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California's College Conundrum

Reforming UC admissions requirements isn't the answer.

12:00 AM, May 2, 2008 • By BILL WHALEN
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IF YOU'RE ONE of those parents who worries about what effects standardized testing will have on your teen's self esteem, fear not: The University of California is poised to rush to Generation Y's emotional rescue.

The UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) has proposed to change admissions rules. For the past 40 years, California's public university system has required high-schoolers to take the SAT Reasoning Test (or, alternatively, the ACT), the nearly four-hour procedure that measures verbal and mathematical reasoning, as well as two SAT Subject Tests, which are an hour apiece and gauge knowledge of arts, languages, and sciences. If BOARS has its way, the Subject Test requirement would be dropped, ushering in a new era of admissions standards in California's public universities.

Why the proposed change? UC officials claim it's about common sense, fairness, and economics. SAT Subject Test exams (formerly known as the SAT II) aren't a real measure of achievement, they argue, and too many California teens either don't know they're required or balk at the concept of spending extra hours taking the tests. Subject Test fees vary from $28 a test to $56 for three, which could strain low-income families.

This sounds noble and grand, but is it an honest explanation? It's a fair question to ask. Does California's higher-ed hierarchy really intend to change admissions standards just because some kids don't know the process? As for cost, the College Board, which administers the tests, already waives Subject Test fees for kids from low-income households, so family economics isn't a factor.

It's also a fair question given the University of California's historic reluctance to honor the spirit of Proposition 209. Approved in November 1996, the initiative prohibited the use of racial quotas in California's public university admissions. But it didn't stop UC officials from inventing creative end-runs around Prop. 209, such as an admissions policy that weighs personal hardship and extra-curricular activities alongside academic achievement.

Other ways around Prop. 209 by the higher-ed community were more deliberate. In the months following Prop. 209's passage, UC's Latino eligibility task force recommended that the university nix the SAT requirement. By the decade's end, Richard Atkinson, a former president of the UC system, likewise proposed to halt the mandatory submission of SAT scores, along with what Atkinson described at the time as a "holistic" approach to admissions that emphasized grades and teachers' recommendations. Coming after Prop. 209's implementation and at a time when UC's minority admissions were in decline, Atkinson's proposal made national headlines. Nearly a decade later, this latest effort to change the SAT requirements has generated little controversy--perhaps because the prophecies of declined minority enrollment in the UC system never materialized.

Ironically, if the UC's unstated goal is to boost the chances of minority applicants, abolishing the SAT Subject Test requirement could be the worst way to go about it. Consider the numbers: Last year, more than 10,000 UC applicants (about one-fourteenth of all UC applicants) scored below 550 on their SATs, yet managed to score more than 700 on one or more Subject Tests. They did better in specific subjects, which would suggest an ability to compete at the college level and therefore would be an argument in favor of admission. Among these applicants, the vast majority were minority students, including thousands of Mexican-American and Latino students and thousands more Asian and Pacific-Islander students. Why would university officials do away with that vital data?

A decade ago, when the UC system was flirting with the idea of killing the SAT requirement, one could argue that it was a self-serving gesture: Take away that requirement and presumably the only applicants submitting scores would be those with stellar numbers, thus giving UC a talking point for the strength of its incoming freshman class. But take away the Subject Test requirement and the beneficiary this time isn't higher education, but California's beleaguered K-12 system, which, in a post-Prop. 209 world, faces more pressure to produce better-prepared, college-bound students. Without data from the Subject Test results it becomes more difficult to determine if the state's primary and secondary school systems are doing their jobs properly.

Then again, if the schools aren't doing their jobs properly, neither is California's political leadership, when it comes to education reform. This year in Sacramento, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a "year of education" agenda that included merit-pay reform and greater local control of school finances. That soon vanished with reports of a growing state budget deficit (California is currently $10 billion in the red for the fiscal year that begins July 1, $1 billion more than previously anticipated).

Instead of landmark reform, Democrats and Republicans are in a tired back-and-forth over taxes and spending. Democrats want to raise taxes in the name of public schools. Republicans refuse, but they do favor more school spending and fewer budget cuts than Schwarzenegger has pitched, all in the name of helping the children. As for Arnold, odds are he'll agree to higher taxes later this summer--again, for the children. It remains to be seen whether his last two years in office will result in any substantial education reform, something he has failed to achieve either through legislation or the initiative route.

Meanwhile, back at UC-Berkeley, life continues uninterrupted, reforms or not. Since late 2006, protestors have sat in oak trees next to the university's football stadium, successfully blocking the construction of a new athletic training facility. A judge ruled the protest illegal, and the university surrounded the oak grove with chain-link fences topped with wire. Still, the protest continues--university officials don't have the stomach to force them down.

It's not the only protest in town. Clashes between veterans and anti-war activists outside the City of Berkeley's Marine Corps recruiting office made major headlines. And it's not even the only tree protest in Berkeley: Earlier this year, a protestor named "Fresh" perched himself in a tree outside the university's Sather Gate for 17 days to highlight UC-Berkeley's business with BP and Dow Chemical and the school's nuclear-weapon research.

Maybe the UC needs to rethink its position. Instead of abolishing some SAT requirements, why not ask a new question: Is silliness the new standard in California higher education?

Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow, analyzes California and national politics.