Americans harbor the collective deceit that most of the
necessary academic attributes of schools, school children, applicants
to colleges and universities, and even prospective employees can be
neatly summed up with a single numbera test score. Defenders of
this system call it meritocracy. More likely its a pseudo-meritocracy,
governed by a cult of measurement and the triumph of technocratic thinking.
Many Americans believe in the comforting illusion that
test scores permit their important institutions to rank, rate, and sort
schools, students, and job applicants with nearly infallible precision.
The numbers dont lieor so we like to think.
Whats more, weve created a postmodern oddity
in which ones potential for real-life achievement in school
or work has become more powerful and real than ones actual achievement.
We tend to forget that standardized tests are but distant and abstruse
abstractions of the real world and all its rich complexity.
Consider the case of Carmello Melendez, who came to the
United States from Puerto Rico as a child and who encountered a lifetime
of stigmatization and exclusion because of his poor test scores, both
on achievement tests for school and aptitude tests for the military.
He nevertheless excelled at every job he got a chance to performfrom
host and producer of public affairs television to civil rights investigator.
Melendez applied for a job as urban affairs manager with
Illinois Bell. He was exceedingly well qualified for the job but missed
the cut-off score on Illinois Bells aptitude test for managers.
Ninety percent of whites, but just 57 percent of Hispanics and African
Americans, passed this test. Ample evidence showed the test was essentially
worthless for predicting job performanceabout as good as throwing
diceand yet the company continued to rely on the test as a gatekeeper
for employment. Like so many other institutions, Illinois Bell believed
that job applicants should be ranked based on the smallest differences
in test scores, and that such a ranking was absolutely indicative of
ones professional competencedespite real and proven track
records in school and the workplace.
Meanwhile, many institutions have been compelled to "fix"
their gatekeeping systems with a Band-Aid that weve come to call
affirmative action. When a democratic society cant tolerate a
"whiteout" of its important academic and corporate institutions,
owing to gatekeeping rules that block access to many minorities, then
those rules must be modified.
But instead of changing the system for all citizens, and
rethinking the very meaning of merit in this society, colleges
and universities have chosen to adopt two sets of gatekeeping rules,
one for whites and Asians, and one for blacks and Hispanics. Indeed,
the existence of two-tiered gatekeeping systems has been the focal point
of the recent legal attacks on affirmative action, from Californias
Proposition 209 to the Hopwood case in Texas.
That colleges and universities themselves continue to
defend affirmative action as the chief means to diversify their campuses
is laudableand not a little curious. While affirmative action
policies do, in essence, diminish the importance of test scores for
some college aspirants, the prevailing and entrenched hegemony of test
scoresthe final "objective" arbiter of who has merit
and who doesntcontinues to thrive for the vast majority
of admissions decisions.
Surely, implementing affirmative action has been a necessary
and good fight, which has helped to redress higher educations
past sins of exclusion. But I am in wholehearted agreement with Sturm
and Guinier: defenders of race-based preferencesand Americans
generallyhave judiciously sidestepped the larger question of
the legitimacy of the nations prevailing notions of merit.
Why have we failed to fully engage that question?
A persuasive circumstantial case can be made that affirmative
action is a useful tool of American elites, which enables them to preserve
a social definition of merit that primarily serves their own economic
interests. Even with affirmative action, the vast majority of the admissions
remain subject to the prevailing views about merit that primarily benefit
children of the well educated and well-to-do, even at public institutions.
The law school at the University of California at Los
Angeles is a remarkable case in point. Even with the help of its affirmative
action program in the early 1990s, UCLAs law school relied on
the usual numerical index of test scores and grades for most studentsresulting
in a student body with a socioeconomic profile that mirrored the upper
crust of American society. The students fathers had graduate degrees
considerably more often than the average American dad; their moms were
far more likely to have obtained bachelors degrees. Their parents
income was more than double the national median.
Institutions often look the other way, but the research
evidence is overwhelming that gatekeeping tests are not objective, fair,
nor accurate, and that they amount to artificial and arbitrary barriers
for some Americans and keys to the kingdom for others.
Some defenders of affirmative action counter that ending
affirmative action as we know it would, in effect, spell doom for academic
standards at Americas colleges and universities. Race-blind admissions,
this specious reasoning suggests, would by necessity mean reduced admissions
standards applied to everyone, thus lowering average SATs, GREs, and
LSATs, and diminishing the intellectual stature of nations coveted
system of higher education.
But theres ample reason to suspect that a world
without affirmative action, if it also shunned the prevailing ideology
of merit, would not be apocalyptic. Based on what we know about the
present systems failure to judge human potentialthe lions
share of the variation in peoples achievement is not accounted
for by test scores and gradeswe can take comfort in knowing that
changing the gatekeeping rules for all college-bound Americans will
not measurably erode academic quality.