Saturday, January 23, 2016

How higher academic standards would help fix the college admissions rat race

One thing I left out of my recent discussions of tween and teenage pressure is the rat race to get into college. I agree with those who note that in many places it is it is totally out of control. When my oldest was applying to college, I made it a point to stay away from all the other parents so that they wouldn't stress me out. (Luckily he himself managed to stay quite calm about the whole process). But some of the rat race pressures can be blamed on academic standards that are too low rather than too high--especially in elementary and middle school.

Poor academic standards in middle and elementary school mean that kids are ill-prepared for college-prep classes in high school. Many high school students, casualties of "balanced literacy," struggle with the heavy reading and writing loads of AP/college prep English or AP/college prep history. With a poor knowledge base in history and science, they may also struggle to take in and process the concepts and informational content of AP/college prep history or AP/college prep science courses. Finally, casualties of Reform Math and heterogeneous ability grouping will struggle with high school calculus. Many of these struggling students end up resorting to after-school tutoring, and/or try to compensate with a huge load of extra curricular activities.

Then there's the increasing competition for spots in top and middle-tier colleges. As far as Asian competitiveness in particular goes, the first Anonymous commenter on my earlier post makes a good point:

Black and Hispanic kids are being accepted to elite and competitive colleges with academic and extracurricular records far weaker than those of whites and, especially, Asians- which has made getting into such colleges a huge arms race for the latter groups. 
It's a vicious cycle: the more competitive Asian students become, the more they fulfill the stereotypes; the more they fulfill the stereotypes, the more they are discriminated against; the more they are discriminated against, the more competitive they may be motivated to become.

Also, as Anonymous notes, American-educated students in general are competing with growing numbers of wealthy, striving foreign students. While many come from China and are handicapped by language barriers, increasing numbers are coming from India as well, and these students, as I've noted earlier, often have a much better grasp of the English language than their American (and British) counterparts, not to mention a much better preparation in math.

So how do we make our American-educated kids less stressed out vis a vis this increasingly intimidating college prep and college admissions craziness? How about raising our academic standards, starting in elementary school, so that:

(1) students are fully prepared for college prep courses in high school.
(2) students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the same academic opportunities as everyone else (which, among other things, would obviate stereotype-reinforcing favoritism in college admissions).
(3) American-educated students are more competitive with students who were educated overseas.


FedUpMom said...

Here's a radical idea -- what if we changed college admissions so that academics were enough to get you into a top school? So much of the stress that I see isn't even about academics. It's about the sports teams (which eat time and energy) and all the extracurriculars. To have any chance of admission to a top college these days, you need a bunch of high-scoring AP's + excellent grades + high SATs + high athletic performance + playing a musical instrument + volunteer service + moving personal essay + ...

If you're just very smart, with good grades and SAT scores and AP scores, that won't get you into a top college. I have no doubt that some of our brainiest kids get turned down by the Ivies all the time. And if you're smart, but for reasons including anxiety and depression, you've got lousy grades, forget it.

treehousekeeper said...

My theory about the focus on extracurriculars is that colleges are using it as a proxy for IQ and executive skills. The ability to juggle a large number of extracurricular activities a kid on top of earning high grades and test scores is an indication that that it is fairly easy for the kid to learn the academic material and that the kid has good organizational and time management skills.

FedUpMom said...

treehousekeeper, as I understand it, the focus on extracurriculars started in the '50's as a way to keep Jews out of Harvard. There's a book about it, which I might look up if I have the time/energy.

Anyway, doesn't academic achievement by itself demonstrate IQ and executive skills?

treehousekeeper said...

There is a difference between a straight A student with near perfect SAT scores who studies all the time and one who has the same stats, but also has a load of extracurriculars. The one who has to study all the time is likely less intelligent (or perhaps just more sane). I think they're using extracurriculars in an attempt to differentiate between the top and the tippy top of the heap.

Anonymous said...

I think the college population would look very different if the SAT, ACT and AP tests focused on differentiation among the top students and academic departments chose applicants intending to major in their subject, Both would result in more serious students, particularly if the various aggrieved victim departments were closed. We have been running away from the first because of unacceptable demographic realities and admins will never allow the latter because many accepted kids would be very unlike the admissions staff.

I also wonder how many of those who advocate for free college "like Europe has" are aware that Europe sends far fewer kids to college and std test scores heavily determine who will be allowed to attend and which college. Extracurriculars do not count, as I understand it.

Anonymous said...

In many cases, extracurriculars can tell you *more* about a student's academic potential than mere grades. National level scores in the USAMO mean more than A's in high school calculus; national ranking at Intel Science means more than A's in high school AP classes; national rankings in debate or mock trial... So, schools naturally pay attention to those things.

ChemProf said...

At my college (Harvey Mudd), they definitely used extracurriculars as a marker for excess capacity -- in other words, it was something you could drop if you had to to get in more study time.

lgm said...

No, high school academic achievement by itself does not demonstrate iq and executive skills. Students are not being asked to think, and can easily get top grades via memorizing, and the hand holding of the tutor. The parents are interfering with EF development by micromanaging or by lobbying the school to reduce the load when they want to prioritize jr's ec. And hiding that for many its the second time thru the course, with the first time not counting...I am fine with that until my child is told he obviously has no aptitude since he isnt picking it up as quickly as the ringers. The course level needs to be set so that those who mastered the pre-reqs can master the course, not set for people moving from a B to an A.

Also, note that AP is not difficult. Its what some of the courses used to be, before dumb down.. APUSH is even less than I had in high school, and I went to a rural school where everyone took the same course, and no one's daddy screamed about jr earning a B or demanded the course be dumbed down so he could have an A. The instructor in my time enriched the course by providing a reading list for all interested in dont get that these days in my district....its considered unfair if anyone actually takes advantage of the opportunity.