In the past few weeks, two important, but seemingly unrelated, announcements were made in Washington, D.C. On June 23, the Supreme Court issued its eagerly awaited ruling in the high-profile affirmative action case of Grutter v. Bollinger. A few days earlier, on June 19, the National Center for Education Statistics released the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, a report issued every four years on the reading ability of the nation’s fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders.
The Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s use of race as a “plus factor” in its admissions process. In an ideal world, Justice Sandra Day O’Conner wrote that the court would have struck down the law school’s policy as unnecessary. Writing for the majority, Justice O’Connor says that the constitutionally justifiable use of affirmative action is for remedial purposes only, and that the ultimate goal of our society is to be race-neutral:
It has been 25 years since Justice Powell first approved the use of race to further an interest in student body diversity in the context of public higher education. Since that time, the number of minority applicants with high grades and test scores has indeed increased. We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.
The Supreme Court’s vision of American society is a noble one. It imagines an educational system that will provide every student with an equal, high-quality education, preparing each for college and success in life. As a result, diversity would be achieved without having to consider race as a factor.
Today, however, the nation is far from that goal. This is starkly illustrated by the NAEP scores published in The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2002. The report’s findings suggest that the public education system has made no progress in closing the achievement gap between non-minority and minority students in eighth- and 12th-grades. Twelfth-grade reading scores have actually gone down, at the same time that our fourth-graders have improved.
The NAEP scores show that a long-standing national focus on early education, and now the President’s billion-dollar investment in his Reading First program for grades K-3, are paying off for young students. But the goal of NCLB was for every child to read at the proficient level by 2012. Too many of our older students are reading at “below basic” levels and are at-risk of failing to graduate from high school. Although they can read words and sentences, many of these students lack the vocabulary, comprehension, and critical thinking skills needed to succeed in high school and college courses.
It is time to make a major national investment in adolescent literacy, just as we have done for our young children. If we do not make this commitment, an ever-increasing number of minority and disadvantaged students will be unable to adequately compete for admission into the nation’s higher education system, condemning Justice O’Connor’s hopes to failure.
Read the Supreme Court opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger at: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/02slipopinion.html
The complete NAEP report is available at: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading