America has always had an uneasy relationship with brilliance. Cultural tropes, like the mad scientist or the nerdy computer whiz, show both a respect for high accomplishment and an anxiety about how smart people fit into society.
This cultural uneasiness is most apparent in the educational realm. Schools recognized the existence of students with high academic aptitude by providing them with gifted programs and advanced classes. Outside of school hours, many sponsor honor societies or academic competitions. And the old tradition of publicly recognizing a graduating class’s valedictorian remains strong.
However, the educational industry has never let these programs shake the field’s commitment to egalitarianism. The spending on education in the United States is disproportionately directed towards struggling children. Sometimes this policy is explicit, such as earmarking billions of federal dollars annually for special education and little or nothing for advanced academics. Other policies implicitly support struggling learners more than students who excel, such as the No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which encouraged states to reward schools that help struggling students reach basic proficiency levels. These laws, though, did not incentivize or reward schools for helping students reach high levels of academic accomplishment. As a result, the numbers of high achievers stagnated.
Equity over excellence
This truce of carving out a few advanced programs and classes from a system concentrated on educating the lowest performing students worked reasonably well for decades. However, that arrangement was shattered within the past few years in the United States as districts and states embraced “equity” initiatives with the goal of achieving equal outcomes across individuals as well as groups. The policies inevitably sacrifice bright and high achieving students to the social goals of activists.
The push to hobble high performing students in order to achieve equity can take many forms. In Oregon, the state legislature eliminated the requirement that students pass a high school exit exam to demonstrate proficiency in reading, mathematics, and writing for two years until the state can re-evaluate its graduation requirements. The reason: the testing requirement was “inequitable” because higher percentages of black and Hispanic students were failing the test.
The impetus to eliminate tests that show differing levels of academic success is also apparent in admissions tests. At the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet high school in Virginia often touted as the best high school in the country, admission is no longer based on high test performance. Instead, a new system assigns seats at the prestigious school so that each region in the school district is evenly represented, and then all students that meet basic criteria (a 3.5 middle school grade-point average) are entered into the lottery. The result is a student body that is more racially diverse (from 73 percent Asian to 53 percent Asian, from one percent black to seven percent, and from three percent Hispanic to 25 percent Hispanic), but much less academically elite. Magnet schools in Philadelphia and Boston also revamped their admissions procedures to de-emphasize tests and to improve the admission chances for Hispanic and black students.
Reducing or eliminating the impact of admissions tests is not unique to high schools. Concerns about equity have also caused universities to make college admissions tests optional for applicants. College admissions tests show well-known differences in average scores, and applying the same admissions standard to all groups will inevitably admit higher scoring groups at higher rates than lower scoring groups. This mathematical reality makes admissions tests a target of equity advocates.
The test-optional movement has been underway for many years, mostly at small liberal arts colleges. Making standardized tests optional seems like a good idea to counteract the unequal admissions rates across groups. However, research shows that it does not improve the socioeconomic or racial diversity of a student body. It does, however, raise a college’s reported test score average (because low performing applicants choose not to report scores), which improves the school’s rankings. Test-optional universities also increased tuition at higher rates than universities that required test scores. None of these developments help disadvantaged students.
The test-optional movement accelerated recently during the COVID-19 pandemic and in response to growing concerns about equity. The movement to drop testing requirements reached its greatest success when the regents of the University of California system voted to make admissions tests optional for applicants—despite their own faculty making a strong recommendation against a test-optional policy. Even this move towards lowering standards was not enough. Advocacy groups sued the University of California system, which settled the lawsuit by agreeing to ban the consideration of any test scores in the admissions process. This outcome was exactly what university president Janet Napolitano had previously proposed and what many California politicians had wanted for years. What an amazing coincidence!
Even when admissions tests remain in place, institutions often apply different admissions standards across racial groups in order to improve the diversity of the student body. A prominent example of this can be found in the lawsuit alleging anti-Asian discrimination in Harvard admissions. According to the plaintiff’s expert analysis of Harvard admissions data conducted by economist Peter S. Arcidiacono, an Asian student with a 25 percent chance of admission to Harvard would have their chances of admission increase to 36 percent if they were white and had the same academic qualifications. Hispanic students with the same academic qualifications have a 75 percent probability of admission. An equivalent black student would have a 95 percent chance of admission.
In other words, what is an iffy one-in-four chance of admission for an Asian student is almost a sure bet for a black student with the same admissions qualifications. Among admitted black students, 45 percent had academic qualifications in the bottom half of all applicants, while only eight percent of admitted Asian students had similar academic qualifications. The admission rate for a student with academic qualifications in the top 10 percent of all applicants is 4.25 times higher for black applicants, 2.61 times higher for Hispanic applicants, and 1.37 times higher for white applicants than for Asian applicants.
Differing admissions standards across racial groups also occurs for law schools and medical schools. Indeed, it is likely that admissions standards vary for different racial and ethnic groups at most American institutions of higher education, except for open enrollment institutions. Data for any particular university is often unavailable, though.
When differing standards are not equitable enough, one proposal to advance equity is to eliminate admissions standards completely. That is what the journalism school at UNC Chapel Hill did when eliminating the minimum GPA for admission to its programs (previously a 3.1 college GPA was required). A more revolutionary change is the proposal for the NCAA—which governs college athletics—to remove its minimum high school GPA and test scores for student athletes. The minimum standard is a sliding scale, but for Division I universities, a 2.3 high school GPA in core subjects is a required minimum. Students with this GPA must earn an SAT score of at least 980 points. Students with lower test scores can compensate with a higher GPA in high school core classes. A student with a 3.0 high school GPA in core subjects, for example, needs to obtain an SAT score of only 720 points to play intercollegiate sports. For most college students, these standards are easily met; but for advocates of equity, even these standards are too high because a disproportionate number of African American students fail to reach them.
Back in the K-12 world, another popular strategy for achieving “equity” in education is to eliminate advanced classes and programs, such as gifted programs or accelerated classes. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio eliminated the city’s gifted program. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the standards for being labeled as “gifted” were lowered so much that 86 percent of school children qualified for the label, and the district eliminated any specialized classes for high performers. California’s proposed K-12 math guidelines states, “… we reject ideas of natural gifts and talents …” and encourages a lockstep math sequence for all students to take the same classes through the end of 10th grade. Lest any students try to escape from a lockstep program, the guidelines explicitly discourage grade skipping individual students, even though there is absolutely no evidence showing negative effects of grade skips.
Avoiding—not solving—the problem
The problem of disproportionate representation of different racial and ethnic groups in educational programs is fundamentally caused by the achievement gap among groups. It is a mathematical fact that when groups differ in their average scores, then the percentage of group members exceeding a cutoff will be higher for groups with a higher average and lower for groups with a lower average. If all groups had equal average academic performance, then students in elite academic programs would much more resemble the demographics of the general student population.
What all these “equity” strategies have in common is that none of them achieve their equity goals by improving the academic performance of low-performing groups. Instead, “equity” almost invariably requires hiding deficiencies of low-performing groups, lowering standards, or eliminating or watering down programs that encourage excellence. These proposed policies are, at best, stopgap solutions. At worst, they hide the problem and allow it to fester.
Instead, solving the equity problem permanently would require closing the achievement gap by lifting the performance of lower-performing groups. The causes of achievement gaps among groups are hotly debated in the educational world. What is not debated is that meaningfully increasing the performance of low-performing groups will not be easy. There are some experts who have proposed policies and practices to increase achievement in low-performing groups. School psychologist Craig Frisby, for example, has found that successful schools that teach large proportions of minority students focus on core achievement, provide strict discipline, and base policies on the science of learning—and not on trendy sociopolitical ideas.
Some projects to increase achievement of Hispanic and African American students have had promising results in increasing the number of these students who qualify for gifted programs. Another reason for optimism is that achievement gaps are narrower in the 21st century than they were in 1971, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress reading and mathematics tests. (However, achievement gap sizes have stagnated since 2012.)
Equity advocates seem unwilling to do the long, hard work of improving the academic performance of the very children they claim to be concerned about—black, Hispanic, and low-income children. Instead, the equity policies are generally a quick fix that makes the demographic makeup of an academic program more palatable while allowing the underlying problem to remain.
Indeed, many of the newly popular equity policies imply that equity advocates have given up on increasing the achievement in low-performing groups. Anyone who thought that struggling students could perform as well as high-achieving groups would not try to lower or eliminate admissions standards, force students into lockstep programs, water down the curriculum, or eliminate advanced academic programs. All of these equity strategies are prime examples of what George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and they are coming from a postmodern ideology that claims to protect and fight for marginalized students.
The students that are most hurt by equity policies are the ones that the activists claim to be helping. Wealthy students who have a gifted program eliminated from their school have parents who can transfer them to a private school or pay for after-school educational opportunities. However, the child from a poor family does not have this option. They are stuck in their neighborhood public school, unchallenged and ignored.
Likewise, a policy that eliminates or de-emphasizes standardized tests closes off the easiest pathway to a challenging educational program for bright students from low-income families and under-privileged backgrounds. When many selective grammar schools and the 11+ admissions examination were eliminated in the UK, the percentage of students from working-class backgrounds who attended prestigious schools decreased. In other words, eliminating the standardized test favored the wealthy and well-connected.
In the college admissions scene, eliminating admissions tests benefits the moderately talented from wealthy families because they have more resources to make their child into an attractive applicant. Students from wealthy families can afford to have an impressive list of extracurricular activities, and these parents can manipulate other components of a college admissions application, such as grade-point averages (e.g., by pressuring a teacher, or transferring a child to a school with lenient grading standards). Even admission preferences for student-athletes often benefit the wealthy. When was the last time an elite college’s sailing, lacrosse, or water polo teams consisted of students from working-class backgrounds?
Other equity policies hurt poor students in profound ways, even if a child does not qualify for an advanced academic program. When standards are lowered in a school district, or the curriculum becomes politicized, then the basics are neglected. A school year consists of a finite amount of time, and it is impossible to teach every topic. When politicized classes are required (as has happened with California’s new ethnic studies high school requirement), foundational knowledge must be de-emphasized. Students trapped in ideological classrooms have less instruction time to develop strong skills in the core subjects of math, reading, and science, thereby stunting their academic and employment prospects in the future.
No help from the educational establishment
Don’t expect the educational establishment to fight against equity initiatives. For example, the only American advocacy organization in gifted education, the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), has committed itself to social justice orthodoxy. In June and July of 2020, NAGC released multiple statements committing itself to diversity and equity, as a response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. What George Floyd had to do with gifted programs was never explained. No matter! NAGC has recently reaffirmed that it intends on incorporating equity in all its future work.
As a result, NAGC is paralyzed when gifted programs come under attack. The organization has done nothing to respond to the proposed California math guidelines, and it did nothing to mobilize support for gifted programs in New York City. The best it could do was issue a feeble statement on the day of Mayor de Blasio’s announcement saying that NAGC was “deeply disappointed.”
Simply put, bright students cannot count on education bureaucrats to fight for their educational needs. Most people with power in the education industry are already committed to social justice causes. This is apparent, for example, at the college level. In a 2019 Pew Center poll, 73 percent of Americans were against race having any influence in college admissions decisions. Even 56 percent of voters in California last year preferred race-neutral procedures in college admissions. Yet, college administrators consistently buck public opinion on this point and implement racial preferences (often covertly) and vigorously fight for affirmative action in the courts. Fighting an anti-Asian discrimination lawsuit to preserve its affirmative action practices has cost Harvard University over $25 million in legal expenses. K-12 controversies tend to be less prominent, but in many parts of the country, the commitment to “equity” and other leftist values is common in many school districts.
With gifted programs under attack and no professional advocates to fight for them, bright students are at the mercy of the winds of politics. A few weeks after de Blasio announced that gifted programs would be eliminated, Eric Adams was elected as New York City mayor. During the campaign, Adams had promised to reinstate gifted programs (though the details are unclear). Bright children corralled into slowly-paced math courses in California will likely not be so lucky if the proposed mathematics guidelines are implemented in their district. The progressive worldview is entrenched in Californian politics, and that seems unlikely to change.
It is too early to tell how a shift in the political winds will impact other students. In the recent Virginia elections, education was a top issue for many voters, and there seems to be a backlash against critical race theory in schools in that state and other parts of the country. However, gifted programs rarely rally the voters because they tend to serve a small percentage of students and are easily branded—sometimes correctly—as elitist. Thus, gifted programs are unlikely to be a sole source of populist sentiment.
A new 6–3 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court gives affirmative action opponents hope in eliminating race considerations from college admissions and the varying admissions standards for different racial groups. Until a case reaches the court, though, it is unknown whether the justices will be willing to overturn more than four decades of consistent precedent supporting affirmative action in higher education.
Lessons from history
While the focus on “equity” may be dismaying for advocates of excellence and individual merit, America has been down this path before. When the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s prioritized equity, academic standards and performance decayed. In the early 1980s, the nation’s political class—not the education establishment—led a pivot towards encouraging high achievement in America’s schools. This was most clearly seen in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, which stated:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.
The 1980s saw the birth of the accountability movement, higher academic standards, and massive growth of the Advanced Placement program. As happened a generation ago, the focus on equity will likely diminish as political leaders and the American people become dissatisfied with the mediocrity that results from an emphasis on equity.
Unfortunately for bright students stuck in lockstep academic programs, the change in political priorities may come too late—if it comes at all to their state or community. Implementation of newly popular equity policies will hinder the learning of many students before those policies are weakened or reversed. Perhaps one day the mad scientist trope will be replaced by the stereotype of the unchallenged gifted child, wiling away years of boredom in the classroom. At least the activists can feel good about the mediocre equity they have achieved.
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