Stanley Park worked to help support his family when his immigrant mother got breast cancer. So did Blanca Martinez. Park scored 1500 on his SATs. Martinez scored 1110.

Only one was accepted at Berkeley and UCLA, which now give credit for "life challenges" — as well as grades and test scores. It was Martinez. Park was rejected by both schools.

The University of California's new admission system is supposed to equalize opportunity, giving a boost to students who've overcome hardships to get nearly as far as advantaged students. But, the Wall Street Journal reports, the challenges of Asian-Americans and whites don't seem to rack up as many admissions points.

UCLA includes "immigration hardships, living in a high-crime neighborhood, having been a victim of a shooting and having long-term psychological difficulties" in the list of disadvantages that lead to an admissions advantage, reports the Journal. (Let's hope all those shooting victims don't end up rooming with the psychologically challenged). It also helps to attend a low-performing high school that offers few advanced classes and to be raised by a low-income, poorly educated single parent.

Why not use a simple, reasonably verifiable measure of disadvantage, such as family poverty? UC studied that, but it didn't help middle-class Hispanics and blacks. A Hispanic legislator, Marco Antonio Firebaugh, explains to the Journal:

"We found that using poverty yields a lot of poor white kids and poor Asian kids."

The current system favors students who sign up for UC outreach programs, which are located at low-rated high schools with large Hispanic and black enrollments. Outreach workers — who also decide on admissions — coach students on how to write essays that maximize their disadvantages.

I don't think anyone objects to giving a nudge to kids who've had to work harder to get to college than the average middle-class student. But this is more than a nudge. Hispanic students accepted by UCLA average 1168 on the SATs; the Journal found a girl who made it with a 940. UCLA's whites average 1355 and Asians 1344. That's a big gap. And Hispanic students have taken easier classes in high school; they've been held to lower expectations. That's not their fault. But it's a real disadvantage they may not be able to overcome. I hope the Journal follows up to report on the graduation rates for students who are both life-challenged and academically challenged.

Disabling the SAT

It hits junior year, just before the PSATs. Students become "learning disabled," qualifying them for extra time to take college-aptitude tests. Parental Affluence Disability Syndrome (PADS) strikes hardest at upper-middle-class students in private schools. The poor are relatively immune.

To settle a lawsuit, the College Board has agreed not to tell colleges which students got extra time to take the SATs, or other assistance, due to disability.

A PADS epidemic is expected, reports the New York Times.

"Although the settlement arose from litigation by a man with a physical disability, most of those who are accommodated have attention deficit problems or learning disabilities like dyslexia, a reading disorder.

"'It's the right thing to do, but it's going to have very negative ramifications,' said Brad MacGowan, a guidance counselor at Newton North High School, in an affluent suburb of Boston. 'In a perfect world, if students really need extended time to do as well as they can on a test, they should not have it flagged. But it's that flag, that asterisk, that helps cut down on abuse. This will open the floodgates to families that think they can beat the system by buying a diagnosis, and getting their kid extra time.'"

Extra time is supposed to compensate for the disability, not give the student an advantage. But there's no precise way to calibrate how many extra minutes should be given. Scores were flagged, writes test expert Kim Swygert on Number 2 Pencil, because the SAT isn't a valid predictor when taken under non-standard conditions.

And counselors believe most of the students with vague disabilities diagnosed just before test time aren't really disabled. They've simply got parents who know how to work the angles.

We need a narrower definition of disability that distinguishes between the really disabled and the conveniently disabled.

Letter

Ted Dinkel responds:

"Is there any wonder then why children grow up to be corporate executives who are experts at cutting corners, creative accounting, lying to auditors, shareholders, etc. when they've learned to work the angles from their parents?"

A Person Who Is Blind, but Not Disabled

Super-sensitivity has made writing standardized tests a nightmare, says June Kronholz of the Wall Street Journal.

"As cultural sensitivities expanded, so did the guidelines. States began commissioning their own tests, and setting up test-review boards that raised their own sensitivity concerns. In the 1980s, the elderly and disabled were included in the testing companies' sensitivity guidelines, and in the ¹90s, so were foreign cultures and alternative lifestyles. ETS guidelines caution against portraying the elderly as 'dependent,' or a blind person as handicapped (the better phrase is 'a person who is blind,' and they are handicapped only 'when the physical environment in which they interact does not accommodate them,' say the ETS guidelines). ETS also warns of ethnocentrism, or assuming that Western culture or Judeo-Christian morals are the norm. ACT has guidelines on family structure: It urges test writers to show single-parent and one-child families...

"Even some positive stereotypes are forbidden. ETS warns against portraying Native Americans as 'closer to nature than others,' the disabled as heroic, women as nurturing or men as productive."

In my youth, I was a research assistant for a woman writing a U.S. history curriculum for the California Youth Authority (juvenile prison) schools. Everything had to be approved for sensitivity to blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women. The panel of multi-colored experts drove my poor boss crazy. And she didn't have to worry about gays, the elderly or the disabled in those benighted days.

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at ReadJacobs.com while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron. 

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