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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A dangerous storm has killed at least three people in Northern California.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And days of rain in Southern California have turned hills into rivers of mud. Some homes have been washed away, and firefighters have been busy rescuing people from rushing waters and stranded vehicles. President Joe Biden called to offer federal assistance to LA Mayor Karen Bass.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We'll get any help on the way as soon as you guys request it, so just let me know. That's why I'm calling.

KAREN BASS: OK. Well, thank you so much, Mr. President.

MARTIN: NPR's Nathan Rott has been covering this storm from Ventura, on the California coast between LA and Santa Barbara, and he is with us now. Good morning, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So I understand that the president's call came during the mayor's press briefing last night, where she was describing what she saw. Can you just tell us what else she said and what she did see?

ROTT: Yeah. So she had spent the day basically traveling around different parts of LA and looking at various homes and various parts of the city that have been impacted by mudflows. And when I say mudflows, I mean earth that had gotten so saturated with water that it basically turned into this thick, destructive soup. Our colleague Liz Baker visited a home in Culver City - which is its own city in LA - that's backyard is just now totally mud. Here's the home's owner, Ivo Panayotov.

IVO PANAYOTOV: Grass turned upside down. There is actually one tree that is fallen from the mudslide. It looks like a hurricane went through it.

ROTT: So LA Mayor Karen Bass and city officials said that more than 120 debris flows have been reported as of last night just in the city of Los Angeles alone, and we know that there have been many others in the broader region.

MARTIN: Do we have any sense of how much longer these mudslides are going to be a risk for people?

ROTT: I mean, as long as it keeps raining and probably a little bit after, 'cause when I say, like, the ground is saturated here, Michel, I mean, it is wet. You know, downtown Los Angeles got more than 6 inches of rain in less than 24 hours. Parts of the Santa Monica Mountains just north of the city had upwards of 10 inches. So any more rain on those areas could trigger additional debris flows.

MARTIN: And do we have a sense of how much longer it's going to be raining?

ROTT: Yeah, the question everybody wants to answer, right? I talked to a meteorologist at the National Weather Service here last night who said this river of transported tropical moisture, this atmospheric river is weakening, but it's definitely not over yet. It's raining right now outside of my house. And we should continue to see scattered showers and thunderstorms through Wednesday.

But, you know, where I am, about an hour's drive north of Los Angeles, even with the rain, people are definitely feeling like the worst of this is over. I visited a part of Ventura yesterday that had been flooded earlier this week and talked to the owner of my favorite surf shop, which had water standing up to its entrance on Sunday, and they were able to keep it out with sandbags. The store's owner, Bill Hubina, says unless flood infrastructure gets improved in this area, in his opinion, he doesn't think they're going to continue to be so lucky in the future.

BILL HUBINA: This will continue getting worse every year till we really do flood eventually. But it's just Mother Nature, and tides are rising and global warming, basically.

MARTIN: So I heard him say it's global warming, Nate, but is that what's really driving these rains?

ROTT: So this is a very complicated answer, Michel. Look; we know sea levels are rising. We know the coastlines are changing. With atmospheric rivers, it's a little more complicated. Basically, scientists know that human-caused climate change is making precipitation events more likely. Warm air holds more moisture. What - they have not detected a signal of that, though, in the data so far.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Nathan Rott in Ventura, Calif. Nate, take care of yourself.

ROTT: Thank you.

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MARTIN: OK, this may sound confusing, but former President Donald Trump will not be on the ballot in today's primary in Nevada.

FADEL: But he's assured to sweep the state's 26 delegates. That's because there are actually two nominating contests in Nevada - today's primary, which Nikki Haley is on the ballot for, and Thursday's caucus, where Trump is the only major candidate participating.

MARTIN: NPR's Franco Ordoñez is in Las Vegas, where local voters are also trying to make sense of it all. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: OK, simple question - why are there two contests?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it is a simple question, but not really a simple answer. It's kind of part of a conflict between the state Republican Party, which is run by Trump allies, and a state law that mandates the primary must be held. Nevada actually has long held caucuses, but the state Legislature passed a law in 2021 switching to a more straightforward primary vote. But the nominating contests are run by political parties and not the state, and the Nevada Republican Party decided to stick with a caucus, which awards the 26 delegates. So voters will be heading to the polls today, and Nikki Haley is almost guaranteed to win, but it's largely a symbolic victory.

MARTIN: You've been talking to voters. What do they make of all this? Are they able to make sense of this?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, it's caused a lot of problems. I was out talking to voters yesterday. I mean, there were some Republicans who still didn't know whether they should be voting in the primary or the caucus. You know, I talked with Kathy Eskandani (ph) just south of the strip. She kind of summed up the feelings of a lot of voters here.

KATHY ESKANDANI: I was shocked. I looked at my sample ballot and told my husband, Donald Trump isn't on the ballot. Like, what is that? Nikki Haley's there, a couple other names I didn't know, but no Trump.

ORDOÑEZ: And even more confusing, registered Republicans can vote in both the primary and the caucus. There's no law prohibiting them from doing so. So all of this has just led to accusations of conspiracy and election fraud. Chuck Muth, a local Republican political consultant, told me it just makes the state look bad.

CHUCK MUTH: It's a total disaster from a public relations standpoint 'cause even active Republicans who are very attuned to what's going on are completely confused by why this is being done the way it's being done.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, Michel, on the flip side, there are local - other local pundits that say that, or at least told me that it's raised attention about the contest and may have actually boosted Republican registration.

MARTIN: OK. So what do we think this means for the race?

ORDOÑEZ: It's all just kind of weird. I mean, you're basically going to have two winners this week in Nevada. You know, there's also a lot of talk in political circles that more people could show up at the primaries, and Haley could get more votes than Trump does in the caucuses. That would certainly be embarrassing for Trump. So I'll be watching for that. But again, if it does, it won't change the fact that Trump gets all the delegates.

MARTIN: OK. Reminder - Republicans aren't the only ones voting this week, though, right? The Democrats are, too, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. You're absolutely right. I mean, while Republicans are also trying to figure all their stuff out, Democrats are also voting today, and it's also an election with a clear winner in President Biden. So while the outcome for the primary may be set, Nevada is just such an important state in the general election. It's actually the first of the big six swing states to vote in a primary, making it extra important. The campaigns are out looking to test messaging and get any information they can as they prepare for November.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Franco Ordoñez in Las Vegas. Franco, thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire, announced it is reinstating standardized testing requirements - the SAT or the ACT - as a requirement for admission after going test-optional during the pandemic.

FADEL: Dartmouth says that the decision is based on research the college did that shows including a test score might have actually helped disadvantaged students get in.

MARTIN: NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher education, and she's with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. So tell us, how did all this come about?

NADWORNY: So a group of professors at Dartmouth found evidence that in the years when the college was test-optional, disadvantaged students were more likely to leave out their test scores, but those scores were sometimes high enough and might've helped them get into the college. Here's Bruce Sacerdote. He's an economics professor at Dartmouth and one of the researchers.

BRUCE SACERDOTE: They don't know that their 1400 might be a great score given the challenges of their neighborhood and educational environment. And so they can't be expected to know, and they really handicap themselves in the process.

NADWORNY: Sacerdote says Dartmouth is working on ways to better communicate to students what a helpful score might be so that students in the future aren't scared off by the testing requirement.

MARTIN: OK, Elissa, so Dartmouth is one of just a few dozen highly selective schools in the U.S. I was looking at the recent class of admits. A third went to independent schools. That's three times as many as in the U.S. overall. Eleven percent are legacies. So you get the picture, right?

NADWORNY: Yup. Yup.

MARTIN: Not the hugest group in the world. So why do you think this is important? Like, why should we care?

NADWORNY: Yeah, that is an excellent question. Dartmouth is not economically diverse. Here's why it's important. During the pandemic, hundreds of schools went test-optional, including less-selective colleges and many public universities. I talked with Zachary Bleemer about this. He's an assistant professor of economics at Princeton. He says lots of those schools are deciding right now whether or not to keep those flexible testing policies.

ZACHARY BLEEMER: I'm concerned that other, very different universities will sort of join the bandwagon of the return to the SAT without themselves considering carefully whether the SAT aligns with their admissions objectives.

NADWORNY: He's done really interesting research looking at a program in California that admitted students with high GPAs and low test scores, and he found those students did a lot better than expected, and they took advantage of opportunities and resources and had successful careers after graduating. And that kind of access, Bleemer says - well, that's, like, the point of publicly funded college.

MARTIN: So at the end of the day, Elissa, so what do we think about these standardized tests? Are they helpful or are they unhelpful? Are they good? Are they bad?

NADWORNY: Yes. So that's kind of up for interpretation. And interpretation is the core of the selective college admissions process. Andrew Ho, a professor of education at Harvard, says this really all comes down to human judgment and making sure that application readers don't get obsessed with the test, like culture sometimes is.

ANDREW HO: Well, you know, we have a lot of experience that says that people misinterpret and overemphasize numbers. These are humans rendering judgments, right? And you hope that they have expertise (laughter).

NADWORNY: Because in the college application process, Michel, there are inequities everywhere - in essays, extracurriculars, grades and definitely tests. We know that better test scores correlate with family income. We also know that schools with a majority of Black or Latino students are more likely to be under-resourced, and those students are more likely to have lower test scores. All of this is even more complicated by the fact that it is now illegal to use race in admissions, thanks to the Supreme Court - another piece of the puzzle that admissions officers cannot use in interpreting a test score.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Elissa, thank you.

NADWORNY: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.