Affirmative action for speakers of second languages

A year after the University of California system made changes in its admissions policy designed to increase campus diversity, Hispanic admissions soared 18%. But many of these newly admitted students may have benefited from a loophole in the admissions policy that has created an unintended reward for speakers of second languages, reports Daniel Golden in a June 26 article in the Wall Street Journal.

The U.C. system began this year to assign increased weight to the SAT II achievement tests and less to SAT I scores. Students are now required to take SAT II exams in writing, math, and a third subject of their choice, which can include foreign languages. Golden reports that many applicants from immigrant homes who are native speakers of other languages are improving their prospects for admission by acing a language test meant for students whose first tongue is English. At Jefferson High, for instance, a predominantly Hispanic, low-achieving school in Los Angeles, students averaged 715 out of 800 on the Spanish exam but 390 on the verbal SAT and 402 on the math SAT.

There are other winners besides Hispanic students. Golden found that Asian-Americans whose first language isn't English scored 761 last year on the SAT II Chinese test, 752 on Korean, and 735 on Japanese. Steven A. Holmes reports in a July 1 commentary in the New York Times that the College Board has added new SAT II tests in foreign languages in response to lobbying by ethnic groups. Korean-Americans even got a Korean corporation to pay $500,000 to support the development of an exam in Korean.

It's hard to estimate the precise effect that this undeclared affirmative action policy is having on admissions since U.C. has also implemented other measures aimed at boosting minority admissions, including one guaranteeing entrance to students graduating in the top 4 percent of their high school class. But it seems clear that the loophole is not benefiting all minority groups. At the U.C. Berkeley, the state's most selective campus, Hispanic admissions rose 14% while African-American admissions went up less than 1%.

"Bilingual students use language tests to get a leg up on college admissions," by Daniel Golden, Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2001 (article only available to WSJ subscribers)

"Leveling the playing field, by for whom?" by Steven A. Holmes, New York Times, July 1, 2001