Games We Mortals Play

By: 
Al Jacobs
If the 21st Century United States is devoted to any particular cause or event where the majority of its citizens participate, it’s without a doubt higher education. With a 71.9 percent college enrollment rate of 2016 high school graduates, in 2017 nearly 20 million Americans attended our colleges and universities. And postsecondary education is not a recent development. 
 
Our very first such institution, Harvard University (previously Harvard College), named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard, was established in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1636. As a nation, we’ve successfully schooled our growing population for a long time.
 
In an attempt to expand access to higher education, an organization named the College Entrance Examination Board, an American not-for-profit foundation, was formed in 1899. While this College Board is not a formal association of colleges, its membership of over 6,000 schools, colleges, universities and other educational institutions, makes it preeminent in its field. 
 
And in furtherance of its goals, it developed and introduced in 1926, a standardized test intended to assess students’ readiness for college, originally titled The Scholastic Aptitude Test – now simply known as SAT.
The College Board claims SAT is intended to measure literacy, numeracy and writing skills needed for academic success in college. Over the years, SAT has been widely used and generally acknowledged to be in correlation with a high school student’s GPA, as well as proven to be a reliable indicator of a student’s future performance. In addition, an independent validity study on the SAT’s ability to predict college freshman GPA was performed by the University of California. The results of this study generally substantiated its validity. 
 
If there are any discrepancies to be noted, it’s the substantial differences in funding, curricula, grading and difficulty among U.S. secondary schools due to U.S. federalism, local control and the prevalence of home schooled students. SAT scores are intended to supplement the secondary school record and help admission officers put local data – such as course work, grades and class rank – in a national perspective. 
 
However, independent research shows high school GPA is a vital ingredient, along with SAT, in predicting college grades, regardless of high school type or quality.
 
As neatly as the SAT scores and high school GPAs identified students deserving to be admitted to the nation’s universities, other factors soon overruled these criteria. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Brown v. Board of Education, that such mathematical determinations resulted in an unconstitutional segregation by race. 
 
A decade later Congress‘ passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbid racial discrimination of any program or activity receiving federal funding. And by 1968, integration of public schools morphed into a national crusade, where test scores ceased to be of primary concern. Universities began to feel the impact of these involvements.
 
A major upheaval developed in 1974 when Allan Bakke, a white applicant to the medical school of the University of California, Davis, was denied admission while minorities were admitted with significantly lower academic scores. Following the four year trial of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court, on June 28, 1978, ruled the university discriminated against Bakke, violating Title VI,. and approved the court’s admission of him. However, the justices declined to make clear whether race can ever be used as a factor in an admissions decision.
 
Over the next couple of decades racial affirmative action became a subject of major controversy. With the quota system, once used as UC Davis’ admission process, now declared unlawful, academic institutions seemed at a loss for acceptable methods to increase minority enrollment. 
 
The Bakke ruling, which over time acted as a catalyst for voluntary affirmative action programs, resulted in ever increasing public hostility. Consequently, judiciaries – particularly in California – devoted efforts to reinterpret affirmative action in ways to sidestep the Supreme Court’s specific wording.
 
The turning point occurred on November 5, 1996, with the passage of the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), amending the state constitution to prohibit state governmental institutions from considering race,
 
sex, or ethnicity, specifically in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education. Modeled on the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, it has been the operative ruling in California – and with certain variances, elsewhere throughout the nation, withstanding legal scrutiny ever since. The result, as you might expect: to inhibit affirmative action. 
 
However, despite its technical illegality, there are powerful forces demanding its return for the political and economic benefits it generates – irrespective of any educational dilemmas it may create.
 
Since 1996, university administrators tried to work around CCRI. Since the law’s passage, officials looked for creative ways to boost ethnic diversity at colleges without directly using race as a factor. Restricting school choice, contorting admissions standards, or other nefarious means of masking the failings of the state’s K-12 system won’t solve the underlying problems or the deleterious consequences of poorly educated students. 
There’s no shortcut here; more students from all income and ethnic backgrounds must rightfully possess the requisite skills and test scores before they can be properly admitted into the universities. 
 
In this world there’s one certainty dictating events destined to occur – it’s that nothing remains unchanged. And you may be certain the provisions of CCRI are no exception to this rule. At this very moment changes are in the works. In an effort to do away with the concept of individual academic proficiency, SAT test scores are maligned in every possible way. 
 
Although more than 2.2 million high school students took the exam in 2018 – the most ever – more than 1,000 colleges and universities stopped requiring any standardized entrance exam. And all the while critics of conventional testing maintain that SAT, as it’s been utilized since its inception, merely highlights the inequities in the nation’s educational system. 
 
They contend, instead, the presence of a factor previously ignored to be the primary reason poor and minority kids perform badly in school, as well as demonstrate insufficient preparation for college. So, what’s this previously ignored factor accused of being the predominant cause of student inequality? It’s a concept termed “adversity.”
 
Goaded into compromising SAT, the College Board over several years tested an “adversity index.” Designed to place students’ SAT scores in the context of their socioeconomic advantages or disadvantages, it measures about15 factors such as income level and crime rate in a school’s neighborhood. “This is a tool designed for admission officers to view a student’s academic accomplishments in the context of where they live and learn,” said a spokeswoman for the College Board. 
 
The board is able to produce its index based on databases it has on just about every high school, and those databases have been expanded to include information about neighborhoods. These adversity scores, in which schools are ranked from 1 to 100, are then available to adjust average SAT scores. The advantage of this contrivance is no student’s actual race or ethnicity is involved, so no CCRI illegalities can be charged. 
 
The advantage is obvious: By a clever twisting of words and the institution of a system of perverse interpretations, the student admissions procedures of our institutions of higher learning will return to a variation of the affirmative action system desired by many … though through the back door, more or less.
 
A final thought: There’s one thing I’m convinced of; a machine will never successfully compete with and take control over we humans. Despite its ability to store immense quantities of data and calculate at a ferocious rate, it lacks the one prerequisite necessary for dominating us. There’s no way it can be endowed with the deviousness and duplicity our brains are capable of. Three cheers for adversity.
 
Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al can be contacted at al@abjacobs.com

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