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In California, a misguided battle over race

This article originally appeared in the May 21 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. William Kidder is a researcher and Susan Kiyomi Serrano is the research director at the Equal Justice Society. Both are Cal alums. Angelo N. Ancheta is the legal director for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

When John J. Moores, the chairman of the University of California Board of Regents, released a report last fall and told the news media that the Berkeley campus might be using race as an "unstated factor" in violation of Proposition 209, the state ban on race-conscious admissions, he ignited a firestorm of controversy that continues to rage.

In March, after Moores wrote an article in Forbes magazine elaborating on his views that the university system was "discriminating so blatantly against Asians," a majority of the regents voted to distance themselves from him and to support the system's admissions policies. Several weeks later a special committee of UC representatives, including Moores, established largely to respond to his allegations, released a study that left unresolved whether the system was favoring black and Latino applicants, in violation of state law. Moores is expected to release the final version of his own report on Berkeley admissions this summer.

Moores's focus on Asian-American students is just the latest foray in his crusade to dismantle the University of California's "comprehensive review" admissions process, by which all applicants are evaluated not only on test scores and grades, but also on leadership, motivation, and achievement in light of their experiences and circumstances -- like low-income or refugee status, or being the first in one's family to attend college. Yet his misguided battle against comprehensive review promises to hurt the opportunities of all minority applicants, including Asian-American students. What's more, as colleges around the United States carefully study race-neutral-admissions approaches in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, his criticisms are highly misleading.

The legal scholar Sumi Cho has used the term "racial mascotting" to describe the process by which opponents of diversity often shrewdly, and inappropriately, champion the interests of Asian-American people to lend their own political agenda a greater aura of legitimacy. Why is Moores's incendiary allegation that Berkeley is discriminating against Asian-American students so disingenuous? The linchpin of his analysis is that a disproportionate number of the 359 students who were admitted last year with SAT scores below 1000 were underrepresented minority students, and that those students are displacing better qualified applicants, often Asian-Americans, with higher SAT scores.

That argument ignores the rigor of the University of California's admissions procedures in general and the comprehensive-review process in particular. Overall, the calculations are designed to make only about 12.5 percent of the graduates of state high schools eligible for admission to the university. And usually the students in each high school who attend are those who have completed a prescribed curriculum and either have graduated in the top 4 percent of their class or have obtained a requisite combination of test scores and grades.

Moreover, the students who were admitted with SAT scores below 1000 represent only about 3 percent of Berkeley's nearly 11,000 admission offers, and 99 of those admits, or about 28 percent, were Asian-American. Students who are Asian-American are actually doing quite well in the university system and at Berkeley in particular. For California students in Berkeley's 2003 admissions cycle, 38 percent of the applicants, 39 percent of the students who were admitted, and 46 percent of the students who enrolled were Asian-American.

Since November, admissions officers and data experts in the university president's office have been studying undergraduate-admissions statistics. Their research was released in preliminary form in March and included in the recent committee report. They found, in fact, that the admission rate of Asian-American students at Berkeley in 2003 was slightly higher than that of white students and substantially higher than that of African-American students and Latino students. What grabbed headlines, however, was that their predicted-admission model forecast a slightly higher admission rate for Asian-American students at Berkeley than the actual admission rate: 33.9 percent versus 32.2 percent. Moores has cited the study as evidence that comprehensive review is discriminatory.

But those preliminary findings are misleading because the study did not control for the factors at the heart of comprehensive review: achievement relative to the opportunities available in students' high schools and home environments. Buried near the end of the committee's report is this important caveat: "hypothetically, if Asian-American applicants have better opportunities, on average, than African-American applicants, a statistical model that doesn't account for this may overpredict the number of Asian-American students who would be admitted." By the end of the year, the researchers plan to analyze Berkeley admissions more thoroughly, using more sophisticated statistical modeling and evaluating individual applicant files. Even if those researchers continue to find minor, unexplained differences in admissions rates, the comprehensive-review approach should not be viewed as the problem but, rather, as part of the solution. It represents a modest race-neutral effort to deal with the staggering inequalities, based on race and class, that prevail among California youth.

Just before the implementation of comprehensive review, Isaac Martin, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Institute for Labor and Employment; Jerome Karabel, a Berkeley sociologist and Rockridge Institute senior fellow; and Sean W. Jaquez, a Los Angeles lawyer, studied 1999 admission rates to the University of California system at nearly 1,100 California high schools. They found, for instance, that from Arcadia High, a school near Los Angeles composed largely of white and Asian-American upper-middle-class students, 370 students were admitted -- nearly twice as many as from the bottom 50 high schools, defined as those with the lowest percentage of graduates admitted, combined. Washington High, a predominantly Latino school in Fresno, sent no graduates.

Even those statistics fail to capture the full story. For instance, John F. Kennedy High, a primarily African-American school in Richmond, a few miles north of Berkeley, had only five graduates admitted. The next spring, the civil-rights groups filing Williams v. State of California, a case challenging the legality of basic conditions and resources in California schools, revealed that AP physics, AP English, geometry, and algebra were all taught at Kennedy by a series of substitute teachers for the entire school year.

Although the state's high-school students come from increasingly diverse backgrounds, the proportion of California freshmen at Berkeley who were black, Latino, and American Indian was still 35 percent lower in 2003 than in 1995, the year before Proposition 209 was passed. Comprehensive review offers hope for a better way of life not only for those students, but also for Hmong students whose parents are farm workers in the Central Valley, and for Vietnamese-American students in the inner city whose parents toil in low-wage service jobs. Various studies, including a forthcoming one by Jesse M. Rothstein, an economist at Princeton University, have concluded that SAT scores correlate much more with students' socioeconomic status and background than with their high-school or college grades. In fact, nearly four-fifths of those admitted to Berkeley with SAT's under 1000 come from families in which neither parent attended college.

Moores claims that Berkeley is really "victimizing" students with low SAT scores who "can't compete." But the Berkeley students with SAT scores under 1000 are extremely high achievers in areas like leadership and community service, and half of them rank in the top 4 percent of their high-school classes.

Moreover, research also shows that SAT scores are weak predictors of college grades and graduation rates. The Equal Justice Society, where two of us work, along with other civil-rights groups and faculty members at Berkeley, released a report last fall documenting that Berkeley students with 900s on the SAT graduated 79 percent of the time, students with SAT's in the 1400s graduated 86 percent of the time, and even those small differences were again attributable to socioeconomic barriers rather than SAT scores. In the UC system, high-school grades explain a modest 15 percent of the differences in freshman grades, and adding the SAT boosts this to only 21 percent. Moores is at least partly correct when he says that "the path into UC is pretty straightforward: Work hard, take demanding courses, and demonstrate academic success." Regrettably, Moores profoundly misunderstands how his attack on comprehensive review sends the opposite message to California's youth as well as to its policy makers.

His Ahab-like obsession with a small proportion of Berkeley students with modest SAT scores is doing serious damage to the University of California, which is foundering in the midst of a "perfect storm" of unprecedented enrollment cuts, steep tuition hikes, decreased financial aid for low-income students, and the threatened demise of outreach programs. As chairman of the regents, Moores should wield considerable influence in shaping the system's budget. Yet, regarding Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to eliminate all support for the university's outreach programs to disadvantaged students, Moores chillingly declared, as reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune: "I can't imagine a better program for him to eliminate."

Under the governor's proposed budget, freshman enrollments at the University of California and the California State University systems will be cut by 10 percent even as the number of high-school graduates swells. As a result, in April thousands of applicants who were eligible to attend UC, including 1,800 Asian-American students who would normally be admitted to at least one UC campus, were turned away and told to come back as community-college transfers. Regent Moores's irresponsible statements during university budgetary crises stand out as a far more troublesome threat to opportunity for all applicants, including Asian-American students, than comprehensive review.