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Sunday, March 24, 1996
'Merit' is Fine, All Else Being Equal
by Harry P. Pachon, Ph.D.
President, the Tomás Rivera Center
This past week has been a virtual roller-coaster for
supporters of affirmative action. We felt justified when we read the newspaper-documented
hypocrisy of certain University of California regents who voted for a "level playing
field" in the UC admissions process while writing letters requesting exceptions to
that process for their associates' children. Then we were disheartened to read of the
ruling by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that has resulted in the temporary
suspension of the University of Texas' affirmative action programs.
Perhaps it is time to rethink affirmative action in higher education. But as long as
people are swinging axes about, we should examine the admissions process as it would stand
without preference-based systems. "Merit-based admission," as proponents dub it,
rests on some serious deadwood that needs clearing before we can hope to see
"merit" give us a fair and equal admissions process.
Without our current methods of judging admissions preference, the two major criteria to be
used in judging an applicant's "merit" would be his or her grade-point average
and his or her score on a standardized test, usually the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Both
measures give universities fixed numerical values by which to judge an applicant's
"acceptability." Yet both measures, as they are currently used in California and
around the country, have significant flaws that favor more affluent applicants.
For example, according to the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT and
advanced placement exams, more than half of all high schools in the U.S. do not offer AP
courses to their students. AP courses have a commendable objective: They allow high school
students with identified college potential to complete college-level course work, for
which they may receive college credit if they pass an examination. Regardless of how they
score on the AP exam, however, students receive bonus points on their GPA just for taking
the course. Thus, a student receiving a B in an AP course would receive the numerical
equivalent of an A on his or her high school report card.
It's common for public high schools in affluent neighborhoods to offer a variety of AP
courses, often more than a dozen. Their graduates frequently have GPAs that reflect a
higher-than-A average because of the AP grade inflation.
In contrast, low-income schools, which instruct mostly African American, Latino and, yes,
even poor white students, lack the luxury of numerous diverse AP course offerings. It's
not unusual for a low-income high school to offer only one or two AP courses; some don't
offer any. The result? Bright low-income students in these schools do not have the chance
to earn the astronomical GPAs of their affluent counterparts. And, based on such arbitrary
"merit," they would through no fault of their own be discounted from the UC
But inflated GPAs aren't the only aspect of the "merit-based" admissions process
to demonstrate severe inadequacy. Standardized testing has similar shortcomings.
There exists an entire industry around standardized testing that profits by promising an
increase in a student's test score. After taking their courses, buying their books and/or
attending their seminars, students supposedly will see a 100- to 300-point rise in their
SAT scores. And often they do. The catch? It's expensive. A single course can cost around
$ 700. Who can afford to pay such amounts? Certainly not the parents of low-income
minority children. But an inflated SAT score might go nicely with the more affluent
student's inflated GPA.
If in the name of restoring "merit" some are willing to dispose of affirmative
action, let's clear away all the inadequacies. Let's make a grade for an AP course equal
to a grade for a standard course. And let's outlaw that lucrative SAT industry, which
sells points to the highest bidder.
Without these actions, the "merit-based" admissions process advanced by those
who would destroy affirmative action makes a mockery of the dreams of thousands of
youngsters in low-income communities throughout our state. If we're serious about
equality, then let's identify all of this deadwood, relics of older preference-based
processes, and clear a wide, even path for all of California's bright children to succeed.