Lawsuit says SAT, ACT exams are discriminating against people of color

Lawsuit says SAT, ACT exams are discriminating against people of color

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The University of California is being sued for discriminating against students of color from low-income families by requiring SAT or ACT scores for college admissions.

The lawsuit, supported by students, educators and advocates, was filed Tuesday in California Superior Court in Alameda County. The SAT and ACT tests have been blasted by critics who cite research showing that scores are strongly associated with race, family income and student background, NBC News reports.

“The results in California will be closely observed in the admissions world,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of standardized testing.

A 2015 analysis found that the lowest SAT scores were among students from families who made less than $20,000 a year, while the highest were among students from families who made more than $200,000. The differences are driven in part by expensive test prep programs. Critics say it would be fairer to use high school grades, letters of recommendation and application essays instead.

The lawsuit argues that using the tests violates the state’s anti-discrimination statute because it puts children of color, children from low-income families and children with disabilities at a disadvantage.

The tests are “flawed,” said Kawika Smith, a Los Angeles high school senior who is the lead plaintiff in the suit, which includes three other students, six advocacy groups and the Compton school district. “It does not account for my experiences, good and bad.”

Smith said the SAT numbers do not reflect his ability and the effort he has put into maintaining good grades, as he dealt with hunger, homelessness and the death of his brother earlier this year. He could not afford test prep courses that cost thousands of dollars per month, unlike his friends from wealthier families. A test score “doesn't report on how I am working on healing the trauma,” he said.

The University of California asked a faculty task force to assess the exams’ impact last year. Spokeswoman Claire Doan said the university is “disappointed” that the students filed suit before the task force could finish its work.

“The University of California has already devoted substantial resources to studying this complex issue,” she said in a statement.

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Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney with Public Counsel, the pro bono law firm leading the legal effort, said the SAT and ACT are a “useless metric.”

“It is that garbage that is determining the fate of these students,” he said. “It is known that these tests discriminate based on race and the failure to do anything about it, the stubborn insistence that discriminatory metrics must be part of the college admissions process, that is a smoking gun. It is a smoking gun telling us how deliberate racial discrimination works in the year 2019.”

The College Board, the company that makes that SAT called the discriminatory suggestion “false.”

“Any objective measure of student achievement will shine a light on inequalities in our education system,” Jerome White, a spokesman, said in a statement. The company said it has recently redesigned the exam to “improve college readiness and break down barriers to college” and it makes free practice materials available to all students.

The nonprofit that makes the ACT said it was “committed to expanding access and ensuring fair testing for all students.”

“It is inappropriate to blame admissions testing for inequities in society,” the ACT organization said in a statement. “Differences in test scores expose issues that need to be fixed in our educational system.”

If successful, the suit would only affect admissions at the University of California. “Once the SAT and ACT fall in California,” Rosenbaum said, “I think the rest of the country won’t be far behind.”

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