From Bakke to Atkinson

“The consideration of race as a measure of an applicant’s qualification normally introduces a capricious and irrelevant factor working an invidious discrimination. Once race is a starting point educators and courts are immediately embroiled in competing claims of different racial and ethnic groups that would make difficult manageable standards consistent with the Equal Protection Clause.” — Justice William Douglas, DeFunis v. Odegaard, 1974.

“Distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” — Justice Harlan Stone, Hirabayashi v. US , 1943.

The University of California System perpetually finds itself at the center of affirmative action controversies in college admissions. This is no accident. In 1973, Alan Bakke applied for admission to the University of California, Davis Medical School. The medical school had 100 positions available for incoming students. Of these, the medical school reserved 16 for minority applicants. Alan Bakke demonstrated that he had test scores and an academic record superior to minority students that had been admitted under the special program.

Bakke sued. The case worked its way up through the courts. In 1978, the US Supreme Court found that since race was the only reason that Bakke had been excluded from the special program, the University of California violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. The Court did, however, leave open the possibility that race might still be considered as one factor in the admissions process. In particular, “race or ethnic background may be deemed a `plus’ in a particular applicant’s file, [so long as the applicant’s race] does not insulate the individual from comparison with all other candidates for the available seats.”

The University of California System nonetheless seems intent upon making sure that the college admissions process yields the appropriate number of students in different racial and ethnic groups. Seizing upon the wording of the Bakke decision, the University of California employed race and ethnicity as one additional factor in admissions. If race and ethnicity had remained a modest consideration only playing a part in borderline cases, splitting the difference between students with similar credentials, the policy might have continued indefinitely. However, this additional factor turned out in many cases to be a definitive one. At the University of California at Berkeley there was a time when the mean SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores between black and white students was 200 points out of a possible 1600. Since Asian-American students were statistically over-represented, they faced even higher barriers than whites did for admission.

Because of such abuse of discretion, the sense of justice among California citizens eventually caught up with the University of California. In November 1996, Californians passed Proposition 209, which read in part:

“The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

The Supreme Court granted the University of California the discretion to consider race, the citizens of California suffering under its abusive use terminated the discretion.

University of California President Richard Atkinson is now proposing to eliminate SATs as an admissions criterion in favor of a more “holistic” evaluation of applicants. Part of the problem with the test, according to Atkinson, is that is serves as a barrier to access for minority students. Atkinson talks of using SAT achievement tests (SAT IIs) as a partial substitute. This is disingenuous given that such achievement tests would favor students with access to more rigorous curricula, most commonly more affluent students.

No one believes that SAT tests or any other test is a means to completely and solely evaluate potential students. Any school that looks solely at SAT scores or scores from similar tests does itself a disservice. SAT tests cannot measure dedication, assiduousness, motivation and other character traits important in making maximum use of a college education. SAT scores do not measure musical or athletic achievement, which may be an important part of a student’s contribution to a school.

Nonetheless, elimination of the SAT test throws away important information. According to comparisons of SAT scores and college grades, SAT scores forecast approximately 25% of the college academic performance of students. High school grades and ranking, taken together, have about the same predictive value as the SAT. Standardized test scores and high school academic achievement are the best predictors of college success.1,2 Even with these measures, student performance cannot be completely forecast. It would, therefore, be unwise to dismiss the important information provided by SATs. More information, not less is required.

Ironically abandoning the SAT test may hurt minority students. Although, minority students have on average lower scores than white applicants, statistics from the College Board suggest that SAT tests actually overpredict minority performance in college. If other criteria could more accurately predict college performance, access for minority students could be reduced.

The likely reason that Atkinson is really proposing to eliminate SAT scores is to muddy the college admissions process with so much arbitrary discretion that Atkinson will be able to implement a covert racial spoils system. It would be very difficult to go to court and argue that any particular student has been arbitrarily treated if the judgment criteria are undecipherable or amorphous. The absence of clear standards hides racial or ethnic discrimination and allows it to survive scrutiny. If one really wants to have an effect on minority access to college education, the emphasis must be on the front end, in young childhood. Squandering efforts in the college admissions process by stacking the system merely covers a much larger wound with a tiny Band-Aid and ultimately does a disservice to those who preferential treatment is meant to help.

  1. Bridgeman, Brent, Laura McCamley-Jenkins, and Nancy Ervin, “Predictions of Freshman Grade Point Average from the Revised and Recentered SAT I: Reasoning Test,” College Board Research Report No. 2000-1. ETS RR No. 00-1, College Entrance Examination Board, New York.
  2. Wightman, Linda F., “Standardized Testing and Equal Access: A Tutorial,” Book Chapter in Compelling Interest , Eds: Mitchell Chang, Daira Witt, James Jones, Kenji Hakuta, sponsored by the American Educational Research Association and Standard University Center fro Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, in press.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.