To get into college, fake it

Applying to College Shouldn’t Require Answering Life’s Great Questions, writes Julia Ryan in The Atlantic. Elite colleges’ admissions essay prompts pretty much demand that students “pretend to be something you are not,” she charges.

Brown University is asking applicants for the Class of 2017: French novelist Anatole France wrote: “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” What don’t you know?

The University of Chicago would like high-school seniors to tell them: How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.

Tufts would simply like to know: What makes you happy?

“Applying to college shouldn’t be the intellectual equivalent of dressing up in your mother’s clothes,” writes Ryan.

Many of her commenters liked the prompts. (They made me very glad that all this is behind me.)

Universities have automated admissions, writes a commenter who designs admissions software. An outside service will use “advanced OCR and ICR recognition software plus semantic analysis” to turn the transcript and extracurriculars into a single number. Essays are turn through plagiarism software. “If a university is particularly prestigious they *might* read the essay, but the counselor is reading about 15 to 20 an hour.” The essay reader is probably an untrained graduate student or unemployed graduate making $11 to $13 an hour, he writes.

Hacking the Common App has good advice on writing admissions essays. Here’s part 1 and part 2.

Bard’s new admissions option — submit four research papers instead of grades and scores — is begging to be gamed by the wealthy, writes Jordan Weissmann.

Rather than submit a full battery of grades, teacher recs, SAT scores, and personal essays, Bard applicants will be able to choose to hand in four 2,500 word research papers, which will be graded by faculty. Applicants who earn a B+ or better on their writing will be accepted . . .

“It’s kind of declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions and the failure to foreground the curriculum and learning,” Leon Botstein, Bard’s president of 38 years, said in an interview.

Who’d choose this option? Someone who’s gone to a very good college-prep high school and learned to write a college-quality research paper, but hasn’t earned Bard-worthy grades or test scores. That’s a small group. Or, as Weissmann suggests, someone who can afford to pay a “college consultant” to write the papers.

Shakespeare or Stein?

Instead of reading Shakespeare, students of the future will analyze the writing of Joel Stein, writes Joel Stein in Time. It makes him nervous. Common Core State Standards will shift reading lists to non-fiction, Stein writes. By reading analytical essays, they’ll learn to write analytical essays — instead of journal entries about their feelings.

Stein reads Faulkner or Joyce to improve his writing. CCSS urges students to dip into FedViews by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco.” Which is not quite the same.

Fiction also teaches you how to tell a story, which is how we express and remember nearly everything. If you can’t tell a story, you will never, ever get people to wire you the funds you need to pay the fees to get your Nigerian inheritance out of the bank.

Education isn’t just training for work, Stein writes. “It’s training to communicate throughout our lives.”

If we didn’t all experience Hamlet’s soliloquy, we’d have to explain soul-tortured indecisiveness by saying things like “Dude, you are like Ben Bernanke in early 2012 weighing inflation vs. growth in Quantitative Easing 3.”

Teaching language through nonfiction is like teaching history by playing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or teaching science by giving someone an unmarked test tube full of sludge and having him figure out if the white powder he distilled is salt or sugar by making Steven Baumgarten taste it, which is how I learned science and how Steven Baumgarten learned to be more careful about picking people to work with.

That’s “something he could have learned by reading Othello,” Stein concludes.

Tutors or cheaters?

Wealthy parents are hiring “tutors” to do their children’s work through private school — and sometimes college, reports the New York Post. Eager to get their kids into elite colleges by any means necessary, parents go online to find “legit and not-so-legit tutors, homework helpers and ghostwriters.”

“Charles” put himself through medical school and put a down payment on an apartment with $150,000 he earned over six years of ghostwriting for a single student.

The mother — a college professor — demanded Charles “tutor” her 15-year-old sophomore son by completing every homework assignment and writing every paper and college essay. . . .

Once the boy was off to his out-of-state private university, he flunked out after less than one year without the coddling of a tutor.

. . . And when the student was enrolled at a less-competitive school back in New York, Charles was pulled back in at the mother’s urging: “I was back in the picture in the same way as before: coming over five or six days a week. They paid for my apartment,” he says.

Teachers notice when mediocre students turn in “grad-school-like” papers, a private school teacher tells the Post.

“We would have staff meetings to discuss tutors: How do we grade this essay, knowing a tutor is crafting it? It puts teachers in an awkward position, because you don’t want to accuse the kid. Teachers can’t keep up with all the ways kids are cheating these days.”

It sounds as though private schools don’t want to confront parents who are paying the tuition bill as well as the ghost-writer’s bill.

College admissions officers also see a lot of ghost-written or mom-written essays. I wonder if there’s any point in requiring an essay.

NAEP: 27% of students write proficiently

Students in eighth and 12th grade write just as poorly on laptops as they do with paper and pencil, concludes the new National Assessment of Educational Progress writing exam. In both grades, 27 percent of students were rated proficient or better.

Students were given ”two 30-minute writing prompts that asked them to persuade, explain, or convey experiences,” reports Education Week.

At the 8th grade level, for example, one exercise called “Lost Island” asked students to imagine they had arrived on a remote island and listen to an audio file that included nature sounds and lines of a journal read aloud. Students then were required to write personal stories that chronicled an experience they would have had on the island, had they been there.

To reach “advanced” on the exam, students told well-organized stories with strong details, precise word choices, and varied sentences, according to the NAEP report. Students at the “basic” level would use some detail in their stories, but organization was “loose,” sentence structure unvaried, and word choice limited.

Students who were required by teachers to use computers more often to write and edit assignments performed better on the test, NAEP reported. Most students used spell check, but only 20 percent used the cut and paste functions on the laptops.

Girls did much better than boys. The racial breakdown was . . . The usual. I’ll just note that Asian-American students, many of whom speak English as a second language, outscored whites.

 

Teachers can learn from tests

Once a foe of standardized testing, Ama Nyamekye improved her teaching by analyzing her students’ scores on New York’s Regents exam, she writes in Ed Week.  When she asked her sophomores to take the English Regents exam a year early, she discovered “holes in my curriculum.”

I once dismissed standardized testing for its narrow focus on a discrete set of skills, but I learned that my self-made assignments were more problematic. It turned out they were skewed in my favor. I was better at teaching literary analysis than grammar and punctuation. When I started giving ongoing standardized assessments, I noticed that my students showed steady growth in literary analysis, but less growth in grammar and punctuation. I was teaching to my strengths instead of strengthening my weaknesses.

Grading is subjective, she writes. Emotionally invested in her students’ success — and implicitly judging her own effectiveness — she was quick to see signs of achievement.

By contrast, her students’ Regents essays were graded by English teachers who didn’t know them and who used detailed rubrics.

When I “depoliticized” the test, I found a useful and flawed ally. The exam excelled where I struggled, offering comprehensive and standards-based assessments. I thrived where the test fell short, designing creative, performance-based projects. Together, we were strategic partners. I designed and graded innovative projects—my students participated in court trials for Shakespearean characters—and the test provided a rubric that guided my evaluation of student learning.

All her students who took the exam passed it. Most earned high scores.

‘Crazy U’ for college-crazed parents

Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College is getting great reviews.

The New York Times compares his writing to Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe and Dave Barry.

The admissions process, as Andrew Ferguson puts it in his new book, “Crazy U,” entangles not just our pocketbooks but everything else that, besides world peace and cocktail hour, matters to parents: “our vanities, our social ambitions and class insecurities, and most profoundly our love and hopes for our children.”

. . . As this story moves forward, Mr. Ferguson makes short, shrewd detours into areas that include: the history of American education, how college guidebooks compile their rankings, the SAT tests and its critics, and the headache-making intricacies of college loans and financial aid. He talks to an expensive admissions guru who learns of his late start and fumbling progress and says, smiling: “Oooooh. Baaaaaaad Daaaaaad.”

The book is “compulsively readable, unusually vivid — and thoroughly dispiriting,” concludes the Wall Street Journal.

This is a guy who doesn’t just delve into the history of the SAT. He also takes the test himself. (“Close to a disaster,” he says of the results, with a math score so bad that he won’t divulge it, other than to say “somewhere below ‘lobotomy patient’ but above ‘Phillies fan.’ “)

. . . A series of enervating campus visits is marked by interchangeably chirpy undergraduate tour guides united by their ability to walk backward while extolling the school’s a capella groups and reassuring parents about the high priority placed on security. On a swing through New England, the Fergusons narrowly miss Dartmouth’s Second Annual Campus Sex Screening, a supposedly health-promoting event where, the flyers promised, “sexperts” would be giving “free demonstrations!” and the party favors included dental dams, glow-in-the-dark condoms and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Mr. Ferguson muses: “I may be showing my age, but back when I was a college student we didn’t need free ice cream to get us to come to a sex demonstration.”

The Washington Post reviewer, whose daughter is waiting to hear from colleges,  is rooting for Dad.

There’s the son telling his high school counselor that in college he wants to major in beer and paint his chest in the school colors at football games, prompting Dad to snap later: “It’ll be a big help when he writes your recommendation.”

Then there’s Dad handing his procrastinator a book on successful college essays and watching the boy vacantly turn it over in his hands. “I thought of the apes coming upon the obelisk in the opening scene of ’2001: A Space Odyssey,’ ” Dad writes. “He did everything but sniff it.” And here’s Dad encountering a mother who gloats that she and her daughter worked three solid months on the essays every day after school, plus weekends. “We did three months of work too,” he tells her, “in twelve days.”

My review:  This really is a great read for college-crazed parents and those about to enter the fray. It’s all 12 years behind me now, but I remember the craziness.

DePaul: Show ‘heart,’ not SATs

SAT or ACT scores will be optional for DePaul University applicants starting next year, but those who choose not to submit scores will be asked to write short essays demonstrating “noncognitive” traits such as leadership, commitment to service and ability to meet long-term goals. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“Admissions officers have often said that you can’t measure heart,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management. “This, in some sense, is an attempt to measure that heart.”

DePaul hopes to encourage more applications from low-income and minority students with relatively high grades and low test scores.  “Heart” is a better predictor of success than SAT or ACT scores for low-income and minority students, admissions officials say. 

In 2008 the university added four short essay questions to its freshman application with hopes of assessing noncognitive traits said to lead to college success.

One question prompted applicants to describe a goal they had set for themselves and how they planned to accomplish it: “How would you compare your educational interests and goals with other students in your high school?” Another question said: “Describe a personal challenge you have faced, or a situation in which you or others were treated unfairly. How did you react to the situation and what conclusions did you draw from the experience? Were you able to turn to others for support?”

DePaul dropped those questions when it started using the Common Application, which requires a personal essay of at least 250 words. It was too much writing.  The questions will return for students who don’t submit test scores.

Race to new tests

Competition has opened for $350 million in Race To The Top funding for new assessments linked to common standards, reports Education Week. That means less multiple-choice testing  and more “essays, multidisciplinary projects, and other more nuanced measures of achievement.”

(The Education Department) wants tests that show not only what students have learned, but also how that achievement has grown over time and whether they are on track to do well in college. And all that, the regulations say, requires assessments that elicit “complex student demonstrations or applications” of what they’ve learned.

There is money for “comprehensive assessment systems” measuring mastery of a “common set of college- and career-ready” standards. Applicants get points for working with state universities to design the tests and guarantee that students who score above a certain level will be able to enroll in for-credit college classes.

Another pot of money will fund end-of-course high school exams.

Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who leads a group representing a majority of states, believes performance assessments can improve the way teachers teach, notes John Fensterwald on Educated Guess.

The alternative is performance assessments, which require students to construct their own responses to questions. These can take the form of supplying short phrases or sentences to questions, writing essays or conducting complex and time-consuming activities, such as a lab experiment. “By tapping into students’ advanced thinking skills and abilities to explain their thinking, performance assessments yield a more complete picture of students’ strengths and weaknesses,” Darling-Hammond wrote.

“Performance assessments face obstacles of cost, reliability and testing time,” Fensterwald writes. He links to a critique of Darling-Hammond’s paper by Doug McRae, a retired publisher for the testing division of McGraw-Hill.

Because multiple-choice questions are cheap and easy to score, it’s possible to ask students a wide range of questions. As tests get more complex — write an essay, design an experiment, stage a debate — students  spend more time being assessed on far fewer prompts. Grading is subjective. Todd Farley’s Making the Grades explains tough it is for a group of people to score short answers and essays with consistency and fairness.

Getting in without SATs

Sarah Lawrence, a small liberal-arts college, picks admits without considering SAT scores. With grades varying so much from school to school, the admissions committee uses “a sample essay graded by a high-school teacher to determine the curriculum’s rigor,” New York Magazine explains.

But the samples also tell something about the readers. “I had one essay that said how awful Twilight was”—the essay was about damaging themes of female submissiveness in the series—“and I was like, ‘Admit her!’?” says Melissa Faulner, a 2006 grad on the committee. Whereas what the readers wryly call TCML essays—“theater changed my life”—are looked at more skeptically.

A girl from Texas scored a three (out of five) in academics while getting top marks in the other two categories. “Her grades really are bad,” Will Floyd allowed. She hadn’t gotten one A in high school. “But her writing was gorgeous,” he noted. The girl explained in her application that she has test anxiety and problems with rote memorization. But she had good recommendation letters. Besides, Sarah Lawrence’s curriculum emphasizes writing over test-taking. She got in.

More than half of applicants are offered a place at Sarah Lawrence.  Tuition and room and board cost more than $55,000 a year: 61 percent of undergrads receive financial aid.

Contest time

The Profile in Courage essay contest, sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, invites high school students to write an original essay about an elected official who has demonstrated political courage. Awards total $13,500 for winning essayists; the teacher who nominates the first-place winner will receive a $500 grant.

In other contest news, students can sign up now to compete in World Math Day on March 3.