Public Comment

Why the Berkeley College Republicans are Wrong

By Thomas Lord
Monday September 26, 2011 - 08:02:00 AM

The Berkeley College Republicans have taken a strong stance against a proposed law that would allow, among other things, race to be taken into consideration during the admissions process. They say on a Facebook event page: "The Berkeley College Republicans firmly believe measuring any admit's merit based on race is intrinsically racist."

In this note I'll show that their belief is wrong. Not only is the use of race in admissions not intrinsically racist - the failure to consider race and other similar factors is intrinsically racist. This is not some subjective interpretation of histories of oppression. This is not some radical ideological interpretation of "fairness". Rather, I'll point out some ways in which if race is not considered, some minority students who are objectively more qualified are likely to be turned away in favor of white students who are objectively less qualified. 

Background: The Bake Sale and the Bill 

The College Republicans have stirred up some press attention by holding a "racial diversity bakesale" to protest California Senate Bill 185. 

The senate bill, which sits on Governor Jerry Brown's desk awaiting signature or veto, would allow the University of California admissions offices to consider an applicant's "race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, geographic origin, and household income, along with other relevant factors, in undergraduate and graduate admissions, so long as no preference is given." 

The Republican students organized a satirical bake sale, offering goods at higher prices to whites, lower prices to minorities and women. In short, they argue that any use of race or gender in admissions is tantamount to a racial preference. 

On campus and in the press there is debate about whether the bake sale is "offensive". This misses the point entirely: 

Background: What Does Standardized Testing Measure? 

One measure of a student's merit for admission is an SAT score. It has long been observed that, on average, whites perform better than, for example, blacks on this test. 

Part of the explanation for the better performance of whites is surely that, on average, whites are more likely to have economic advantage and have better K-12 educational opportunities. The question arises, though: is that the only reason for the differences in average scores? Or is the test itself inherently racially biased in some way that has nothing to do with student merit? 

Inside Higher Ed reported on a study published by the Harvard Educational Review in 2010. The study examines the question: do black students tend to get worse SAT scores than white students of equal academic achievement and merit? 

The study found that, yes, SATs tend to give lower scores to black students than white students of equal achievement and merit. 

Here is how Inside Higher Ed describes it: "The new paper in fact is based on a study that set out to replicate one of the last major studies to do so -- a paper published in the Harvard Educational Review in 2003, strongly attacked by the College Board -- and the new paper confirms those results (but using more recent SAT exams). [....] 

"The focus of both studies is on questions that show "differential item functioning," known by its acronym DIF. A DIF question is one on which students "matched by proficiency" and other factors have variable scores, predictably by race, on selected questions. A DIF question has notable differences between black and white (or, in theory, other subsets of students) whose educational background and skill set suggest that they should get similar scores. The 2003 study and this year's found no DIF issues in the mathematics section. 

"But what Freedle found in 2003 has now been confirmed independently by the new study: that some kinds of verbal questions have a DIF for black and white students. On some of the easier verbal questions, the two studies found that a DIF favored white students. On some of the most difficult verbal questions, the DIF favored black students. [....] 

"While the studies found gains for both black and white students on parts of the SAT, the white advantage is larger such that the studies suggest scores for black students are being held down by the way the test is scored and that a shift to favor the more difficult questions would benefit black test-takers." 

The study they are describing hits close to home: 

"The new study is based on data for students who enrolled at the University of California system across several administrations of the SAT [....]" 

Note carefully what is being said about the DIF on verbal portions of the SAT: white students tend to get higher scores than black students of comparable academic merit. Ponder that for a minute. 

Considering Race to Reduce Racial Bias 

An admissions officer is confronted by a variety of objective and subjective facts about an applicant. Applications include objective facts like test scores, transcripts, and grade point averages. Subjectively, they include recommendations, personal statements and so forth. This data is used to filter through applications and determine who should be sent application letters. 

The two studies from the Harvard Education Review tell us that, at least in the case of verbal SAT scores, scores can not be meaningfully compared without considering the races of the applicants

In fact, to ignore race when considering a lower or higher verbal SAT score is to build a pro-white bias into admissions, giving white students a preference over black students of equal merit. 

We might hope that, ultimately, the College Board will improve the SAT test and its scoring methods to eliminate this racial bias - but that is not likely to happen anytime soon. In fact, it might not even be possible: no culturally neutral verbal test has yet been invented. 

If the UC system is prohibited from considering race when, for example, interpreting verbal SAT scores admissions will not be color blind - it will simply be skewed in favor of whites. If someone wants to hold a bakesale reflecting the status quo that SB185 seeks to correct, it's whites who should get the unfair discount. 

Thomas Lord lives in Berkeley.