In a column I wrote last semester I referred to the new UW holistic admissions policy as racist. I think that the policy adopted by the Board of Regents seeks to solve a legitimate problem — a lack of diversity on UW System campuses — but does so without addressing any of the underlying causes of why minority students in Wisconsin are unprepared for college.
According to recently released U.S. Department of Education statistics, black and Hispanic students in Wisconsin have the lowest reading test scores in the United States. To make matters worse, the achievement gap between white and minority students is also the highest in the nation.
Why is the achievement gap so vast? Well, it is really for a number of reasons. In Milwaukee, for example, the Milwaukee Public Schools' graduation rate ranks among the lowest in the nation. According to the Manhattan Institute, the graduation rate from MPS high schools ranked 95th out of the 100 largest school districts in the nation, with a paltry 45 percent of students graduating. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction statistics put the 2003 MPS graduation rate slightly higher at 61 percent, a meager statistic nonetheless.
What do any of those statistics have to do with holistic admissions? Plenty.
While the Board of Regents has time and time again asserted that the new admissions policy looks at race as only a small part of an applicant's overall readiness for college, it is unquestionable that the effect of holistic admissions will be an immediate increase in the number of black and Hispanic students in the UW System. Rather than focusing on the reasons minority students are not better represented in the UW System — namely lower graduation rates and much lower basic reading skills — the regents decided to take a superficial and ultimately ineffective approach to the situation.
The goal of the Board of Regents, and many other well-intentioned people, is to fix the surface problem of a lack of diversity in our public universities and then pat themselves on the back for making the UW System "look" more like the state of Wisconsin or the nation in its racial makeup. As I have said before, if the regents were serious about improving diversity in the UW System, they would be working with the state DPI and MPS and other school districts with large minority enrollment to help close the achievement gap and actually prepare minority students for college.
Let's face a very serious truth: If our schools are failing to educate minority students, changing admissions policies will not help minority students succeed in college. On the contrary, guaranteeing that more minority students will enter the UW System without a similar guarantee that those same students will actually be leaving high school with the skills necessary to succeed at the collegiate level is irresponsible at the least.
While it is true that the holistic admissions criteria still include academic proficiency, it is also true that those measures are weighted the same as race combined with other factors. Given the new standards used to determine admission into the UW System, it is not unreasonable to assume students who are ill-prepared for college will be or have been accepted. This is a major problem for the state.
The whole issue of the holistic admissions policy is emblematic of another phenomenon in education: namely "social promotion." We all know what this practice is: passing along students who aren't really ready for the next level of education because we don't want to hurt their self-esteems and so they can be with their friends. This practice doesn't help the struggling student and ultimately hurts the entire class as time is spent helping the student who should be a grade behind instead of teaching the next lesson to the students who are ready. Yes, this sounds a bit harsh, and I know that it is not easy to for some people to hear, but can you honestly say what we are doing now is working?
We have a public school system in Wisconsin that fails to teach minority students how to read. If they are failing the exact same tests that their white peers are passing in other school districts, something has gone terribly wrong. Sadly, I don't have some magic answer as to how to fix the crisis. The state mandates that reading specialists be hired in all 426 school districts across the state — the only instructional position that is mandated, by the way — yet the achievement gap only gets worse. Should we spend more money on K-12 education? I doubt very much that will help if we don't first identify the root cause of why minorities in our state are so far behind academically.
The problem going forward isn't that holistic admissions alone are racist. The problem is that it seeks to solve a problem — the fact that minorities in Wisconsin are not accepted into college — in the most superficial and damaging way possible: by simply changing the standards. Once again the state has effectively turned a blind eye to the issue of a racial achievement gap in our public schools. It's not necessarily that the regents or other state leaders — such as Gov. Doyle, Speaker Huebsch and Sen. Decker — don't care enough about minorities, it's that to do anything substantive about the issue requires some frank and honest discussion about race and culture in the United States, and for many politicians, that's just not a subject they are willing to touch.
And that's a shame, because the longer we put this discussion off the worse the achievement gap will get and the more kids we will condemn to a cycle of poverty and underachievement.
Mike Hahn ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in history and political science.