Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 77: Dropping Scores to Admit More Minorities Means “Strange Bedfellows”

Large public university systems in California, Texas and Florida may have increased minority enrollment in the face of an end to affirmative action. But the change may not be the result of increased minority test performance. In fact, many schools are dropping the SAT and ACT academic achievement exams as admissions requirements altogether, according to a recent USA Today report, automatically admitting students who are top-ranked in their high schools.

The trend has opponents of “race preferences” hopping mad, but some advocates for “affirmative action” are elated. It’s a strange “twist of events,” the report says, especially considering that the new policies were prompted not by concern from opponents of standardized testing, who argue that such tests discriminate against minorities, but by opponents of race preferences who say that minorities get special preferences in college admissions despite lower scores.

“I’m not sure we would have liked it to have happened (this way),” FairTest Spokesman Bob Schaeffer told USA Today (8-30-00), “but when you’re given lemons, you make lemonade.”

The case of “strange bedfellows,” as Schaeffer call it, gets even more complicated. FairTest, based in Cambridge, Mass., has for 15 years advocated for the abolishment of standardized college admissions tests, maintaining that the abuses and flaws in the tests explain the low performance of minorities and subsequent low minority representation on the nation’s most competitive campuses. But leaders on both sides of affirmative action complain that it’s not the test, rather how the tests are used. Opponents of race preferences, while supporting the tests as the best evidence of a student’s merit, complain that the testing standards do not apply equally to all students. Many stand against policies as admitting the top students from each high schools graduating class, while other opponents of preferences, including Florida Governor Jeb Bush, support and use such plans. (In Florida, the top 20 percent of each graduating class automatically gains admission to one of the ten schools in the University of Florida system).

Class rank is the new tool “not because (policymakers) suddenly decided that’s a more reliable predictor,” Roger Clegg of the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity told USA Today. “The criteria are chosen because of the racial and ethnic impact they will have.”

George Leef, director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, said the standards may hurt minority applicants’ chances for admission. “The obvious problem with admission policies based on high-school ranking is that academic standards are much higher at some schools than others,” he said. “A sharp student in the 11th percentile at a school with rigorous standards loses out to a student who makes the top 10 at a school where standards are low. That not only seems unfair, but it might just as well work against a minority student as for him.”

While some proponents of affirmative action support such policies, others offer a different complaint. A statement by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights defending affirmative action opposed percentage plans, saying that they offered no incentive to fix inequities in elementary and secondary schools and depended on the continued segregation of public high schools.

The result of all the fuss: “Now, as more state institutions feel pressure to abandon affirmative action, a host of research is being conducted that is aimed at putting test scores into perspective.” The “Strivers” formula, for example, developed by The Educational Testing Service’s last year, aims to identify students who score significantly higher on the SAT than socioeconomic and environmental factors would predict. Another project tries to measure other indicators of a potentially successful student, such as motivation and persistence.