Taking a new approach to affirmative action

March 27, 1998|By Charles Lane

CAN we live without affirmative action in college and professional school admissions? In a provocative essay in a recent issue of The New Republic, sociologist Nathan Glazer explained why the answer must be no. The difference between black and white performance on standardized tests is so large and so immutable (in the short term) that to institute a color-blind admissions policy -- as California and Texas have done recently -- results in a student population that almost entirely excludes blacks. And that, Mr. Glazer argues, undermines the social and political legitimacy of our elite institutions even more than bending meritocratic standards does.

A clear enough position -- and a bold one, given that Mr. Glazer was one of the first apostate liberals to challenge affirmative action back in the '70s.

Slavery's effects

Mr. Glazer, like most of those who write about affirmative action, also offered an account of the source of difference between black and white test scores. Plainly, as Mr. Glazer noted, it has something to do with lingering effects from 400 years of slavery and systematic discrimination. But what's missing from these familiar explanations is a much more specific sense of how social trends act on the educational experiences of discrete individuals as they prepare for higher education. Yes, even a middle-class black student must bear some extra burden because his ancestors were slaves or because of, say, the lower expectations white teachers often project toward black students. But how does that translate into a lower score when the No. 2 pencil meets the LSAT answer sheet?

One suggestion comes from a fascinating recent story by Frances A. McMorris of the Wall Street Journal about the complex interrelationships among race, economic status and standardized-test performance. Ms. McMorris reports that some 37 percent of white prelaw students take a prep course for the LSAT; only 28 percent of blacks do. Also, whites are much likelier to take top-quality classes from companies like Princeton Review or Kaplan, which typically cost $900.

For the most part, black students, even those from middle-class families, can't afford these courses. Or they don't know about them because, reasonably enough, the test-prep companies target their marketing to concentrations of higher-income (mostly white) students. Or blacks are reluctant to attend, knowing that, as a Kaplan official told Ms. McMorris, classes "will not have a single black student." Thus, blacks make do with much cheaper weekend courses sponsored by moonlighting college professors or other test-prep amateurs.

Since Princeton Review or Kaplan can often increase an applicant's score by seven points on the 60-point LSAT scale, this puts blacks at a real disadvantage.

Of course, this disparity alone cannot account for most of the giant test-score differential cited by Mr. Glazer. Almost two-thirds of white law applicants do not take any LSAT preparation classes whatsoever. Clearly the tests are, as Mr. Glazer says, objective, and they accurately measure innate aptitude and acquired knowledge -- both of which are relevant to later performance in college or professional school. Test preparation is not a magic bullet.

But, just as obviously, the disparity in access to test preparation must count for something. That is, Princeton Review and Kaplan charge $900 for a reason.

And the reason is that the LSAT and other standardized tests, to some degree, measure a student's ability to take tests. Thorough, expertly taught preparation can raise a student's ability to cope with, and hence succeed on, a particular exam. In many cases, then, test prep can make the difference between getting into a top-flight law school and settling for the second tier.

Princeton Review recently offered a $375 LSAT prep course to a small group of students at historically black Florida A&M. Those who went on to take the LSAT achieved scores equal to the national average for whites. Greater access to test preparation would be "the single most effective short-term effort that could be made to increase the number of competitive minorities," M. Michael Sharlot, the dean of the University of Texas Law School, told Ms. McMorris. But the private sector can't meet the need. Kaplan's minority scholarship program has only 50 openings in all of Texas.

The obvious solution, then, is government test-prep aid to minority students, perhaps in the form of vouchers like those currently available for job training. Unfortunately, such a program would raise legal questions.

Maryland case

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality of student-aid programs designated for minority beneficiaries only. But it has let stand a Fourth Circuit opinion that overturned the blacks-only Benjamin Banneker scholarships at the University of Maryland. The Fourth Circuit held the program was not narrowly tailored to meet a compelling state interest in promoting diversity or remedying past discrimination.

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