Mississippi Desegregation Case

University Testing

Standardized test scores continue to play an important role in the debate over desegregation of Mississippi's public colleges and universities. In its 1992 ruling declaring the state's higher education system unconstitutionally segregated, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the use of test score cutoffs in denying African American students the opportunity to attend Mississippi's traditionally White universities (U.S. v. Fordice). Under the state's unfolding college desegregation plan, test scores may now have the effect of limiting Black students' access to historically Black colleges as well.


The 1992 case, originally filed as Ayers v. Allain, was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers, Jr. in 1987. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Mississippi was operating a racially segregated, unequal system of higher education: a comprehensive system for Whites and an inferior system for Blacks (see Examiner, Summer 1992). Although legal segregation of the university system ended in 1962, the court found that the state's minimum ACT score requirement for entrance to its flagship universities was directly traceable to de jure segregation and perpetuated that segregation. The policy eliminated 70 percent of African Americans from consideration, while only 28 percent of White students scored below the cutoff. The historically Black colleges in the system all had lower test score requirements.


The case was returned to Judge Biggers with an injunction to work out a desegregation plan on the state level. In March of 1995, follwing a 10-week trial, Judge Biggers ordered a variety of policy changes designed to promote desegregation. A plan to close historically Black Mississippi Valley State University was turned down by the court, at least until it can be demonstrated that such a move would decrease segregation. A merger between Mississippi University for Women and Mississippi State University was also rejected. Instead, the court has ordered the state to allocate funds for new programs at two historically Black colleges, Jackson State University and Alcorn State. These include schools of law, engineering and pharmacy.


However, the same institutions and students that benefit from these new programs will be harmed by another aspect of the decision. Judge Biggers has accepted a state proposal to make admissions requirements uniform for all Mississippi state universities. This plan will increase the test score and grade point average cutoffs at all eight campuses to the same levels now used at predominantly White schools. Students who do not meet the test-score requirement will be admitted only after completing a summer remedial course.


Experts predict that this ruling will substantially reduce the number of African American students eligible to attend Mississippi state universities. Historically Black colleges will be hit hardest. James E. Lyons, Sr., president of Jackson State University, said that more than one-third of this year's freshman class at his institution did not meet the new requirements. A survey of those students revealed that most would have gone to school out of state, or attended private institutions, rather than complete the remedial program. Likewise, the president of Mississippi Valley State University, William S. Sutton, believes that his school will lose many of its students under the new admissions criteria.


"This opinion allows desegregation in higher education to be made the enemy of equality and opportunity," said Elias Blake, Jr., a consultant to the plaintiffs and former president of Clark Collge, a historically Black school in Atlanta. He emphasized the importance of historically Black colleges in a state where African Americans traditionally have had little access to educational resources. The new rules, he said, would "destroy the historic mission of Black colleges of overcoming educational discrimination for thousands of Black youth."


Rather than uniformly raising a test-score requirement that has been declared discriminatory and unconstitutional, it would make more sense for the state to drop the use of test scores entirely. During hearings last May, the plaintiffs asked that the state university system adopt an open admissions policy and eliminate the use of ACT scores for admissions or placement. Several large state university systems already do not require applicants to submit test scores for admission (see article p. 5).