Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The race to remediation

I'm just finishing up a college visiting trip with my oldest, now a high school junior. For all the pressures we hear about kids his age being under today (in what some have dubbed a Race to Nowhere), he seems surprisingly laid back, perhaps more than he should be. The odds of getting into your favorite college are seemingly worse now than ever, and one hears dozens of stories of kids with straight A's, double 800s, and tons of extra curricular leadership activities (my son is not among them), who get rejected from all their top choices.

What I don't understand about all this is the disconnect between our cries about how much more selective colleges have become, and our cries about how ill-prepared our students are, even at the top colleges. They can't write, they can't think, they can't do college-level math, they don't know how to do research, they have no study habits, and they cheat. Related to this is a second disconnect: our cries of how much academic pressure our hard-working high school students are experiencing, and our growing realization of the dwindling amount of time they spend attending classes and doing homework once in college.

Perhaps students are just crashing once admissions pressures end? But what about their increasing academic ill-preparedness? What about all those remedial math and writing classes that more and more colleges are offering? What about all those complaints by professors, even at top colleges, about the inability of so many of their students to read critically, think analytically, construct coherent sentences, and synthesize material into research papers? What about the fact that even highly selective schools like Penn now require all their undergradutes to take what is essentially a remedial writing class?

The overall ill-preparedness of college-bound kids, of course, is readily explained by current trends in k12 education. But given the sheer numbers of students in those record-sized applicant pools, why aren't colleges able to select against those who can't write or think analytically and have no work ethic? Surely there are enough diligent, articulate, numerate, literate, critical thinkers out there to fill the dorms at least of our top colleges?

Here's where I worry about my son. Well, let's forget about my son; since I'm his mother, how can my judgments about him be anything but highly inflated and subjective? Instead let's suppose, for argument's sake, that you have a child who writes well, tests well, and does well in math and science classes, but is a bit of an underachiever, and lacks a resume stuffed with leadership roles. Let's suppose that a top college is deciding between your child and several others who do have resumes stuffed with leadership roles, as well as higher GPAs, equally high test scores, and equally well-written college essays? How is a college to know which of these applicants can really write, analyze, solve problems, and read critically? How do they know who may have had a homework tutor, parents who micromanaged the completion and handing in of homework assignments, intensive coaching on standardized tests, extra time on standardized tests because of ADHD or processing speed disorders, and/or a ghost writer for their college essay?

In other words, while top colleges surely have plenty of highly qualified college applicants to choose from, is there a way for them to identify who these applicants are?


FedUpMom said...

Katharine, I often hear people ask, "which is it -- are kids overworked or underprepared?"

I think it's a false dichotomy. It is absolutely possible for kids to be both overworked and underprepared, and I think it's extremely common.

How can this be? It's because the mountains of homework and test prep that our kids labor under are in fact meaningless crap.

Anonymous said...

Katherine, the high rejection rates of the top colleges (and many that are not top) is a direct result of the fact that today's students are likely to apply to 10 colleges rather than 3 (or even 1, which was common when I was in high school).

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

The pools have gotten bigger, but not better at the top schools. In fact, the increasing size of the application pools has resulted in dilution of the pools with more less-prepared students. As a result, criteria that worked well enough in the past at getting a decent entering class may fail on the weaker pool. (At one time random selection from the pool would have gotten a decent entering class, but not so much any more.)

Also, in most schools faculty don't select the entering class—admissions officers do. The admissions officers and the faculty may have very different ideas about what the ideal entering class is like. Admissions officers are much more interested in demographics (race, gender, geographic origin, … ) than in individual readiness, which may compromise their ability to select students who will do well in college.

Anonymous said...

At the same time, and in many of the same schools, some kids are underprepared and some kids are overachievers - both academically and in extracurriculars. A couple of years ago, a graduate wrote a book about the tremendous pressure on kids from her old HS; I'm very familiar with that school and there are plenty of relaxed kids (probably most) and some drifters. The overachievers do apply to many schools,often a mix of Ivies, the Duke type, UVA and UNC (as out-of-staters) and perhaps their state flagship school or a smaller private as their safe school. The issue of admissions people and academics having different priorities is also valid. I've often thought I'd like to see academic departments select their students with as much diligence and care as the coaches select their players. I'm sure it would be a different mix; the physics and math departments aren't likely to worry about one B in English from a math genius, but I know one kid that was rejected from MIT while they admitted a weaker math but better all-around kid from his school (same sex and race).