(CN) – A group of students and education reform advocates sued the University of California system Tuesday, claiming its use of SAT and ACT test scores in admissions discriminates against low-income and minority applicants.
The test scores "create an uneven playing field" benefiting students from wealthier backgrounds while disadvantaging students who can't easily relate to culturally biased questions or afford private tutors, according to Mark Rosenbaum, director of the pro bono law firm Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law.
"SAT and ACT scores are largely a proxy for students' socioeconomic background and race," Rosenbaum said.
The Compton Unified School District, Equal Justice Society and other groups sent a demand letter to the University of California in October, requesting it immediately stop requiring test scores for college applicants. They said the "discriminatory IQ tests" create unlawful barriers to a higher education.
The plaintiffs claim the tests include culturally biased questions, including "word-heavy math problems" that discriminate against multilingual learners. They also complain of a failure to accommodate students with disabilities because not all test locations are fully accessible.
They further argue SAT test scores result in disparate outcomes, citing a 2018 College Board study that found 44% of white California students scored 1200 or higher, compared to 10% of black students and 12% of Latino students in California. Those disparities are exacerbated by unequal access to private tutors and test preparation courses which can cost up to $8,000, they claim.
Additionally, they say the test scores are not a reliable predictor of college success because "high school grades are an equal if not better predictor of first-year grades than SAT scores standing on their own," according to the groups' Oct. 29 demand letter.
Last year, the University of California Academic Senate, which sets admissions standards for the UC system, started a study on whether to eliminate SAT and ACT test scores from its admissions requirements.
Rosenbaum said he does not believe that study, announced in September 2018, will result in any meaningful changes to the admissions process.
"It will only end in recommendations," Rosenbaum said. "It's the latest in a long line of studies, none of which have ended this requirement."
A spokeswoman for the University of California said the 10-campus system is disappointed the lawsuit was filed because it is still considering ending the use of SAT and ACT scores in college admissions decisions.
"The University of California has already devoted substantial resources to studying this complex issue and has announced the Academic Senate’s Task Force will provide recommendations before the end of this academic year," UC spokeswoman Claire Doan said.
More than 1,000 colleges and universities have stopped considering SAT and ACT scores in admissions decisions, including the University of Chicago and University of San Francisco, according to a 2019 study by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a group dedicated to ending "the misuses and flaws of standardized testing."
Lisa Holder of Equal Justice Society said the lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court on Tuesday is based on evidence that the SAT exacerbates systemic racism in higher education and increases the wealth gap.
She decried the required use of test scores in college admissions as a "modern manifestation of the separate-but-equal doctrine" from the Jim Crow era.
"Indeed, the SAT effectively blocks black and Latino students from having equal access to California's public education system and segregates California’s system of higher education by race," Holder said. "In sum, the SAT is a barrier to college access and replicates and deepens racial inequality."
According to the lawsuit, lead plaintiff Kawika Smith, a 17-year-old senior at Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles, has suffered multiple traumas, including being homeless, surviving rape and domestic violence and dealing with the death of his young adult brother. Despite those hardships, he maintained a 3.65 cumulative GPA but could not afford private tutors to help increase his test scores.
The lawsuit names three other students as plaintiffs and seven organizations, including Chinese For Affirmative Action, College Access Plan, College Seekers, Community Coalition, Dolores Huerta Foundation and Little Manila Rising.
The 105-page complaint alleges violations of equal protection guarantees, racial and disability discrimination and other civil rights violations. The plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the University of California to stop requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores for admissions.
Rosenbaum, who serves as lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said the Compton Unified School District will file a separate lawsuit against the University of California and its president Janet Napolitano.
The College Board, which administers the SAT test, and the ACT did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday morning.
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