Trouble Along The Science Pipeline

Perhaps the most commonly cited barrier to African American
students being chosen by the most competitive colleges and universities
for admission into science and engineering programs is their
performance on standardized college entrance exams, namely the SAT and

Indeed, the average African American SAT score is approximately 200
points lower than that of White and Asian students, according to
findings cited in a recent study by Dr. Reginald Wilson of the American
Council on Education. In 1996, only 4,415 African American high school
students had SAT scores of 1200 or above.

According to both ACT and SAT administrators, the major reason for
the gaps in standardized test scores is the difference in course loads
taken by students. African American high school students tend not to
take the more rigorous college preparatory math and science classes
that would prepare them for standardized tests, often because they are
discouraged from taking those courses.

Yet, another issue was pointed to by U.S. Secretary of Education
Richard Riley in discussing the poor showing all American twelfth
graders made in the latest international comparison of math and science
knowledge. Riley said that 28 percent of high school math teachers and
55 percent of physics teachers nationwide have neither major nor minor
credentials in these subjects. This is even more true for teachers in
schools that serve mostly African American and Hispanic students, where
large percentages of teachers often teach “out of license,” or out of
their field of academic training.

For those reasons, many programs that focus on what is known as the
“pipeline” often begin with teacher education and science enrichment of
middle and high schoolers.

For current high school juniors and seniors, however, scoring well
on entrance exams is, for all intents and purposes, a must for entrance
into the most prestigious science; math, engineering and technology
(SMET) institutions. This phenomenon persists even though the SAT only
claims to be a predictor of first-year grades, not of overall college

Many of the most prestigious institutions — Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, and California Institute of
Technology (Caltech), for example — claim that they do not base
admissions decisions solely on SAT scores. Even so, it is rare for a
potentially successful student with less than lofty scores to be
noticed — let alone get admitted — by one of these schools.

Moreover, according to admissions experts like MIT’s Roland Allen
and Caltech’s Charlene Liebau, many students simply rule themselves out
of applying to these universities because they assume that without high
test scores they haven’t got a chance.

Looking Beyond Scores

When it comes to admission into SMET programs, test scores also
carry a great deal of weight in the decisions at less competitive
institutions. For example, students can win admission to Florida
A&M University (FAMU) with SAT scores that are well below 1000, and
the institution only requires, a 2.0 high school GPA for admission. But
students who wish to become involved in the university’s prestigious
science and engineering programs must demonstrate a much higher level
of academic performance. (see story on page 22)

Dr. Harry Morrison — a University of California-Berkeley physicist
who was among the founding members of what is now known as the
Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement (MESA) program —
concludes that when grades and test scores are too heavily relied upon
in the admissions process, the risk increases that some promising
students, who might succeed in science given the proper support, will
be missed.

“Kids who do their homework all the time and behave themselves in
class are usually characterized as the good students,” Morrison says.
“But a creative child may not fall into that kind of profile.”

Noting that creativity is among the most valuable characteristics
of would-be scientists, he adds, “These [creative African American]
students may not be so easily identified.”

None of the scholars or scientists interviewed for this series have
suggested that test scores should be entirely ignored in the admissions
process. But several institutions — among them historically Black
North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University (A&T),
FAMU, and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) — have
found that even students with impressive academic credentials can be
unsuccessful in science programs if the programs they are admitted to
do not expect and help them to succeed.

“The key is to identify those who can succeed and give them the
support they need,” says Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, founder of the
Meyerhoff Scholars program and president of UMBC.

While many of his colleagues are worried about how to get more
African American science students on their campuses, Hrabowski is
engaged in keeping those who are already in the pipeline focused upon
success. His program not only emphasizes retention in the sciences, but
steers students toward pursuing Ph.D.s.

Increasing Student Success

Results of a 1997 study of Meyerhoff fellows shows that this notion
of support appears particularly critical to the success of African
American students majoring in the sciences.

“Under 50 percent of the students who we admit, but who don’t come
to us, remain in science,” Hrabowski says. “And of that number only
about half earn a B or better and go to graduate school.”

In contrast, 83.9 percent of Meyerhoff scholars complete their
undergraduate studies as science majors, 71.5 percent of whom go on to
science-related graduate study. Nearly half of those in graduate
studies are on a Ph.D. track.

“What we do increases, substantially, the probability that a
student will remain in science, complete the bachelor’s program with
above a 3.0 [GPA], and have had substantive research experiences and go
on to graduate or professional school,” Hrabowski says.

Dr. Luther Williams, who heads science education programs at the
National Science Foundation, agrees that African American students must
become better prepared at an earlier stage in their academic careers,
which includes improving their performance on college entrance exams.
But he adds that, simultaneously, postsecondary institutions must
transform themselves to adopt some of the creative strategies that have
been proven by people like Hrabowski and Morrison.

“In 1991, the total production of African American, Latino, [and]
Native American undergraduates in science and engineering was about
13,800,” Williams says. “Our goal [at the NSF] is to get to 50,000 over
a ten-year period [by 2001].”

Currently, annual production is approximately 24,000.

“The [overall] numbers look better, but not because of any major
institutional changes,” Williams adds. “In fact I would argue that it
is not possible to systemically make advances department by department.
This is a school of science matter. It requires putting in place an
apparatus and infrastructure that has some longevity.”

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