Assault on Merit in the University of California

, Xiaochin Claire Yan, Leave a comment

SACRAMENTO, CA – A University of California faculty committee recently urged its campuses to withdraw from the National Merit Scholarship program on the grounds that the program is biased against some minorities. The logic is baffling because merit-based standards have been the backbone of the UC’s prestige and quality.

The National Merit Scholarship program uses the PSAT, a less intense version of the SAT. The UC faculty committee has a problem with this test, taken by more than 1.3 million high-school juniors. Only the top 16,000 qualify to be evaluated with additional grades, essays, and recommendations. Only 8,000 or so are ultimately named National Merit winners and receive awards.

The College Board has voted unanimously to uphold the use of the PSAT as a qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarships. It should be applauded for doing so. Those UC campuses considering withdrawing should weigh the consequences of dealing another blow to the meritocractic system that has made them great.

In 2001, UC president Richard Atkinson threatened to drop the SAT from the admissions process because too many kids were being coached for the test. Not wanting to lose the SAT’s biggest customer, the College Board eliminated the analogies section and added sections on algebra and writing. The test now focuses less on abstract reasoning and more on classroom learning. But this will hardly make the test more inclusive.

Affluent or middle-class students will still have an upper hand when it comes to writing and high-school algebra. More important, the test that was once meant to survey real ability, not acquired knowledge, has been turned upside down.

In 1933, James Conant, then president of Harvard University, looked around him and found higher education dominated by East Coast prep school kids from Waspy families. He believed that America was becoming increasingly aristocratic. He wanted to create a classless society and sought to recruit intelligent and talented students from all backgrounds. He first adopted the SAT to select students for Harvard scholarships. Later, all candidates to Harvard were required to take the test.

Today, minority and poor students flood elite universities that have always been closed to them. The SAT single-handedly helped to open doors to those who had no other means to get in but by their smarts. The UC itself is proof that students no longer need to attend Harvard or Yale to get a world-class education.

Standardized tests are not perfect but it is difficult to fathom a more effective way to process the more than two million high schoolers who take the SAT each year. So far, nothing has been found to be more predictive of how well a student will perform in college than a combination of high-school grades and test scores. Since the voter-approved elimination of racial preferences in admissions, the UC has been trying to find other ways to manipulate the racial landscape. But scrapping the tests only shoots the messenger and ignores the real problem.

California’s K-12 system does a poor job of preparing students for college, where many need remedial math and English. Stifling merit will only make things worse by sending the message that achievement doesn’t matter.

The entire University of California should remain part of the National Merit Scholarship program and shun racial preferences, which are against the law. Legislators can help make the UC more inclusive by raising, not lowering, standards in the K-12 system.

Xiaochin Claire Yan is a public policy fellow in education studies at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute. She can be reached at