“Merit” Apartheid: Forces Determined to Segregate Higher Education?

It appears more and more that there are forces that are determined to re-segregate higher education in Texas and elsewhere. The desegregation of higher education is currently inevitable in places like Texas under existing policies such at the Top Ten Percent Plan because of the rapidly changing racial demographics of students in K-12 (Note: We examined the historical enrollment and segregation of African Americans and Latina/os at UT-Austin in two previous studies). Latina/os are already more than 1/5 of all students in K-12 Nationwide. Already, more of than 50% all students enrolled K-12 in California and Texas are Latina/o. African Americans are holding steady at ~16% nationally. “Minority” children will become the majority in 2023, or sooner— depending on the frequency of Luis Miguel and R Kelly records.

Currently Latina/o are 16.5% of higher education while African American enrollment is 13%. The most likely way that Latina/os and African Americans don’t dramatically increase their enrollment in higher education over the next several decades is if we allow politicians to codify an educational policy system that creates new ways to stratify students (beyond inequitable school finance and high-stakes tests of course) to foment a “merit” based apartheid system of educational policy.

The first front is the US Supreme Court. I wrote in Entitlement by “race”: What Abigail Fisher didn’t tell you… that despite data to the contrary:

Abigail Fisher believes that she was rejected solely based on her race and that the Supreme Court took this case is undeniable evidence that we don’t live in a post-racial society. Some people still believe wrongly, in spite of factual evidence and data to the contrary, that they were discriminated against because they are White. Sadly, Abigail Fisher appears to symbolically represent that some Americans persist in supporting a legacy of racial entitlement and superiority that has permeated our society for centuries.

Another front for “merit” apartheidist can be found in proposals for NCLB-style accountability for higher education. I wrote in If it ain’t broke, break it: TX politicians now want NCLB for higher education:

Make no mistake, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M College Station will come out smelling like roses no matter the parameters of an antiquated accountability approach the Legislature comes up with because we are the top of the food chain. Does the University of Houston have lower graduation rates that UT-Austin? Of course. Why? Because we have a tiered system— UT-Austin and Texas A&M often get their pick of students statewide. By contrast, The University of Houston, UT-Dallas, and UTSA have a mission to serve students that are both brilliant and those that have promise. It’s everybody except the flagships that should be very, very worried, because the Texas Legislature is going to find a way to hammer higher education just as they have in K-12 to cut education dollars from their budget. The Texas cheapistas are coming for our college and universities.

Finally, a more Texas centric example of “merit” apartheid can be found in the proposed House Bill 5. First, I should say that in Thoughts for TX House Public Ed Committee on HB5, I argued that House Bill 5 was a step forward, especially for reducing high-stakes testing regime that has Texas requiring 15 exams to graduate from high school— the most in the nation. However, I noted in my interview with KUT that the racial disparity in K-12 enrollment with higher education enrollment is still problematic. So what’s the issue with HB5? How could this enrollment gap be exacerbated for African Americans and Latina/os by HB5? Choquette Hamilton, one of my former doctoral advisees who graduated in 2012, writes:

The proposed CSHB 5 will have negative impact on Black and Latino students because the bill will reduce an already small eligibility pool of Black and Latino students for automatic admission under the current TTP law. Figure 1 shows the composition of top 10% graduates eligible to receive automatic admission who applied to at least one public institution of higher education in Texas in 2012.[1] As the graph shows, Black and Latino students are already underrepresented as compared to their demographic make-up in Texas[2].

Figure 1: Composition of Top 10% Graduates Who Applied to at Least One Public Institution of Higher Education in Texas, 2012

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Source: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board

If implemented, CSHB 5 will further reduce an already small pool of Black and Latino students eligible for automatic admission under the Top 10% plan. The current trends in graduates by graduation degree plans give some indicator as to what percent of students will be eligible for automatic admission. The proposed distinguished level graduation plan mirrors the current Distinguished Program under current law. Figure 2 shows that in 2012, 4.7% and 11.8% of Black and Latino graduates satisfied the requirements for the Distinguished degree plan, respectively.

Figure 2: Composition of Graduates by Graduation Degree Plan by Race

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 4.43.19 PM

Source: Texas Education Agency, PEIMS Standard Graduate Reports, 2011-2012

The pool will be reduced even further if minimum achievement score requirements are introduced. It is widely documented that Black and Latino students perform worse on standardized tests compared to their Asian American and White counterparts. Texas Education Agency (TEA) data for various standardized test exams provides evidence that this is true in Texas (see Figures 3-9). In sum, as each new requirement is layered onto the original policy, the pool of eligible Black and Latino students continues to be reduced ultimately restricting access to higher education for these students.

Figure 3: Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) exist-level tests[3]

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Figure 4: English/Language Arts Texas Success Initiative (TSI) exam passage rates, 2004-2010[4]

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Figure 5: Math Texas Success Initiative (TSI) exam passage rates, 2004-2010

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Figure 6: College entrance exams, percent scoring at or above criterion, 2000-2010[5]

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Figure 7: SAT exams, average score, 2000-2010

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Figure 9: ACT exams, average score, 2000-2010

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In addition to the differential impact of high-stakes test scores, let’s not forget the continuing inequities in school finance. I discussed the latest equity lawsuit here on local NBC. In Texas there are difference of $1,000 per pupil. Which doesn’t seem like much. But on the classroom level that can mean a difference of $30,000, at the school level that can mean a different of $400,000, for a district— millions. In many states, those inequities are even higher. The Annie E. Casey Foundation argues:

Because of race and class segregation and its relationship to local school revenues, students in high-poverty racially segregated schools are not exposed to high-quality curricula, highly qualified teachers, or important social networks as often as students in wealthier, predominantly White schools. The wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. school districts spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest 10 percent, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states.

It appears that Texas politicians want to add further stratifying devices to those they have already employed— school finance and high-stakes tests. If the “merit” apartheidist have their way…is another civil rights movement on the way?

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[1] With the exception of admission at UT-Austin due to SB175.

[2] According to the 2010 US Census, Black and Latinos made up 12% and 38% of the Texas population, respectively.

[3] The percent of students that have passed all exit exams.

[4] The TSI is an exam for college-bound students assessing skills in math and reading. Students may be exempt if they receive a high enough score on the math and English/Language Arts TAKS exit exams as defined by the THECB. This variable showed the percent of students passing the math and English/Language Arts exams.

[5] TEA considers a score of 1110 on the SAT mathematics and critical reading sections combined, or 24 on the ACT composite to be at criterion.

[1] With the exception of admission at UT-Austin due to SB175.

[2] According to the 2010 US Census, Black and Latinos made up 12% and 38% of the Texas population, respectively.


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  • Monty J. Thornburg

    This how it has been framed in society! See sentence structure error, above. My new iPad is giving me fits! Apartheid Is the outcome of these testing policies, however, first generation poor whites are equally effected in negative ways.


  • Monty J. Thornburg

    Is STAAR more rigorus, therefore, more fair in compairing minority students with majority white students in Texas? Personally, I doubt it! On a blog and with limited resources it’s impossible to answer. We must rely on those claiming to be experts in statistical analysis from the data to decide. This how it has framed in society, the AYP score, for example, now tells everyone which schools are good, worthy, etc.

    It’s impossible to answer fairness questions because the process has been rigged through reductionist, so called, ‘merit based’ systems for years. Now these ‘systems’ are being turned against minority, poor, typically first generation college students. I worked for a few years as an Upward Bound academic coordinator, one of the few LBJ ‘Great Society Programs’ left. Yes, Texas has another story that tells the real ‘truth’ about ‘fairness’ and better tells of ways to investigate it with regard to minority and all typically first generation college students going forward.


  • Perhaps this is a naive comment, but why are the SAT and ACT not normed for race? Obviously there is institutional racism, and other things, going on, but is there a good reason why these tests cannot be changed so that a person’s score does not predict their race?


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