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Efforts to Boost Minority Involvement in SMET Disciplines Require Fundamental Change

Affirmative Development, not Affirmative Action

ast efforts to increase the participation and retention of underrepresented minority American students in science, math, engineering and technology (SMET) fields have succeeded only minimally, if at all, according to a report from the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education (CEEE) at Rice University, an EOT-PACI partner. The report analyzes the need for success in this area for the sake of the national economy and candidly concludes that most current efforts by academic institutions nationwide to this end are systemically broken, calling for broad structural changes. "Increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities is critical to the health of this country. No first-world nation can maintain the health of its economy or society when such a large part of its population remains outside all scientific and technological endeavors," reads a part of the report’s introduction.

Written by Richard Tapia, CEEE director and Rice’s Noah Harding Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics, and Cynthia Lanius, CEEE executive director and former mathematics teacher, the report was originally presented last year at the National Institute for Science Education Forum on Diversity and Equity Issues in Mathematics and Science Education. Tapia and Lanius base their conclusions on both data and a combined 35-years of working in K-12 and higher education with underrepresented minority students. In the report, Underrepresented Minority Achievement and Course Taking–The Kindergarten-Graduate Continuum, Tapia and Lanius note that a 1999 Computer Technology Industry Association study revealed that a shortage of information technology (IT) staffers is costing U.S. companies billions per year.

"Underrepresentation has never been a threat to science or mathematics, because when we need more scientists or mathematicians, we import them, and science and mathematics lives on. That’s the way that we, as a nation, have dealt for decades with SMET shortages," concludes the report. "Yet now our quick-fix importation strategy fails us. We can’t possibly import fast enough to solve our IT shortages."

Among its findings, the report undertakes a critical examination of the emphasis on SAT scores as college admissions criteria. Higher score ranges tend to include fewer female and minority students who may have comparable or superior other qualifications to non-minority students with higher scores, a relative disparity that increases in ranges approaching perfect 1600 scores.

"In addition to de-emphasizing SAT through broadening of criteria, we propose what we call a ‘threshold approach’ to its use. In this approach, universities will establish a certain minimum score deemed critical for success in that university. Then all scores above the minimum score are equal and will not be used to argue that one student is better than another," wrote Tapia and Lanius. The report examines Rice University’s experience with an informal threshold approach on SAT scores and concludes that no penalty in terms of student body performance is observed when overall academic records and other factors become more important than magnitude of SAT score above a certain level.

Affirmative Development, not Affirmative Action

The report notes that the national retention rate of underrepresented minority students in engineering is 36.5 percent based on an analysis of the entering freshman classes from 1991 to 1993 and graduating classes from 1996 to 1998. The corresponding rate of engineering non-minority students is 68.3 percent according to a National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering study, which characterized it this way: Imagine the first-day-of-class-look-to-your-left-and-right scenario. For non-minorities, one of the three won’t graduate as engineers. But for underrepresented minorities, two of the three won’t. The students graduate, but not as engineers. Given the precious few entering, this loss is debilitating.

Tapia and Lanius strongly argue that it is possible to effectively recruit and retain underrepresented minority students in a "post-affirmative action" environment. Tapia and Lanius propose, instead, the notion of affirmative development. "It is arguable that affirmative action was presumably a good idea that was a failure. It allowed schools and systems to get by with under-preparing its minority students," wrote Tapia and Lanius.

"We like the notion of ‘affirmative development’ where equity demands that you provide sufficient support for all groups to achieve at high levels. We’re concerned with the 10 percent solution (accepting the top 10 percent of all schools). Students are beginning to choose less rigorous schools so that they’ll fall into the top 10 percent, thus being less prepared for the college work once they get there." -EB

Project Leaders
Richard Tapia
Cynthia Lanius
Rice University