California State University, the U.S.'s largest four-year public college system, will no longer ask applicants to furnish SAT or ACT scores for admission after trustees voted unanimously Wednesday to abolish the requirement.
Cal State's 23 campuses can use scores for placement in English and mathematics courses, said spokesperson Toni Molle. But trustees' action Wednesday – which they have been moving toward since elimination of the tests was recommended late last year – does away with the admissions mandate for first-time, first-year students.
Collectively, the UC and Cal State decisions strike against a linchpin of admissions procedures. They mean continued tumult for testing providers, ACT and the College Board, which administers the SAT. The test providers bled revenue as the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the country and shut down common testing sites.
In response to the pandemic, broad contingents of institutions, even those with top rankings, have relaxed admissions test requirements. Some colleges follow test-optional policies, which means they do not require scores but will review scores students send. Others are test-free, meaning they will not view scores at all.
More than 1,800 colleges are not mandating SAT or ACT scores for the fall 2022 cycle, according to FairTest, an organization that promotes restricted use of assessments. This tally includes colleges that were, prior to the pandemic, test-optional or test-free, as well as those that scrapped the requirement temporarily.
Cal State's rejection of admissions testing, however, is permanent.
Given the system's scope and influence in higher education — it enrolls nearly half a million students — its decision will likely resonate in California and beyond, according to some enrollment management experts.
Cal State's and UC's testing policies and similar test-flexible practices put in place last year in Washington state make the West Coast "a model for the rest of the nation," said Bob Schaeffer, FairTest's executive director.
"The size and scope of those institutions creates pressure on the rest of public higher ed to follow suit," Schaeffer said.
Two years of test-optional
Cal State discontinued use of entrance exams for the last two years, substituting its formula for determining admissions eligibility with one that considers such factors as high school GPA in certain college preparatory courses and extracurricular activities.
In spring 2021, a system advisory body began evaluating standardized assessments, and determined they presented negligible benefits for Cal State's admissions processes. The panel recommended they be nixed.
The advisory council cited research demonstrating high school GPA better predicts academic prowess over testing. In a report, though, it noted "differences in overall opportunities" among K-12 school districts, some of which might be better equipped to offer honors or Advanced Placement courses. Institutions should incorporate "a more well-rounded set of variables" in admissions decisions, the panel wrote.
Many enrollment managers follow a similar line of thinking — that high school GPA can better demonstrate academic achievement. Critics of standardized tests go further, however, painting them as racist tools that erode opportunities for vulnerable students and favor wealthy applicants who can afford tutoring.
This argument was the crux of a lawsuit against the UC system, which it settled in May 2021 by agreeing not to consider SAT or ACT scores until 2025. The system went on to drop the tests for the foreseeable future.
Proponents of test-optional policies suggest they bolster application numbers and, in turn, campus diversity. Many California universities experienced record applications. For instance, the University of California, Berkeley, saw a 27% spike in first-year applicants last year.
Testing providers say their products help support underrepresented students, paving an avenue for them to showcase their academic talents and linking them with scholarships.
Data for 2021 from the College Board shows that in California, 16% of White students reached the top echelon of scores on the SAT, 1400 to 1600, versus only 2% of African-American students and 2% of Hispanic students.
The SAT will be delivered digitally in the U.S. beginning in 2024, which the College Board said will simplify the test and erase security issues associated with it. The change has nonetheless drawn skepticism from enrollment managers.
ACT said in an emailed statement that casting aside "objective assessments like the ACT test introduces greater subjectivity and uncertainty into the admissions process," exacerbating educational inequities in California.
It said admissions metrics like high school GPA have "troubling differentials in educational outcomes" similar to standardized assessments.
"Solving the prevailing, systemic education inequities that exist in this country requires attention and focus on root causes, rather than dismissing the tools that substantially improve our understanding of them," the statement said.
The College Board did not provide comment by publication time Wednesday.
Trustees, enrollment officials don't back the tests
Prior to the entire trustee board voting on the change Wednesday, its educational policy committee endorsed it at a meeting Tuesday.
Trustee Yammilette Rodriguez, who graduated with a bachelor's degree from California State University, Fresno, said during discussion Tuesday that had she not encountered certain enrollment barriers, she potentially would have started her academic career with Cal State sooner. Rodriguez earned her associate degree at Reedley College, a California community college, before transferring into the system.
"It's going to change the lives of many," Rodriguez said of the testing prohibition.
And Christopher Steinhauser, a trustee and superintendent of one the state's largest K-12 school districts, praised the system's efforts to break equity gaps. Steinhauser said the system will need to communicate with California public and private K-12 schools about the new direction.
The educational policy committee members voted to unanimously support ending testing requirements, sending it on to the full board Wednesday.
Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said in an interview that Cal State dropping the exams may empower other four-year institutions to do the same.
A Higher Ed Dive analysis of a sample of public flagship institutions' admissions policies found that in 2020, they announced test-optional rules within weeks of each other.
While many colleges have already transitioned to test-optional policies, in some states lawmakers directly control or influence admissions standards and want to preserve the tests, Pérez said.
He said this dynamic presents obstacles for NACAC and its affiliate groups, which have tried to convince these policymakers by showing them data indicating high school GPA represents academic records better than testing.
"We try to provide them with that context, but it's a really difficult argument to make," Pérez said. "For those for whom the system worked — like legislators, who took the SAT and found a great position — making that paradigm shift is very challenging."
For example, Pérez said lobbying in Florida was unsuccessful — during the initial year of the pandemic, Florida's public colleges were some of the only holdouts in the sweeping shift to test-optional.
Not everyone believes Cal State's move is so earth-shattering, however. Among them is Adam Ingersoll, co-founder and principal of Compass Education, which helps students prepare for standardized tests.
He called Cal State's decision "absolutely expected."
UC's withdrawal from the exams last year had more national implications — the testing industry already took the hit with the loss of those prominent California public institutions, Ingersoll said. He pins the decline in test takers in California more to a lack of available testing sites than to colleges repositioning admissions policies. And testing access "is starting to return," Ingersoll said.
More than 110,500 students in California took the SAT, PSAT or similar test during the 2020-21 academic year, compared to 1.1 million students in the 2018-19 year, according to College Board data. And 63% of the 2019 class in the state took the SAT in high school versus 24% of the class of 2021.
Ingersoll said he's far more interested in which colleges will revert to traditional admissions practices after flipping to test-optional during the pandemic's early stages.
The University of North Carolina System recently signaled it will start mandating test scores again for the fall 2023 class after its Board of Governors did not renew a waiver of the admissions requirement.
But the University System of Georgia, one of the first institutions to return to entrance exams after being test-optional for an admissions cycle, decided this week to exempt 23 of its 26 campuses from entrance exam requirements as they construct their fall classes. Only applicants to the system's most selective colleges — Georgia College & State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia — must still submit scores.
"Some of those Deep South states will be reluctant to be outflanked by North Carolina on conservative testing policy, but we'll see," Ingersoll said.