The challenge of achieving equitable standards for college admission

The University of California, covering about 285,000 students across various colleges, announced earlier this month that it would stop using the SAT and ACT standardised test scores for its admission decisions. The reason proffered is that using the scores is inequitable as children from low income and minority communities do not have access to good schools or preparatory courses and so get lower scores in these tests leading to discrimination in admissions.

Many US universities aim to admit a diverse student body that reflects many factors beyond just high scores (whether obtained at school or a standardised test) to enrich the learning experience of their students. Some have achieved this since reported analysis shows that if the top universities relied only on test scores, they would have a student body that would be more wealthy, white, and male. Even so, top schools have faced lawsuits charging them with discrimination. An Asian-American group accused Harvard University that they were being held to a higher standard in admissions which was dismissed by the court. Yet, admissions and discrimination remain a contentious subject.

To the credit of the College Board that administers the SAT, they had devised an ‘adversity score’ that would be given to each student who took their test. It would combine several socio-economic indicators about the student’s school and neighbourhood such as median family income, household structure, and crime in the neighbourhood. Yet resistance from both educators and parents made them drop the idea.

It’s noble that the California university recognises the problem but its solution is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater for its decision has several undesirable consequences. In the absence of standardised test scores, the university will now rely on the grades received at school, a highly variable figure. It will fuel grade inflation, as teachers liberally grade their students hoping to give them an advantage in college admissions. Potentially, another minority community, namely Asian-Americans, would be negatively affected since pushed by parents obsessed with university education, the children disproportionately get admission into the university system.

Admission scandal

A school admissions scandal that is currently playing through the US court system has some lessons for us. Several well-heeled parents that included television stars and CEOs of corporations were charged with having taken the help of an admissions consultant to rig the system. The consultant devised schemes where some of the applicants were fraudulently shown as accomplished in sports, and others were given assistance by having proxies take their tests. Lots of money changed hands between the parents, the consultant and influential university officials. Thirty-six parents have been charged and about 15 have already pled guilty and sentences have ranged from fines to some jail time.

The admissions scandal highlights the fact that on the fringes, there will always be attempts to manipulate a system and so one should be watchful. But by dropping the use of standardised test scores, California is introducing more ways by which the admissions can be manipulated.

The State of California has a ban on race-based admissions since 1996 and data has reportedly shown that more minority (black and Hispanic) students have been admitted compared to the race-based preferences before. Affirmative action systems, like having a quota in India, is the worst way to correct societal wrongs. It devalues merit, depresses efficiency, and puts those admitted based on the quota through a psychological wringer giving them an entitlement mentality. Many such students find they are unable to handle the work involved.

Having a quota is an easy path to pretend you are a social progressive, compared to the more difficult way to strengthening schools and giving additional help through financial assistance, coaching and tutoring that will genuinely give the less privileged a leg-up.

The California university says it is working on devising a better system of its own and I wouldn’t advise you to hold your breath.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University

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