Tag Archives: affirmative action

GPA and the Ironies of Integration

Grade inflation, score stagnation reports USA Today.  47% of students are graduating with an A- or higher average (A- undefined, but presumably 3.7 or higher). Back in 1998, just 37% were graduating with similar marks. Meanwhile SAT scores have dropped. Inside Higher Education’s take was more skeptical of the SAT connection but covers a lot of the same bases.

Moreover, the SAT scores are stagnant, so these higher grades aren’t evidence of greater learning!  OK, yeah, the SAT isn’t the only college admissions test and it’s changed twice in 20 years. What’s happened to the other college admissions test, which has a larger test base and which has changed very little? Well, one of the researchers works for the College Board, see.


Yes, GPAs are going up. I suspect this is caused by several states banning affirmative action.

Pause. I’ll wait.

[Reader: wait, what What do high school grades have to do with affirmative action?  Affirmative action usually involves college admissions, not high school…oh, well, high school grades are used for college admissions. In fact, now that I think about it,  high school grades don’t really have any purpose save their use in  college applications. ]

Good, you’re caught up.

It appears that voters have given up banning affirmative action not because they approve of it, but because universities have made it clear they have no intention of abandoning their “pursuit of diversity” and the courts have said yeah, okay, we’ll let you And as this how-to guide for avoiding lawsuits makes clear, top of the “diversity strategies” that allow colleges to ignore the will of the voters is the “percent plan”, or taking in students based on their class ranking. Class ranking is set by GPA.

Texas, California, and Florida all created programs to guarantee admission to public colleges for top graduates from each high school in the state. At their most basic level, these programs generate geographic diversity. But since high schools are frequently segregated by class and racepercent plans also create socioeconomic and racial diversity by opening the door to graduates from under-resourced high schools. These are students who may never before have considered attending a major research university. (emphasis mine)

I don’t have any proof that AA is one reason why GPAs are increasing, and I got a bit distracted because frankly, I don’t care about GPA. No, that’s a lie. I care a lot about GPAs. I think they’re fricking evil, and I get a bit nauseous when someone bleats about how they reflect the virtue of hard work. Look, GPAs are worthless information. Grades aren’t even consistent from teacher to teacher, much less school to school, much less aggregated into one big nationwide chunk. Many teachers grade participation and homework on the same basis as tests–some are even required to boost or reduce demonstrated ability with effort or citizenship grades.  Tests are usually the teachers’ own creations. Some are terribly unfair, some are just terrible. And some are very good–so good, in fact, that the teachers reuse those tests year after year, and the students sell images of them to “tutoring services” and each other, thus rendering their goodness inert.

But I don’t really care why GPAs are rising. The italicized part of the paragraph–since high schools are frequently segregated by class and race–operated like a bright shiny object to distract me from an unpleasant subject.

Yes. Since most blacks and Hispanics go to majority black and Hispanic schools, the students with the highest GPAs will be black and Hispanic. Left unmentioned:  the standards will be lower than they are at majority white or majority Asian schools. Unmentioned but not unnoticed, obviously. If blacks and Hispanics were achieving at the same level, then no one would bother with affirmative action, much less banning it.

Evidence of the lower standards are a time-honored journalism time-killer; I wrote about the  Kashawn Campbell saga a few years ago as an example. But sob stories usually involve kids in the deepest of high poverty cases. Often the top 10% of an all URM low-performing high school will go on to decent colleges and do adequately. They might be the ones we read about who abandon STEM and go into an identity major, but a decent chunk of them are getting through the system that was rigged for them just as anticipated.

Still, these kids represent a  chilling inequity. The  de facto segregation that enable this faux meritocracy mean that the B and even C kids at almost any other type of school is more accomplished, on average.

Just recently I looked at African American participation in AP classes over the past 20 years. Mean scores dropped in almost every test, and scores of 1 saw the most growth.  Hispanics have similar stats. Beware any time someone brags about Hispanic AP pass rates–they have the Spanish Literature and Language tests boosting their scores. Whites and Asians…don’t.

Many black and Hispanic students are prepared and can pass the tests.  An open question, though, is whether the qualified kids are going to the schools that offer up the top 10%. I have my doubts.

But urban schools aren’t really playing GPA games–not consciously, anyway. They don’t have time. Other schools are a different story.

Majority URM charters, for example, have the same incentives as urban public schools–more, even, since what’s the point of charters if there’s no bragging to be done? Charters can be very subjective about grades. Other, more diverse (at least at first)  charters are progressive, designed for suburban parents in racially diverse school districts who aren’t quite wealthy enough for private school or houses in less racially diverse districts.

These suburban charters have another advantage. Remember Emily in Waiting for Superman? Emily’s public high school is in Woodside, California, one of the richest communities in the country. Woodside is considered a very strong school for those in the top track, offering a number of high performance classes that aren’t just open to anyone. Emily wasn’t considered strong enough for these classes, so she went to Summit, a school that’s very grateful for any donations. Think Emily got better grades at Summit?

I’ve written much about “Asian” schools (more than 50% Asian), as well as their selection of Advanced Placement class preferences, as well as the fact that their grades and test scores often seem acquired with no retention (and perhaps not acquired). Most of the students take 11 or 12 AP courses in a high school career, valedictorians have GPAs above 4.4, and they’re ten-way ties. Taking geometry freshman year is considered remedial.

But as both Toppo and Jaschik report, it’s predominantly wealthy and white schools, public and private, that have seen the most inflation.  I suspect that these schools have increased GPAs the most because grades were lower to begin with. These kids were once considered in an entirely different context from affirmative action admits. They had better course offerings, better teachers, stricter grades, but of course much higher test scores. Twenty years ago, affirmative action bans kicked in and Asian immigration skyrocketed. These parents began to realize the competitive disadvantage their children faced and I suspect started demanding more. Class rankings probably disappeared for similar reasons–their 40th percentile student achieves far more than the best students from urban schools. Don’t feel too bad for the students–remember, given a choice between a casually high-achieving rich white and an endlessly studying, grade-obsessed Bangladeshi immigrant who has been attending test prep since second grade, the white kid wins every time. Their parents write checks. Plus, legacy.

I know next to nothing about poor white rural schools. Reporters and colleges don’t care about them, and I don’t have any nearby to study.

So that’s all the “racially isolated” cases, be they URM, white, or Asian. What’s left? The Woodside Highs that Emily wanted to escape, at the high end, and schools like mine at the low end. The integrated schools.

Integrated high performing schools, in rich areas that can’t quite shut out the low income and middle class kids, are tracked without fear of lawsuits. Usually three tracks: high (mostly whites and Asians), medium (white boys and  strong URMs, but a mix of everything), low (almost entirely URM).  The rich parents will take their kids, and their money, elsewhere if they can’t be assured of high standards. There will be no talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, but nor will there be complaints  if the students are qualified.

Integrated low performing schools, like mine, can’t track and can’t assure high standards. There will be talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, and wholly unqualified kids are often plunked in despite loud protests from both teacher and students.

In lower performing integrated schools–stop, for a minute. I don’t mean these schools are terrible or that kids graduate incompetent. But these are schools that can’t really push high achievers hard, because of the racial imbalances that result and get them into  trouble. Asians dominate the top track. Their parents demand that their kids be put into advanced classes early, often look for ways they can test out of requirements. White parents in these schools are usually middle or lower class. While they’re often concerned about school, they aren’t planning on stressing the next four years. They’ve realized that their kids are probably going to spend two years at community college and hey, why fight about it? They know competing with the Asians is out–white kids rarely want academic achievement that badly, and their parents don’t blame them. White parents’ biggest fear is the contagion of low grades. Not only are there many other kids around failing classes, making summer school or repeating classes seem normal, but the teachers are used to giving Fs–in fact, sometimes they get in trouble if their Fs aren’t racially balanced. My guess:  white kids at integrated schools have seen relatively little GPA boost in the last 20 years.

Demographic footprints being what they are, Asians and white kids will still fill the top ten percent plans, leaving room only for really bright, accomplished black and Hispanic kids. Average black and Hispanic kids, who would shine at a majority URM school, are often getting Bs and Cs despite far better skills. This is a point I can speak to personally, having seen it often in test prep.  Black or Hispanic kids with low test scores and 3.9 GPAs from weak progressive charters, while those going to the local public schools have 2.5 or lower GPAs and much higher test scores.

So grades at integrated schools, whether high oer low performing, are a drag. At high performing schools, grades are intensely competitive. At lower performing schools ( these integrated low performing schools are a drag for everyone except Asian immigrant kids.  If Asian parents would stop cocooning, they could probably get much better results by spreading out around the country, ten to twenty a school. Enough to tie for valedictorian. But most of them appear to be doing their best to force racial isolation. Asian immigrants, at least, have little interest in attending integrated schools.

Of course, not all Asian kids fit this profile, just as many blacks and Hispanics pass AP tests in Calculus, US History, and Biology.

If I had to rank my personal preference, the rich white kid schools do some fine educating. All Asian schools and high performing integrated schools are joyless places, although the latter have some stupendous sports.

What the integration advocates want, I think, are what they see in progressive charters. Children of all abilities, working and playing together, learning at the same pace, earnest, hardworking, and virtuous. But charters are artificial environments. True integration would probably look something like my school. Poor black and Hispanic kids would get better educations, but worse grades. Colleges wouldn’t be able to get around affirmative action bans. High standards would be impossible unless we were allowed to track.

I do believe they call this a collective action problem.

Anyway. Grades are increasing because colleges are de-emphasizing test scores. Yes, this means they should be required to return to testing, but perhaps in such a way that Asians couldn’t game it? And as Saul Geiser suggests, perhaps criterion referenced tests would be better.

See why I loathe grades?

This is a bit disjointed; I’ve been having trouble focusing lately. I may rewrite it later.



Kashawn Campbell

Predictably, many regard the Kashawn Campbell story as proof of low school standards. But I would argue that the underlying problem is grade fraud, which is a different issue.

I’ve been writing about grade fraud for college admission for a while now. Wait, you say, that’s a link to a KIPP piece. Well, yeah. Charters are among the worst offenders in grade fraud, which is the tacit admissions directive enabled by Top Ten % or eligibility in the local context plans: the kids with the best grades in their schools are guaranteed entrance to the public universities.

The policy rewards compliance more than ability, as I’ve also written; I routinely see bright kids with low GPAs in every type of school. If we are going to lower standards to bring in underrepresented minorities, far better to find the brightest ones—which aren’t necessary the ones with the best grades. And when I complain about this, some folks say some version of “Well, what’s wrong with rewarding hard work?”

Well, what’s wrong with it, eventually, is Kashawn Campbell. The people who value grades like to believe that the difference between an A and a B is nothing more than effort, when in fact, teachers can give whatever grades they like, with only a few restrictions that limit how low we can drop a grade. None limit our ability to give an A.

So the people blame crappy schools, because of course the only thing that prevents Kashawn from learning is a school that wanted the easy way out. And if we’d have Common Core, then we would have known Kashawn didn’t know anything. This line of thinking ignores the fact that California state tests almost certainly showed that Kashawn didn’t know anything—assuming, that is, he took the standard tests (more on that later). And then you have the affirmative action complainers—this group, I generally agree with but I am coming to the point of finding college admissions so revoltingly corrupt that affirmative action for blacks and Hispanics seems almost benign compared to the contortions universities go through to bring them in under alternative means.

But that’s not what interested me.

No, I’m wondering why the reporter, Kurt Streeter, who is African American, hinted at so much. Some details are so instructive that I can’t figure out why he didn’t go further or, more typically, leave them out.

What details? Well, the big one I wonder about: is Kashawn brain damaged? (Or, as a National Review commenter said in summarizing this essay, perhaps he is not neurotypical?)

“When I delivered him, I thought he was dead,” said his mother, Lillie, recalling the umbilical cord tight around his neck. “He was still as stone but eventually he came to. Proved he was a survivor. Ever since, I’ve called him my miracle child.”

Umbilical cord around the neck is pretty common and doesn’t usually lead to brain damage. The “still as stone” bit makes me wonder, though, if he was oxygen starved during birth.

He filled his dorm room with Cal posters, and wore clothes emblazoned with the school’s name. Each morning the gawky, bone-thin teen energetically reminded his dorm mates to “have a Caltastic day!”

“It was clear that Kashawn was someone who didn’t know about, or maybe care about, social norms,” said one of his friends. “A lot of people would laugh at first. They didn’t understand how someone could be that enthusiastic.”


They sat together in the front row. One teacher noticed that Kashawn subconsciously seemed to mime his roommate: casually cocking his head and leaning back slightly as he pondered questions, just like Spencer.

Kashawn reveled in the class in a way he hadn’t since high school. He would often be the first one to speak up in discussions, even though his points weren’t always the most sophisticated, said Gabrielle Williams, a doctoral student who helped teach the class.


Many of them jaywalked. Not Kashawn. Just as he’d been taught, he only used crosswalks, only stepped onto the street when the coast was clear or a light flashed green.


Sometimes in the dorm room, Spencer would look over at Kashawn and see him sitting in front of his computer, body frozen and face expressionless, JVC headphones wrapped over his ears, but no music playing.

He’s weird, in other words, and completely unconscious of it. Nothing wrong with that. Except he was prom king, and most likely to succeed.

His teachers and his classmates at Jefferson High all rooted for the slight and hopeful African American teenager. He was named the prom king, the most likely to succeed, the senior class salutatorian.

That strike you as a tad odd? Since when do high school kids name socially awkward kids prom king? Huh. Something comes to mind. But take a look at this first:

Part of the pressure came from race. ….When Kashawn arrived, 3% of Berkeley undergraduates were African American.

Kashawn’s high school is 91% Hispanic. So Kashawn went from being a 9% minority to a 3% minority. Not entirely sure he’d notice that difference.

A black kid with a goofy affect, limited social skills, geeky, awkward, and attending an all Hispanic school is declared prom king and most likely to succeed?

You know when a slight, geeky, weird guy with awkward social skills is voted most likely to succeed and prom king? When it’s an act of charity, an act that makes a group of tough kids feel good about themselves—that is, when the kid in question is “special”. You see it in all those feel-good articles about a special day student who becomes kind of a mascot for the school, the one everyone loves, who brings all the feuding elements together. Naturally, there might be another explanation. But anyone familiar with high school dynamics has to wonder about the specifics of Kashawn’s popularity.

Which is what I’m wondering, because even within the context of a low income, low ability school, Kashawn’s writing problems and his failure to improve seem significant.

And then, of course, there’s the friend, Spencer:

Spencer was raised in a tough L.A. neighborhood by a single mom who had sometimes worked two jobs to pay the rent. Spencer had gone to struggling public schools, receiving straight A’s at Inglewood High. Spencer didn’t curse, didn’t party, didn’t try to act tough and was shy around girls.

To Spencer, Berkeley was the first place he could feel fully comfortable being intellectual and black, the first place he could openly admit he liked folk music and punk rock.

He was cruising through Cal, finishing the first semester with a 3.8 GPA despite a raft of hard classes. “I can easily see him being a professor one day,” said his political theory instructor, noting that Spencer was one of the sharpest students in a lecture packed with nearly 200 undergraduates.

Why not write an article about Spencer? Wouldn’t it be nice to see a story about an inner city kid who was prepared for college? You could even include his SAT scores–hey, speaking of metrics that are totally absent.

Notice that Spencer and Kashawn take African American studies together. Notice that Kashawn got an A on the essay and a B on the midterm–and an overall A in the class, and that he “copied” Spencer’s every move. And notice that his writing professor basically accused him of cheating:

After reviewing his writing, though, it was clear to her that he had received far too much help from someone else.

It’s never mentioned again, this little cheating episode.

Questions remain:

  1. How did Kashawn pass the Introductory Science class with a D? No information about that class or the teacher is included.
  2. Why did the writing instructor give him an Incomplete twice instead of an F?
  3. What did Kashawn’s African American studies essay look like? Was it a deserved A, or a pity A? If the former, why could Kashawn only write well in this class? Why didn’t Streeter ask to see the A essay?
  4. Why doesn’t Streeter mention what classes Kashawn took in high school? Kashawn was a junior in 2011, which would be the last year he took the California end of state tests. Only 22 juniors at Jefferson High were black that year. Nine of them took geometry, nine took algebra II, two of them took Summative Math (for precalc and beyond). Which of these was Kashawn?
  5. Streeter clearly reviewed the school’s test scores. What were Kashawn’s scores?
  6. Did Streeter know that Kashawn’s school was 91% Hispanic? If so, why imply that Kashawn felt isolated in a non-black environment?

See, Kashawn’s story isn’t unusual—well, if he’s suffering from brain damage or is actually mentally retarded, then it’s a bit unusual. Otherwise, thousands of African American and Hispanic kids enter college every year, woefully unprepared to even begin to succeed. And, as the story clearly illustrates, the ones that work terribly hard or show the slightest bit of effort are often given passing grades out of some combination of pity and paternalism.

I am puzzled, however, that Streeter has left clues. Why mention Kashawn’s unusual affect, his nomination as prom king, his faithful copying of Spencer, to make it fairly clear to a closer reader that there’s something really off about the kid? Why be so uncompromising on the point of Kashawn’s incoherent writing and his failure to improve in any way, unless it’s for the same reason he includes only one quote from his mother which suggests his birth was unusual?

If Streeter wanted to indict the University of California admissions system, he has the stuff: an illiterate, possibly retarded, student is accepted via a standard specifically created to bypass the affirmative action ban. But he could have been more explicit: included SAT scores, state test scores, courses taken, specific examples of Kashawn’s writing.

If he wanted to indict Kashawn’s high school, which is how most readers seem to interpret the story, he could have gone even further and shown exactly how deep the fraud went. What math had Kashawn advanced to? What were his state scores? What books had he read in English class? How badly had his school fooled him? But all of that data is missing in action.

Of course, he might not have included this data because it would have given far too much away.

Or perhaps Streeter just wanted to illustrate the tremendous internal pressures experienced by a clearly wonderful young man who has no ability to complete college level work. Leave aside blame. Leave aside larger policy considerations. Just tell his story. Okay. Then why just hint at the special ed and the cheating?

Reporters often tell me they simply seek to tell the story, that they don’t think of policy issues, which strikes me as just a tad disingenuous. I have no idea what Streeter’s response would be but surely not that. How can any reporter tell a story about an unprepared African American student at the top public university in the country without thinking of the larger social issues he represents? He can’t. And if he can avoid the larger issues, surely his editor wouldn’t?

Then I read the article comments, and interspersed between the jeremiads about public education and complaints about affirmative action, I see:

Keep up the hard work Kashawn, college is not easy and your story is not an isolated one. There are thousands of college students that struggle like you, remember to stay motivated and keep working hard. If college was easy everyone would go (and graduate).
Keep it going Kashawn! Nothing that is worth it comes easy! Everyone is looking for “that chance.” I don’t think it’s wrong to give him one.

Keshawn – do not let anyone take away your stellar record and GPA from Jefferson or your heartbreaking first semester at CAL. You have heart and you will continue to make it. Good luck.

You can do it, Keshawn! I am a Cal grad who had the advantage of tough private school training. Your story makes me realize how lucky I was. You’ve got my full admiration for your integrity and determination. Don’t ever quit!

…and I realize that for some people, Kashawn’s story represents a beautiful struggle and success. And maybe Streeter is just writing for them.

The rest of us should avoid drawing any policy implications, and just pick up on the hints.

Updated to add: A few commenters have suggested that Kashawn has Asperger’s or autism. I thought of including this originally, but I’m not an expert, even though I sound like I think I’m one in the comments.

Kashawn doesn’t seem anything like the Asperger’s students I’ve worked with, but then, none of them have been low IQ. I’ve only worked with one diagnosed autistic student, and I do see some similarities.

But if Kashawn was autistic, wouldn’t Streeter mention this? UC Berkeley has a huge organization dedicated to helping students with disabilities, including autism, and extensive support for learning disabilities. Yet there’s no mention of that in the story.

I’m not any sort of expert on autism spectrum disorders. It could be that autism, rather than hypoxia at birth, is at the root of Kashawn’s oddness. However, I still don’t see any reason for withholding information about Kashawn’s high school academic record unless it would reveal that Kashawn’s cognitive abilities were profoundly limited.