Texas Public University System profile from Test Scores Do Not Equal Merit


"Our ability to enroll a diverse class while maintaining
high academic standards is certainly due in large part to HB
[House Bill] 588."
-- Dr. Bruce Walker, Associate Vice President and Director of
Admissions, University of Texas (UT), Austin, describing the
impact of a new Texas law deemphasizing the role of the SAT and
ACT in making admissions decisions at Texas public four-year
universities.1

In 1997, Republican Governor George Bush, Jr. signed into
law a bill, sponsored by a group of Texas House of Representatives
Democrats, that requires the state university system to accept
all applicants who finish in the top ten percent of public and
independent Texas high schools, regardless of their SAT or ACT
scores. For students not falling within the top ten percent,
the new law (commonly referred to by its Texas House of Representatives
bill number, HB 588) spells out 18 academic and socioeconomic
criteria that "each general academic teaching institution"
can consider when making admissions decisions. Of these 18, just
two mention standardized test score results and, one of those
calls for consideration of ". . . an applicant's performance
on standardized tests in comparison with that of other students
from similar socioeconomic backgrounds."2

The new law governing admissions policies, Subchapter S of
Chapter 51 (the Texas Education Code), was specifically designed
to counter the negative effects of the Hopwood v. the University
of Texas School of Law decision, a federal court ruling that
barred the use of affirmative action in Texas public university
admissions. With its swift and strong response, Texas has now
become a leader in the national movement to seek alternatives
to test score-based admissions practices.

In 1996, the United States Supreme Court decided not to review
a federal appeals court ruling barring the Univ. of Texas Law
School from pursuing affirmative action in its admissions policies.
Texas Attorney General Dan Morales subsequently adopted a broad
interpretation of the court's decision in Hopwood, ruling that
none of the state's public universities would be allowed to use
racial preferences in admissions and financial-aid decisions.

The impact of the ruling was dramatic: in the fall of 1997,
just 4 African American and 26 Mexican American students enrolled
at the University of Texas Law School, down from 31 African Americans
and 42 Mexican Americans the year before.

Anticipating similar results at the undergraduate level, the
Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) established
an Advisory Committee on Criteria for Diversity to analyze alternative
admissions policies and criteria. Composed of faculty members
from throughout the Texas public higher education system, the
Committee was charged with studying how to maintain diversity
at public colleges and universities in Texas.

The Committee's report, issued early in 1997, sought to identify
factors that block access to higher education in Texas for underrepresented
groups. Based on its research, the Committee concluded:

". . . the use of standardized tests unduly limits admissions.
It also has a chilling effect on the motivations and aspirations
of underserved populations. The debate about the appropriateness
of standardized tests has a long history, and certain elements
are generally agreed upon. The tests indicate some level of readiness
to do college work, but scores are better predictors for some
students than others. Except at the extremes, SAT/ACT scores
do not adequately predict grades in core freshman courses or
the probability of college graduation. "3

At the conclusion of its report, the Committee sent to the
full Coordinating Board a set of recommendations designed to
promote more widespread access to higher education in Texas and
to mitigate, at least in part, the damaging impact of the Hopwood
decision. A key recommendation addressed standardized admissions
testing:

"SAT/ACT and other standardized tests should be used
for student counseling and curriculum development but should
not be utilized as a major criterion in student admissions processes
or in the awarding of financial assistance. In particular, standardized
test scores should never be used as a sole screening factor where
a low score alone bars an applicant from admissions without the
consideration of other qualifications and accomplishments."4

Spurred by the THECB Committee recommendation, Texas lawmakers
filed more than two dozen bills to address public university
admissions rules. After lengthy debate, both houses finally approved
and Governor Bush signed into law House Bill 588 which added
the following significant provisions to the Texas Education Code:

Sec. 51.803.(a) AUTOMATIC ADMISSION: ALL INSTITUTIONS: Each
general academic teaching institution shall admit an applicant
for admission to the institution as an under-graduate student
if the applicant graduated in one of the two school years preceding
the academic year for which the applicant is applying for admission
from a public or private high school in this state accredited
by a generally recognized accrediting organization with a grade-point
average in the top 10 percent of the student's high school graduating
class.5

The bill also stated:

Sec. 51.804. ADDITIONAL AUTOMATIC ADMISSIONS: For each academic
year, the governing board of each general academic teaching institution
shall determine whether to adopt an admissions policy under which
an applicant to the institution as a first-time freshman student,
other than an applicant eligible under Section 51.803 (see above),
shall be admitted to the institution if the applicant graduated
from a public or private high school in this state . . . with
a grade point average in the top 25 percent of the applicant's
high school graduating class.

Under the new law, applicants not qualifying for automatic
admission will be evaluated based on institution-specific criteria
which can include any combination of eighteen factors spelled
out in the new law. In addition to the two mentions of standardized
testing described above, these factors include high school academic
record, the applicant's socioeconomic background (including household
income), whether the applicant is the first generation from his
or her family to attend college, and personal interviews.

Texas public universities have also intensified their recruitment
activities. At the University of Texas at Austin, for example,
officials focused those efforts on students in the top ten percent
of their high school classes. Early in the fall of 1997, UT admissions
officers identified 13,000 such students and sent them letters.6
Texas A&M sent out admissions officers with financial aid
representatives as part of its outreach, who joined representatives
from the other Texas public universities to explain the ten percent
rule to high school counselors and students. A&M also was
aggressive about explaining that there were alternative means
of gaining admission to the school and that students below the
top ten percent should not be discouraged.7

In testimony before the Higher Education Committee of the
Texas House of Representatives, University of Texas at Austin
Director of Admissions Bruce Walker described the pool of applicants
for the 1998 freshman class as larger and more diverse than the
1997 pool. He noted that HB 588 "has allowed us to take
back some of the ground I think we lost following the Hopwood
decision."8 Preliminary numbers for the incoming
class of 1998, the first year under the new admissions law, show
modest increases in the numbers of African American (from 2.7
percent to 2.9 percent of the class) and Latino students (from
12.6 percent to 13.2 percent) who plan to enroll at the Austin
campus. Texas A&M also reports likely increases in the number
of minority students attending in Fall 1998.

Walker cited a study of applicants' behavior from 1990 to
1997, noting that an average of 4,600 top ten percent students
applied each year during that period. The number of top ten percent
applicants in 1998 was higher than any year in the study, due
in part to the University's more intensive outreach to that cohort.
Walker added that in 1998 there were more Hispanic (48.9 percent
of Hispanic freshmen) and Asian top ten percent applicants than
in any year covered in the study. The number of top ten percent
African American students, 36.9 percent of African American freshmen,
was the highest since 1993. "Our ability to enroll a diverse
class while maintaining high academic standards is certainly
due in large part to HB 588," Walker testified. At Texas
A&M, officials expect the yield among top ten percent students
offered enrollment to climb 14%.

According to Walker, the part of HB 588 that codified what
criteria the schools should use for making admissions decisions
- the 18 factors - has given the University of Texas at Austin
greater flexibility and has helped put a broader range of student
achievement into context. Using those guidelines, admissions
officers were able to "look at students wholistically"
and "select students who will distinguish themselves."9

Some of the other, less selective public universities in Texas
also reported changes in their admissions processes and results.
The University of Houston, which had already admitted the top
ten percent before HB 588, now admits the top 25%, provided they
obtain a minimum high school grade-point average of 2.5 and meet
core course requirements. The school has almost doubled the number
of applications it receives from black and Hispanic students.
Twenty-five percent of applicants are in the top ten percent
of their high school classes, a figure that is equal across different
ethnic groups. Grade-point averages across ethnic groups were
nearly identical; only test scores differed.10

The results in Texas stand in stark contrast to what has happened
in California. In 1998, the first year in which California's
statewide ban on affirmative action applied to undergraduate
admissions, the number of African Americans, Latinos and Native
Americans offered enrollment at Berkeley dropped by more than
55 percent. At the eight schools in the University of California
system, the total of African Americans accepted dropped by 17
percent and Chicanos/Latinos by 7 percent. The declines would
have been far steeper if U.C. Riverside had not significantly
expanded its total enrollment, accepting 100 more African Americans
and 500 more Latinos.

The Texas solution should help other public systems - even
those where affirmative action policies are still in place -
develop alternative approaches to admissions. With bipartisan
political support and a clear basis in academic performance,
the top ten percent solution promotes the twin goals of equity
and excellence. By rewarding students who excel in their academic
environments, a top ten percent type rule does not penalize students
who may not be good test takers but who have otherwise proven
their academic prowess. Moreover, the emphasis on reading more
closely the applications of students not in the top ten percent
offers a model for how large public universities can approach
admissions on a more individualized basis.

 

1 Dr. Bruce Walker, Associate Vice
President and Director of Admissions, University of Texas at
Austin, Testimony before the Texas House of Representatives Higher
Education Committee, June 24, 1998.
2 Section 1. Chapter 51, Education Code, Subchapter
S: Uniform Admission Policy, Sections Chapters 51.803-51.805.
3 Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board: Advisory
Committee on Criteria for Diversity, "Second Status Report,"
January 16, 1997, p. 12.
4 THECB Advisory Committee on Criteria for Diversity
report, p. 15.
5 Section 1. Chapter 51, Education Code, Subchapter
S: Uniform Admission Policy, Sections Chapters 51.803-51.805.
6 Augustin Garza, Deputy Director, Office of Admissions,
University of Texas at Austin, Testimony before the Texas House
of Representatives Higher Education Committee, June 24, 1998.
7 Ronald Douglas, Provost, Texas A&M University
System, Testimony before the Texas House of Representatives Higher
Education Committee, June 24, 1998.
8 Walker testimony before Texas House Higher Education
Committee, June 24, 1998.
9 Walker testimony before Texas House Higher Education
Committee, June 24, 1998.
10 Director of Admissions, University of Houston official,
testimony before the Texas House of Representatives Higher Education
Committee, June 24, 1998.