Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Power of Race

Racism in favour of blacks firmly established in elite American universities

Is the glass half empty or half full? Thomas J. Espendshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, used that question to answer a question about his new book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life (Princeton University Press), co-written with Alexandria Walton Radford, a research associate at MPR Associates. In fact, he could probably use the glass image to answer questions about numerous parts of the book.

While Espenshade and Radford -- in the book and in interviews -- avoid broad conclusions over whether affirmative action is working or should continue, their findings almost certainly will be used both by supporters and critics of affirmative action to advance their arguments. (In fact, a talk Espenshade gave at a meeting earlier this year about some of the findings is already being cited by affirmative action critics, although in ways that he says don't exactly reflect his thinking.)

Unlike much writing about affirmative action, this book is based not on philosophy, but actual data -- both on academic credentials and student experiences -- from 9,000 students who attended one of 10 highly selective colleges and universities. (They are not named, but include public and private institutions, research universities and liberal arts colleges.)

Among the findings:

* Significant advantages and disadvantages exist for members of some racial and ethnic groups with regard to the SAT or ACT scores they need to have the same odds of admission as members of other groups. While advantages and disadvantages were also found based on economic class, these were far less significant than those based on race and ethnicity.

* Just about every existing idea for reforming college admissions would not, by itself, preserve current levels of racial and ethnic diversity -- if current affirmative action policies were eliminated or scaled back.

* Most undergraduates at the institutions studied do have significant interactions with members of different races and ethnicities, and these interactions result in learning about the experiences of different groups. At the same time, the data suggest significant gaps in the kinds of meaningful cross-race interactions that take place with some groups much more likely than others to have such interactions. (By far, the most common interactions are white-Latino, while the least common are black-white).

* On measures of academic performance, graduation rates across racial and ethnic groups show only modest gaps at the institutions studied. But analysis of class rank suggests major gaps in academic performance. More than half of black students and nearly one-third of Latino students who graduated from the colleges studied, for example, finished in the bottom quintile of their classes.

Based on these findings, and the reality that some states have barred affirmative action and that the U.S. Supreme Court's blessing for consideration of race in admissions came with a 25-year time limit, the authors suggest that it's time for a massive federally supported effort, equivalent in intensity to the Manhattan Project, to determine the source of academic achievement gaps and to develop plans to shrink them.

The Test Score Advantage

Among the potential bombshells in the book are data on the advantages or disadvantages of SAT or ACT scores by race, ethnicity and economic class. Many studies -- including those released annually by the College Board and the ACT -- show gaps in the average tests scores by members of different racial or ethnic groups. This research takes that further, however, by controlling for numerous factors, including gender, status as an athlete or alumni child, high school grades and test scores, type of high school attended and so forth.

The "advantage" referred to, to take an example from the book, is what it would take to have equivalent odds of admission, after controlling for other factors. So the table's figure of a 3.8 black ACT "advantage" means that a black student with an ACT score of 27 would have the same chances of admission at the institutions in the study as a white student with a score of 30.8.

As the following table shows, there are large black advantages in the way colleges consider SAT and ACT scores, and notable disadvantages for Asian applicants. On issues of wealth, the SAT shows an expected affirmative action tilt, with the most disadvantaged students gaining and the wealthiest losing. But there is also a gain for upper middle class students. On the ACT, analysis found the advantages go to wealthier students.

Much of the debate about affirmative action historically has focused on the advantages given to those from some minority groups. But the research in No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal may also be of particular interest to advocates for Asian students. Many such advocates and guidance counselors who serve those students have charged in recent years that elite colleges have de facto higher standards for Asian applicants. Is the Asian disadvantage of 3.4 points on the ACT and 140 points on the SAT evidence to bolster that claim?

Espenshade said in an interview that he does not think his data establish this bias. He noted that while his formulas are notably more complete than typical test score comparisons by race and ethnicity, he doesn't have the "softer variables," such as teacher and high school counselor recommendations, essays and lists of extracurricular activities. It is possible, he said, that such factors explain some of the apparent SAT and ACT disadvantage facing Asian applicants.

At the same time, he said he understood that these numbers would certainly not reassure Asian applicants or those who believe they are suffering discrimination. "I understand the worry of Asian students, but do I have a smoking gun? No," he said.

As to the large racial gaps on SAT scores, he said it was "distressing" in that it showed the difficulties colleges face in using their traditional criteria for admissions and still producing diverse student bodies.

The book notes that dropping the SAT or ACT as requirements would result in gains for black and Latino students. Espenshade has given papers previously showing that the biggest gains in such models are for colleges that drop consideration of testing entirely, as opposed to just making it optional. (To date, only one institution -- Sarah Lawrence College -- has taken that step.)

Beyond shifting test policies, may other ideas have been proposed over the years to achieve a racially diverse student body without affirmative action as currently practiced. Here the book is quite discouraging. It reviews simulations based on class-based affirmative action (extra points for low-income applicants), reducing the emphasis given to academic credentials and priority admissions for those in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. And the book considers various combinations of these policies, looking for a formula that would yield diversity similar to what colleges have obtained to date.

"In this exhaustive examination of a wide variety of potential admissions policies, we have looked for but have not found any feasible policy alternative to the current practice of race-sensitive admission that has the capacity to generate the same minority student representation on campus," the book says. "The closest we have come among private institutions is a 15 percent minority student share among all students, achieved by lifting affirmative action, adding more weight for low-income students, and paying no attention whatsoever to students' academic qualifications. This policy stands no chance of being implemented at any academically selective institution." ....

More here

Duncan: States “set bar too low”

A report on state educational standards shows many states are "setting the bar too low," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Friday.

The National Center for Education Statistics compared data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to samples of students across the country, and the tests required by the No Child Left Behind Act.

"Today's study confirms what we've known for a long time: States are setting the bar too low," Duncan said. "In all but a few cases, states aren't expecting students to meet NAEP's standard of proficiency. Far too many states are telling students that they are proficient when they actually are performing below NAEP's basic level."

No Child Left Behind allows states to set their own standards with their own tests.

The NCES researchers found most of the difference between states on the percentage of students who show proficiency on the tests stems from how rigorous the standards are, with fewer students demonstrating proficiency in states with high standards.

The NAEP assessments are given to students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades.


British university standards deliberately dragged down by the British government

Middle-class pupils face being bumped off prestigious university courses under plans to give youngsters from poor homes an A-level 'head start', it emerged yesterday. Unveiling a ten-year blueprint for universities, Lord Mandelson declared that published or predicted A-level grades would not be enough to win places at leading universities. He urged universities to take pupils' school and family backgrounds into account when allocating places and setting conditional offers.

The First Secretary of State also backed schemes already operating which involve lowering entry requirements for students from disadvantaged backgrounds by two or more A-level grades. He revealed that elite universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol would be made to set targets to widen the social mix of their students, possibly linked to financial incentives.

His report, published yesterday, said progress at highly-selective universities had been too 'modest'. During exchanges in the Commons, the Conservatives warned ministers against resorting to 'crude class warfare'.

Lord Mandelson also hinted that tuition fees will have to rise after ruling out an increase in public funding. This is likely to hit middle-class students hardest. They could also face paying more interest on student loans and cuts in grant funding.

The proposals came in a long-awaited higher education framework aimed at starting a consumer revolution in universities and appealing to a new generation of part-time mature students.

Lord Mandelson said there was a risk deserving candidates from under-privileged backgrounds were being 'excluded' by current university admissions criteria. He backed a scheme operating at Leeds University, which typically involves lowering the standard entry requirement by two A-level grades if students go to poor-performing schools or come from areas where few teenagers go to university.

Asked whether middle-class children could miss out if such schemes are extended, Lord Mandelson said: 'Entry to university has always been competitive. 'What we are saying is that nobody should be disadvantaged or penalised on the basis of the families they come from, of school they attended and the way in which simple assessment based on A-level results might exclude them.'

He said merit was defined by 'academic attainment, aptitude and potential'. Ministers also spoke in favour of a scheme at St George's Medical School, which has increased the proportion of students from state schools from 48 per cent in 1997. Lord Mandelson argued the change was vital to improve social mobility. But critics have warned against introducing unfairness through 'social engineering'.

Private school leaders have spoken in support of universities which make individual decisions about candidates' suitability but have voiced concerns about some admissions procedures. Andrew Grant, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, said: 'What Lord Mandelson really needs to do is increase the pool of well-qualified candidates from schools maintained by his government.'

Tory higher education spokesman David Willetts said: 'Students and their parents will lose confidence in the integrity of the university admission system if it is used for crude class warfare.'

Lord Mandelson enjoyed a free and privileged education, first at a grammar school and then Oxford University. The First Secretary attended Hendon County Grammar before winning a place at St Catherine's College to read politics, philosophy and economics. He now represents a Government opposed to selective education and seeking to make it tougher for pupils from high-performing schools, including grammars, to get into top universities.

Lord Mandelson has ruled out an increase in public funding for universities and his party will also consider a further rise in student tuition charges from the £3,225 a year at present. This is likely to hit middle-class students hardest, as they could also face paying more interest on their student loans, along with cuts and restricted access to grant funding.


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