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Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 1999 /27 Kislev, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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When we refuse to buy the 'otherly-challenged' excuse -- THREE STATES have figured out a way to increase college admissions for minorities without depending on what has become traditional affirmative action.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has proposed that the top 20 percent of high school graduates be automatically admitted to public colleges and universities, no matter what their SAT scores. In California, the top 4 percent of each high school's graduating class will now automatically get into the University of California system.

In Texas, the top-ranking 10 percent of every graduating class are being admitted to any of the public campuses they prefer.

In an illuminating Nov. 24 New York Times article, Jodi Wilgoren includes a number of questions about the future of this approach, which other states are considering.

In Texas, the percentage of blacks and Hispanics in freshman classes on most of the selective campuses has increased. And at the demanding University of Texas at Austin, this year 4.1 percent of those enrolled were black -- the same as in 1996, when race- and ethnic-based affirmative action was in place. Hispanic enrollment is close to what it was in 1996.

As Wilgoren notes, also benefiting are poorly prepared "rural white students," many of whom had found selective campuses beyond their reach. So too, I suspect, are poor and working-class white youngsters in the cities.

A question not sufficiently emphasized in the article, however, is what happens to the 90 percent left in Texas high schools with low-level courses and underachieving teachers? Will those students continue to believe they are incapable of trying for top-ranking colleges -- or any college?

Some of the 10-percenters in Austin are facing the unsettling fact that they were poorly prepared. Says one student: "All the stuff I should have done in high school, I'm doing now. . . . It's a humbling experience. I never felt slow or dumb before."

On the other hand, he and some of the other challenged students may well make the grade -- especially those in the new smaller classes at the huge 49,000-student Austin campus. In a class for 50 premedical students, in which SAT scores average 200 points below the university average, these students get intensive instruction and seminars in study skills.

David Laude, who is in charge of this targeted group, says: "If I see even a hint of a student having a problem, if somebody does badly on a quiz, I call them into my office."

More such smaller individualized classes are necessary, but they're expensive. "We just can't afford it," a dean ruefully says.

But in only a few public schools I have reported on -- from elementary grades on up -- is it a standard practice to be on top of each student's progress, or lack of it. One elementary school principal in Brooklyn had regular progress reports of every student in the school on his desk, but I have not seen another like him.

While some 10-percenters will get their degrees, some will keep on feeling "dumb" if colleges in Texas, California and Florida do not provide the resources to make up for poor education in the lower schools.

In Texas, the 10-percenters get in regardless of their scores on standardized tests. How they do in the next four years may provide answers to whether the increasingly criticized SAT scores actually predict success in college. As for graduate schools, they are not included in the 10 percent program.

But without more small classes specifically geared for students who need to make up for what they didn't get in high school, there will be no clear answer to the predictability of SAT scores in any of the three states.

Toward the end of Jodi Wilgoren's article, there is an augury of what can happen to make students of all backgrounds succeed. At the Austin campus, calculus professor Phillip Uri Treisman is in charge of a center conducting research on how to get college administrators involved in learning how to educate teachers and principals from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

This is already happening in California after traditional affirmative action was struck down by the voters. Why do colleges and universities around the country have to wait for the courts or the voters to reach out -- and down?

The automatic admission of a particular percentage of high school graduates ought not to disguise what has to be done to remedy the failure of the schools below to do what they're paid by us to do.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Ammendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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