SAT Scores and Affirmative Action

sunsetIn her majority opinion in the landmark civil rights case Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 342-44 (2003), Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote:

Enshrining a permanent justification for racial preferences would offend this fundamental equal protection principle. We see no reason to exempt race-conscious admissions programs from the requirement that all governmental use of race must have a logical end point. . . . From today’s vantage point, one may hope, but not firmly forecast, that over the next generation’s span, progress toward nondiscrimination and genuinely equal opportunity will make it safe to sunset affirmative action.

Although O’Connor and her colleagues upheld the constitutionality of the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action program at issue in Grutter, her opinion reflected a belief that affirmative action programs would draw to a close at some future point.

Data released by the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT exam, at the end of August suggests, however, that the end date for affirmative action is probably still a long way off.

Once again, Non-Hispanic whites and Asians scored significantly higher on the SAT than African-Americans and Hispanics, and the pattern of scores provides no evidence that the gap is closing.  Over 1.5 million college-bound seniors took the test, the largest number in history.

The SAT now consists of three sections — writing, critical reading, and mathematics — each of which is scored on a scale that ranges from 200 to 800.  Since April 1995, the targeted median score on each test has been 500 (rather than 450 as it was before).  Consequently, the range of combined scores is 600 to 2400, with an “average” score being 1500.  The actual average for the 2008-09 academic year was 1504, essentially the same as it was the previous year.

For the test as a whole, Asian students scored 1633 compared to 1581 for non-Hispanic whites, with most of the disparity resulting from a significantly higher mathematics score.  Other groups did not do nearly as well.  The scores of Native Americans and Eskimos averaged 1448; Hispanics, 1364; and African-Americans, only 1273.  Males of all races, who counted for only 46.5 percent of test takers, outscored females, 1523 to 1496.

Much of the discrepancy in racial performance is due to socio-economic factors that adversely affect black and Hispanic adolescents.  Low family incomes, single-parent homes, low levels of education in the family, and the lack of role models who have achieved academic success all contribute to poor test performance. For example, students of all races with family incomes of $200,000 or more averaged 1702 on the SAT; those with family incomes of below $20,000 scored 1321.  Students whose parents had at least one graduate degree averaged 1683; those who parents had not finished high school scored only 1281.

With this kind of disparity in SAT scores, only affirmative action programs can guarantee that African-Americans and Hispanics will be proportionally represented at America’s more selective colleges and universities.  Although we may reach Justice O’Connor’s sunset at some point, right now we are clearly still in the middle of the day.

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A Misleading Chart


A September 14 article in the Wisconsin Law Journal (noted elsewhere on this website) included the chart to the left.  Although the story was innocuous enough, reporting that applications to law school in Wisconsin went up last year in spite of the economic downturn, the accompanying chart gives the impression that applications to the University of Wisconsin Law School dramatically exceed those of Marquette.  A quick glance seems to suggest that for the fall of 2009, Wisconsin received more than twice as many applications as Marquette since the red bar appears to be more than twice as long as the blue bar.

That isn’t true, and the problem is the misleading presentation of the graph.

While it is true that Wisconsin does receive more applications than Marquette, the discrepancy is not nearly as great as the graph seems to suggest.  The problem, as anyone who looks at the graph carefully will see, is that it reproduces only the top half of the bar graph showing the relative number of applications at the two law schools.

In fact, if one looks at the entire graph, then it becomes clear that the Wisconsin lead is a more modest one.  For the fall of 2007, Marquette’s application total was 68% of the Madison total.  For 2008, the number jumped to 79%, before falling back to 72% for 2009.  Until 2009, Marquette had been gaining on Madison at a fairly rapid pace.  It seems likely that, in a time of economic downturn, the fact that private Marquette has a much higher tuition than public Wisconsin served to discourage applicants who may well have applied in the past.

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Myles Brand and the Illusion of Reform

Myles BrandAlthough NCAA president Myles Brand has just passed away, it is not too early to comment on his legacy in the world of big-time college sports.  When he was appointed to his position in 2002, those who believed that the NCAA was in need of serious reform were delighted.  Brand was then president of the Indiana University and had previously been president of the University of Oregon and provost at Ohio State.

Not only was Brand the first college president to appointed to head the NCAA, he also possessed impeccable academic credentials.  He held a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester, and had previously been a faculty member at the Universities of Pittsburgh, Illinois-Chicago, and Arizona.  Although he was a fan of sports, he had never been an athlete or a coach of any consequence.  (He played freshman basketball and lacrosse at small college RPI but apparently wasn’t good enough for the varsity.)  Moreover, he had proved his ability to stand up to the goliath that is college sports when as president of Indiana University he fired highly successful basketball coach Bobby Knight for repeatedly boorish behavior.

Unfortunately, Brand turned out to be a disappointment for those who hoped that he might usher in an era of real reform in college athletics.

He leaves the NCAA pretty much as he found it, an economic powerhouse characterized by sharp distinctions between rich and poor, with the rich reaping the benefits of ever-increasing television revenue and exploiting the skills of young athletes, only a few of whom are able to continue their careers at the professional level.  When he assumed office the schools with the strongest commitments to men’s football and basketball were engaged in a seemingly endless “arms race” characterized by larger and larger stadiums and arenas, and by high profile coaches paid more and more money each year.  At the time of his death, the arms race continued unabated.

Media outlets have responded to Brand’s death by emphasizing his commitment to reform.  According to the Indianapolis Star, “Brand elevated academics [and] put athletics in perspective.”   Sports Business Daily reported he left a “legacy focused on academic reform in the NCAA,” while the Associated Press praised the fact that he “worked to change the perception that wins supersede academics and earned accolades for his efforts.”  Kind words, but words that should acknowledge that if these were his goals he largely failed in such efforts.

When one asks what Brand actually accomplished as director of the NCAA, it is difficult to point to any truly significant reform.  While it is true that he continued the process of tightening academic standards for athletes and placing greater emphasis on graduation for athletes, it would be disingenuous to claim that during his years at the helm student athletes were held to the same academic standards as ordinary students, for it is clear that they were not.

While there is no consensus among academic reformers as to what NCAA rule changes are necessary, a reform-minded director might have pushed for:

  • Salary caps for coaches.
  • Requirements that coaches be members of the faculty.
  • A return to earlier limitations on the number of regular season games in football and basketball.
  • Greater revenue-sharing of broadcast income among all NCAA members regardless of the division in which they participated.
  • The repeal of the advantages given to members of the so-called BCS conferences in regard to the determination of the national college football champion.
  • Abolition of the distinction between Division I, FBS teams and Division 1, FCS in college football.
  • Reductions in the number of athletic grants-in-aid available to NCAA members.
  • A new classification system that grouped schools on the basis of their enrollments rather than the size of their athletic budgets.
  • Congressional approval of an antitrust exemption for college athletics that would remove doubts regarding the legality of “anti-commercial” regulations.

It is of course true that the president of the NCAA could not unilaterally implement such changes, but there is no evidence that Brand ever committed himself to such innovations.  In spite of all of his talk about academic integrity and amateurism, he was basically a supporter of the existing system.   While Brand denounced “commercialism gone wild” in one of his final speeches, he was always careful to point out that he was not an opponent of commercialism in college sports.  In fact, he regularly encouraged NCAA schools to seek out new forms of revenue.  As he frequently put it, college sports could not survive without commercial activity.

In his final remarks at the 2009 NCAA convention (read in his absence by aid Wallace Renfro), Brand warned against the “extremes of unrealistic idealism” as well as the dangers of excessive commercialism.

Myles Brand was a capable president of the NCAA, and he may well have been an improvement over his predecessors, but he was never the visionary reformer that some of his fans made him out to be.   We are still waiting for the first “idealistic” president of the NCAA.

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