Opinion: Exam Winners and Losers

The New Haven firefighters case the U.S. Supreme Court heard Wednesday may have implications beyond employment practices. At the heart of the case are the murky issues of race, testing and selectivity – issues that are also unsettled in higher education.

A seemingly divided court heard the complaints of White New Haven, Conn., firefighters who did not receive promotions although they passed a qualifying exam. The city threw out the exams because no African-American firefighters scored high enough to be considered for promotion. Officials were concerned that the exam had a disparate impact on minorities, violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“I certainly have sympathy for the plaintiffs but at the end of the day it was the wrong test,” Victor A. Bolden, the city’s corporation counsel, told The Washington Post.

Interestingly, a change in the testing criteria for admission to the University of California system is also raising concerns. The decision by UC Regents to drop the requirement that applicants take two SAT subject tests, also known as the SAT II’s, in content areas such as foreign languages, math and history, has proven to be controversial. Dropping that requirement will likely result in more Whites and fewer Asian American students being admitted, prompting the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus to hold hearings and demand the UC system to turn over documents justifying the change.

In California, a voter-approved affirmative action ban forced highly selective schools to rely more heavily on tests, to the disadvantage of every group except Asians. Now, UC officials say the new change, to take effect in 2012, will widen the applicant pool.

“We know there are many thousands of high school graduates in California who are good students — high GPA, good SAT reasoning scores, but, for whatever reason, fail to take the subject tests. That just basically antes them right out of the game,” says Mark Rashid, who chaired a UC system-wide faculty committee that is responsible for the school’s admission policy.

The Supreme Court case, along with the UC controversy, will likely renew questions about the best way to select a diverse group of candidates – either for employment or college admission – for a limited number of seats.

“We thought these problems were over in 2003 with the Supreme Court decisions in the University of Michigan cases. As you can see, this debate is far from over,” says Dr. Juan Gilbert, inventor of a patent-pending new software package called Applications Quest, designed to help administrators make fair selections without using race as a determining factor. (The owners of Cox, Matthews and Associates, the publishers of Diverse, have an ownership interest in the software program.)

“All of these cases suffer from a capacity issue. There are more qualified applicants than available positions. If you take race out of this debate, the capacity issues will still exist.”

While the two cases are not joined (one is not a lawsuit – yet), absent implementation of a fairer selection system, it is foreseeable that the unsettled issues of race, testing and selectivity in higher education admissions may be up for consideration in the near future. Hold on for the ride.



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