Test Use Controversy Continues in Mississippi Desegregation Case

University Testing

Under a court-ordered desegregation plan set to go into effect this fall, Mississippi's eight public universities will all have to adhere to a single, statewide set of admissions requirements (see Examiner, Spring 1995). The new rules raise the required test score and grade-point average higher than those previously used at Mississippi's Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Officials at those schools are concerned that the new admissions rules could reduce minority access to Mississippi's public higher education system.


The U.S. Justice Department and a group of African American plaintiffs in the desegregation case (U.S. vs. Fordice) sought a stay of the admissions standards, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied the stay in March. The federal government had argued that the new admissions requirements could deny admission to 25% of Black applicants who would have been admitted under the existing system. The federal government had also asked the court to allow each state university to retain a measure of discretion to admit students who do not meet full admission requirements or satisfactorily complete a remedial education program.


In its ruling, the Court left open the possibility that the admissions standards would be reviewed later, noting that the "exquisite uncertainty" of the future of Mississippi's Black colleges is "best handled on full appeal." Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers ordered Mississippi to develop a new set of admissions standards in the aftermath of a 1992 Supreme Court ruling declaring the state's higher education system unconstitutionally segregated. That ruling is being appealed. Pending the outcome of that appeal, Mississippi state legislators have been reluctant to allocate large sums to carry out the other aspects of Judge Biggers' order, such as enabling HBCUs to recruit more white students. This reluctance has created much of the uncertainty to which the Appeals Court referred. Alvin Chambliss, a lawyer for the Black plaintiffs said that the Appeals Court decision could be a "blessing in disguise" because it shows that the judges may find that more needs to be done to improve the state's Black colleges.


More confusion in the state university system has been caused by the rapid changes in the admissions requirements. Under the new rules, students can gain full admission to a public university in Mississippi in one of several ways: a) obtain a grade point average (GPA) of 3.2 or higher in a designated College Prep Curriculum (CPC); b) obtain a CPC GPA of 2.0 to 2.5 in combination with a corresponding ACT score of 18 to 16; or c) meet the NCAA Division I full qualifier "Proposition 16" requirements. For those students with a GPA of 3.2 or higher, Mississippi's public universities are now test-score optional.


Mississippi officials received approval from the federal District Court in March 1996 to use the NCAA requirements as a supplemental admissions policy. The Court issued that ruling despite affidavits submitted by FairTest and other groups arguing that Proposition 16's use of SAT/ACT cutoff scores disproportionately excludes academically qualified minority students.


Under the new guidelines, students who fail to meet the full admissions requirements can still be admitted either through a special screening or through completion of a summer remedial course. The special screening will look at a student's Accuplacer scores and at the student's ACT subscores in English, reading and mathematics. Accuplacer is a College Board product intended for just one purpose: helping college advisors determine in which courses to place a student. It is not designed as an admissions tool. A special committee of state university officials reviewed the use of Accuplacer and recommended a set of minimum scores for use in the screening process. However, those recommendations were rejected by more senior state education officials and the minimum scores were set at a higher level.


Students who fail to make it through the special screening process are expected either to attend a nine-week summer developmental program in math, reading comprehension, writing and study skills, or to enroll in one of the state's 16 community colleges. Funding for these supplemental programs is still uncertain and students have been told that the summer courses offered at each of the eight public universities will have a limited number of openings. The Federal Government has informed the state that students will not be able to use Pell Grants to pay for the summer course.


In effect, what Mississippi has done is replace one set of arbitrary test score selection requirements, its dual ACT cutoff scores (one for the HBCUs and a higher score for the other public universities) which the court found to support segregation, with another set of requirements based on a single ACT/SAT cutoff score and the Accuplacer. The new standard, which applies to all students except those with top grades, is equally capricious and is almost certain to be equally biased. This continuing misuse of test scores demonstrates the danger of relying on standardized exams to address complex education policy issues.