Kelsey postpones ACT requirement bill after backing down on UT “wokeism”

By: - February 8, 2022 2:22 pm
A bill by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, to require standardized tests for entry into the University of Tennessee was tabled. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A bill by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, to require standardized tests for entry into the University of Tennessee was tabled. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Senators sent state Sen. Brian Kelsey reeling Monday over accusations that the University of Tennessee was trying to be “woke” by no longer requiring students to take the ACT or SAT entrance exams.

Kelsey, a Germantown Republican, postponed his legislation until Thursday after initially saying the University of Tennessee is trying to be like Harvard University, which he said is “picking and choosing” students based on skin color. Harvard is the target of an admissions lawsuit that is to go before the U.S. Supreme Court, he said, and the university is reacting to allegations that it discriminates against students of Asian descent.

“… That’s the wokeism certain people at the University of Tennessee want to bring into our state,” Kelsey said. “This bill says no.”

Kelsey’s legislation, Senate Bill 1815, which was amended, would require universities to obtain ACT or SAT scores of every student beginning with the 2023-24 school year.

“Woke” is a term that describes sensitivity to racial and discriminatory issues.

Yet, senators opposed to the legislation pointed out 75% of universities nationally are moving away from those college entrance exams, in part because of criticisms that they are culturally biased and don’t determine whether a student can excel academically. Requiring universities to obtain those test scores could hurt athletic and student recruiting across the state, senators said.

Sen. Ken Yager, a Kingston Republican, responded that Kelsey’s statements “put a bad face on the state’s premier land grant university.”

“Categorically, UT does not wish to be like Harvard and they never said anything about cherry picking because of race. That was never brought up,” Yager said of last week’s Senate Education Committee meeting.

Kelsey had argued that lawmakers felt the test was so important they decided to let students take it free of charge and use it as an indicator of whether students are prepared for college. It is also used to determine whether students are eligible for the state’s HOPE Scholarship program. 

Even so, Kelsey said universities could “wad it up and throw it in the trash” instead of using students’ test scores for admissions.

Only after being encouraged by Sen. Bo Watson, chairman of the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee, did Kelsey offer to put off the bill until Thursday. He also clarified his earlier statements and said he wasn’t certain about Harvard’s actions.

Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, said Kelsey’s comments about the University of Tennessee “put a bad face on the state’s premier land grant university.”

Besides Yager, several other senators took offense to Kelsey’s comments as well as his legislation.

Democratic Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said University of Tennessee officials didn’t say anything about “cherry picking” students or comparing themselves to Harvard during recent testimony. Nor did they mention the word “woke,” she added.

“What University of Tennessee said was the ACT is not a fair indicator of how successful that student will be once they get to school. However, it can be a barrier to getting them into school,” Abkari said.

UT officials specified UT-Martin when saying they no longer want to require students to take the ACT or SAT.

Opposition to the legislation was bipartisan, with Sen. Bill Powers, a Clarksville Republican, raising concerns about the potential impact of COVID-19 on testing. During the height of the pandemic, ACT and SAT administration was suspended to protect students from the disease.

Powers pointed out that COVID-19 remains a problem and he couldn’t predict what disruptions might come next. He asked for at least a year’s delay of the bill because the University of Tennessee is conducting a study on the matter and wants to put it into effect in June.

Sen. Becky Massey, a Knoxville Republican, questioned whether the legislation would add any “value” to the state. She also challenged its impact on any foreign students who aren’t required to take the test.

According to Kelsey, test scores have increased dramatically over the years because of the need for students to score high. University of Tennessee freshmen score an average of 28, up from 24.7, he said.

Sen. Frank Nicely, a Strawberry Plains Republican who supported the legislation, pointed out that students have “grade inflation,” because they have the help of coaches, prep tests and can take the tests up to three times to try to improve scores. All of that enables them to improve scores by five to six points.

“It made me feel a whole lot better to know I could add five points to my ACT and compare it to these kids,” Nicely said.

UT officials declined comment Tuesday on Kelsey’s references to “wokeism” and Harvard and referred questions to statements made in committee.

University of Tennessee spokeswoman Carey Whitworth told the Senate Education Committee last week that its Knoxville, Martin and Chattanooga campuses are considering “test-optional” policies and the UT Board of Trustees is studying a pilot program, which is expected to be done in June. Initially, the bill would have required tests for the 2022-23 school year.

“This is a major concern as the admission cycle is already under way,” Whitworth said.

UT has admitted 30,000 students across the state for the next school year, and the legislation provides “no flexibility” for those who haven’t taken the test, she said.

Brandon Johnson, a spokesman for Tennessee Tech, also told the committee the university began reviewing its admission policy in 2019 and decided to look at a “more holistic” approach that would allow students to decide whether to take the ACT or SAT.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.