(Photo by Fermin Leal/EdSource Today)

Saying they seek to protect low-income and minority students’ rightful chances for college admissions, civil rights organizations and the Compton Unified School District followed through with their threat and filed lawsuits Tuesday demanding that the University of California stop requiring that applicants take the SAT or ACT entrance exams for freshman college admission.

“The requirement that all applicants submit SAT or ACT scores systematically and unlawfully denies talented and qualified students with less accumulated advantage a fair opportunity to pursue higher education at the UC,” declared the lawsuits filed in Superior Court in Alameda County. UC’s central administrative office is located in Oakland, in that county.

“Every UC admissions cycle that evaluates applicants based on their SAT and ACT scores irreparably damages the futures of tens of thousands of students who are capable of excelling at the UC campuses of their choice and benefiting from the opportunities and supports a UC education provides, causing unjustifiable squandering of time and resources and intense stress for them, their families, and their schools,” the lawsuits claim.

The suits had been threatened since October when the coalition first announced a broad campaign against the testing mandate. The legal action comes as a UC faculty panel is studying the future use of such standardized tests. That committee is reviewing whether to drop the exams, seek to change or replace them or to continue their requirements, possibly giving them less weight in admissions decisions. A report is expected early next year with a decision by the regents soon after.

In recent weeks, pressure on the university to drop the testing requirements increased as UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ came out strongly in favor of ending the testing requirement.

The lawsuit, Kawika Smith v. Regents, was filed on behalf of four California students, including Smith, a low-income African-American high school senior in the South Los Angeles area who has been active in education reform efforts. It alleges that the tests are biased against low-income, black and Latino students.

Also joining the legal action were the Compton school district, which predominately serves low-income black and Latino children, and six organizations including College Access Plan, Little Manila Rising, Dolores Huerta Foundation, College Seekers, Chinese for Affirmative Action and Community Coalition.

They are represented by the law firms Public Counsel, Scheper Kim & Harris, Equal Justice Society and Miller Advocacy Group. The Compton Unified School District is represented by Olivarez Madruga Lemieux O’Neill, LLP.

The court filing described Smith as a good student at the Roman Catholic school he attends, despite traumas of homelessness and violence in his life. While he has participated in free SAT prep programs, those were inadequate compared to the costly private coaching some classmates were able to afford, the suit contends. The young man hopes to attend UC Berkeley or UCLA, but “unless his scores increase dramatically, he is unlikely to gain admission at any UC campus,” it says.

UC issued a statement Tuesday saying: “We are disappointed that plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit when the University of California has already devoted substantial resources to studying this complex issue and has announced that the Academic Senate’s Task Force will provide recommendations before the end of this academic year.”

The 23-campus California State University also requires standardized test scores for freshman application. The litigants said they did not seek to change CSU’s policy now since they expect that it will change if UC ends the SAT or ACT mandates.

The College Board, which sponsors the SAT, has defended the test and noted the SAT was overhauled in 2016 to better measure what students are learning in high school and now emphasizes the skills most needed for college readiness.

The UC faculty task force is looking at options beyond simply dumping all standardized tests. These include changes in the material tested by the SAT and ACT; replacing the exams with the state-mandated Smarter Balanced tests, aligned with the Common Core and given in all California high schools; or changing the way test scores are weighted compared with high school grades in making admissions decisions.

The UC regents’ ultimate decision will be enormously influential just by the sheer number of freshman applicants to UC’s nine undergraduate campuses: more than 176,500 students applied last year with most trying to get into several UC schools. Applicants must present scores from either the SAT or ACT exams.

The study will analyze potential impacts of any changes on admissions and graduation rates among various income, ethnic and geographic groups. And it will explore possible unintended results if tests are eliminated and applications are judged based solely on grades and extracurricular activities. Critics warn of pressure on high school teachers to give higher grades and whether some unethical applicants might feel they have to fabricate extracurricular activities.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Larry Gordon