COLLEGE PARK - The Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based group headed by Linda Chavez, charged that Maryland public colleges used race-based preferences in admitting African-Americans with SAT scores significantly lower than whites, according to a report released yesterday.
"We do not think this is fair, either to the students who are admitted despite lacking the skills, the students who were turned down or to the institutions," said Chavez who headed the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the Reagan administration and was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 1986.
Chavez said because of these policies, African-Americans in state schools are more likely to need remedial courses and to fail to graduate.
While confirming that race is a criteria in admissions, state officials denied that schools are admitting unqualified students.
"I have no reason to dispute their numbers, but I do dispute their conclusion, which I would presume to be that there is something illegal or inappropriate in this," said Francis Canavan, associate vice chancellor for communications at the University System of Maryland.
"One of the responsibilities of public institutions is to increase the access to higher education of groups that have been historically underrepresented," he said. "It is a responsibility we take seriously and gladly. If that's what she means by this charge, then we are guilty."
Chavez presented the report in a news conference at the University of Maryland, College Park where, she said, black freshmen scored on average 60 points lower than whites on the verbal SAT and 110 points lower on the mathematics test.
Linda Clement, head of undergraduate admissions at UMCP, said that SAT scores and race are two of the 25 factors in the admissions process.
"I hate to see the SAT scores used this way," Clement said of the Center for Equal Opportunity's analysis. "They were designed to be used to identify the talent level of individual students, not in the aggregate."
Clement said that those who drop out of UMCP show a wide range of SAT scores.
State officials said that the latest Supreme Court ruling on the matter - the Allan Bakke case of 1978 - allows the use of race in admissions to achieve diversity. Though there are more restrictive rulings in some lower federal courts, none applies to Maryland.
"To the best of our knowledge, all the schools are using race in an appropriate manner in their admissions," said John K. Anderson, an assistant state attorney general. In a pending case, the state is being sued over its use of race in medical school admissions by an unsuccessful white applicant to the University of Maryland Medical School.
According to the Center for Equal Opportunity report, which is based on the entering class of 1997, St. Mary's College had the largest difference between black and white freshman SAT scores - 135 points on the verbal test and 110 on the mathematics.
Marc Apter, spokesman for St. Mary's, said the school offers no remedial courses and has a 92 percent retention rate of black freshmen, higher than the 84 percent rate for whites.
"This proves that our admission policies work to provide the diversity and quality of students needed to survive the rigors of the St. Mary's honors curriculum," he said.
There were smaller differences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County - 10 on the verbal and 40 on the math - and at Towson University where whites scored 35 points higher on verbal and 50 points higher on math.