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Lawsuit Challenges University Of California System's Use Of SAT, ACT


We have news this morning of a lawsuit in California, a lawsuit that will be of interest to anybody who ever took the SAT or ACT - you know, those tests that you take that can be a factor in college admissions. NPR has obtained a draft of the complaint in this suit to be filed today. It points to research that shows the tests are biased against low-income and nonwhite students. And the lawsuit demands that the University of California system stop using the tests in admissions. NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher education and is still sitting in her chair, even though I mangled her name. Good morning.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: (Laughter) Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the details of this lawsuit?

NADWORNY: So the lawsuit's being filed by the pro bono law firm Public Counsel on behalf of students and a number of advocacy organizations. The complaint draws heavily on research that the test scores are more strongly connected to your family income than how well you'll do in college. It claims that by requiring these tests, the admissions process is basically legally discriminating against applicants on the basis of race and wealth. And therefore, it's not treating all students equally under the California Constitution.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's what the complaint is. And we've heard those kinds of things about standardized tests before, and colleges keep using them. Could this suit really force the University of California system, which is huge...


INSKEEP: ...To get rid of them?

NADWORNY: So what's interesting about University of California system - it was one of the first schools to adopt the SAT almost 50 years ago. And back then, the companies behind the SAT lobbied them pretty hard to make this a reality. When they did adopt the test, it kind of set a national precedent. So it's potentially that if they drop it again...

INSKEEP: Could be a national precedent again. Wow.

NADWORNY: ...Could do the same thing, yeah. I mean, the university even back then was debating whether or not they should use this. Just last year, the president of the UC system ordered a faculty task force to study the use of standardized tests. They say they're waiting for that task force to decide what to do.

INSKEEP: I guess if they do abandon the tests, they wouldn't be the first - right? - because some colleges that haven't been sued have just gotten rid of considering the tests in admissions.

NADWORNY: Absolutely. Yeah, so the test-optional movement has been gaining steam. Just in 2019 alone, there were more than 50 schools that dropped the ACT from requirements and admissions. The UC system, as you said, is huge - you know, multiple campuses, more than 250,000 students. So that would be a really big deal.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm just thinking through what the value of these tests are. I mean, we've just heard about the disadvantages. And entirely aside from things like race and income, it's just, like, your anxiety level. People test in different ways. But the argument for the test was here is a standardized, fair way to evaluate students who came from different high schools, different levels of education. What do colleges do when they get rid of the SAT?

NADWORNY: Well, that's the big question. I mean, grades have shown to be correlated with how well you can do in in college, but grades are subject to inflation. I mean, here's the issue with the college admissions process - is the whole thing is, you know, rife with inequities. So and this stems from K-12. So we know that nonwhite schools are more likely to be underfunded. They're more likely to have less access to advanced courses like AP. So this whole system is really set up to kind of give more power to the wealthy students.

INSKEEP: Is there anybody other than the people who make the SAT or the ACT who is saying, oh, I love this test. We've got to save - we've got to preserve the history of the test?

NADWORNY: You know, surprisingly, there are some access (ph) organizations that say rather than eliminate the test 'cause the test has so much power, we should really be giving students prep material. We should be helping them study for this test, which is kind of an interesting take on this whole debate.

INSKEEP: Okay. Elissa, thanks for your reporting. And we'll continue paying attention as that lawsuit goes forward.

NADWORNY: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.