Lawsuits Fire Back at College Entrance Exams

Students, parents, education advocacy groups, and the Compton Unified School District have filed lawsuits against the University of California system, arguing that its requirement of the SAT or ACT is unlawful and discriminatory.


By Ani Tutunjyan and Stephanie Caceres

Study hard, take challenging classes, get involved in the community, receive high SAT or ACT scores, and graduate with honors. This is what the path for students looking towards attending a University of California for an undergraduate degree looks like.

However, a number of students have found a backdoor to college admissions, with parents bribing colleges to admit students as fake sports recruits or paying college counselors to help students cheat on college entrance exams.

This has led many individuals to question the legitimacy of admissions policies.

Students, parents, education advocacy groups, and the Compton Unified School District have filed lawsuits against the University of California (UC) system, arguing that it is violating civil rights laws by requiring applicants to submit an SAT or ACT score which unlawfully discriminate against disabled, low-income, multilingual and underrepresented minority students.

The lawsuits can have a large impact on the future of college entrance exams, being the first to directly challenge the use of SAT or ACT scores. 

The lawsuits demand that the UC system eliminate the testing requirement alleging that the system has failed to fulfill its established purpose of providing public higher education its citizens, regardless of their backgrounds.

“Rather than fulfilling its vision as ‘n engine of opportunity for all Californians’ and creating a level playing field in which all students are evaluated based on individual merit, the UC requires all applicants to subject themselves to SAT and ACT tests that are demonstrably discriminatory against the State’s least privileged students, the very students who would most benefit from higher education,” one of the lawsuits said.

The lawsuits, filed by Public Counsel, the country’s largest non-profit law firm, and The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an advocacy group that opposes the use of standardized testing, reveal the concerns about unequal access and preparation for college entrance exams.

The suits draw heavily from research that shows that low-income students and students of color tend to do worse on college entrance exams than their wealthier, white peers, who more frequently have the ability to hire tutors, take the test multiple times and are enrolled in school districts with bigger budgets. That allows their schools to hire better teachers, have lower student-to-teacher ratios and offer advanced courses.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, recorded data which found that students from families earning more than $200,000 annually receive a score of 1,714 on average, while students from families earning under $20,000 annually average a score of 1,326.

The lawsuits suggest that colleges use high school grades as a predictor of college performance rather than exam scores. 

“UC researchers have demonstrated that high school grades are consistently the best predictor of college success—a finding that has also been established by hundreds of studies at other colleges and universities,” the lawsuit said.

More than 1,000 colleges have removed the SAT and ACT as a requirement on the applications or have turned “test optional” allowing students to choose whether or not to submit their scores.

At a forum on college admissions last month, the chancellors of the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Santa Cruz, along with the university system’s chief academic officer said they support dropping the SAT and ACT as an admission requirement, with the belief that scores are skewed by family income.

If the University of California system – the largest in the country – drops the requirement, it could set off a chain reaction.

The College Board has pushed back on allegations that college entrance exams discriminate against poor students,students of color and those with disabilities.

“The notion that the SAT is discriminatory is false,” College Board officials said in a statement. “Any objective measure of student achievement will shine a light on inequalities in our education system.”

They also highlighted the company’s efforts to expand access to the SAT by providing free preparation materials and partnering with school districts to allow students to take the test for free during regular school days.

“We will continue to work with the University of California as it addresses the challenging task of admitting students from among thousands of qualified applicants and supporting their success when they arrive on campus,” officials said.