When I read about the University of California’s proposed changes to their admissions standards, which would deemphasize test scores in favor of class rank (Hat tip: Education Optimists), I realized that proposal is a partial outgrowth of a decade of work on higher education access by Marta Tienda. Among educational researchers, Tienda, a demographer and sociologist who teaches at Princeton, stands out for her record of doing research that informs public policy debates about educational opportunity for disadvantaged kids, and for the passion and flair with which she does this work.
After the Hopwood case temporarily ended affirmative action in Texas, the state adopted a plan that gave the top 10% of each graduating high school automatic admission to the two flagship campuses. Tienda mounted a major study of the policy change under the auspices of the Texas Higher Education Opportunity Project, and has since produced dozens of articles on the policy’s impact. Her recent paper with colleague Sigal Alon, Diversity, Opportunity, and the Shifting Meritocracy in Higher Education, is a real tour de force for the ground that it covers. They analyzed four datasets covering high school classes graduating in the 1980s and 1990s in order to determine how the relative weights put on grades and test scores in the admissions process have changed over time. Their results support the “shifting meritocracy” hypothesis; selective colleges have increasingly relied on test scores to screen students, which, because of persistent test score achievement gaps, has made it difficult to admit a diverse group of students to these colleges in the absence of race-sensitive preferences. Alon and Tienda, through a series of simulations, show that deemphasizing test scores would allow institutions to admit diverse classes without lowering graduation rates.
Their conclusion is far-reaching, but can be summed up in just one sentence: “The apparent tension between merit and diversity exists only when merit is narrowly defined by test scores.”
Tienda’s personal story is also quite remarkable. As one of five children and the daughter of illegal Mexican migrant laborers, she planned to become a hairdresser until the 7th grade, when a teacher noticed her talent. As she explains in an interview, “It was such a riveting moment for me that I even remember what the teacher was wearing that day. Until then, I thought that college was only for rich people and I was from a working class family. But when my teacher suggested college and told me that there were scholarships to help good students like me get to college, that was it.” Since then, she has been awarded honorary degrees from multiple universities, and has served on the boards of RAND, the Carnegie Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, Brown University, TIAA, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and a dozen other major organizations.
But she’s never forgotten where she came from, and continues to do outreach work to encourage disadvantaged kids to go to college, and to make them feel comfortable once they’re there. In this profile, you’ll see her take no prisoners attitude in full effect. As she exhorted a group of students to carry the torch, “Let me tell you something. If you were admitted, you belong. Your job is to do the very best you can and to bring up two of the classmates you left behind.” Through her research, which has drawn our attention to the potential for disadvantaged kids to succeed and excel in higher education, Tienda has done just that.
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