Schooled Reporting on education

Path to Harvard stays steeper for some

Education | A judge rules against Asian American students denied admission because of race
by Laura Edghill
Posted 10/09/19, 04:54 pm

Harvard University has prevailed in a lawsuit against its acceptance policies, but the court proceedings revealed obvious bias in how the Ivy League school makes admissions decisions.

A group of Asian American students filed the suit in 2014 claiming Harvard unfairly rejected them because of their race. In a ruling last week, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs said the university’s system is “not perfect” but that alone did not make it unconstitutional. Burroughs said she found no evidence of racial animus or that any admissions decisions were negatively affected by an applicant’s Asian American identity.

“Race conscious admissions will always penalize to some extent the groups that are not being advantaged by the process,” she wrote. “But this is justified by the compelling interest in diversity and all the benefits that flow from a diverse college population.”

Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit organization that supports litigation aimed at ending affirmative action policies, represented the plaintiffs, whose names were not disclosed in court. SFFA also represented Abigail Fisher, who sued the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Fisher, who is white, claimed she was rejected due to illegal racial balancing in the school’s admissions process. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to uphold the university’s use of race in admissions.

For the Harvard case, SFFA analyzed six years of admissions data and found that Asian Americans had some of the highest academic records but the lowest admission rates compared with African American and Hispanic students, in particular. Asian Americans make up about one-quarter of Harvard’s student body. The school contends that without the ability to consider race in the application process, that number would likely double, potentially squeezing out not only qualified minority students, but also those who are white.

The trial scrutinized the “personal rating” section of the multifaceted admissions scorecard. While other areas of the scorecard feature well-defined criteria related to academics, extracurriculars, and athletics, the personal rating’s six-point scale depends on the individual admissions officer’s interpretation. The selections include “outstanding,” “bland or somewhat negative or immature,” or even “worrisome personal qualities.” In that area, Asian American applicants consistently underperformed compared with other races, which the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued demonstrated a serial pattern of illegal racial profiling by the university.

The plaintiffs and their supporters argue that Harvard has not seriously considered race-neutral alternatives to achieving diversity such as expanding financial aid, reducing legacy preferences, and more thoughtfully considering socioeconomic status.

Other parts of the trial demystified an admissions process that Harvard has long held in strict confidence. The documents submitted in the case revealed that a hefty donation can help secure a student’s spot at the vaunted institution.

The Harvard Crimson reported last year that emails shared during the trial described a secret “Dean’s Interest List” of prospective students connected to generous potential donors. The emails also included explicit exchanges between administrators and admissions officers that discussed admitting children of specific donors who might contribute substantially toward future buildings and valuable art collections.

“The public has long suspected that Harvard favors those who fund it,” wrote student journalists Delano R. Franklin and Samuel W. Zwickel during the trial. “But blatant examples like those presented Wednesday … rarely if ever become public knowledge.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Harvard and Yale for alleged civil rights violations of Asian Americans in their admissions policies.

iStock/Chainarong Prasertthai iStock/Chainarong Prasertthai

Falling SAT scores

The average SAT score fell by nine points compared with last year’s test cycle, and the gap between demographic groups grew.

The modest overall drop in scores could be due to more schools offering the test for free during the school day, removing both financial and transportation barriers. Representatives of the College Board, which administers the test, explained that when schools offer the college-readiness test, students may take it who are not college-bound and may be unprepared for the rigors of the exam.

The demographic disparities are more troubling, showing a widening gap between Hispanic and African American students and their white and Asian American peers. According to FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, those disparities are evidence the test is not performing as a measure of college readiness.

“SAT score gaps between demographic groups—when broken down by test-takers’ race, parental education, or household income—grew even larger in the high school class of 2019,” said Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s Public Education Director. “The exam remains a more accurate measure of a test-taker’s family background than of an applicant’s capacity to do college-level work.”

This past summer, the College Board introduced the so-called “adversity score” to address concerns about demographic disparities. Critics pounced on the announcement, calling it a thinly veiled attempt at racial profiling. The College Board quickly replaced the plan with a different tool called “Landscape” that instead incorporates a broader span of test-taker information without reducing it to a single numeric score.

Currently, 20 states either require the test for all public high school juniors or offer it for free. And while the majority of U.S. colleges and universities recommend or require the SAT and ACT for admission, a growing number of schools are dropping the traditional tests from their admissions requirements. —L.E.

Associated Press/Photo by Steven Senne Associated Press/Photo by Steven Senne Gordon Caplan (center) outside federal court in Boston on Thursday

College admission scandal

The sentences continue to roll in for parents convicted in this year’s massive college admissions scandal. A federal court in Boston last Thursday sentenced Gordon Caplan of Greenwich, Conn., to one month in prison for shelling out $75,000 to alter his daughter’s ACT score. The former chairman of a global law firm pleaded guilty in May to a single count each of fraud and conspiracy.

On Friday, the former owner of a California wine business received a five-month prison sentence for paying someone $50,000 to rig his daughter’s ACT score, as well as trying to buy her admission to the University of Southern California as a fake water polo recruit. Like Caplan, Agustin Huneeus of San Francisco also pleaded guilty in May to fraud and conspiracy.

And on Tuesday, authorities sentenced a business executive and his wife to a month in prison for paying $125,000 to raise their daughter’s college entrance exam scores. Gregory and Marcia Abbott of New York and Colorado pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy in May.

All four parents expressed regret and remorse, citing their ambition and egos as driving forces in their actions. The court also slapped the parents with fines and community service hours.

And while much of the media attention has focused on the parents, last week a former college exam proctor involved in the scam pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with investigators and return $150,000 he earned through the scheme. Igor Dvorskiy is accused of accepting bribes to help parents boost their children’s scores on the SAT and ACT while he administered the exams at a Los Angeles school. He is one of 14 people facing racketeering charges. —L.E.

Facebook/Brandon Deike Facebook/Brandon Deike Glen Lake Schools assistant principal and athletic director Mark Mattson (left) with Forest Area Schools music teacher Brandon Deike

Marching to another school’s tune

In a match made in, well, Michigan, two high schools came together to create an experience that neither could manage on its own. Glen Lake Community Schools’ football team heard through the grapevine that the neighboring Forest Area Marching Band had lost its football team due to low participation rates. Turns out, Glen Lake lacked a marching band, so the schools quickly agreed to collaborate for Glen Lake’s Sept. 27 football game. Forest Area even learned the Lakers’ fight song, and Glen Lake rolled out extra seating in anticipation of a larger-than-normal crowd.

“No Friday night football game under those lights is complete without your sideline cheer team and a marching band,” Mark Mattson, Glen Lake’s assistant principal and athletic director, told CNN.

It’s a good thing the Forest Area band learned that fight song. It must have inspired the Lakers, who rolled over their opponent 31-7. Mattson said that the marching band is welcome back anytime. —L.E.

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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