The Right to Control Standards

Court's rejection of Christian schools' suit against U. of California points to tensions facing admissions officers that go beyond the case's curricular dispute.
August 14, 2008

If you look at the admissions requirements of most colleges, you'll find listings of high school courses: specified numbers of years of mathematics, science, English and so forth. Frequently, there are references to the courses being college preparatory, not just any course in the subject area. And that begs a question: Who gets to decide what is college preparatory?

A federal judge's ruling has upheld the right of the University of California to make its own evaluations of high school courses, provided that the university demonstrated a "rational basis" for its decisions, and that the decisions were not based on animus toward any group or faith. And Judge S. James Otero found that the university's decisions to reject certain high school courses at some Christian schools met that test.

Christian groups are appealing the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, so the dispute is far from over. The groups suing say that the case is about religious freedom, but university officials say it is about academic standards. Outside California, admissions officials have been watching carefully because colleges must often evaluate the quality of high school courses -- at religious or secular schools -- and many feared that their ability to do so would be jeopardized if the university lost the case

"This is about quality and comparability and making sure students aren't set up for failure," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, who praised the judge's ruling.

The University of California -- as a large and competitive system -- has specific criteria on which courses students must take in high school and how courses are evaluated to determine whether they are acceptable. The lawsuit against the university first came from Calvary Chapel Christian School and some of its students -- and was joined by the Association of Christian Schools International, whose member schools across the United States enroll more than 600,000 students. The association supports education based on its statement of faith, which affirms biblical inerrancy.

The judge's decision goes through the various rejected courses and finds that the university's rationale meets the "rational basis" test, and rejects arguments that there was evidence of religious bias. For example, one of the courses was an English course called "Christianity and Morality in American Literature." The university noted that the text used "insists on specific interpretations" of various literary works, rather than allowing students to engage in critical thinking about them.

In addition, the university noted that it considers it necessary for high school students to read complete works of literature, while this course relied on "an anthology of excerpts." In a history course the university rejected, the text instructed students that "divine providence" is the source of all of history and that historical figures needed to be evaluated based on their "religious motivations," in contrast to university expectations of the range of analyses high school students should learn. A science course was rejected for using textbooks that characterized religious doctrine as science and for failing to teach the scientific method.

Jennifer Monk, a lawyer for the Christian schools, said that the judge had ignored the religious bias of the university, and that academic standards were not the issue. "The university determined that because it was a religious perspective, it cannot be allowed," she said.

Asked whether the university should be allowed to reject a high school course that taught that the earth is flat, Monk said "I don't know," but then said that it would be "constitutionally OK" for the university to do so, provided that the flat earth was not a religious belief.

Tom Cathey, vice president of the Association of Christian Schools International, said that most public colleges have not challenged the courses taught by his member schools -- and he said that was good because increasing numbers of their graduates are going to public higher education, not colleges based on their faith. The primary reason, he said, is cost. Not only are tuition rates lower, but many of the students graduate with grades and test scores such that they qualify for full scholarships, while many Christian colleges can't offer them a full ride.

"Our kids are coming out of our Christian schools well prepared for any college," he said.

As to such issues as evolution or other matters of science and the Bible, Cathey said that secular colleges have nothing to worry about. Cathey said that the norm is to teach creationism as correct, but also to teach students about the theory of evolution, even while explaining that the theory is wrong. Still, Cathey maintained, graduates of Christian schools have the ability to succeed in science at secular universities.

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said that admissions officers encounter disputes over the quality of high school courses on many issues having nothing to do with religion. Disputes like the one in California are rare, he said, but colleges are regularly challenged on their determinations over whether certain high school courses meet minimal standards or should be classified as honors courses.

"What one school calls honors or advanced might be radically different from what another school calls the same thing. So admissions officers need to be able to exercise latitude," Hawkins said.

Hawkins stressed that this latitude is not admissions officers deciding themselves what they think of a given course. Rather, he said, faculty committees at colleges set standards, and define for admissions officers the skills and knowledge applicants need to have picked up in high school. Admissions standards for high school courses aren't about keeping students out, but about educational purposes, he said.

Admissions standards for high school courses "are a manifestation of an institution's mission and send a message to students" about the college, he said. In addition, they tell students "what they need to actually succeed."

Nassirian said that good standards -- even if they upset some would-be applicants -- help them at the same time. "This is about about making sure the student isn't set up for failure," he said.

Hawkins said that the University of California and other large institutions tend to have "elaborately spelled out" standards, while smaller colleges may be more general and make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Seth Allen, dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College, said that admissions decisions are so holistic that "one factor typically does not drive a decision," and that "even if we think a student has not quite met a recommended program of study, that student may still be admissible." In terms of meeting course requirements, he said that "unless we have a reason to analyze an individual course ... we would simply take the course at face value."

If there is some indication that a course doesn't fulfill the kind of requirements Grinnell has, Allen said, "we would be concerned about the student's ability to be successful at Grinnell more than not meeting the recommended program of study." So if "other indicators demonstrated strong mastery and an ability to be successful in an academically rigorous environment, there would be little impact on admissibility." Especially in cases where only one kind of biology or history course is offered, he said, "the overriding factor would be making a judgment about whether the student could successfully overcome the knowledge gap, and not discounting the student because of what the school made available."

Religion obviously is a complicating factor at public institutions. "The public university is a curious animal," Nassirian said. "It has an obligation to prepare students and to academic integrity," but it also is in some respects "a political institution, supported by all of the taxpayers of the state." As such, he said, it's key -- especially if more students at Christian high schools apply to public institutions -- to convey any objections to their courses in ways that show "no disrespect for their religious beliefs."

Hawkins agreed, and said that the job for universities was to affirm the right of religious high schools to make their educational and spiritual choices, while not backing down on public higher education's rights either. "The right to self-expression and freedom of religion extends to the point where a high school can operate in whatever fashion it deems necessary to achieve its mission, but there is no guarantee that that right or privilege extends to infringe on the autonomy of another institution, in this case the University of California."


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