California is the hub of social justice movements and its universities the birthplace of progressivism and liberal values. However, a civil rights group has threatened to file a lawsuit against the very headquarters itself: the University of California. The reason? The university system requires applicants to submit a standardized test score, which, according to an Oct. 29 letter sent by the coalition of lawyers, is “not merely bad policy; it violates the California Constitution and antidiscrimination statutes, and is therefore legally and morally impermissible.”
The question of whether standardized testing is good policy is a separate matter entirely, and there are arguments to be made for both sides. In one of my previous columns published after the college admissions scandal became public, I argued that “rather than explaining why standardized testing is obsolete and painting an inaccurate picture of whether students are prepared for college, the recent scandals demonstrate the exact opposite: We need tests. But … we need to make them fair.”
Rethinking standardized testing policy must come with the focus of making sure that students with wealthier backgrounds are unable to hire people to take tests for them, change answer sheets ex post facto or game the system by faking a learning disability to spend more time on the exams. The New York Times reports that high schools in the richest school districts have double the percentage of students with diagnosed learning disabilities than the national average and five times more than lower-income schools.
But the merits of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the exam itself are likely deficient. A large portion of the letter discusses why the tests are bad policy. But it is a novel legal argument to suggest that, because the test isn’t perfect and because the UC system knows it’s imperfect, it is automatically violating the civil rights of their applicants. However, the letter also makes three legal claims for why the exams are discriminatory, the first of which is “bias in exam conditions” against students with disabilities. This claim is questionable. Given that wealthy students are allegedly forging their own learning disabilities to gain an upper edge and receive better conditions for taking the test, it makes it unlikely that the conditions disfavor students with diagnosed learning disabilities.
The second and third claims — “bias in the exam” and there is “unequal access to exam preparation” — are even more obtuse. Using this logic, any exam with “word-heavy math problems” discriminates against non-English speakers and any exam that requires time and resources to study for would automatically be unconstitutional.
How far do we extend this argument? Surely then accounting CPA examinations, which contain wordy math problems must be discriminatory in nature. State bar exams, as well as physician licensing exams, although they test a deep understanding of complicated subject matters, contain wordy English questions, which make them discriminatory.
Even driver’s license behind-the-wheel tests would have to be abolished because wealthier student drivers have an advantage. In fact, every exam that requires time and potential monetary investment puts wealthier students at an advantage because they can afford to spend more time and to pay for extra resources to prepare for the exam.
Irrespective of the potential lawsuit, the UC Academic Senate has been looking into standardized testing policy and is expected to issue a recommendation as to whether the UC should continue requiring these exam scores.
If the UC system decides to change its test policy, it should be a decision it comes to themselves; it shouldn’t be forced to do so by a lawsuit with murky claims.
Shauli Bar-On is a junior writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.