How do you help young people move forward without honestly assessing where they stand?
Just before the start of my senior year in college, I received a job offer from the local newspaper. A short time later, I ran into a former editor of the college paper where I had previously worked and told her the news. “Congratulations, Jason,” she said. “I heard they were looking for more minorities.”
I don’t know if it was her intention, but the remark stung. The episode crystallized for me one of the major drawbacks of affirmative-action policies. In the name of helping some blacks, they taint the accomplishments of all blacks. No one with any self-respect wants to be perceived as a token, whether in the workplace or on a college campus.
Black professionals who came of age in the era of racial preferences have been dealing with this stigma for decades. Stephen Carter, a Yale law professor, recalls applying to Harvard Law School in the 1970s after completing his undergraduate degree at Stanford. The school initially rejected him but reversed its decision after learning that he was black. “Naturally, I was insulted,” Mr. Carter writes in his memoir, “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby.” “Stephen Carter, the white male, was not good enough for Harvard Law School; Stephen Carter, the black male, was not only good enough but rated agonized telephone calls urging him to attend. And Stephen Carter, color unknown, must have been white: How else could he have achieved what he did in college?”
More than four decades later, Harvard is still playing these games, using race as a decisive factor in admissions while pretending otherwise. Last week the school announced that it was dropping its SAT requirement and cited limited access to testing sites during the pandemic as the reason. Don’t believe it. The real goal is to achieve a predetermined demographic composition on campus, and standardized tests make that more difficult. Harvard has joined a growing list of schools that are giving less weight to objective admissions standards—test scores, grades, extracurricular activities—in favor of subjective “personality” measurements like “kindness,” “courage,” “integrity” and “likability.”
This trend is not limited to higher education. The attack on academic meritocracy includes efforts to eliminate honor rolls in elementary school, nix gifted-and-talented programs in middle school, and stop selective high schools from using admissions exams. Oregon’s governor signed a bill earlier this year that suspends high school proficiency requirements. Students in the state will no longer have to demonstrate that they can read, write and do math at a high school level to graduate.
Those leading us down this path insist that they are helping minority students who struggle academically, but it would be more accurate to say that they are giving up on these students. Eliminating the test won’t eliminate the racial achievement gap, because the test is not causing the gap, merely exposing it. How do you help students move forward without an honest assessment of where they stand? Harvard is less concerned with black education than it is with protecting its brand, which is enhanced by exhibiting a racially diverse student body whether or not such a focus is in the long-term interests of black students who are admitted with lower standards and ill-prepared to handle the workload.
Sadly, academic standards are being diluted or eliminated out of an unspoken fear that blacks will never measure up. Liberals like to blame discrimination or systemic racism for these uneven outcomes, but if you really believe that teachers and principals and college administrators have it in for black kids, a standardized test is your best friend. It’s much easier for the admissions officer who you fear exhibits unconscious bias to justify rejecting an applicant based on an entirely subjective personality score. It’s much harder for the school to justify rejecting someone with an SAT score in the 95th percentile and other measurable achievements. This is the lesson of the Jewish experience a century ago, when elite schools like Harvard adopted a “holistic” approach to admissions to limit Jewish enrollment. And it’s why Harvard is currently being sued by plaintiffs who allege that today’s Asian-American applicants are receiving the old Jewish treatment.
This war on meritocracy also seems at odds with popular opinion about racial preferences. A Pew Research Center poll from 2019 found that 73% of respondents, including 78% of whites, 65% of Hispanics, 62% of blacks and 58% of Asians, “say colleges should not consider race in admissions.” And last year Californians soundly rejected a ballot referendum that effectively would have reinstated race-based college admissions in state universities, which voters banned in 1996. Liberal elites continue to believe that most blacks can’t compete on a level playing field, and they don’t mind stigmatizing the ones who can. Thankfully, everyday Americans, of all hues, seem to disagree.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal
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