El Paso, TX — Hopwood — the case that has thrown affirmative action programs into a tailspin — may be a “blessing in disguise,” according to University of Texas at El Paso president Diana Natalicio.
That is because it has triggered what she calls a long-overdue review of the use of standardized testing in college admissions. In Hopwood v. State of Texas, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court ruled that race could not be used as a factor in deciding whether to admit a student. Hopwood concerned four white students who had been denied access to the University of Texas law school despite the fact that their “Texas index” scores — a combination of standardized test scores and grade point averages — were a few points higher than Mexican-American students who had been admitted. Currently, 28 percent of UT’s 48,000 students are minorities..
Last month the Supreme Court said it would not review the circuit court’s ruling. In an explanation of its decision, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that the admissions process at the law school was a moot point since it had been changed before the court case was brought.
However, that leaves Hopwood as the binding case law in the states that make up the 5th circuit — Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Other states have already begun to bring their affirmative action policies into line as well, even though the ruling does not officially affect them. Speaking in El Paso before a joint meeting of the UT System Alliance for Minority Participation Academic Leadership Council and Evaluation Task Force, Natalicio said that Hopwood forces universities to reexamine their reliance on standardized tests.
“I’ve had serious concerns about our [the academic world] blind acceptance of standardized tests,” she said afterwards. For the fall of 1997, UT has altered its policies regarding standardized tests. It will no longer automatically admit students based on their scores.
UT Austin Vice Provost, Ricardo Romo, said that in the past, “too much emphasis has been placed on standardized scores.” “In the past, if you received a score of 11250 [on the SAT] or above, you were automatically admitted. Now, you can have a [perfect] score of 1600 and it doesn’t automatically get you in.”
Romo said that deemphasizing scores is justified because “creating an index sends the wrong message.” In discussions among UT administrators, “there are not a lot of defenders of test scores,” he said. Evidence clearly shows that the best indicator for success at a university is class rank and grades in core curriculum classes. “That’s the best predictor. Not tests. “
In discussing how other schools nationwide have already abolished standardized tests as admissions criteria, Romo said that most of them are smaller colleges and universities. UT receives 20,000 applications per year and test scores have served as “another benchmark,” He agrees that in the past, they in fact have been used as gatekeepers by some colleges and universities nationwide.
Higher education is highly competitive and a decision like Hopwood hurts UT, said Romo. “It puts us at a disadvantage.” UT competes with approximately 50 universities across the country for the top minority students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, he said. However, the competition is less intense at the graduate level because some of the colleges and universities don’t have graduate programs or are not top graduate schools. For example, he said, “We compete with Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas for undergraduate students, but not for graduate students because they don’t have a graduate program.”
Overall, noted Romo, “There’s a small number of top minority students nationwide. Because many top Mexican-American high school students in Texas already leave the state to top colleges and universities throughout the country, particularly to Ivy League schools, UT administrators have said it is uncertain what kind of effect Hopwood will have on the state’s ability to recruit both Mexican-American and African-American students to Texas colleges and universities.
Reacting to the possibility of UT dropping standardized testing from admissions consideration, Bob Schaefer, an official with FairTest, an organization opposed to standardized testing said that it’s good timing. He also said that other colleges and universities around the country have begun discussing the same idea, including Harvard. “A heavy reliance on standardized test scores is a major cause of discrimination,” he said. Test scores have in effect become a race-based criteria that discriminate against people of color and women, he said.
In the UT law school case, 60 percent of the admission index was based on the LSAT and 40 percent on college grade point averages. “That means that one Saturday was worth more than three [or four] years of a college education,” Schaefer said. Schaefer is convinced that the use of standardized tests shows clear racial bias. Regarding the possibility of UT abolishing them from its admissions criteria, he said: “It’s a surprising positive fallout.”
University of Texas at El Paso is one of more than 200 colleges and universities that no longer rely on standardized testing for their admissions criteria. “We’re not trying to keep people out,” said its president, Natalicio. “No one is denied admissions [here] on the basis of test scores.”
Standardized test scores have also been at the heart of disagreements over admission to Mississippi colleges in the wake of a court ruling in the Fordice desegregation case. The College Board and Educational Testing Service have long contended that standardized tests were not designed as gatekeepers for admissions. Rather, they say, tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, are designed simply to predict success for First-year students.
Al Kaufman, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund says that if schools went back to an overreliance on tests, it would take away many opportunities from strong minority candidates.
“If the number of Mexican-American and African-American students decline in schools as a result of Hopwood,” said Kaufman “we [MALDEF and the NAACP] could sue.”
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