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The Buffalo schools are being sued again, this time for considering race when picking students for highly sought schools. The attorney bringing suit cuts to the core argument when he says it's wrong to "look at something other than merit."

The problem is that, in many minds, "merit" still has to do only with supposedly objective criteria like test scores and grades. That assumption colors the debate about race-conscious admissions policies, whether at colleges in California and Texas or at schools like City Honors here.

But how valid is that assumption?

Not very, according to a large but little-noticed study released earlier this year. The study should prompt a public reassessment as Buffalo schools struggle between federal and moral dictates to insure minority representation in premier classes and the legal threats of those who insist on choosing "by the numbers."

The study -- by Linda Wightman at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro -- looked at more than 90,000 students who applied to 173 law schools in 1990-91. Wightman, an associate professor in educational research methodology, developed statistical models to assess the impact of abandoning affirmative action.

Not surprisingly, the study found that a "numbers only" policy based just on standardized tests and grade-point averages would sharply reduce minority admissions.

But it also found "no significant differences in the graduation rates and bar passage rates" between minority students admitted under affirmative action and those who would have been admitted just on the basis of test scores and grades.

In fact, 78 percent of the African-Americans who wouldn't have gotten in based just on test scores and grades ended up graduating, and 73 percent passed the bar.

But blacks weren't the only ones to benefit when admissions policies went beyond "just the numbers." More than twice as many whites -- some 6,300 in this study -- also were admitted who would have been shut out if test scores and grades had been the sole criteria, and more than 90 percent of them graduated.

It indicates that whites as a whole also benefit when the admissions process is opened up, and the entire study casts further doubt on the validity of tests and grades as the sole determinants of who gets the chance to succeed.

Wightman's study was reported in the New York University Law Review. She undertook it after the infamous Hopwood federal court ruling killed affirmative action at universities in Texas and called into question its use in admissions policies generally. Her massive study was followed this week by a smaller one that came to similar conclusions after examining the success of students admitted to a California medical school.

While those studies looked at professional schools, they nevertheless demonstrate the limits of "by the numbers" admissions. And they should make it easier for the Buffalo district to escape its rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma.

On the one hand, the district faces a lawsuit from white parents whose daughter didn't get into City Honors while minority students with lower scores did.

On the other, it is under a fiscal squeeze from the federal Office of Civil Rights because minorities are underrepresented in advanced classes -- such as honors, advanced placement and gifted courses -- while being overrepresented in special education. With more than $25 million in federal funding at stake, the district has to come into compliance.

But an even more important reason than not losing funding is not losing kids. School performance -- particularly on tests -- has long correlated with socioeconomic status. But that can have little or nothing to do with potential to do the work if given the right instruction.

In fact, school officials are quick to note that if test scores alone were the criteria, City Honors would be filled almost exclusively with white girls because they test best. Imagine how shutting out white boys would play with folks who look around at the post-school world and figure there must be something wrong with tests that can't predict that males have the potential to succeed.

And if that's the case, there's something equally wrong with an overreliance on tests if they can't predict that minority students also have the potential to handle the work at the premier schools.

Superintendent James Harris says the district is coming up with a more multifaceted admissions process that doesn't rely on a numerical score. Officials also are examining more -- and earlier -- use of remediation to help poorer students.

There no doubt will be some who will fight any effort to move away from an overreliance on tests and numerical cutoffs in the bid to give more minority students access to opportunity, integrate upper-level classes and prepare all students for a diverse world. They'll decry the admission of "unqualified" black students.

But as Wightman's research indicates, tests alone may do little more than shut the door on minorities who are more than capable of meeting the challenge. That's something the entire city should keep in mind as it grapples with an issue that may -- but doesn't have to -- prove divisive.

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