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SAT subject tests may be dropped by UC

The exams add little useful information on applicants, critics say.

March 16, 2008|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

The University of California may offer some relief to test-weary applicants by shedding part of a 40-year-old requirement for freshman admission. And many high school students are saying amen to that.

An influential faculty panel wants to drop two of the standardized exams that all applicants now must take for acceptance at UC's nine undergraduate campuses.

Under the plan, high school students still would need to sit for the basic SAT exam (or the alternative ACT test) but would no longer have to face two additional SAT tests in specific subjects, such as world history, Spanish or chemistry.

Subject tests, previously known as achievement tests or SAT II, have been required by UC in various forms for four decades, even if their existence might surprise and befuddle some parents and students.

Critics of the subject exams allege that they have added little useful information to applications and that missing those subject tests is a major reason that potential applicants with otherwise good grades and SAT scores are ineligible for UC. Disproportionately affected are blacks and Latinos in large urban and rural schools who might not be advised by counselors to take the exams, according to recent studies.

Michael Brown, chairman of the UC systemwide Academic Senate, said discussions indicated that most faculty were convinced that the subject test requirement is "cutting people out of at least a shot of consideration for no reasons that have to do with achievement." He said he is optimistic the mandate will be dropped as part of an overhaul of admissions standards that is under consideration but will not go into effect for two years or so if approved by the UC Regents.

The subject tests generally are required by only the most elite campuses nationwide. According to the College Board, 71 colleges mandate them and 50 recommend them, both small fractions of the college universe.

For example, Columbia University and Pomona College require them, Stanford University and USC recommend them and the University of Michigan and University of Texas do neither. Last year, 1.5 million students took the SAT and 287,000 took subject tests.

Around Southern California, many students say getting rid of the subject tests would be like lifting one of the rocks from their chests. They say they still would have plenty of other pressures with class work, SAT preparation and, in some cases, the additional and unrelated Advanced Placement tests that can garner college credits.

The subject tests, which involve high school-level material, usually do not lead to college credit.

"I definitely think it would be a good idea," Andrew Santana, 16, a junior at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, said of the proposal. Teens can feel overwhelmed by repeated testing, he said. He plans to take the SAT and three AP exams in May and then subject tests in U.S. history, English literature and Spanish in June in hopes of landing a spot at UCLA, UC Berkeley or another top-notch school. "I would say the transcript and one standardized test should speak for themselves," he said.

Laurence Bunin, the College Board's general manager for its SAT programs, said he wouldn't argue with UC's right to set its own admissions policy. However, dropping the subject tests would take away an extra chance for students to "show everything they can do," he said, explaining that some students do better on subject exams than on the main SAT and some vice versa.

Under the UC proposal, individual campuses and majors could recommend certain subject tests, such as math for engineering schools, and applicants could submit scores on their own to possibly garner attention. But Bunin said that recommending is not the same as requiring.

"Students are kids, after all," he said. "If any college doesn't require something, it is less likely the students will do it."

The main SAT reasoning exam is a three-hour, 45-minute evaluation of more generalized critical reading, math and writing skills in multiple choice and essay form. In contrast, the 19 subject tests that UC allows are one hour each, all multiple choice, and assess mastery of high school courses, such as biology, math and French.

Students can take as many as three subject tests in one day, and the fees can range from $28 for one test to $56 for three, including a foreign-language exam with a listening portion. Fee waivers are available for low-income applicants. Before 2006, UC applicants had to submit scores from the main SAT plus three subject tests, including one for writing. But under pressure from UC, the main SAT was changed and a writing portion was added to it. That took away from the subject tests what many considered to be the most reliable predictor of freshman academic success.

Now students usually choose their two strongest subjects, hardly a level field for admissions decisions, say UC faculty arguing for the change.

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