Policy brief

State Standards, the SAT, and Admission to the University of California

Michal Kurlaender
University of California, Davis
Eric Grodsky
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Samuel J. Agronow
Saint Mary’s College of California
Catherine L. Horn
University of Huston


Like most other universities in the country, the University of California (UC) requires that students submit scores from either the SAT or ACT exams as part of their application package. These tests have their origins in the efforts of a handful of elite colleges and universities to expand the socioeconomic diversity and enhance the academic promise of their admissions pools; to reduce the number of tests students must take to apply to college and the burden this places on both prospective students and postsecondary institutions; and to provide a means of comparing students who attend different schools with potentially different grading standards. Despite the appeal of a nationally standardized college entrance exam, critics have asserted that standardized college entrance exams (and the SAT in particular) suffer from several important flaws. These critics argue that the SAT does a poor job of predicting success in college conditional on student high school grades, is biased against women and under-represented minorities, is coachable and thus advantages more affluent families who can afford to pay for test instruction, imposes an additional hurdle on first-generation college students unfamiliar with the steps they must take to gain admission to a competitive college, and is disconnected from the content and performance standards for state K-12 educational systems. In an increasingly K-16 policy environment, it is important to consider whether and how tests used to monitor the progress of students through secondary education might serve as a substitute for college entrance exams in the college admissions process. This analysis provides important evidence for reconsidering the decision to privilege college entrance exams over state mandated standardized exams for purposes of college admissions at public universities. The analysis in this brief reveals that the CST exam (required for all California high school students in the 11th grade) offers remarkably similar levels of predictive power in determining college performance, and persistence at UC, to that of the SAT.

Suggested citationKurlaender, M., Grodsky, E., Agronow, S. J., & Horn, C. L. (2011, December). State standards, the SAT, and admission to the University of California [Policy brief]. Policy Analysis for California Education. https://edpolicyinca.org/publications/state-standards-sat-and-admission-university-california