After years of relative quiet, America's educational system is coming under renewed pressure over issues of fairness, access, and privilege. As competition intensifies over entry to college, it becomes harder to believe the system's rhetoric of merit and equity. Some students and their families are litigating over AP courses, high school funding, and affirmative action. Others turn to tutors or prep courses, or seek exam dispensations for learning disabilities. Every group feels victimized by the status quo, maintaining that others are gaining unfair advantage.
These disputes reflect powerful demographic and fiscal pressures that are making it far more difficult for high school graduates to get into popular colleges. After shrinking in the late 1980s, America's school-age population is now growing quickly. Today, there are nearly 16 million 14- to 17-year-olds, up from 13 million in 1990. Roughly half a million extra students have been graduating from high school per year, and this population growth will likely continue for most of this decade. Add to this the record proportions of high school graduates continuing to college, and you have a phenomenon that Clark Kerr has dubbed "Tidal Wave II."
One indicator of this trend, well-known to stressed-out high school students and their parents, is the declining proportion of applicants admitted to elite colleges and universities [see chart above].
Unfortunately, Tidal Wave II is bearing down on fiscally weakened public university systems. For 25 years, state governments across this country have been disinvesting in public higher education and redirecting their expenditures into K-12 education, Medicaid, and prisons. Most have cut the share of tax revenues devoted to higher education by a quarter or more. The shrinking numbers of college students during the 1980s made this shift easy to accomplish politically. Public universities were able to place much of the shortfall onto students and their families via increased tuition. Attending a public university, which was once almost free, has become a serious expense. Hence, demographic competition over access has become mixed with greater tensions over affordability [see chart on page 13].
Only a handful of southern states have bucked this trend, increasing per-student appropriations to public colleges, thereby providing both Bush brothers with bragging rights as pro-education Republicans. By contrast, Democrat-controlled states have cut aid to public higher education, as have most other Republican-controlled states.
Against this backdrop, in February, the other Governor Bush abolished affirmative action for entry to public colleges in Florida, following a path blazed earlier by Texas and California. That repudiation of affirmative action provoked thousands of Floridians to demonstrate outside their state capitol. Nevertheless, the policy is unlikely to prove a disaster for educational opportunity: Florida has replaced affirmative action with a formula for college admission that guarantees a place in the state university system for all seniors graduating in the top 20 percent of their high school class. In California the top 4 percent are similarly guaranteed admission, and in Texas the top 10 percent are.
Racial segregation among high schools is so entrenched that manipulating these percentages can produce for college admissions whatever racial composition politicians desire. In the University of Texas system, African-American enrollment in fall 1999 was slightly higher (4.3 percent) than it had been in 1995, before the Hopwood v. Texas decision struck down affirmative action. At 30 percent, Hispanic enrollment was up in 1999 by a couple of percentage points. The picture at the University of California system is more mixed. Following the demise of affirmative action in admissions, the percentages of black and Hispanic freshman slumped, but as California's "top 4 percent of the class" rule has come into effect, that decline has been reversed. However, the rebound in minority admissions is evident only in the university's less prestigious campuses; the flagship campuses of UCLA and Berkeley still enroll fewer (non-Asian) minorities than before.
Admitting a fixed percentage from every high school into a state university system makes it clear that college admission has become a political rather than a meritocratic decision. It transforms what formerly appeared to be a competition between individuals into a struggle between groups, and encourages participants to resort to political maneuvering and legal challenges. The percentage rules make the current clustering of professional families in districts with excellent schools highly disadvantageous. Middle-class kids would have a much better chance of getting into the colleges of their choice if their families moved down-market into more heterogeneous neighborhoods, where their kids would have a better chance of reaching the top 4 percent.
Using AP exam scores and course grades at first seems a more meritocratic option. AP tests are national exams for high school students that assess knowledge in 22 subjects ranging from world history to art. To have any chance of success in those exams, students need to take courses geared to the demanding AP curriculum. However, any claims to fairness are undermined by the fact that there are far fewer such courses offered in poorer high schools. In Los Angeles, the ACLU is suing local school districts and the state of California over inadequate access to AP courses in minority school districts.
Anything that pushes high schools to offer more advanced material for their students should be applauded, but there is more to this lawsuit than a thirst for advanced classes. The struggle for access to AP is partly a fight over grades. In the roughly 7 percent of U.S. high schools that use "weighted grade point averages," AP and honors courses are counted more generously than other courses. In an AP or honors course, an "A" grade counts as 4.5 (not 4.0), and a B counts as 3.5, not 3.0. The result is that some top students who take lots of AP and honors courses are finishing high school with GPAs well above 4.0. The average freshman entering UCLA now has a GPA of 4.16, and UC Berkeley turns away hundreds of minority applicants with a straight-A average because other applicants have even higher grades. Not surprisingly, kids in schools that offer few AP or honors courses feel victimized. No matter how smart or hardworking they are, they can't reach the stratosphere above 4.0, and they fear they will be shut out of the best colleges as a result.
It is not only poor or minority kids who are disadvantaged by this system. Weighted grades tend to be found in affluent schools, and for every kid there who benefits from a weighted GPA, there is a kid enrolled in non-honors courses who finds that her B grade counts as 2.5, not 3.0. Middle-class schools are literally downgrading their non-honors students in order to assist their very top students in the intense competition for places in elite colleges. Blessed with a surfeit of talent, they can afford to treat students with 1300 combined SAT scores as "also rans," bumping them down into non-honors courses with second-class grades.
There is an irony here. Affluent families buy homes in districts with superior public schools, believing that this will advantage their children. What they fail to realize is that this strategy backfires for all but the top-performing students. Public high schools with national reputations tend to assume a "winner take all" character. These schools do great things for the few kids who emerge at the top; they are far less rewarding for the remainder.
In part, this situation reflects the difficulties that affluent high schools face in getting their students into Ivy colleges. The admissions formulae used by elite colleges have long stressed class rank and geographical diversity. It does not matter that the 30th-ranked student in a superb public high school is academically equivalent to the valedictorian of a less high-powered place; admissions formulae that reward class rank severely disadvantage the former child.
Elite private schools have long escaped the class rank trap and are masters at leaping over college entrance hurdles. They tend to be small, they don't report class ranks, and they often use unconventional grading systems. They minimize competition within their graduating class by directing their students to apply to different colleges, and (most recently) some obtain SAT accommodations such as extra time for one in 10 of their pupils. At the other extreme are the huge exam public schools like New York City's Bronx High School of Science, whose students are badly handicapped by colleges' class rank and geographical diversity policies. So many of their students aspire to top colleges that the Ivies can cream off the very top and leave the rest. To get accepted into the most selective colleges, students from urban exam schools routinely have to produce SAT scores far above those of students admitted from elsewhere.
Adapting to this intense competition, affluent suburban public schools awash with intellectual talent have developed a form of educational triage, adopting policies that emphasize their strongest students, but at the expense of the rest. Several educational researchers have observed such schools restricting access to AP and honors courses to the cream of the cream. "Second rate" students, who nevertheless have very high scores on national tests, are counseled away from taking honors or AP courses, most especially in science and math. Schools do this in part because restricting access to the strongest students guarantees that a school's overall pass rate on AP tests will be very high, boosting the school's reputation with the top colleges they care most about influencing.
The ACLU is correct that poor minority kids are less likely to take AP courses than affluent kids. However, if one compares students with equal scores on the SAT exam, those attending elite public high schools are less likely to take AP courses than kids from ordinary schools with identical scores. Affluent public schools have more kids in total in advanced classes, but relative to the very large pool of talent they enjoy, such schools place fewer in advanced courses. The chart on page 14 summarizes my own analyses of the probability of taking various AP courses, after controlling for race, parental education, and type of public school attended, using College Board data for 1997.
This "big fish in a small pond, small fish in a big pond" phenomenon can be highly destructive. Talented kids who rank below the very top come to believe that they are third-rate or just plain dumb. Jaime Escalante had to fight administrators and colleagues to teach calculus to poor kids in East Los Angeles, but something equivalent can be found in plenty of affluent school districts. Kids whose SATs are in the top 10 percent nationally are steered away from calculus, honors physics, and the like. Puzzled parents, who thought their Johnny or Jane was academically gifted, are told that their kid is smart, but not smart enough to take honors courses.
For decades educational researchers wondered why so few American kids "chose" to take calculus and advanced science. The answer to the puzzle is the particular role that math and science courses play in rationing opportunity in middle-class public schools. Scholars have documented that tracking into honors versus easier math occurs as early as middle school in some districts. In high school, honors math often becomes a prerequisite for taking physics and advanced science courses. This gateway shrinks throughout high school because there is a steady attrition of students dropping down from honors math and science, partly in response to tough grading policies. The small percentage of students who survive this winnowing process enjoy substantially better chances of being admitted to elite colleges.
Using science and math to limit the aspirations of high school students may work efficiently as a gatekeeper for elite colleges, but at some considerable cost in terms of America's future. Other countries view science and math no differently than any other high school disciplines and manage to educate large swaths of their students in these subjects, while we limit them to geeks and the super-smart. Further down the educational pipeline, American employers complain of chronic shortages of technical manpower and struggle to raise quotas for foreign-educated immigrants.
These problems are not insurmountable. First, replace the formulae of class rank, grades, and SATs in college admissions with a system of national exams that genuinely assesses skills and knowledge in subject areas. AP exams could fulfill that role admirably. The present system of using grades and class rank when schools are so unequal turns college access into a political process that rewards grade inflation and bureaucratic skulduggery. Placing an emphasis on subject exams for college admission provides a very clear incentive for students to attempt a rigorous program in high school.
Second, in poor and affluent school districts alike, parents and politicians should pressure school authorities to offer advanced courses to every kid who wants to take them. Increased federal funding would help overcome local resistance. Any motivated student who tests in the top 25 percent nationally should be capable of handling challenging material, and every high school should be prepared to teach such material. This will be hardest to achieve in high school science and math because teachers in these areas find it flattering to believe that their subjects are too tough for all but the very smartest kids. Schools also need to be shamed out of their focus on the success of their top handful of students and be reminded to appreciate the whole student body. There should be no need for weighted GPAs. Instead, school districts should boast about the high proportion of their kids who take AP and other advanced courses.
Third, and most important, the zero-sum game that pits blacks against whites against Asians for entry into good colleges has to be challenged. The distortions in the current system reflect artificially created shortages in educational opportunity. If there are really too many smart kids to fit into the University of California or the University of Texas, then expand those campuses and rejoice in the abundance of talent. If Ivy colleges gloat over the number of high school valedictorians and 1600-scoring SAT students they are turning away, then create honors colleges at state universities that are fully as rigorous as the Ivies. One of the saddest results of the cutbacks in state funding has been that more and more top students are avoiding public institutions and battling among themselves over access to the Ivies. Now is the time to reverse that trend and reaffirm that excellence and access are realistic compatible goals for public secondary and higher education. ¤