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A response to "The Future of Affirmative Action" by Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier.

Peter Sacks

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 number–a test score. Defenders of this system call it meritocracy. More likely it’s 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 don’t lie–or so we like to think.

What’s more, we’ve created a postmodern oddity in which one’s potential for real-life achievement in school or work has become more powerful and real than one’s 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 perform–from 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 Bell’s 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 performance–about as good as throwing dice–and 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 one’s professional competence–despite 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 we’ve come to call affirmative action. When a democratic society can’t 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 California’s 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 laudable–and 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 scores–the final "objective" arbiter of who has merit and who doesn’t–continues 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 education’s past sins of exclusion. But I am in wholehearted agreement with Sturm and Guinier: defenders of race-based preferences–and Americans generally–have judiciously sidestepped the larger question of the legitimacy of the nation’s 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, UCLA’s law school relied on the usual numerical index of test scores and grades for most students–resulting 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 bachelor’s 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 America’s 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 nation’s coveted system of higher education.

But there’s 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 system’s failure to judge human potential–the lion’s share of the variation in people’s achievement is not accounted for by test scores and grades–we can take comfort in knowing that changing the gatekeeping rules for all college-bound Americans will not measurably erode academic quality.

Indeed, there may be a silver lining with regard to ending affirmative action as we know it. For, as colleges and universities struggle to reinvent themselves, and to institutionalize far broader and more complete perspectives of merit, educational quality may be poised for a new renaissance in America. This renewal of the meritocracy may come not at the cost of racial and ethnic diversity, but may actually enhance the goals of affirmative action and equal opportunity.

Peter Sacks is author, most recently, of Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It.

New Democracy Forum: Click here to read other responses to "The Future of Affirmative Action," by Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier.

Originally published in the December 2000/January 2001 issue of Boston Review

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