five percent of undergraduates are Hispanic or Latino, compared with 55 percent of schoolchildren in the state. The unspoken assumption many advocates of scrapping the SAT make is that cutting the undeserving white population down to size would make these numbers fairer. But white students are also underrepresented, if only ever so slightly, at the UC: They make up 21 percent of the undergraduate population and 22 percent of K–12 schoolchildren.

There is only one group of students who are “overrepresented,” to use the chilling language of social engineering, at the university: Asian Americans. Twelve percent of K–12 students are Asian or Pacific Islander, compared with 34 percent of UC undergraduates. Aligning enrollment with state demographics would require cutting the share of those students by almost two-thirds. It would mean getting right with contemporary concepts of anti-racism by reviving one of California’s most shameful traditions: clearing Asians out of desirable spaces.

In the 19th century, Chinese people were beaten and lynched in California, in a prelude to the state’s successful campaign for the Chinese Exclusion Act, which cut off immigration from China. In 1906, San Francisco tried to force all Chinese, Korean, and Japanese public-school children to go to a separate “Oriental School.” And in 1942, the first internment camps for Japanese Americans opened in California. The UC has an established history in this dirty art. In the 1960s, Asian enrollment at UC Berkeley was strong, and it soared through the ’70s. But in the ’80s, it plummeted mysteriously. Berkeley was investigated by the Department of Education, and in 1989, the chancellor apologized and pledged that this would never happen again.

Until now.

There is an ongoing discussion within progressive politics as to whether Asian Americans are a reliable part of the Black-brown coalition or whether they have been—to use another weird but fashionable term—“whitened.” Does the UC think it’s a good idea, in this era of racism and hate crimes against Asian Americans, to promote the idea that these students are hoovering up an unfair proportion of a precious resource?

These students are not faceless “grinds”; they are teenagers, each one with talents and interests as varied as those of any other applicant. It is immoral, and ought to be illegal, to treat them as a menace to be contained. They happen to be the majority of our highest-achieving students, and they belong at the University of California.

In short, this decision will probably hurt thousands of Asian American teenagers, backfire for Black, Latino, and low-income students, and make little difference for affluent whites. The futility of the mission is so staggering that you have to ask: What will dropping the tests really accomplish?

It will give cover to the many forces invested in not improving the state’s K–12 education, especially in the poorest districts. Those include: Republicans, who don’t like pouring money into public education; taxpayers, who don’t like their dollars being spent on other people’s children; Democrats, who serve the teachers’ unions; and the mighty unions themselves, which seem more interested in protecting failing teachers than in reforming a failing system.

“California is America, only sooner.” Californians are proud of that expression, and it still holds up. What’s happening out here—a homelessness crisis that turns deadly when the summer heat climbs; soaring crime in the cities; fires and coastal erosion spurred by climate change; strong students denied college admission because of the color of their skin and the “foreign” sound of their names; and a great research university obscuring, rather than revealing, the truth—all of that will happen where you live, too. We just got here first.

Someday, in a textbook on world history, there will be a chapter about all of us—you, and me, and our shared moment. The title of that chapter will be American Decline.

This article originally stated that the UC could waive course-load requirements for applicants with high SAT or ACT scores. In fact, high test scores could be used to compensate for low GPA, not to waive the course requirements entirely. The article has also been updated to clarify how test scores are evaluated to avoid confusion with the UC's Eligibility in the Local Context program, and to clarify that the task force report identified the number of students who were guaranteed admission on the strength of their test scores, not the number of these students who ultimately enrolled.