Affirmative Action constitutes the admission of under and unqualified students in undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools

Guests on this show:

Jory Steele: Staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. At the ACLUNC, Steele works on a variety of issues, focusing much of her time on matters related to race and education, including affirmative action and the disproportionate disciplining of students of color. In addition, Steele also contributed to a brief about bias in standardized testing to the Supreme Court on Grutter v. Bollinger.


Valerie Purdie-Vaughns: Assistant professor in the psychology department at Yale University. Vaugn’s primary area of research is stigma and intergroup processes with a focus on social identity threat.

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Myth: Affirmative Action constitutes the admission of under and unqualified students in undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools.

Fact: Affirmative action removes barriers that unfairly exclude women and people of color. In so doing, it promotes equal opportunity for its beneficiaries.

Affirmative action programs are modest efforts to counter-balance the built in biases that that already exist in the admissions processes in institutions of higher education. Without affirmative action the traditional admissions practices unwarrantedly favor the members of historically privileged groups.

In other words, the standard criteria used in college admissions are not neutral.

Affirmative action, rather than serving as a racial preference, serves to eliminate discriminatory admissions criteria, such as the over-reliance on the use of standardized tests. In this respect, it reflects an effort to create a level playing field.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Brilliant orator — and a poor performer on the verbal section of the GRE.

Standardized Testing

People assume that standardized tests are fair and balanced indicators of ability, when in fact they are not objective tools for assessing professional capabilities. SAT scores, for instance, account for 22% of the variance in the grades of first-year college students, making them poor indicators for who will succeed in higher education, and even poorer markers of success in life (Fair Test). In fact, even the name of the SAT reflects its limited value. It used to be an acronym that stood for the “Scholastic Aptitude Test.” But, since the test could not be shown to measure an “aptitude” for scholarship its name was changed first to the “Scholastic Assessment Test” and then, finally,to its present name: simply the SAT. It no longer is an acronym for anything at all.

Standardized tests fail to measure human capacity in any field. In this respect, it is not surprising that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most brilliant orators in the Twentieth Century, scored very low on the verbal section of the GRE.

In fact, standardized tests are far better at predicting a person’s socioeconomic background, than they are in predicting a person’s academic potential. Expensive tutors and test preparation classes that are available only to those who are financially well off enough to pay for them exacerbate the tests’ class bias. Moreover, these tests are constantly “balanced” to produce outcomes similar to the expectations of the testmakers. Since those who score highest on the tests tend to be affluent white males, certain racial disparities built into the testing process are perpetuated. Questions answered incorrectly by most black students are preserved, since these students are expected to do relatively poorly, whereas questions answered incorrectly by privileged whites are often judged confusing and flawed, and subsequently discarded.

Claude Steele

Lucy Stern Professor of Psychology at Stanford University

If you’re African American or Latino, the following things are likely to be true: you’re going to schools that are more poorly funded. You’re going to have teachers that are not as well-trained. You’re going to be on treated on a daily basis, across the time in school, in a somewhat different way. It’s going to be harder for you to present yourself in a way that allows your abilities be valued, seen and the like.

You’re going to be exposed to more corporal punishment. You’re going to be tracked into lower classes. You’re going to go to a school that has fewer AP courses. You’re going to be counseled throughout your schooling to have lower expectations than your talents actually suggest. You’re going to have less access to preparatory courses to prepare you for standardized national tests preparations. And you’re probably going to come from communities that are racially and socially segregated.

All of these things are going to affect your access to the pool of information that is going to be present on a typical standardized test like the SAT or the LSAT. This is before you get into anything as psychological as stereotype threat. These are just basic features of one’s experience in the United States as a member of a disadvantaged racial minority group, features of your experience that I would argue, disadvantage you with regard to your ability to perform well on those tests.

Stereotype threat

Research by Stanford Professor Claude Steele has uncovered the fact that people who belong to marginalized groups do less well on standardized tests when they are worried about confirming prevailing stereotypes about the group to which they belong. This phenomenon is called “stereotype threat,” and it has a dramatic effect on even the highest achieving members of a stereotyped group. For example, Black students, when taking a standardized test that asks them to identify themselves as members of a group that is routinely denigrated in American society, often do less well than Black students who are not “primed” to think about their racial identity.

This is due to the fears that they have about confirming society’s negative stereotypes about Blacks, which is a burden not shared by whites. Similarly, Asian American females do better on math tests when their “Asian” identity is primed, and worse when their “female” identity is targeted. Interestingly, white males do less well on tests when their “whiteness” is primed to contrast with Asian American test-takers in the sciences. Each group performs less well in those domains where their identities are stigmatized relative to their competitors.

Read more about stereotype threat HERE.

As Jory Steele explains,

“Black students have an extra burden, when they’re in class, and when they’re taking an exam like the SAT: if I don’t speak the most eloquently, if I don’t make the most articulate point, if I don’t do the best on this exam, are people going to think it’s because I’m black? And that is a huge burden to walk around with every day. White students, on the other hand, don’t have that burden, so there is an inherent preference for them because they can go into that exam and take it and they’re not thinking about eighteen other things that will distract them from their performance on that test.”

Bias in the University of Michigan’s Point System

See the actual University of Michigan “point system” that was used by admissions officers HERE

The University of Michigan’s point system has been criticized for granting 20 points to students from underrepresented racial minority groups. In fact, it turns out that there were all kinds of points awarded under the University of Michigan system that would have been nearly impossible for students of color to get. For instance, 10 points were awarded to students at elite high schools, very few of which include students of color. Eight points were awarded to students with AP-laden course loads, courses that are often impossible to take at most of the schools attended by students of color, which rarely have a full complement of such classes. Six points were allocated for students from “underrepresented counties” in rural Michigan — counties that are largely white. And, 4 points were given to students whose parents attended the University of Michigan — the vast majority of whom are white.

Given that there are 28 total points that are nearly impossible for minority students to obtain, we have to ask whether 20 points is really enough to balance out all the points that Black students cant compete for. Moreover, it is worth noting that 20 points were also given to economically disadvantaged students, and that a student could not get this 20 point bonus twice. Thus, poor white students got the same bonus as poor black students, although they do not also face racial discrimination.

When universities take into account the race, gender, or class background of an applicant, they are not offering those students a preference or doing them a special favor. They are just paying attention to context. There is, after all, substantial evidence that those individuals who have obtained their credentials in the face of severe obstacles are likely to do much better than those who have similar or even somewhat better credentials obtained without having had to overcome similar hurdles. Recognizing this reality is not a form of preferential treatment. Its simply a process designed to remove the arbitrary and unwarranted barriers that are confronted by those who participate in affirmative action programs.


Affirmative action represents nothing more than a serious effort to offset patterns of discrimination that remain deeply embedded in the life of American institutions. Its opponents claim that these policies are discriminatory because they require us to treat ostensibly “similarly situated” people differently. In the alternative, they endorse a vision of colorblindness that would have us treat people who are “dissimilarly situated” the same. But treating people who are differentially situated the same does not promote equality. Quite to the contrary, it promotes inequality.

Anyone who has ever watched an Olympic long distance footrace has noticed that the runners have staggered starts. This is to counter-balance the fact that the inside lanes on an oval track are much shorter than the outside lanes, and take less time to run. Just as a staggered start is a prerequisite for running a fair footrace when the lanes are different lengths, affirmative action is required to promote fair and equal opportunity in the U.S. To eliminate these policies would be to promote discrimination.

We know that discriminatory practices are still widespread. To offset these practices is not to promote reverse discrimination or to give opportunities to undeserving individuals. In fact, it is just the opposite. Affirmative action grows out of the need to dismantle arbitrary and discriminatory patterns of exclusion. In so doing, it moves us step by step toward a more egalitarian society.

Mythbusting homework:

1. Interestingly, of all the admissions programs that give weight to additional criteria other than grades and test scores, only affirmative action programs are under attack. While affirmative action has proven itself a necessary program that identifies qualified students who are otherwise undervalued in the admissions process, it never ceases to come under threat. On the other hand, other admissions programs – including some that merely give additional advantages to the already privileged (such as preferences for the children of wealthy donors)– are never attacked through court cases or ballot initiatives. While we often instinctively, although mistakenly, think of affirmative action admittees as under-qualified, we should ask ourselves about what’s really going on with these other programs:

Are the beneficiaries of the following policies under-qualified? Why is it that affirmative action programs provoke ballot initiatives and Supreme Court cases and not these other policies? Does it have something to do with racial stereotypes about the academic competence and professional capabilities of people of color?

There are policies that favor:

  • Relatives of alumni
  • Children of faculty members at a university or college
  • Children of university or college donors
  • Athletic scholarships
  • ROTC soldiers
  • Gender: at Vassar and most other liberal arts colleges, where men are underrepresented, their applications were looked on more favorably. The average SAT scores and average GPA of men admitted to Vassar are lower than those of their female counterparts.

2. One of the reasons that standardized tests are so poor at predicting success in school as well as in life is a reflection of the fact that they measure such a narrow range of skills. The SAT, for example, measures very specific verbal and math skills. Yet people think of it as a test of general intelligence. Far from being a comprehensive intelligence test, the SAT isn’t even a comprehensive verbal test. As Claude Steele writes, rap artists

“probably perform very badly on standard cognitive measures, measures on verbal performance and the like. Almost assuredly, their test scores would be low. But when they come into the studio, they can do things with words that very few other people in our society can do. It is very difficult to acquire that skill. One has to start early and one has to develop it carefully and with a lot of discipline and focus, and it’s a very refined skill…that if it were the component of a cognitive test, you can imagine the results being very different. I use that as an example to illustrate how social and cultural segregation that is still tied to race in society can affect the ability of a test to measure accurately cognitive skills.” (Complete transcript here)

A recent study conducted at Boalt Hall, UC-Berkeley’s law school, found that the LSAT, the admissions test for Law Schools, has a similar flaw. The LSAT, which is a high-stakes test that largely determines whether prospective lawyers can get into the law school of their choice, is intended to measure the skills that will lead to a successful career in law school and the law more generally. The study found, however, that the LSAT is effective at measuring only 2 skills out of 26 skills that have been identified by lawyers and clients as the keys to effective lawyering. (Read the study HERE)

Your mission:

What kind of skills do normal admissions criteria miss? What factors do you think admissions officers should look at? What kind of tests do you think would best reflect whether someone has the capacity and potential for success?

Bottom line: Affirmative action combats discrimination!

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