The University of Texas (UT) at Austin got approval last week from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to continue using race as one of many factors in its admissions. Abigail Fisher, a white student, had sued, claiming that she was a victim of racial discrimination, because some minority students with less impressive credentials than hers had been admitted when she was not.
Texas' admissions policies include a "Top Ten Percent Plan," which guarantees the top 10 percent of graduates of every state high school a place at the UT-Austin campus or other universities in the state system. In 2008, when Fisher applied, 92 percent of UT-Austin's slots were filled this way. The remaining slots are decided based on an Academic Achievement Index (grades and test scores), plus a Personal Achievement Index (extracurricular activities, accomplishments, leadership, service, and family background, including race, poverty, language background and other factors).
Fisher, who is the child of UT alumni, may have hoped her legacy status would compensate for the fact that she did not graduate in the top 10 percent of her class, and her GPA (3.59) and test scores (SAT -- 1180 out of 1600) were not high enough to qualify her for automatic admission. Nonetheless, these numbers were higher than those of 47 students who were admitted in part based on their personal achievements.
Fisher, now graduated from Louisiana State University, vows to continue her lawsuit, keeping the affirmative action elephant smack dab in the center of the room. The question hangs in the air: Do highly qualified applicants lose out in the college admissions race because less qualified applicants got special treatment due to race?
Never mind that, in Abigail Fisher's case, only five of the 47 students admitted with lower grades and test scores than Abigail's were minority, while 42 were white. Never mind that 168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher's were also denied entry into the university that year.
Playing the race card is what gets America's attention.
But there is another, even more fundamental, problem with this debate: Its core premise is deeply flawed.
The debate's underlying assumption is that statistical measures -- GPAs, SATs, ACTs and AP test scores -- are the most objective, and hence useful, gauge of an applicant's merit. Clearly, or so the thinking goes, a well-off applicant with near-perfect SAT scores and a 4.3 GPA (adjusted with extra points from AP courses that are common in affluent schools and rare in low-income schools) is more qualified than an inner-city student with lower numbers. So the debate rages about whether universities should admit "less qualified" applicants on the basis of criteria designed to help offset historical inequities.
But myriad studies conclude that standardized test scores are a poor predictor of success in college and in life. More than 80 percent of the variance in college success is attributable to factors other than test scores. Over and over across our country, we find leaders of business, non-profits, or policy with checkered academic transcripts.
Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of human relations and operations at Google, told The New York Times that company officials found that GPAs and test scores are "worthless" as predictors of career performance at his company, a company widely admired for its innovative excellence. Bock notes that "learning ability" is the number one criterion for hiring -- the capacity to find, weigh, and analyze diffuse information, put the pieces together, and figure out what it means for solving real problems and developing something new.
Researchers such as Angela Duckworth have emphasized the overwhelming importance of character traits such as perseverance, grit, tenacity, and resourcefulness. At some level, we all realize that it is the kid who never gives up and always finds a way to move forward, not the kid who can define "nugatory," who will make important contributions to her employer, community, and society. Yet educational measures place outsized weight on esoteric academic pursuits -- pursuits that all too often have no meaningful connection to the skills needed in life. We gauge the worth of a child on how facile he is with the quadratic equation (when was the last time any adult used it?), not on his resourcefulness or creativity.
Even worse, we fail to consider the toll exacted by these hollow figures of merit.
In well-off communities, students often spend their formative years on a soul-crushing mission to build the perfect college application. They cram and regurgitate facts for tests, instantly forgetting them. They grind away at subjects like AP Calculus that are obsolete in today's computationally rich world. Their families spend tens of thousands of dollars on tutoring, test prep, and college counseling. They learn that life is about pleasing anonymous college admissions officers, instead of finding and pursuing passions. They become increasingly dependent on adults for structure and "motivation." And, over time, they develop into fragile micro-managed hoop-jumpers.
What about students in low-income communities? Many grow up handling responsibilities that most well-off peers can't begin to fathom. They often make their way through under-resourced schools in large classes taught by over-stretched teachers. They are reminded regularly of their academic "limitations" as they are assessed relentlessly on mind-numbing tests. And for those that do overcome enormous obstacles and claw their way into a top college? They encounter upper-crust classmates questioning whether they belong, as evidenced by the recent "Affirmative Dissatisfaction" controversy at Harvard.
Yet on the dimensions of tenacity and grit, as well as personal accomplishment, these students run circles around many "highly qualified" upper-crust applicants. And, in fact, research by former university presidents William Bowen and Derek Bok on the outcomes of affirmative action programs found that minority students admitted to selective universities did as well or better than their white counterparts on a number of outcomes -- and opened doors for generations after them.
Suppose for a moment that we lived in a world where our education system cared more about grit than GPAs. About resourcefulness than parents' resources. About ability to create rather than ability to cram. About whether a young person is passionate about making the world better, or is simply seeking to follow his parent's footsteps into the 1 percent? In that world, we might look at a prep school graduate at Harvard and say, "Gee, I wonder if he got here through the school's 'rich kid' affirmative action initiative? Does he really have the grit to belong here?"
Beyond reshaping our views on affirmative action, this different world would bring profound benefits. For starters, high school would change overnight. We would start teaching kids skills that matter (e.g., collaboration, creative problem solving, making sound decisions, learning how to learn, leveraging your passions and talents to achieve your dreams), instead of drilling kids endlessly on academic trivia they retain for a matter of days. We would prepare kids for life, instead of for standardized tests and college admissions. We would teach skills that matter enormously but are hard to measure precisely, instead of low-level skills that can be tested cost-effectively in bulk.
So the next time the subject of affirmative action comes up, think broadly about how we evaluate the merits and potential of our youth. Think of how different the school years of all kids -- rich and poor -- would be if education were aligned with life, instead of tailored to the needs of Princeton statisticians. We might begin to make progress after decades of failed education reform, and might start graduating kids able to make their way in the world as adults. Imagine.
Linda Darling-Hammond is Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University and Faculty Director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. Her work focuses on school reform and educational equity. She has advised policymakers in states across the nation and served as the director of President Obama's education transition team in 2008.
Ted Dintersmith is Chairman of LearningInnovation.us, and Partner Emeritus with Charles River Ventures, a leading early-stage venture capital firm. He was chair of the National Competitiveness Committee for the National Venture Capital Association, was selected by President Obama to represent the United States at the U.N. General Assembly in 2012 focusing on global education issues, and is funding several initiatives to bring education into the 21st Century.
This blog originally appeared July 17, 2014, in Washington Post column, The Answer Sheet.