How not to get into college: part two

**Continued from previous post**

What else can we dispense with? As Fieldston and other schools have discovered, students get into terrific colleges without Advanced Placement courses, and that provides an opening for us to think about whether we really need them. The fact that a course is difficult does not mean it is worthwhile. (Indeed, the confusion of harder with better helps to explain an awful lot of what is wrong with the “raise the bar” mindset that currently dominates school reform.) Some courses merely accelerate the worst forms of lecture-based, textbook-driven pedagogy: they have high standards but little room for deep thinking. A.P. courses allow the College Board to determine our curriculum. By virtue of the fact that they are geared to an exam, they are typically more about covering (material) than discovering (ideas).

The list goes on. Schools don’t have to give out awards or otherwise create artificial scarcity. Learning doesn’t have to be turned into a quest for triumph, and students don’t have to be made to regard their peers as rivals. In fact, there’s good reason to think that students truly flourish, intellectually and otherwise, in schools that are less (or even entirely non-) competitive, those that feel more like a caring community than like a rat race. Query: What policies in your school might contribute to an adversarial mindset that could be changed without costing a single student a single college acceptance?

Class rank is one answer that comes to mind. True, plenty of admissions committees seem to be looking for winners rather than learners. But relatively few colleges actually insist on this practice. When a survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals asked 1,100 admissions officers what would happen if a high school stopped computing class rank, only 0.5 percent said the school’s applicants would not be considered for admission, and four out of five colleges said it would have absolutely no bearing on students’ prospects.

The next step is to look at grades themselves, and especially pressures to raise them, which likewise may be based on false assumptions (see SIDEBAR: “Grade Expectations”). Some schools have eliminated grades entirely – all the way through the upper school – as a critical step to raising intellectual standards, and they have done so without jeopardizing their graduates’ chances of getting into selective private colleges or large public universities. To find out what it means to shift the balance of a school from grade-oriented to learning-oriented – and, yes, research does confirm that these tend to pull in opposite directions -- speak to the folks at the Poughkeepsie Day School (New York), the Carolina Friends School (North Carolina), the Waring School (Massachusetts), Saint Ann’s School (New York), or other schools that offer thoughtful assessments of students’ accomplishments without traditional letter or number grades.

The preceding paragraphs make a relatively nonthreatening argument: Even if preparation for college is paramount, it’s still possible to phase out some of the most egregious school practices. Students may even be better prepared for college as a result of an education that isn’t defined by tests, grades, competition, and the like. But in the final analysis we must concede the possibility that there will occasionally be a trade-off. In some instances, the most efficient way of getting into certain colleges may be to do dubious things, and, conversely, the activities most conducive to intellectual, social, and moral development may not give them an edge with an admissions committee. What then? What matters most? Here we return to the place we began, to a question that defines who we are as educators.

* If this portrait seems too dark or melodramatic, consider that it is now corroborated by empirical research as well as anecdotal evidence. Affluent, suburban teenagers exhibit higher rates of substance abuse and anxiety than their counterparts in the inner city. A brand-new report entitled “Privileged but Pressured? A Study of Affluent Youth,” published in the academic journal Child Development this past fall [2002], confirms the prevalence of drinking (especially among boys) and depression (especially among girls) among wealthy middle school students. The researchers explicitly link these symptoms to the pressure these kids are already feeling to get into college. Moreover, seventh graders who reported that their parents place a lot of emphasis on academic achievement were considerably more likely (as compared to those whose parents were more concerned about their children’s well-being) to show signs of distress and “maladaptive perfectionism.”


Grade Expectations: Examining a Chain of Assumptions

(Adapted from The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 188-89.)

To read the available research on grading is to notice three robust findings: students who are given grades, or for whom grades are made particularly salient, tend to (1) display less interest in what they are doing, (2) fare worse on meaningful measures of learning, and (3) avoid more difficult tasks when given the opportunity – as compared with those in a nongraded comparison group. Whether we are concerned about love of learning, quality of thinking, of preference for challenge, students lucky enough to attend schools that do not give letter or number grades fare better. Where grades are still given, students benefit from a concerted effort to make them as invisible as possible. The more they can forget about grades, the better the chances they will be engaged with ideas. (For more details about all this research, see The Schools Our Children Deserve, or the article “From Degrading to De-Grading.”)

Still, some may fear that students will be unsuccessful in life if they haven’t been graded or if those grades aren’t impressive. After all, most people – notably admissions officers and employers – care about those marks regardless of how useless or destructive they may be. There is some validity to this concern, but perhaps less than is normally assumed. In fact, the argument rests upon a chain of assumptions that is only as legitimate as its weakest link.

1. Does encouraging students to get good grades make them share that concern? It depends. Heavy-handed techniques, such as public recognition or other rewards for good grades, may lead kids to feel resentful and to try to reclaim a sense of autonomy by staging a quiet rebellion. The harder you press, the more they resist. One study, by Adele Gottfried and her colleagues, found that parents who push their children to get good grades cause them to be less interested in what they’re learning, which, in turn, appears to have negative effects on later school achievement.

2. Assume a student comes to share her parents’ or teachers’ concern about getting good grades. Does that actually produce good grades? Often, but not always. Some stressed-out grade-grubbers end up undercutting their own effectiveness, while some students who are able to take pleasure in learning wind up with good grades that they weren’t directly chasing.*

3. Assume a student does get good grades. Does that translate into acceptance by a good college? Below high school, grades are essentially irrelevant to college admission. (Of course, one could argue that making students work for A’s at age seven will create a habit that will be firmly in place by age seventeen – and more’s the pity if that’s true.) But while colleges obviously look at high school grades, that is not the only thing they care about, nor does a high G.P.A. guarantee admission to the most selective institutions. Ivy League schools, for example, typically reject most of the high school valedictorians – and, incidentally, most of the students with perfect or near-perfect SAT scores – who apply. That’s worth thinking about in advance: if acceptance to such a college is the sole reason for sacrificing everything else in high school in order to get straight A’s, then what happens if it doesn’t work? Of course, we’re talking here about the most elite colleges, but that fact cuts both ways: at least half of American institutions of higher education accept just about everyone who applies, so again one wonders about the wisdom of devoting one’s early years to a costly, nonstop effort to get better grades.

4. Does getting into a good college ensure financial success? While there is undoubtedly a correlation between the two, that doesn’t mean the first causes the second. It may be that certain factors associated with one (such as family income) also happen to be associated with the other. If that’s true, then admission to the school of one’s choice (or one’s parent’s choice) may be neither necessary nor sufficient for financial well-being. People without the usual credentials, but possessed of determination and a genuine love for what they’re doing, often manage quite well in material terms, while people with superlative credentials may be summarily sacked. (Tough economic times make many nervous parents push their kids even harder to get good grades – and, in effect, to see education as little more than a credentialing ritual. But if the conventional approach offers no guarantees, perhaps we should respond instead by questioning basic assumptions about the purpose of school and the role of grades.)

5. Finally, we shouldn’t forget to ask whether economic success is the same as, or even positively related to, fulfillment or psychological well-being. The degree to which one spends one’s life in pursuit of material gain reflects one’s basic values. However, researchers have found that the more people are driven by a desire to be wealthy, the poorer their mental health tends to be on a range of measures. (I reviewed this evidence in “In Pursuit of Affluence, at a High Price,” New York Times, February 2, 1999.)

In short, the more we’re apt to take for granted that it’s good to emphasize grades so students will be successful, the more important it is to probe each step in the argument. If there is reason to doubt any of these connections, the ostensible advantage of focusing attention on getting A’s – or a school’s decision to give grades in the first place -- may be outweighed by the demonstrated harms of doing so.

* The study of affluent middle-school students mentioned in the footnote in the main text found that “a disproportionate emphasis on children’s achievement, not uncommon in upwardly mobile, suburban communities, not only has the potential to engender distress among children but also has real constraints in terms of the capacity to generate the successes so pervasively exhorted.” Specifically, the researchers found that students whose parents especially valued academic achievement were less likely than their peers to score high on teacher ratings of academic competence

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