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Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2001 / 3 Adar, 5761

Linda Seebach

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Dropping SATs in California has nothing to do with being 'fair'

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- NOT LONG after he was chosen as president of the University of California system, Richard Atkinson invited a group of journalists for a get-acquainted lunch. It was 1995, and the UC regents had recently voted to ban racial preferences in admissions, hiring and contracting.

Atkinson's distress at this action was palpable, not surprisingly because as chancellor of UC-San Diego he had previously presided over an institution that admitted "underrepresented minorities"- primarily blacks and Latinos, but some Asian groups as well - with far weaker preparation than whites and other Asians.

The following year, California voters passed Proposition 209, making the ban on racial-preference schemes state law, not merely university policy.

That's the context of Atkinson's speech last Sunday to the American Council on Education, announcing that he had recommended that the UC system drop the requirement that applicants take the SAT I test (the math and verbal sections).

UC's race-based admissions policies began to unravel when the regents learned of their full extent by studying the stark differences in grades and SAT scores.

No scores, no evidence. Atkinson advocates a "holistic" admissions standard, which would allow the administration to impose a double standard on admissions without making it an explicit policy.

Eliminating the SAT I would be fairer, he said in his speech. But as he made clear to us at lunch that day, his definition of "fair" allows members of some racial groups to be judged by far lower standards than others (of course, he phrased it more discreetly).

Atkinson wants to retain the SAT II tests, and says using both parts of the SAT predicts success no better than the SAT II alone. But if there's no difference in prediction, there has to be some other reason for excluding the SAT I. Such as its role in persuading the regents that what UC was doing was wrong.

Meanwhile, Atkinson is ignoring the slowly building evidence from his old haunts in San Diego that the end of minority preferences has enhanced minority successes.

Gail Heriot, professor of law at the (private) University of San Diego, has analyzed student achievement at UCSD. The year before the no-preferences policy went into effect, exactly one black student had a freshman-year GPA of 3.5 or higher - just one, among 3,268 freshmen. Among whites, it was 20 percent.

Average GPAs for white or Asian freshmen hovered at or near 3.0; for "underrepresented" students, it was between 2.6 and 2.7. As a result, the proportion of students in trouble academically, with a GPA less than 2.0, was 15 percent for black students compared with 4 percent for whites.

In 1998, the first year there were no preferences, those differences all but disappeared.

Twenty percent of black freshmen were honors students, compared with 16 percent of Asians and 22 percent of whites. The grade-point difference narrowed to 0.1 percent. And the at-risk group shrank to 6 percent.

UCSD, Heriot notes, is benefiting from Berkeley's change in policy. All the UC schools are selective, admitting the top one-eighth of California high-school graduates. But Berkeley and UCLA take primarily the topmost slice of that already select group. With preferences gone, the number of black and Latino freshmen fell at Berkeley and UCLA. But those students didn't just vanish; they went to slightly less selective UC schools, a phenomenon called "cascading."

At UCSD, the third-most selective school, black enrollment fell 19 percent, but Latino enrollment was up 23 percent. At UC-Riverside, black enrollment jumped 42 percent. And some students "cascade" from UC to the 22 campuses of the California State University system, which accepts students from the top third of their high-school graduating class. Nothing wrong with that either. The important thing is not how many students of what race are admitted; it's how many are successful.

The 1998 freshmen Heriot writes about are the Class of '02. By their expected graduation date, the evidence should be clear that advocates of preferences were wrong, and critics were right; they did more harm than good for the very people they were supposed to help. Reinstating them in disguise is bad public policy.

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