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'Frontline' Showcases Efforts To Redefine Merit

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
Posted October 6, 1999

For the past three years, the university's admissions staff and faculty have been developing new, equitable ways of evaluating prospective students in the light of Proposition 209.

National publicity has been intense, and each year, the dreams of thousands of high school students are at stake.

This week , in a 60-minute "Frontline" special report on PBS, television viewers across America got an inside look at the new admissions process crafted by Berkeley's faculty and implemented by Undergraduate Admissions Director Bob Laird and his staff. The piece, which aired Oct. 5, explores Berkeley's pioneering efforts to redefine merit without over-reliance on Scholastic Achievement Test scores, which have been the sine qua non of college admissions since World War II.

"We have an admissions process that really tries to put a human face on the definition of merit and not simply assign a numerical quotient," said Chancellor Berdahl. "This piece demonstrates that we've been remarkably successful."

Berdahl said he is enormously proud of the university and "of the process designed by the faculty committee and carried out by a bright and clear-thinking admissions staff."

It is a labor-intensive process, making for long work days by admissions staff and faculty readers, as demonstrated in one of the film's many dramatic moments. "Frontline" cameras capture Laird at night standing in his lighted window in Sproul Hall. As the cameras pan back to infinity, they show a tiny human being in a spot of light surrounded by darkness.

Berkeley's admissions process -- rather than focusing entirely on a single test score or numerical formula -- is to create a flexible, finely-nuanced but consistent way of balancing such factors as the applicant's family income, the quality of schools attended and parental educational background, as well as the student's SAT score, school records and leadership abilities.

A staff of readers weighs each factor in context for each individual applicant -- no small task considering that more than 30,000 people apply for undergraduate admission to Berkeley each year.

The "Frontline" piece follows seven of those applicants of diverse ethnicities through the application and acceptance process, recording moving stories of their dreams of attending Berkeley, their test-taking anxieties, and fears of rejection.

One, from the agricultural town of Hollister, California, is the first in his family to aim for college; another comes from San Francisco's Lowell High School, which sent 40 students to Berkeley last year; a third, from San Francisco's Chinatown, is the daughter of immigrants, while a fourth, from Richmond, was born in Guatemala. A fifth applicant, also from Richmond, was president of his senior class, held down two internships and worked a job after school. The sixth and seventh applicants are from the wealthy suburb of Orinda.

"The emotional impact of watching these kids, how important Berkeley is to their families, was very powerful," said Laird.

Interspersed with these portraits, "Frontline" presents information on the inadequacy of SAT scores to predict scholastic achievement. According to this report, SAT scores produce biased results based on class, ethnic and gender background. Yet, standardized testing looms over the head of every student bound for college.

The seven young people followed by "Frontline" were unknown to the admissions staff until the film was finished and the admissions decisions had been made; neither the university nor journalists knew how these particular students would fare in the selection process. Tension was high as Frontline cameras filmed applicants opening their envelopes of acceptance or rejection.

In a true test of Berkeley's process, the results could not have been predicted by the students' SAT scores alone.

Nicholas Lemann, national editor for the Atlantic Monthly and author of the new book, "The Big Test: the Secret History of the American Meritocracy," concludes the film in a voice-over, "Berkeley is still operating on the principle of merit.

"They're just defining merit more broadly than that one number from test scores," says Lemann, as a diverse group of students passes under Sather Gate. "And I suspect that the whole country is also going to move in that direction as this fight plays out over the years."

RELATED LINK: Frontline: Secrets of the SAT





October 6 - 12, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 9)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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