Do College Entrance Exams Discriminate? Yes, that is exactly what they were designed to do.

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Author: Lisa S. Romero is an Associate Professor at the California State University Sacramento.

The death knell of standardized college entrance exams has been tolling for a while. More parents, students, and community members have come to realize what many researchers have long known—that the best predictor of college performance is prior performance (AKA: grades in high school) and not a score on a test like the SAT or ACT. It is also well established that, on average, students of color, first generation college students, and students from lower income households do not do as well on these tests as white middle or upper class students in spite of being otherwise well-qualified. The COVID-19 crisis has now pushed the use of these tests one step closer to the grave.

Recently, an Alameda Superior Court Judge ruled that the University of California must immediately cease its use of ACT or SAT scores as a determinate for admission because they discriminate against students with disabilities. And while Judge Brad Seligman’s order was in the form of a temporary injunction, he made clear that he sees a much larger issue in play. In fact, Seligman rightly included in his opinion that these standardized tests may not at all be reliable indicators of college performance.

While some earnestly maintain that tests like the SAT and ACT are necessary to validly judge academic potential, given a limited number of college seats and scholarships, what few know is that college entrance exams were designed, from the start, precisely to exclude minorities and immigrants.

In the 1920’s, as college enrollment began to expand, elite schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Bryn Mawr, and others became concerned about the expanding number of applicants from “undesirable” backgrounds. The colleges saw themselves as institutions run by and for Americans—White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans—and were troubled by increasing numbers of “unfit” applicants and students, namely immigrants, Jews, Italians, and Catholics.

Enter the birth of the college admissions office and a host of new requirements including admissions tests, letters of recommendation affirming that prospective students were of good character and “college material,” legacy admissions, interest in athletic ability, concerns about where applicants are from and regional diversity (rural applicants are more likely to be white), and quotas. New applications asked for a prospective student’s religion, their family’s religion, and if the family name had ever been changed.  Students were rejected for not having the “right character,” a not-so-subtle code word for non-Protestant. Concerns were raised about certain students being “too intellectual,” another not-so-subtle code word, in this instance, for Jewish. The first Scholastic “Aptitude” Test was administered in 1926.  Standardized tests asked questions designed specifically to test knowledge of dominate culture.  Just consider the question: “Runner is to Marathon as Oarsman is to [Regatta].”  In short, a vast array of non-academic criteria were created and specifically designed to filter out those who were not representative of the dominate culture.

Many believe that these are problems of the past. But we should not be so sanguine. In fact, universities today maintain many of these practices. SAT and ACT scores are still considered in spite of their known impact on racial and ethnic minorities. Asian applicants with higher grade point averages, tests scores, and rankings on extra curricular activities are passed over for white applicants rated higher in, what else?—character.

Consider that in the recent admissions cheating scandals, applicants faked participation in elite sports such as sailing, tennis and water polo, with “coaches” submitting letters attesting to the character of the applicants. And that just scratches the surface of non-academic criteria that are part of the contemporary admissions process.  So, back to the original question, do college entrance exams discriminate?  Yes, that is exactly what they were designed to do.

Don’t Be Fooled By False Narratives: Prop 15 will Help California Schools and Community Colleges, It won’t Raise Home Owner Property Taxes

For the past 42 years, two words have had the ability to almost always start an argument in California.  Those two words are, “Prop 13.”  Passed by voters in 1978, Proposition 13 requires that residential, commercial and industrial properties be taxed based on purchase price rather than current market value. Simple, right?  No, not really.

For many people in California, Prop 13 is something close to sacred.  These people will tell you that it is the only reason they can own a home, the only reason they can afford to live in California.  And any attempt to change Prop 13 is universally rejected by these folks — universally seen as a means to raise taxes and undermine home ownership.

On the flip side of the coin, others look at the history of Prop 13 as a primary reason that California schools and students have suffered.  Quite simply, by blocking the ability to tax   based on real property values, schools have been underfunded for decades. In 1978 California’s per pupil expenditures was above the national average; today it is far below. While calculations differ, California’s poor standing is clear. States like New York spend over $10,000 more per student than California. This from a state that prides itself in being a leader in science and technology. 

Proposition 15 on the November 2020 ballot offers a solution to both homeowner and education advocate concerns.  In essence, it leaves in place the tax calculation for homeowners, and for properties owned for commercial agriculture.  However, phased in over time, most commercial and industrial properties would be taxed based on market value.  Many argue that this is a fair solution given that homes often change hands, each time resetting their tax base to the current market value, while commercial and industrial properties often are held over time, sometimes for decades, allowing their tax base to stay low.  In fact, advocates of Proposition 15 claim that between $8 and $12.5 billion per year would be generated, with 40 percent distributed to school and community college districts.

You will likely see raging arguments coming in social media and in (appropriately distanced) neighborhood discussions. Expect deliberately misleading posts on social media and ads paid for by big corporate and industry groups claiming the downfall of home ownership in California. With the election still months away, posts on Facebook incorrectly declaring Californians will see soaring home property taxes are already appearing. But like all political discussions, it’s a good idea to know the facts and keep a clear head: Passing Proposition 15 could provide a long needed lift to California schools and community colleges, and it will not raise residential property taxes.

For more about Proposition 15 and 13: https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_15,_Tax_on_Commercial_and_Industrial_Properties_for_Education_and_Local_Government_Funding_Initiative_(2020)

Author: Lisa S. Romero

Dissertating in America 2020

It is pretty much given that an overwhelming number of us have been touched by COVID-19 and by the recent demands for action on social justice in America.  With masks in place, many have marched in cities and neighborhoods for justice, and worried about our children who are marching. At home, many dining room tables are now home offices, with parents vying for internet time with their kids. In place of face-to-face interactions, learning has moved online, graduation ceremonies postponed or virtual. Millions of workers have lost jobs and businesses have closed.  Countless elders are isolated and alone in senior care homes. We all feel the impacts.

I recently spent a weekend with about 20 people who are all feeling their own set of impacts.  Each of them has passed all the prerequisites for a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and are all starting dissertations. And, they too are feeling the impact. Some planned dissertations based on classroom observations, but now they have no classrooms to observe.  Some had detailed plans for interviews with educational leaders, but now interviews must be rethought.  Others had planned up-close observations of educators, but there is no up-close now.  Some have had to rethink basic assumptions about the role of education in a just society. 

At the same time, many of these students are having to quickly adapt in other parts of their lives, perhaps learning to teach or otherwise work on line. Perhaps they spend most of their days in on-line meetings, with preschoolers in the same room, demanding, needing, and vying for attention.  Some have parents who they worry about and feel the need to care for while unable to actually visit with them. Some face lay-offs or pay-cuts, on top of feeling the sting of racial injustice in America. Their stories are compelling and left me feeling a bit of second-hand trauma. 

By its very nature, a dissertation is demanding. It requires digging deep, original thinking, and innovation.  After all, a dissertation asks the writer to establish both new research and new findings.  It is not regurgitation, but instead original research that adds to our collective knowledge. The challenge is always there, but today’s students need to stretch a bit farther and lift a bit more. In my experience, as in many other aspects of life, being brainy is a great advantage in writing a dissertation; but the real advantage is in being resilient.  Facing problems head on, and not being dissuaded.  Acknowledging adversity and finding a way through it. After spending most of the weekend on line with these students, I know they are up to the task.