UCLA's Royce Hall. UC has temporarily dropped the testing requirement for 2021 applicants. (Photo by Fermin Leal/EdSource Today)

The University of California is drastically relaxing its fall 2021 admissions standards for applicants who are currently high school juniors, including suspending the requirement that they take standardized tests and allowing pass/fail grades for this spring’s classes affected by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a university announcement Wednesday.

The dramatic action came in response to the cancellation of testing by the SAT and ACT this spring due to the widespread disruption at high schools in California and nationwide during the health crisis. However, UC officials emphasized that the dropping of standardized tests for this upcoming year does not imply a permanent change and said the UC, which has nine undergraduate campuses, will continue to debate that contentious matter in the future.

The one-year change about testing “is intended to reassure students and families who have to make decisions in the coming weeks about fall 2021 applications, and is consistent with actions taken by other colleges and universities. It is intended as an accommodation and not a permanent policy shift, and does not foreclose future (UC Regents) Board policy actions with respect to the use of standardized tests in University admissions for fall 2022 applicants and beyond,” a university policy statement approved by the UC regents said.

Critics of standardized testing hope the steps could be a trial run for a more permanent end to the use of SAT and ACT scores in admissions. The UC regents were expected in May to vote on whether to keep the tests as requirements, drop them or possibly reduce their weight in admissions decisions.

Students applying for fall 2021 can still take tests and send scores to UC if they are able. Doing so can support their UC eligibility and help fulfill some university graduation requirements. But campuses must ensure that “no student is harmed in admissions selection should they not submit a test score,” according to the UC statement.

CSU still on the fence

The 23-campus California State University system is reviewing whether to follow UC and drop its own testing requirement for 2021 admissions. “A final decision on how CSU will adapt its admissions process” is expected in the near future, according to a CSU statement Wednesday.

Given the chaos surrounding online education in high schools, both UC and CSU will not require a letter grade for the mandatory so-called A-G courses taken in high school this year in winter, spring or summer. That affects current high school seniors as well. Seniors already have received their acceptance or rejection letters from UC and CSU campuses, but in normal years acceptances can be revoked in the summer if students’ grades significantly drop in the spring.

“We want to help alleviate the tremendous disruption and anxiety that is already overwhelming prospective students due to COVID-19,” said John A. Pérez, chair of the Board of Regents, the governing board for UC. “By removing artificial barriers and decreasing stressors — including suspending the use of the SAT — for this unprecedented moment in time, we hope there will be less worry for our future students.” The regents’ action was authorized under special procedures allowed for emergencies between regular meetings.

The A-G courses are the set of 15 yearlong high school classes that applicants have to complete with at least a 2.0 or C grade in each to even be eligible for the UC and California State University systems. In normal years, California residents must earn at least a 3.0 grade point average across those classes to be considered. Then students’ academic records must put them in the top 9 percent of students statewide or in their own high school.

However, that does not guarantee them a spot at the most competitive UC campuses, such as UCLA or Berkeley, but will get them a place somewhere in the system. In some cases, they might be offered UC Merced, the youngest UC campus, even if they did not originally apply there.

A faculty report released in February said UC should continue to require that applicants for undergraduate admission take standardized college admissions tests like the SAT and ACT. That report says that standardized exams remain good predictors of students’ success at UC at a time when grade inflation in high schools makes it harder to choose potential university freshmen. In fact, the report insists that test results actually help identify many talented Latino, black and low-income students who otherwise might be rejected because their high school grades alone were not high enough.

But opponents say they will continue fighting the testing mandate both in court and at the UC Board of Regents. And they appear to have won at least temporarily due to the coronavirus. Critics say that the exams are biased against Latino and black applicants and hurt their admissions chances at UC’s nine undergraduate campuses, in part because they may not have access to expensive test-preparation coaching. Civil rights and education advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit against UC in late 2019 in Alameda County Superior Court, seeking an end to the testing mandate.

Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, an advocacy and policy group that seeks a permanent end to testing requirements, praised UC’s  moves for 2021. “The decision to go test-optional for the Fall 2020 application cycle positions the UC as a national leader in protecting college opportunity. The UC is moving with rightful urgency to meet the moment and to ensure no student is denied their rightful seat because of limited testing opportunities, instruction or guidance resulting from the COVID-19 crisis,” she said in an email.

‘Credit’ or ‘pass’ grades

The CSU joined UC in accepting grades of “credit” or “pass” as fulfilling “A-G” requirements for high school courses completed during winter, spring or summer 2020 terms. But CSU officials warned that all previous coursework must be graded and a grade of C- or better must be earned for the course to satisfy that system’s requirements.

The UC deadline to accept an offer of admission and send a deposit for enrollment will remain May 1 for freshmen and June 1 for transfers. But now students who need additional time, or who need a deferment of a deposit, will be allowed to seek a delay and UC campuses will be expected to offer flexibility, under the new policy. Eight of CSU’s 23 campuses have extended those deposit deadlines from May 1 to June 1 so far.

Transfer students received some other relief in the UC and CSU announcements. UC will temporarily suspend the cap on the number of transferable units with Pass/No Pass grading applied to their community college courses. CSU will allow transfer students to submit Pass/Fail grades in the required community college courses in English, math and other general education requirements taken this winter and spring. Transfer students do not have to submit standardized test scores at either university system.

UC and CSU application numbers are enormous.

UC received 172,099 freshmen applicants for fall 2020. Each of those applicants likely applied to several UC campuses. However, with demographic changes, the numbers have been declining somewhat — a 5.4 percent dip since 2018, according to UC statistics.

CSU says it has not finished compiling its 2020 application numbers. In 2019, the CSU system received applications from 363,478 students, a 2.3 percent decline from the year before.

Story originally published by EdSource.