Test Score Use and Affirmative Action Bans

University Testing

Controversial prohibitions on affirmative action in college admissions have now been adopted in four states — Texas, California, Washington, and Florida. But the damage in terms of student body diversity varies greatly depending upon the role of test scores in the university systems’ responses.


In Texas, an aggressive recruitment program centered around automatic acceptance for students in the top 10% of their high school classes — without regard to SAT or ACT scores — has largely restored undergraduate admissions of underrepresented minority group members to pre-Hopwood levels. This is true even at the very competitive Austin flagship because the “Top 10%” rule applies to each campus. But diversity in state graduate and professional schools, where procedures to reduce emphasis on test scores have not been implemented, has plummeted (see Examiner, Fall 1999).


West Coast Reactions
California’s more tepid response to affirmative action bans adopted by the state’s Board of Regents and voters has resulted in less impressive results. For the class entering in Fall, 2000 — the first admitted under a a new rule guaranteeing a seat at a public university to students in the top 4% of each high school class (see Examiner, Winter 1998-1999) — offers of enrollment to African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans at the nine University of California campuses reached an all-time high, actually exceeding pre-Prop. 209 levels systemwide.


But nearly all the growth took place at the less competitive Irvine, Riverside, and Santa Cruz campuses. Admissions offers to members of the three underserved groups at U.C. Berkeley and U.C.L.A. remain substantially below those of 1997, the last year affirmative action was practiced, though there has been modest progress in the last two years.


As in Texas, deep declines in minority enrollments have not been reversed at U. Cal. graduate and professional schools, where test scores remain major gate-keepers.


Further up the west coast in Washington, no actions were taken to encourage minority students to attend in the wake of adoption of Initiative 200, a clone of the California proposals. As a result, minority enrollment at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle and Washington State University (WSU) in Pulliam have declined for two consecutive years. At UW, the number of African Americans entering in fall 1999 was only 83, down by 42% from the 143 who began in 1998 just months before voter passage of I-200. In the same two year period, applications from minority students to WSU dropped by 18%.


The three state’s experiences indicate that deemphasizing test scores does help preserve diversity in the absence of affirmative action, as FairTest’s 1998 report Test Scores Do Not Equal Merit concludes (see order form). But dropping SAT and ACT requirements for some high-performing applicants is not sufficient to assure minority participation at the most prestigious public institutions. And, of course, reforms aimed at college admissions tests have no impact on graduate school enrollment.


Unfortunately, these lessons were not heeded in Florida, the latest state to bar consideration of race or gender in admissions decisions. There, Gov. Jeb Bush advanced a “One Florida” plan, coupling an affirmative action ban with a guaranteed seat in the state university system for “Top 20%” high school students, ostensibly to stave off a even harsher ballot measure advocated by Prop. 209 sponsor Ward Connerly.


Civil rights and student groups correctly fear that the new policies will lead to African American and Latino undergraduates being channeled away from the University of Florida and Florida State University to lesser institutions and that minority enrollment in state-funded graduate school programs will plunge. Huge demonstrations, angry public hearings, and lawsuits have postponed implementation of the “One Florida” plan for at least a year.


From the perspective of FairTest and other groups that have long advocated “test score optional” policies, the Florida experience — like that of the other three states — is a reminder that automatic admission of top-performing high school students was not designed to be an alternative to affirmative action. Instead, it is a supplement or, when other legal options are exhausted, a partial replacement for policies which include race and gender as important considerations in admissions at both the undergraduate and graduate school levels.