University High admission changes may not be a battle worth fighting

by David Safier

I'd like H.T. Sanchez and the newly constituted TUSD board to be given time to change University High's admittance process in their own way before Special Master Willis Hawley tells them what to do. But I'm not sure TUSD should fight this battle to the bitter end. Both changes to UHS's admissions process are reasonable ways to increase minority enrollment at UHS, which is the goal. There's no telling which would be more effective. TUSD taking the issue to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is an overreach, and the district's stubbornness on the issue could make later battles with Hawley harder, not easier.

TUSD wants to add a motivation test to the current UHS admissions process. It's a reasonable idea. Students who just miss the cut on the GPA and entrance exam requirements but are determined to succeed have a good chance of doing well at UHS. Even if their achievement is a bit lower than other students, if they pass fewer AP exams or end up with lower GPAs, they likely will have received a more rigorous education and be more ready for college than if they had attended another district school, which is the point of attending the school.

Hawley wants to add items you normally see on college entrance exams — student essays, teacher recommendations, participation in activities, and so on. That's a reasonable idea too. If those things are good enough to get students into college, they'll likely be good indicators of potential success at UHS.

The TUSD approach is incremental, looking at the effects of the motivation test on enrollment, then tweaking the process next school year if the added test doesn't do as much as hoped. It has the advantage of removing the subjective factor in the admissions process — a committee looking over the applications and making decisions — which has the potential to create some ugly accusations from parents ("You didn't admit my kid because he's white!" "You didn't admit my kid because she's Hispanic/Native American/African American/Asian!") There will be no way for the committee's decisions can be race blind since most applications will give clues or outright references to students' race and ethnicity. And as a high school teacher, I know how easily student essays and recommendations can be manipulated to boost a student's image. I helped many students with their college essays, and if I believed in a student's chances of success, I made my recommendations as glowing as honesty allowed.

On the other hand, if the "objective" motivation test turns into a high stakes UHS entrance exam, I imagine savvy staff members will give students hints as to ways to make their answers as "motivated" as possible. "Motivation test prep" could become a new informal course at middle schools across the district, and in neighboring districts as well, lowering the predictive value of the test.

There's no perfect system. To me, whether TUSD or Hawley has the better admissions system is pretty much a coin toss. If Hawley and Judge Bury don't back down, TUSD should relent on this one and save its strength for more important struggles. Rather than being a show of weakness, TUSD giving in on UHS admissions requirements could show it has the wisdom to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

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