In Affirmative Action Debates: It's Curriculum that Should Count
So what have law-makers and educators offered lately to "fix" the affirmative action problem at the 200 four-year colleges (out of 1800) that exercise any degree of selectivity in undergraduate admissions? Lotteries? Admit the top ten percent of every high school graduating class? Abolish tests? All of these have either been proposed or legislated. However well-intentioned, these quick fixes do little to increase the odds of success for the mass of minority students. It is time to think outside-the-box and come up with more than cheap and easy solutions.
What is our bottom line of "success?" Freshman year grades? Persistence to the sophomore year? These criteria, traditionally used to develop college admissions formulas, are rather weak. Most students attend four-year colleges with the goal of earning a degree, and minority students are no exception. So, degree completion must be the criterion against which selection measures are judged. And no matter what kind of statistical gymnastics one performs, the strongest pre-college predictor of degree completion is the academic intensity and quality of a student's high school curriculum. Not test scores. As for high school grade point average and class rank, a College Board 1997 survey of high schools reveals that more than half include nonacademic courses in GPA calculations and nearly 20 percent do not compute class rank at all. No wonder the correlation of GPA/class rank with degree completion is much weaker than that of test scores.
It is precisely to GPA's and class rank, however, that legislatures and higher education governing boards turn for the "solution" to affirmative action. I call this the strategy of the Dead White European Male High Command who brought you the first and second battles of the Marne in World War I: if only 100,000 out of a million survived the first battle, we throw two million over the top at the second, and think we have done better when 200,000 come back alive. There will be a lot of dead bodies out there with the "top X percent" or lottery admissions formulas, and, as usual, a majority of them will be those of minority students.
The best national data--the longitudinal studies of the National Center for Education Statistics--tell a very clear story on this issue. Let me demonstrate with the most dramatic case: by age 30, the bachelor's degree completion rate for all African American "on-time" graduates of the high school class of 19821 who entered four-year colleges directly from high school was 42 percent--some 30 percent below the completion rate for the comparable group of white students.
If we restrict the African American population to the top 40 percent by grades in high school academic courses, the graduation rate increases to 59 percent. Not bad! If we take a different strategy, and restrict the same population to those in the top 40 percent of scores on a general learned abilities test (something like the SAT or ACT) it rises to 66 percent. Better, but not as good as it can get. For if we restrict the population to students who were in the top 40 percent of an academic curriculum intensity scale2 and got beyond Algebra 2 to Trigonometry or a higher level of mathematics, 72 percent of the African American students graduated, and the degree completion gap (compared with a matching group of white students) was cut more than half--to 12 percent.
Which of these indicators would you rather use in admissions decisions? Which does more for students? And which of these is most subject to active, hands-on change? Curriculum. Hands down! If you use all three achievement indicators together, you don't get much further predicting degree completion than curriculum used alone.3
This is all common sense, but no one wants to acknowledge it. Curriculum is the only major pre-college variable you never hear anything about in all the posturing on all sides of the affirmative action argument. Grades are a crap-shoot; a test is a snapshot of performance on a Saturday morning. But a curriculum is an investment of years and provides momentum into higher education and beyond. The effects of grades and tests diminish in time, but the stuff of learning does not go away.
How do we take advantage of the power of curriculum to: 1) maintain minority enrollment in selective public universities; 2) increase minority degree completion rates everywhere; and 3) accomplish both ends within the legal restrictions of Proposition 209-type policies and Hopwood-type court decisions? I have three connected suggestions, all of which require colleges and universities to work harder, differently, and under more difficult timetables on behalf of their oft-stated goals for minority student representation, and to recognize that the underlying principle is that of equity--not the washed-out euphemism of "diversity."
1) Change the admissions cycle to one of rolling selection that admits 11 percent of the target pool each month from November through July. Yes, July! Disadvantaged students, among whom minorities are over-represented, benefit more from this schedule. Why? The extra time will keep kids serious through the spring semester of their senior year in high school, will allow the learning of special outreach and summer programs time to take hold, and will give minority students more time to prepare for and take their tests as late as April or May. Sound outrageous? Not if we acknowledge that the educational systems through which most disadvantaged students pass have slowed them down. Changing the cycle recaptures some of this time and basically adds more than a semester of curriculum to the student's portfolio. It restores some equity in the preparation of miniority students for admission to selective institutions. It is an opportunity-to-learn issue. It also would provide an opportunity to advise and recruit.
2) Give applicants greater latitude in what tests they present and when they take them. Test scores follow a student's curricular experience, not the other way around. And for students who do not test well in restricted-response formats, for example, provide the option of the Advanced Placement exams, which include essay and problem-solving sections, and do not make decisions until those test results are in. More and more minority students are taking Advanced Placement courses, but AP exams are not used in admissions decisions. It's about time they were! If that means July admissions for September matriculation, so be it! Or let students substitute subject-matter achievement tests for the SAT or ACT. At least the subject-matter exams are tied directly to the curriculum; and if disadvantaged students are putting more curriculum in their portfolios, they will perform better.
3) Instead of running summer bridge programs for under-prepared students between high school graduation/college acceptance and matriculation, move these programs back at least one year (if not two years), expand them for students from all school districts with historically low rates of participation in higher education, and focus them on curriculum content--nothing else. Total immersion for 10 weeks. Revisit Algebra 2 and move students quickly on to Trigonometry and Statistics. Pick a real-world problem around which one can build a chemistry or physics curriculum that also requires both laboratory and computer work. Borrow from AP strategies and materials and have students stitch together a state or local chronicle from original documents and artifacts. If even half of our 1,800 four-year colleges did this for 100+ students from targeted high schools each junior summer, and followed up by establishing Community Technology Centers near each of those high schools where kids could work at terminals on academic assignments, there would be no second battle of the Marne. These "early bridges," with their emphasis on the academic uses of non-school time, are the only pieces of the package that require real money, but if we are serious about equity, we must acknowledge that it doesn't come free.
All of these strategies, together, will enlarge, if modestly, the academic resources that disadvantaged (and principally minority) students will bring to the table of higher education, no matter where they choose to attend, and will increase their chances of admission at more selective institutions in their own right. More importantly, the higher the concentration of their academic resources, the greater the odds that these students will complete degrees. Isn't that what counts--for them? For everyone?
*A different version of this article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 4, 1998, titled "To Help Minority Students, Raise Their Graduation Rates." For additional explanatory footnotes and sources, see this article on DiversityWeb. Click on "Leader's Guide" and "Recruitment, Retention and Affirmative Action."
1 Data for the analysis in this article come from the restricted files of the High School & Beyond/Sophomore Cohort longitudinal study of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES CD-Rom #98-135). The cohort was established in 1980, when the students were in the 10th grade, and was followed by surveys to 1992.
2 Given the variations in state requirements, academic calendars, and credit systems, a national scale of "academic intensity" of high school curriculum was derived empirically from the high school transcripts of the High School & Beyond/Sophomore cohort. For details, see Adelman, C., "Academic Resources: Developing an Alternative Index of Individual Student Capital," paper presented to the 1998 Forum of the Association for Institutional Research.
3 In a standard regression model controlling for socioeconomic status, academic curriculum intensity explains about 30 percent of the variance in long-term Bachelor's degree completion rates. When test scores and high school GPA/class rank are added to the model, the explanatory factor rises to .341. The odds of any of these relationships occuring by chance are less than 1 in 1,000.
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