unpacking the backpack – College admission: More than a test score

When the calendar flipped to November last week, most Americans didn’t notice the huge collective holding of breath as high school seniors pushed submit on their college applications. The first of November is the initial big deadline for many college programs, especially for students putting in their chips for an early decision or early action admission to top tier schools. Coincidentally, college admissions also made headlines last week as the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a civil suit filed against Harvard University regarding affirmative action and the consideration of race in college admissions.

The lawsuit was filed by Edward Blum and the non-profit Students for Fair Admissions who, according to their website, “believe racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional.” They seek to prevent colleges which accept federal funds from considering race in the admissions process. According to testimony in the case, Megan McCardle of the Washington Post suggested “Asian-Americans would be 43% of Harvard admissions, as opposed to the current rate of 19%, if only academics’’ were considered. That term, “academics,” is the crux of the debate. For, while affirmative action is debatable, and people have different opinions on diversity, it’s tough to believe students were specifically denied based on their race.

The lawsuit claims Asians students are discriminated against because of affirmative action and Harvard considering race. However, when the lawsuit focuses on “academics,” it literally means GPA and test scores only, and that’s the problem. Claimants seem to want admission to be based solely on their higher test scores and GPA. However, colleges assess applications on a body of evidence with as many as twelve distinct categories. To claim Harvard, or any college, should only admit the students topping a list of GPA and test scores is incredibly myopic. Scores are simply one or two data points which measure an arguably narrow skill set. Colleges want to, can, and should be allowed to assess applicants and build their student body based on a full body of evidence including non-standardized factors.

Much talent and potential is simply not standardized. In fact, the EQ, or emotional quotient, is equally important if not more significant in predicting success. It’s also highly valued by employers, which is why interviews and portfolios are used rather than test scores for hiring. The top percent of SAT test takers and grade point accumulators aren’t automatically and necessarily the “best student body.” There are countless strong leaders in any school who make significant contributions and are impressive students and people even though, and maybe because, they don’t just have top grades. In fact, many successful people were “C” students, including some who went on to occupy the White House or start groundbreaking companies.

Another problem is the Harvard lawsuit singling out students on affirmative action, as opposed to targeting legacy admissions, athletes, donors’ kids, and students of faculty, who actually make up 40% of Harvards’ class. Those students’ scores aren’t necessarily as high as the plaintiffs either, but the lawsuit doesn’t claim discrimination there. Additionally, standardized tests are easily gameable and often representative of wealth. In the real world, employers can hire whoever they want, and a lawsuit claiming Goldman Sachs, or any other company, can’t hire a person because another applicant has higher SATs would be patently absurd. The same freedom to “hire,” or admit in this case, should be the right and freedom of schools. It’s not that the claimants didn’t get into college. They just didn’t get the one they wanted.

Ultimately, the lawsuit’s argument is negated by the nature of the complaint. It claims Asian students with higher GPA and test scores were not admitted but other students with lower scores were. And that’s fine. Colleges assess applicants holistically. They don’t, and shouldn’t be forced to, accept students based on a simple “cut list” of the top test scores and GPA. As an educator with a college student and a high school senior, I constantly hear from colleges that admission is not just scores – it’s a body of evidence, as it should be. A student with a 3.8 and 1350 SAT is not automatically a lesser applicant who brings less to the student body than one with a 4.3 and a 1580. Colleges want a diverse group of talents, strengths, backgrounds, and personalities, and they should have the freedom to build a student body based on that distinction. Test scores are one data point – there are myriad others.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. Ytou can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com