So maybe "striving" won't count after all.
The Educational Testing Service, creator of the widely used SAT college entrance exam, has been trying to figure out a way to identify minority youngsters who score better than their socioeconomic backgrounds would have predicted. The point of identifying these strivers wasn't to give them extra SAT points but rather to provide a sort of heads-up for college admissions officers: Here comes a striver; you might want to give him a special look.
A terrific idea? Not according to the College Board, the consortium of colleges that contracts with ETS to administer and score the SAT. The board's new president, Gaston Caperton, says it will work to block implementation of the plan.
"There is a real art and a real skill to blending these factors together, for an institution to decide what its student body should look like," Caperton told the New York Times. "To think you could do that with some scientific formula just wouldn't work."
Maybe nothing will work -- until we come to some consensus on the problem we're trying to solve.
Isn't the problem the disproportionately small number of African Americans and Hispanic Americans in the nation's most selective colleges?
Well, not precisely. That disproportion, most of us would argue, is the result of the problem that needs fixing. And that problem is . . .
And that's where the consensus train jumps the track. Not only do different socioeconomic and political groups have different ideas about the causes and acceptable remedies for the disproportion but people within the groups change their ideas over time as well.
The disproportion used to be blamed on unfair subjective judgments of admissions officers. Later the culprit was culture bias -- tests normed on middle-class white Americans were necessarily unfair to those of a different culture. (That was in the days before it became necessary to explain the high scores of Asian children who learned American culture -- and English -- only after their refugee parents arrived here.)
Well, isn't some part of the disproportion the result of (1) the unexplained but apparently true fact that the SAT and other standardized predictive tests frequently underpredict the performance of black applicants and (2) the fact that much test-taking success is associated with certain home and environmental characteristics that are in short supply in black and brown communities? In other words, what the tests count as merit may be nothing more than advantage.
It's hard to know what to do about the underprediction problem, particularly in public universities and more particularly yet in those jurisdictions that have been forbidden by the courts or legislation to take race into account.
The environmental aspect is what the "strivers" idea was supposed to deal with. ETS, according to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, was working on a formula that would identify as a "striver" worthy of special consideration a student who scored at least 1,000 (out of a possible 1,600) on the SAT and also scored 200 points higher than would be expected based on a number of factors (the number of books and appliances in the home, the educational level of the parents, the number of advanced placement tests taken at the applicant's school).
It may be a clever formula, and a defensible one. But it is hardly the sort of thing on which to build a consensus to lead us out of this increasingly contentious muddle.
I think there may be widespread (though certainly not universal) agreement on two points. First, that racial quotas -- whether directly or through subterfuge -- are a bad idea; second, that black students may be more likely than whites to do better in school than "objective" measures would indicate -- rather like the hustling basketball player who makes the team while others with superior athletic gifts don't.
Here's the difference: No basketball coach would want the physiology department choosing his team, no matter how fair and objective its testing devices. And no court or legislature would require it.
There is, as Gaston Caperton could tell you, a real art and a real skill to blending the necessary factors together, and some scientific formulas just wouldn't work.