Last week, Californians had the opportunity to return preferential treatment based on race—affirmative action—to the state’s public institutions. In 1996, they amended their state constitution to deny preferential treatment based on race, gender, or national origin. Proposition 16, on the ballot on November 3, would have reversed that amendment, giving local and state organizations the option to consider an applicant’s race. But Golden State voters soundly defeated it, maintaining race-neutral processes.
The debate surrounding Prop. 16 was highly contentious, particularly concerning higher-education admissions. Numerous organizations, including several Asian-American advocacy groups, criticized the proposal as discriminatory and unmeritocratic. Asian students markedly outperform white, black, and Latino students on standardized tests and would benefit from a purely meritocratic system. Consequently, many feared that reintroducing affirmative action would unjustly lower the number of Asian students admitted to the state’s public universities.
Proposition supporters, from Governor Gavin Newsom to the American Federation of Teachers, countered by asserting that black and Latino students were at a profound disadvantage in admissions. The consideration of race in college admissions, they said, was necessary to the promotion of diversity in higher education. In addition, proponents pointed to how some minority beneficiaries of race-conscious admissions went on to earn higher salaries than they might otherwise have done.
These defenses, whatever one thinks of them, don’t address the racial achievement gap, which affirmative action can do little about. Undoubtedly, students of color exiting high school and entering college are often disadvantaged compared with their white counterparts, and greater attention is needed to close the gap. But this problem develops years before a student is ready to apply to college.
For decades, racial achievement gaps have been relatively stable across academic metrics. Data trends from the National Center for Education Statistics show that even as average high school GPAs increase, GPA gaps by race remain. Both SAT and ACT gaps between black and Latino test takers and white test takers have been relatively stable. National NAEP scores in reading and math show nearly unmoving gaps in performance across fourth, eighth, and 12th grades. In California, state tests in English Language Arts and math reveal substantial gaps in proficiency. While nationwide racial gaps in college enrollment have narrowed in recent years, college graduation gaps have not.
Advocates of race-conscious admissions claim that standardized tests are biased in favor of those who come from more privileged backgrounds. People in higher-income families have access to better schools and specialized tutors and are therefore expected to outperform minority and low-income students on standardized assessments.
True, household income is highly predictive of academic achievement, and the quality of schooling prior to college matters significantly. But standardized tests also remain consistently predictive of academic achievement, regardless of race. They are one of the most objective tools admissions officers have to assess readiness. Besides, race-neutral admissions in California have not turned a blind eye to disparities in hardship and privilege. The University of California system offers statewide and local guarantees to the top students in the state’s high school graduating classes. This initiative promotes geographical diversity, ensuring that students in rural, urban, and suburban areas gain access to the state’s best public universities. And though selective private universities have been criticized for championing diversity while maintaining legacy admissions, the University of California system does not consider legacy in admissions.
Well-intentioned efforts to increase black and Latino higher-education enrollment rates cannot change a stubborn reality: the only way to close performance gaps is to improve performance. If racial-justice advocates want to overcome racial disparities in educational attainment and proficiency, they should concentrate their efforts on minority students in their younger years.