The Tide Is Turning: High School Is Coming Back

Sometimes changing one thing in a culture changes everything. That is what more than 50 college and university deans of admission, college presidents, and university chancellors, in addition to representatives from public and independent high schools, are hoping for. The one thing they decided to change is the process of applying to college.

Educators on both the high school and college side of the college admissions process have been looking with dismay at what adolescence has become for many students due to the pressure to succeed in high school in order to gain college acceptance. They are concerned that those pressures have been harmful to the students’ well being and have influenced them to be overly self-absorbed. That group, with representatives from the most prestigious colleges and universities, recently released a report through the Harvard School of Education, entitled Turning the Tide, which details proposed changes in the college application process. All of those deans of admission endorsed the changes and will put them into effect so that high school students will enlarge their view of what success means and make huge changes in how they go through their high school years.

The report points out that the college application process itself sends the message to young people that their individual success, rather than concern for others and the common good, is paramount. The report calls for specific changes that will improve the emotional and psychological health of adolescents, increase opportunities for a broader range of students, and contribute to shaping a national culture different from the one we now have. The new application will redefine the roles of AP courses, extracurricular activities, standardized tests, and community service in admission decisions.

Currently, many students take as many AP courses as possible because they have been told that will impress colleges. The original intent of AP courses was to provide post high school experience for those who have excelled in all the high school courses in a specific subject area and would benefit from the challenge of college work in that area while in high school. Now, a schedule dominated by four or five AP courses in their junior and senior years has become high school for many students. The report notes that the achievement pressure resulting from that kind of schedule contributes to “high rates of depression, delinquency, substance abuse, and anxiety” in adolescents.

Many years ago, a student came to me, as English curriculum leader, and asked for permission to take a junior English honors course and a senior AP Literature and Composition course at the same time in her junior year because she would be studying abroad for her senior year. I explained to her that it wouldn’t be wise because each of those courses had hefty time commitments and required a prodigious amount of reading and writing. As I listed the specific books and writing assignments, she looked me in the eye and said, “ I hear what you’re saying, but for me that’s a party.” I didn’t give that student permission to double-up because of the amount of work in taking the courses together and the availability of an AP English course at her international school although she would miss the singular challenge of the AP course and teacher at our school.

However, after that, when students or their parents asked for my advice about taking an AP course, I would use her word “party” and tell them that if the student thought that the course, in some intellectual way, would be a “party”, then he or she should take it. It has been my experience and the experience of the other curriculum leaders in all the other academic disciplines in my highly respected school district that two “parties”, two AP courses, is a maximum for high school juniors and seniors to take in each of those  academic years and, of course, no AP courses in the first year and the sophomore year.

Turning the Tide doesn’t use the term “party” but endorses that concept. The new application process will state clearly that “a large number of AP or IB courses per year are often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas”. The report recommends that the college application process identify students who are passionate about an area of study, students who find intellectual engagement in that area, not the ones who “game the system” with a long list of AP courses.

According to Turning the Tide, students similarly try to “game the system” with a long list of extra-curricular activities. Admissions officers are dismissive of the “brag lists” of a large number of activities in which they suspect students may have minimal commitment and surface involvement.

Their suspicions are correct. I recall a faculty meeting at which the advisor to the National Honor Society recommended that guidance counselors advise 8th graders about how to plan for their upcoming high school years. They were to be told that in high school they should play at least one sport, join one music group, join one academically oriented club, and do a community service project so that they would qualify for National Honor Society as seniors and get into a good college. I objected, saying that students had a lifetime to become neurotic and questioned why we should make it happen when they are fourteen.

Turning the Tide throws that whole idea of resume building for 14 year olds out the window and encourages meaningful engagement in extracurricular activities. Applications will ask students to report only two or three activities and to explain in narrative form how the activities are meaningful for them.

Turning the Tide just about throws the SAT out the window too. Time has changed the purpose of the SAT. Originally, the SAT was put in place to ascertain a student’s aptitude for college, but, starting in March 2016, the SAT will be used as an achievement test to determine how well students have mastered the Common Core curriculum, how high schools will be ranked, and how teachers will be evaluated. Even when the SAT was considered a test of aptitude, it didn’t function well. The scores always correlated with the income of the students’ parents. The SAT didn’t measure student aptitude as much as it measured student affluence.

The report recommends that colleges and universities make the SAT optional. Already more than 850 colleges and universities do not use the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of bachelor degree students, and more than 200 top tier colleges and universities deemphasize the SAT and ACT in making admissions decisions. It may take a while for all colleges and universities to do that. Recently, when commenting on Turning the Tide, the president of a highly regarded university told me that within 10 years, standardized testing for college admission will be gone because all colleges recognize it is high school grades that predict success in college, not standardized tests.

Turning the Tide also addresses the common practice of students listing a number of community service endeavors even if their participation is minimal and does not have a deep impact on their lives. The new college application will ask students only about community service in which they have been involved for at least a year, about which they feel passionate, and from which they have learned and grown. The definition of community service is also expanded to “substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family”, such as working outside the home to provide needed income or caring for siblings or other family members. Doing that honors the service of less affluent students who give time to their families and do not have time for other kinds of service to others.

Big changes.

How will high school students be affected?

  1. It will open up possibilities for higher education for students of poverty and reduced income who have fewer advantages and more responsibilities than their peers.
  1. It will give adolescents a greater chance for emotional and psychological health.
  1. It will allow adolescents to experience high school for its own opportunities for intellectual growth and social development and not only as a pathway to college acceptance.
  1. It will give students more authentic learning experiences as the pressure of the SAT goes away and the incentive to teach the deeply flawed Common Core, which the SAT assesses, is reduced.
  1. It invites students to follow their own intellectual passions and to relate to their community in authentic and caring ways.
  1. It increases the chance that students will live their adult lives in a more compassionate world.

Thank you, Harvard. Thank you, Yale. Thank you, University of North Carolina. Thank you, M.I.T. Thank you, Holy Cross. Thank you, Connecticut College. Thank you, Trinity. Thanks to all the other 44 colleges and universities who have endorsed these changes in the college application process.