The war on standards: Magnet school admissions edition

America’s top colleges and universities grant preferential treatment to Blacks applying for admissions. For example, Black applicants need not perform nearly as well as White and Asian applicants on standardized tests in order to gain admission. Admissions data from Yale exemplify the preferential treatment.

Thus far, the Supreme Court has found that race-based preferences in college admissions are permissible if granted (or couched) in a certain way. But the Court has never suggested that colleges are required to grant the preferences, i.e. that not granting them would constitute race discrimination.

Yet, this is the premise of a story about the Loudoun County magnet school program in the Washington Post called (in the paper edition) “Virginia finds racism in elite school admissions.” It’s also the premise of the findings by Virginia.

What is the “racism” that “Virginia” found in admissions? It consists of the fact that Blacks fare worse than Whites and Asians in obtaining admission because they don’t perform as well on the tests used to determine admissions.

That’s not racism. It’s not intentional discrimination. It’s not even unintentional discrimination unless, perhaps, the tests in question are an invalid predictor of performance in the elite magnet schools.

The Post cites no evidence that the tests are invalid.

From what appears in the Post’s article, the admissions process operates as follows: Eighth grade students interested in attending an elite program take a test of their “critical thinking” ability and a test of their ability in STEM. Those who pass these tests then take a second critical thinking exam, and their writing, grades, and teacher recommendations are assessed.

The first round seems like a way of identifying those with the minimum qualifications for the program. The second round seems like a way of identifying the best candidates from among the minimally qualified.

Apparently, Blacks fare poorly in the process, although the statistics presented by the Post don’t establish this because they don’t compare Black acceptance rates with acceptance rates for Whites and Asian applicants. For example, Post reporter Hannah Natanson, whose critical thinking skills seem subpar, tells us that the Black acceptance rate in 2019 was about 7 percent, but she doesn’t provide the corresponding numbers for Whites and Asians.

Loudoun County has tried to increase Black representation in its elite magnet school program. According to the Post it “altered” (fudged, more likely) its assessment of applicants’ writing and began taking “socioeconomic background” into account. Yet, in 2020 only about 3 percent of Black applicants made it into the program.

Under pressure from “Virginia” — i.e. the office of its “blackface” attorney general — Loudoun County is planning to reduce the number of critical thinking tests applicants take. Whether this will reduce the numerical disparities in those who perform well enough on these tests is unclear. It probably comes down to whether Blacks perform better in relation to Whites and Asians on the easier test than they do on the more stringent one.

What reducing the number of tests will do, I assume, is increase the raw number of Blacks who aren’t screened out for less than stellar critical thinking skills. This, in turn, will increase opportunities to finds ways to admit a higher percentage of Blacks.

Indeed, the NAACP is proposing that Loudoun County offer admission to “qualifying applicants on a random basis,” as opposed to offering it to the most qualified applicants. This may reduce the racial disparities in admissions rates, but it will not eliminate them.

What it will do is (1) lower the standards and (2) treat certain White and Asian applicants — those who would have been admitted under the more stringent standards but not under the modified system — unfairly because of their race.

The Attorney General’s office also purports to find systematic discrimination by Loudoun County against “students of color.” As evidence, according to the Post, the office’s report points to one math teacher who, it is alleged, intentionally marked a Black student’s correct answers wrong and to one Black student who allegedly was forced to “reenact being a runaway slave on the underground railroad” during a lesson.

If these anecdotes are the best evidence of intentional discrimination the Attorney General’s office could find during its investigation, the conclusion should be that that systematic discrimination does not exist in Loudoun County’s schools — except, perhaps, against Whites and Asians to the extent the County has already tried to manipulate its magnet school admissions program to lower their representation.

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