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California universities using SAT for admissions are violating civil rights, lawsuit claims

The University of California is being sued for requiring incoming students to take the SAT and ACT. The lawsuit claims that the tests have a well-known "discriminatory effect" and "exacerbate the inequities" for underrepresented students.

The lawsuit says the University of California (UC) is legally obligated to provide equal access to all students. The SAT and ACT, the lawsuit says, "reflect demographic and socioeconomic characteristics like family income, parental education and race" instead of measuring "academic ability or mastery of curriculum."

The College Board, the organization behind the SAT, released a 2019 assessment of the SAT/PSAT in California that found 45% of white students scored 1,200 or above, while 12% of Latinx students and 9% of Black students got the same score. Parental education levels were also directly related to student scores — only 21% of test-takers whose parents did not receive a high school diploma met SAT benchmarks while 77% of those whose parents have graduate degrees met benchmarks.

While UC does not have minimum test score requirements, applicants are required to take either the ACT with writing or the SAT exam.

"Applications should keep in mind that when selecting students, competitive campuses and programs look for applicants who have excelled academically," its website states.

The minimum average score for reading at the nine UC undergraduate schools is 580; for math the minimum average score is 579. White and Asian students are the only race demographics who met this standard in the 2019 report.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six organizations and four students "whose ability to access public higher education has been hindered by UC's SAT or ACT score requirement."

Public Counsel, the pro bono legal service representing the students and organizations, posted about the filing Tuesday on Instagram. They quoted attorney Mark Rosenbaum as saying, "... if the SAT means anything, it stands for 'Socio-Economic Advantage Test' — it is illegal."

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“Use of the SAT and ACT is not just indefensible policy - if the SAT means anything, it stands for "Socio-Economic Advantage Test" - it is illegal. It is illegal wealth and race discrimination that damages the futures of tens of thousands of deserving students each year who could excel at UC campuses of their choice and that are best suited to their strengths and passions. As this nation’s preeminent public institution of higher education, the UC system has no more constitutionally sacred obligation than to ensure equal access to all of California’s young persons, to serve as a beacon of hope and opportunity. By its reliance on the SAT and ACT, the UC system subverts this mission and makes its campuses havens for concentrated privilege.” - Mark Rosenbaum, Directin ATtorney with Public Counsel. Why we filed a lawsuit against the University of California for discriminatory use of the SAT/ACT in admissions today. 🔹Link in bio to read the @npr story🔹#highereducation #educationrights #JusticeforAll #educationforall #standardizedtesting #SAT

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One of the plaintiffs is 17-year-old Kawika Smith, a African American student from Verbum Dei High School. According to the lawsuit, Smith was homeless from second through eighth grade, is a rape survivor, experienced domestic violence and suffered from the loss of his brother his junior year of high school. These circumstances, the lawsuit says, prevented him from getting adequate test preparation and thus, was ineligible to be admitted to UC. 

Smith posted a photo of himself on Instagram, originally posted by Public Counsel, saying "the SAT score does nothing for people like me."

"The SAT doesn't account for all the ways I'm stepping up as a leader in my community or how I'm healing from trauma and growing from my lived experiences," he posted. "And it doesn't say anything about how well I can do in college or whether I can achieve my dreams."

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#Repost @public_counsel “The SAT score does nothing for people like me. The SAT doesn’t account for all the ways I’m stepping up as a leader in my community or how I’m healing from trauma and growing from my lived experiences. And it doesn’t say anything about how well I can do in college or whether I can achieve my dreams.” | Kawika Smith, senior at Verbum Dei High School. Basing college admissions decisions on SAT and ACT scores amounts to deciding students’ future based on their race and socioeconomic status and not on individual merit. Today, on behalf of three students including Kawika, five nonprofits and the Compton Unified School District, our legal team including lawyers from Scheper Kim & Harris, Equal Justice Society, Miller Advocacy Group, and Olivarez Madruga Lemieux O’Neill, LLP​ announced our formal request to the University of California Board of Regents that the UC system cease use of SAT and ACT test scores in admissions decisions. The Board of Regents will have ten days to respond, and if the practice is not stopped, we will file a civil rights lawsuit against the UC for knowingly creating barriers to higher education for students of color and students with disabilities.

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This barrier, the lawsuit claims, violates the state's equal protection guarantees, state education laws and civil rights laws. More than 1,000 universities and colleges have removed the requirement from their application. 

"... [T]his policy illegally discriminates against applicants on the basis of race and wealth, and thereby denies them equal protection under the California Constitution," the suit claims. 

UC Berkeley chancellor Carol Christ said at a forum November 23 that using these standardized exams for college admissions decisions is unfair, according to The Associated Press

"They really contribute to the inequities of our system," Christ said. 

UC Santa Cruz chancellor Cynthia Larive reportedly said she also supports removing the testing requirement, according to AP.

"At Santa Cruz, we use holistic admissions to try to evaluate the student within a broader context, which cannot be simply reduced to a number," she said.

Since January, the university system's Standardized Testing Task Force has been looking at how standardized testing is being used for admission. No reports have been made available.

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