Hopwood, Proposition 209, and Beyond

University Testing

In the wake of judicial decisions and ballot questions barring traditional affirmative action programs in college admissions, public higher education systems around the country are struggling to determine how to ensure both diversity and excellence in their student bodies.


One response that is gaining increasing attention is reducing the reliance on standardized exam scores in admissions processes. Supported by the successful experience of many test-score optional institutions (see Examiner, Summer 1995 and Winter 1994-95), such initiatives represent a direct challenge to those who falsely argue that "test scores equal merit," despite substantial evidence to the contrary (see Examiner, Summer 1995).


Initial Impacts

The Federal court rulings in Hopwood v. Texas (see Examiner, Summer 1996) have already led to huge declines in minority applications and admissions in that state's university system. At the University of Texas Law School, the focus of the original lawsuit, only five African Americans and 18 Mexican Americans were among the first 791 students accepted for next fall's entering class. In the year before Hopwood, 65 blacks and 70 Mexican Americans were among the approximately 1000 applicants offered admission. Overall, the number of minority students accepted at the law school has dropped by almost 40 percent.


At the undergraduate level, applications from blacks and Hispanics to the University of Texas-Austin dropped by about one-quarter each. Admissions data have not yet been released for this year since the process has not been completed, and final minority enrollment figures will not be known before next fall.


Policy-makers Respond

Recognizing the likely impacts of Hopwood on its member institutions, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board established an Advisory Committee on Criteria for Diversity to analyze alternative admissions policies. In a series of reports, Committee members concluded "the use of standardized tests unduly limits admissions" and "has a chilling effect on the motivations and aspirations of underserved populations."


Therefore, they recommended, "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 admission processes or in the awarding of financial assistance."


Responding to these reports and with the assistance of FairTest, Texas legislators, including House Education Chair Rep, Irma Rangel and Rep. Glen Maxey, introduced a bill establishing test-score optional undergraduate admissions at state university campuses for all applicants with strong high school records. The proposal, HB 588, requires every "general academic teaching institution" to automatically admit any student who graduated from a Texas high school with grades in the top 10 percent of his or her class. For all other applicants, "performance on standardized college entrance exams" will be only one of 11 factors considered by the college. Each college must also report how much weight it gives to test scores and the role they actually play in admissions.


At the graduate school level, HB 588 requires institutions to adopt written policies that include "standards for automatic admission to the institution or unit or the awarding of a scholarship" as well as the factors and weights used for applicants who do not meet the automatic admit criteria. Following hours of heated debate, much of which focused on how to define "merit," the Texas House passed legislation incorporating these basic principles. A similar proposal was also adopted in the state Senate. Sponsors are optimistic that differences in the two bills can be negotiated, and that a compromise plan will be adopted during this session. Governor George W. Bush has indicated that he favors some post-Hopwood admissions reforms, but his position on the specifics of the House bill remains unclear.


West Coast Fallout

In California, voter adoption of Proposition 209 last fall has already had a similar effect: reduced enrollments of minorities and women at state university medical, law, engineering and business schools as well as a decline in the number of black and Latino undergraduate applicants. That led several civil rights groups to file a complaint asking the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to investigate the state's new ban on considering race and gender in admissions. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), NAACP Legal Defense Fund, California Women's Law Center, and Equal Rights Advocates charge that state policies now have a discriminatory impact on women and minorities, in violation of federal law. A study of undergraduate admissions at the University of California's flagship campus at Berkeley had found that heavy use of the SAT in the college's admissions formula biased the process against women by barring 200-300 qualified females from each entering class (see Examiner, Summer 1995).


Emboldened by victories in Texas and California, the anti-affirmative action movement is taking its campaign nationwide. Already, Hopwood-like lawsuits challenging college admissions policies have been filed in Georgia and Washington, while ballot campaigns based on Prop. 209 are being organized in several states.


With victories for these initiatives likely in the current political and judicial climate, activists and policy-makers committed to genuine equal opportunity in higher education must look for alternative policies to maintain an open door. For many, test-score optional admissions should be a most attractive option.


* For a fact sheet on test-score optional admissions, including a list of 280 colleges which do not require all undergraduate applicants to submit SAT or ACT results, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to FairTest.