Monday, February 27, 2012

Civil rights leaders should open new front in affirmative action fight

By DeWayne Wickham

My first reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear a challenge to the University of Texas’ admissions policy was to mount a fierce defense of the school’s effort to bandage the gaping wounds in our education system.

In Texas, 90% of all slots in the freshman class are reserved for residents who graduate from high schools in the Lone Star State. The vast majority of these positions (88% in 2008) go to students who finish in the top 10% of their high school class. The rest of the positions reserved for Texas high school graduates go to students who qualify on the basis of a second-tier criteria that permits race to be considered among many other factors.

The case the justices will consider in the fall was brought by Abigail Fisher, a Texas resident whose high school class ranking was too low to get her into the University of Texas through the Top Ten Percent Plan, and her SAT score was too low to position her to be a competitive applicant in the second tier, according to the university.

Nonetheless, the conservative-dominated high court has agreed to hear Fisher’s claim that she was denied admission into the university because of her race — a brash assertion of white privilege that may give the court’s right-wingers the opening they need to strike a death blow to affirmative action in higher education.

It makes sense for civil rights groups to counter this attack with legal briefs and arguments. But it is foolhardy for them to stake a lot on the outcome of this case. Instead, they should treat it like a holding action in a wider war, while preparing for a bigger, more winnable fight. That campaign should be waged over getting rid of all standardized tests as a requirement for college admission. It should seek to replace them with recruitment strategies that aggressively favor creation of a more diverse student body and reflect this nation’s changing demographics.

The standardized tests measure what applicants learned in high school, more than their potential for success in college. They stack the deck against blacks and Hispanics, who disproportionately attend underperforming public schools and favor white students who are more likely to attend better schools and to get coaching for the tests.

A state’s failure to fix the problems of underperforming public schools shouldn’t be allowed to keep deserving minority students from getting a college education. That’s the argument civil rights activists should be making to higher education institutions that continue to use standardized test scores as an entrance requirement.

Bates College long ago made SAT scores an optional requirement for admission. In 2005, it issued a study of the students who attended the Lewiston, Maine, school over a 20-year period and concluded there was virtually no difference in academic achievement between students who submitted SAT scores and those who didn’t. Other schools like Wake Forest and Sarah Lawrence College also have made the SAT an optional part of their admissions process. That’s a good step in the right direction.

But you can expect the fight over access to higher education to heat up as the Supreme Court moves closer to deciding Fisher’s case. It’s time now for civil rights activists to open another front in this battle, one that seeks to redefine the rules for access to higher education, which is one of the most important gateways to opportunity in this society.

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