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Credits for Kindness

By Jeff Wagenheim, Illustrations by Simone Massoni, on May 14, 2016 9:48 AM
A new movement is trying to refocus admissions away from purely individual academic achievement and toward something you can't measure with aptitude tests and a resume padded with public service points: real concern with others and the common good.

Illustration by Simone MassoniDon't throw away those No. 2 pencils, the kind you used to fill in all the little ovals back when you took the Scholastic Aptitude Test. If your parents went to college, too, they probably secured their places on campus by completing the sat with the same type of lead pencils. (It's not lead inside, actually, but nontoxic graphite — maybe that should be one of the multiple choice questions on the test.) And if your children grow up with post-secondary schooling aspirations, they'll also most certainly use trusty old No. 2s to write their tickets to the future.

But through the generations, practically everything else about the standardized tests used for college admissions has undergone incremental changes. Just two years after the College Board introduced the sat in 1926, for instance, math questions were removed. They were absent for just a couple of years before returning in a different form, but disappeared again in the mid-'30s and weren't reinstated for good until 1942. Grammar and writing skills became a focus in the 1970s, and along came an essay section in 2005.

This spring saw the unveiling of a new version of the sat, following the most sweeping overhaul in two decades. There were changes to the format — no more penalties for guessing, so if you're feeling lucky, go for it — and also shifts in content, from the addition of an optional essay to a more plain-spoken focus in the vocabulary testing. The College Board trumpeted the latter of those changes in a press release with this playful headline: "The College Board Elegizes Anachronistic Verbiage with Recondite Panegyric; Celebrates Final Administration of the Extant sat on Jan. 23." So no more need to memorize the meanings and usages of ten-dollar words you'll never again pull out of your billfold.

All of this is happening at a time when college admissions in general are being reevaluated. More than 850 colleges, including many top-tier liberal arts institutions, have made it optional for applicants to submit scores from the sat or act, which was originally known as the American College Test.

"One of the things we found out at Smith from careful study is that our own assessment of candidates was a better predictor of how students will do here at the college than the sat," says Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College. The women's college went test-optional in 2008 (before McCartney became president; she was dean at the Ed School at the time). As Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier points out in her book The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America, "I have argued for years that the sat is actually more reliable as a 'wealth test' than a test of potential." She cites a study by two former admissions officers at Bates College — one of the first institutions to go sat-optional, some 32 years ago — that showed that students who performed well in college were the ones who had gotten strong grades in high school, regardless of their sat scores. Students who did well on the sat but had poor high school grades didn't do as well in college.

Luckily, standardized tests and high school transcripts are not all that factor into admissions decisions. Colleges review a candidate's common application, which sums up the student's demographic information and includes some expository writing, and letters of recommendation are also part of the mix, just as a personal interview can be. But there's now a movement to refocus admissions away from purely individual academic achievement and toward what McCartney calls "a more holistic view of candidates." In January, she was one of 85 endorsers from a wide swath of academia for an ambitious report, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.

As Richard Weissbourd, Ed.D.'87, senior lecturer at the Ed School and co-author of the Turning the Tide report, points out, "The college admissions process is one of the only rites of passage we have in this country. It's a powerful place for adults to have thoughtful conversations with young people about values, exchanges about what's most important to them," he says. "But too often the admissions process ends up reinforcing just the achievement message, with ethical engagement and concern for others being marginalized."

As he explains, Turning the Tide grew out of a meeting hosted in the spring of 2015 by Making Caring Common, an Ed School project he co-directs. A year earlier, the project had surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds from across the country about what is most important to them, and the results were startling. Given three choices, almost 80 percent of the students ranked either high achievement or personal happiness as most important to them, with only around 20 percent saying that caring for others was their top priority.

"We're not the first ones to recognize this. People have been lamenting the 'me generation' for a long time. But these are concerning trends," says Weissbourd. "It doesn't mean there aren't a lot of wonderful young people. There are. But there is an excess of cultural messages that focus on individualism over investment in others. That has not been true to this degree at other times in our history."

So Weissbourd and his colleagues convened a meeting of a couple dozen admissions officials from colleges around the Northeast. The goal was to arrive at a consensus on a unified message about ethical engagement being just as important a factor in admissions as intellectual engagement. The meeting also delved into how admissions officers could more fairly assess the strengths of students of all races, classes, and cultures.

In the end, Turning the Tide offered recommendations crafted to benefit students from backgrounds across the board. For example, those in low-income homes often need to be acknowledged and validated for their necessary contributions to their families — supervising younger siblings or working at the family store, for example. More affluent young people sometimes require relief from achievement pressure that contributes to the high rates of stress, depression, delinquency, and substance abuse in their communities. Then there were the recommendations that were essentially universal, such as the reassurance that college applicants need not list a dozen extracurricular activities and Advanced Placement courses.

"These recommendations are a call for high school students to lead more balanced lives, lives in which they're academically engaged and challenging themselves with some hard courses, certainly, but also lives that give them time to be engaged in their community, contributing to others as good citizens do," Weissbourd says. "We're hoping to make a positive effect on the high school experience and send a message to students about what colleges value."

The messages that colleges send to high school students and their parents are especially important to those helping guide families through the application process. Sarah Style, Ed.M.'07, C.A.S.'08, is a counselor at Newton South High School, a high-performing public school outside Boston. She starts talking to some kids about college as soon as she meets them in freshman year. Style tries to ease their minds and encourage a balanced approach, she says, "but the challenge is getting the students and their parents to believe me. They can be skeptical when I tell them that colleges aren't going to reject them because of any one thing. They picture their transcript on a table next to the transcript of another student, and they have a C but the other student doesn't. They panic, thinking that one grade is going to ruin them."

While Style is in her third year at a school that sends 85 percent of its graduates to college, she arrived there fresh off a stint in the Boston Public Schools. During those five years, she worked with many students for whom college seemed a faraway concept. "Students who are first generation going to college have a different point of view than kids whose grandfather went to Duke or great-grandmother went to Harvard," Style says. "So I try to meet the kid where they're at. If I'm speaking with a kid who is very, very stressed at the beginning of freshman year, thinking 'What do I have to do to get into Harvard?' — if they have that narrow mindset — my work with that student is to encourage them to follow their passions."

Credits for KindnessThe person who can answer the question of what it takes to get into Harvard College perhaps better than anyone, William Fitzsimmons, Ed.M.'69, Ed.D.'71, is on board with the call to broaden young people's education. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College, was instrumental in helping the Making Caring Common team assemble the admissions personnel who created Turning the Tide, and he appreciates that the report advocates for quality over quantity. "Even the most advanced students may benefit from avoiding course 'overload' and devoting more time for scholarly work that allows unstructured reflection and encourages the development of intellectual curiosity," he says. "Our admissions process greatly values the quality of students' academic work and not the quantity of their courses and examination results."

This approach to excellence has a way to go in spreading through the world of college admissions. As Guinier writes, "In the current environment … moving away from merit by the numbers takes guts."

So stress relief for students is slow in coming. "As a developmental psychologist, as a mother of two adult children, and now as a higher education administrator, I am very aware of the stress that young people are under," McCartney says. "And I think we need to do what we can to eliminate the needless stress and try to evaluate college applicants not as numbers but as whole people."

There can be stresses at both ends of the spectrum of applicants. Kids from families with a history of high academic achievement can wilt under the pressure of living up to their forebears. Those in families with no collegiate past can feel adrift in an uncharted sea and also might be unaware of not just what various colleges have to offer, but also of what they bring to the table themselves.

"In my work in the Boston schools, I had some students who regularly spent many hours a week going to doctor appointments with a parent because the parent didn't speak English," says Style. "There also were students who worked in their families' businesses — they didn't get paid, it just was an expectation that they help out the business. These were valuable contributions, but not the kind of extracurricular activities that one might typically be guided to mention on an application for college admission or a scholarship." It's exactly these kinds of contributions that the Turning the Tide folks want students to be able to report on their college applications.

However, Senior Lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer, a onetime school counselor whose work now focuses on the readiness of low-income and first-generation college students, has doubts that the recommended changes in admissions will level the playing field. High schools in less affluent communities don't have the means, she says, to ensure that their counselors receive the ongoing professional development training to remain up to date with what college admissions officers are looking for in applications. Savitz-Romer, co-author of the book Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success, also is skeptical that colleges truly will view a low-income applicant's necessary work in support of family members in the same light as, say, a more affluent student's social service trip to Central America. "And I even feel a little uncomfortable with kids being asked to exploit their family's needs on a college application," she says.

While she views Turning the Tide as a step in the right direction, which is why she signed on to the report in support, Savitz-Romer has concerns that some of the messages might be misinterpreted by students as one-size-fits-all. "It's great that we're trying to relieve the pressure that exists in affluent schools by telling kids it's not necessary to load up on AP courses," she says. "But that's not necessarily a problem that exists in lower-income schools, and we don't want to send those kids a message that might steer them away from taking ap courses. We want to encourage kids in that environment to challenge themselves and be engaged in school."

Kevin Kelly has worked the admissions process from both sides of the fence. He and his wife, a high school counselor, have a small firm offering independent college counseling to high school students. But for the 10 years prior to this school year, Kelly was director of admissions at the University of Massachusetts. And in a career spanning more than 35 years, he worked in admissions at several New England colleges. The biggest difference Kelly sees between the college admissions of today and the process in place when he began at Boston University in 1981? It's the same advance that has changed everything in practically all facets of life: the internet.

"The admissions process wasn't exclusively word of mouth back then, but for most students, you knew about schools that were near you," says Kelly. "You might have vague knowledge about some big-name colleges or schools that were football powerhouses, but students by and large tended to stay close to home." Technology, combined with changing demographics, changed all that. There was a decline in the number of college-going kids in the Northeast, so schools had to look elsewhere. The internet made that recruiting more sophisticated, far speedier, and with a wider net being cast. The marketplace of today for students is worldwide, yet recruiters need not travel to the extent that they used to. And rather than massive mailings of materials, information can be dispersed with a click of a mouse. "When I started, no one could have imagined it would come to this," says Kelly. "The competition for students is greater than ever."

The competition between prospective students has been ramped up as well. Kelly recalls a night three winters ago when he was invited to a college admissions panel at a high school outside Boston. It turned out to be a rainy, sleety night, "and I schlepped out there from Amherst thinking, 'If there are 50 people there, it'll be a good night.' Well, more than 700 people packed the place. I was stunned." It wasn't merely the numbers that were eye-opening. Kelly also watched students and parents swarm fellow presenters from the admissions departments at Harvard and mit, peppering them with questions. Are my sat scores good enough? Should my daughter take a fifth AP course?

"That's why I see this Turning the Tide report as a noble effort," Kelly says. "There's a lot of momentum built up toward hyper-preparing kids to get into the right college." Indeed, the tide might be a tsunami.

Working with high school students regularly provides Kelly and others a reminder that college applicants can be as fluid as the admissions process itself.

"These are young people," says Kelly. "They're still growing and still changing."

Kelly's most heartfelt advice for students: "Take back senior year." Too often, applying to college becomes an all-consuming obsession and spoils what could be the best year of a young person's life. "So many cool things happen in senior year," Kelly says.

This is not to suggest that senior year is a two-semester party. McCartney sees it as a year for expanding horizons. "One of the things I see today in some young people is a too-narrow focus — students are so intent on having a great gpa that they won't take any courses outside their comfort zone," she says. "It's also not a good thing when young people are doing their best in the classroom but getting stressed because they got one B. I hope that we can take the suggestions in the Turning the Tide report and align them with what happens in reality. That's the next step."

That is the intention of the Making Caring Common team, which envisions the report as the jumping-off point in a two-year process. The project plans to bring together admissions leaders and parents for a summit this summer to try to enact the report's recommendations at colleges across the country. Weissbourd believes the ball is already rolling.

"I think admissions departments are a lot more alert than people think to packaged applications and packaged community service," he says. "They're quite good at telling what's authentic and what's inauthentic. That's really the heart of the matter, in a way."

Authenticity might seem to be in the eye of the beholder, but it's really in the heart of the doer. And even those college applicants who initially work in a food pantry or homeless shelter as a means to pad their resume might be in for a surprise. Weissbourd cites research showing that whether community service is mandatory or voluntary matters less than the quality of the service. "If kids have choices," he says, "and if there's good supervision, good structure, time to reflect, even if the service is mandatory, a lot of kids are going to benefit from it."

He suggests that young people set their sights on something that interests them and is bigger than themselves. "Do something meaningful in your community. Become intellectually engaged. Develop some passions," Weissbourd says. "The idea is that if you focus on those things, if you choose a community service opportunity that's authentic, that's something you're interested in, there's a much greater likelihood that you're going to learn. It might even be transformative for you."

Recommendations from Turning the Tide, focused on family contributions and daily kindness:

WEIGHING DAY-TO-DAY CONDUCT
The admissions process should seek to assess more effectively whether students are ethically responsible and concerned for others and their communities in their daily lives. The nature of students’ day-to-day conduct should be weighed more heavily in admissions than the nature of students’ stints of service.

CONTRIBUTIONS TO ONE’S FAMILY
The admissions process should clearly send the message to students, parents, and other caregivers that not only community engagement and service but also students’ family contributions, such as caring for younger siblings, taking on major household duties, or working outside the home to provide needed income, are highly valued in the admissions process. Far too often there is a perception that high-profile, brief forms of service tend to count in admissions while these far more consistent, demanding, and deeper family contributions are overlooked. Students should have clear opportunities to report these family contributions on their applications.

TRUE PUBLIC SERVICE
It’s vital that the admissions process squarely challenges misconceptions about what types of service are valued in admissions. Some students seek to “game” service by taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership. The admissions process should clearly convey that what counts is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience.

Jeff Wagenheim is a columnist at Sports Illustrated, founding editor of Wondertime, and former editor at the Boston Globe.

For more, read "College and (the Real) You" on Usable Knowledge.