Student Experience Research Network Blog

In March, Student Experience Research Network released a video describing how research on Black students’ experiences of belonging helped to catalyze changes at Equal Opportunity Schools, a partner organization to school districts across the country. This was the first video in our Spotlight Series, designed to elevate stories of scholars and intermediary organizations using research to promote equity and inclusion.

Now, we’re pleased to release the second video in the series, featuring SERN scholar Michal Kurlaender, professor and chair of the University of California (UC) Davis School of Education and a faculty co-director at Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE); Heather Hough, the executive director of PACE; and early career scholars Kramer Cohen and Iwunze Ugo, who work with Michal at UC Davis.

In the video, they describe how research on the role of standardized test scores in college admissions informed the decision by the University of California Board of Regents to suspend their SAT/ACT requirement for applicants until 2024.

“What test scores do really well is they screen out historically disadvantaged students,” Kramer explained. Michal and Kramer’s research looked at how well high school grade point average (GPA) and SAT scores predicted first year college GPA and second year college enrollment among UC students.

For students from all socioeconomic and racial and ethnic groups, they found that high school GPA was a better predictor of college outcomes than SAT scores, and in fact, SAT scores did not add any predictive value beyond high school GPA. Further, they found that using SAT scores in admissions decisions dramatically reduced the number of students from families facing economic disadvantage, Black students, and Latinx students admitted to the UC system.

PACE presented this research, as part of a large body of work about equity in college access, to California policymakers and system leaders through a combination of broad outreach, like events, publications, and media engagement, as well as more targeted outreach like relationship-building.

In particular, Heather described an influential event in November 2019 that convened various stakeholders and generated momentum in rethinking the role of standardized tests in college admissions. “It’s also important on the other end of the spectrum,” Heather explained, “to do this highly relational one-on-one collaborative work where you’re working with decision-makers to understand: What are the challenges that you’re facing? What’s the information that you don’t feel you have? How could our research support your informed leadership?”

In turn, these relationships can fuel future knowledge building. Michal, for example, described how the research questions she pursues have been shaped by doing more policy relevant work: “When I started out, I just looked for interesting empirical puzzles or questions, and now I lean more into the questions that could be of service to policymakers and to decision makers at multiple levels.”

Throughout their work, the researchers made sure to communicate that the use of standardized tests in college admissions is just one of countless opportunities to promote equity and inclusion in education. “Our work,” Iwunze explained, “includes everything from academic preparation in high school to whether students apply to colleges, whether they’re admitted and ultimately whether they choose to or are able to enroll at the colleges that they are admitted to.”

Ultimately, PACE’s structures for supporting evidence-based policymaking intersected with changes in public perceptions and other external events to lead to the Board of Regents’ decision. Heather noted that growing public attention to education inequity, starting in early childhood, could be an opportunity to pursue structural shifts in students’ experiences well before college.

“Now is the time,” she said, “to really invest the money to meet kids’ needs through things like mental health supports and tutoring, and thinking about how our schools can serve relational needs and help students feel a sense of belonging and engagement. All of those investments, the real way that those are transformational, is by laying the groundwork for making big structural shifts in how we think about how we serve kids, particularly kids that have been least served by our institutions and how we as a society make a bigger investment in public education.”

Since the UC decision, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many universities to waive standardized test requirements in their admissions. “This opportunity presents a really important point for all universities, not just the UCs, but across the country, to look at the diversity of their application pool … and to really learn about what inputs matter for the longer-term success of students once they get to college,” Michal said.

The story behind the UC decision provides one roadmap for bridging research and policy in a system in which few established feedback loops between these stakeholders exist. It represents an important step forward, while highlighting an urgent need to continue to question taken-for-granted practices, policies, and norms in education that have systematically excluded generations of students. We encourage you to watch the full video to learn more.

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