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Are ‘Merit’-based Education Admissions Practices Racist?

Experts outline problems with – and efforts to improve – the use of SAT scores, affirmative action, school lotteries.

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It is one of the thorniest topics in education: What criteria should be used to fairly determine which students are admitted to America’s “elite” public schools, colleges and universities?

Many top schools have faced criticism in recent decades for not reflecting the nation’s racial and socioeconomic diversity.

In New York City, for example, where high scores on the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test are the key to admissions to the highly-ranked Stuyvesant High School, “only eight Black students were admitted – out of 749 spots this year – despite the fact that 70% of public school students in New York City are Black and Latinx,” noted Cara McClellan, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Meanwhile, at schools – especially elite colleges – whose admissions criteria include factors such as “personality” and recommendations, Asian American students with high test scores and grades are often passed over for less academically proven students of other races.

At a May 5 session at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar, McClellan and other experts debated the impacts of – and potential improvements to – the way admissions officials at all levels of education currently use “merit” indicators to decide who gets access to such selective schools.

In the session, titled “Race, Wealth, Test Scores, or? Who Gets Into the ‘Best’ Schools?” moderated by veteran higher education journalist Jeff Selingo, the panelists provided journalists with context on “test-optional” policies, lotteries, affirmative action, “holistic” admission reviews, magnet schools and more sweeping reforms aimed at making the American education system better and fairer.

Impact: Why Prestigious Schools’ Admissions Policies Matter

The way we decide who gets into prestigious schools is important. For example, the top 100 colleges spend about five times as much teaching and supporting their students as do open-access schools, such as community colleges, said Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce and author of “The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America.”

In addition, he noted, the top schools and colleges help launch students into good first jobs that put them on an accelerated career and earnings path for the rest of their lives, widening inequality.

Since 1980, “access to education, especially postsecondary education, pretty much determines lifetime opportunity,” he said. “Now, a good job begins in preschool. … There is privilege at the very top,” Carnevale said.

By using standardized test scores to determine who gets those privileges, many schools are discriminating against students of color and those from low-income backgrounds, McClellan said.

“Standardized test scores are much more closely correlated with the wealth of the students’ parents than with their actual ability” to thrive at a school, she noted. And using standardized tests “severely disadvantages students of color,” she said, explaining that most admissions tests (such as the SAT) were “validated based on the answers of affluent white students. … So there is racial bias that has been systematically based in the SAT.”

Lee Cheng, an attorney who is a co-founder and director of a foundation that supports keeping academic admissions criteria for San Francisco’s Lowell High School, said other factors commonly used as admissions screens at elite schools, such as recommendations and “personality,” end up unfairly penalizing Asian American students who have demonstrated academic talents through high test scores and grades.

Analysis of admissions files at elite colleges found that “Asian American kids were being essentially graded as having less than half the personality of the average white kid, seven times less personality than the average Hispanic applicant, and eight times less personality than a Black applicant with similar academic qualifications,” Cheng said.

Solutions: How Communities Are Addressing Educational Inequities

Of course, every child deserves access to a high-quality education, and we shouldn’t have to fight over who gets access to the currently all-too-scarce seats at in-demand schools, noted Carnevale.

While COVID-19 has made educational inequities much more evident, it has also created a natural experiment in addressing one of the factors McClellan believes creates some of the inequities.

The pandemic forced most colleges to stop requiring applicants to submit test scores. Initial indications are that going “test optional” has expanded educational opportunity without sacrificing so-called merit, McClellan said. “We’ve seen that universities continue to be able to put together selective, qualified classes without the use of standardized tests,” she said.

But Selingo, author of “Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” said some admissions officials have told him they gave more acceptances this year to students who submitted high scores than to those who declined to submit scores, meaning the schools are “test-optional with an asterisk.”

Cheng urged journalists not to declare the experiment a success yet. The criteria schools are using instead are subjective and thus prone to bias, he noted. In addition, research is needed to determine how many untested students need remedial classes or graduate on time, he said.

“The jury is still out on test-optional admissions,” he said.

Carnevale, meanwhile, warned that some colleges are using the “freedom to let in more kids who are affluent or the sons and daughters” of graduates, which will only worsen educational inequities.

Alternatively, some schools and districts (including San Francisco) are replacing “merit”- based admissions criteria with lotteries. While that means some qualified students don’t get into high-demand schools, lotteries “are certainly less racist than any system that says somebody’s skin color or national origin or ethnic group determines whether or not they get access to an opportunity,” Cheng said.

But Cheng contends that lotteries won’t reduce educational inequities, since well-resourced families who don’t win educational lotteries will simply move to more accommodating school districts, or transfer their students to private schools.

Cheng says a decline in enrollment in San Francisco public schools after the district instituted lotteries is evidence of that unintended consequence.

Affirmative action – the conscious use of race in admissions decisions – is another commonly tried policy to make educational access more equitable.

“If anything, the past couple of years have really shown us that race continues to deeply matter and impact people’s experience in this country, and we can’t stick our head under the sand. We have to acknowledge these realities and take actions to address them,” McClellan said.

Cheng said that he supported holistic admissions policies that used race as one of many factors.

But McClellan noted that such policies are under legal attack. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is helping to defend the use of affirmative action in college admissions.

Carnevale described experiments with different admissions policies as “marginal” because they don’t address the fundamental, systemic underfunding and racism built into America’s education system.

Fixing these problems is difficult because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, such as the 1973 San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez ruling holding that equally funded education was not a constitutional right, Carnevale said.

While he expressed despair about the prospects for real structural improvements, Carnevale held out hope for large political actions, such as President Joe Biden’s proposal to more than double federal Title I funding for schools that serve low-income populations.

And McClellan said some states and districts are restructuring to improve fairness and quality.

One example: To resolve an educational discrimination lawsuit, Connecticut school districts have created a network of public magnet schools that cross traditional district lines – thus attracting and mixing students from a larger and more socioeconomically and racially diverse pool.

“School district lines based on suburban-urban lines preserve the segregation that exists in housing,” McClellan said. “So one answer is that we could just draw lines differently. We don’t have to make (school district boundaries) contiguous with city-suburban lines.”

In Hartford, for example, she said 50% of students attended integrated, high-quality public schools in 2019. While that’s clearly not enough, that was an improvement. (Those numbers have fallen recently, in part due to the pandemic.)

“The research is very clear,” McClellan said. Districts that have done a good job of integrating schools have “closed the achievement gap and improved long-term outcomes. … Quality, integrated education improves outcomes for all students.”

Myths and Mistakes Journalists Should Avoid

Selingo asked each panelist to highlight what they think are common mistakes they see repeated in the press.

Carnevale said that while proposed infrastructure spending will create millions of well-paying jobs for Americans who don’t have college degrees for the next seven years or so, “in the end, when it’s all said and done, it will make higher education more segregated, because we know who’s going to get those jobs.”

Cheng argued that journalists focus too much on race when reporting on diversity, instead of socioeconomics.

“There’s an under-consideration of the fact that we’re in a multicultural society that’s actually much more diverse than the arbitrary categories of Asian, white, Black and Latinx,” he said.

Approximately 40% of students at merit-based public schools, such as Lowell and Stuyvesant, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, for example, Cheng said. Such schools are “places where children from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially immigrant kids, can actually get some measure of social mobility,” he said.

McClellan worried that reporters would mistakenly conflate racial discrimination in school admissions with race-conscious admissions policies that attempt to address societal racism.

Opponents of affirmative action often claim that “considering race in holistic admissions is the same as discriminating. It is not,” she said.