Friday, October 30, 2009

Against 'holistic'

Ah, the holistic assessment of college applicants has made it to public colleges. Why? From the NYT: "Merely pushing average grades and test scores ever higher won’t necessarily yield the most vibrant student body." Vibrant. Obviously "vibrant" is code for something - otherwise we'd have to assume rather extreme vagueness - but what? "A holistic evaluation, admissions officials say, allows the luxury of thoughtfully knitting together a multitalented student body as well as a diverse one." The language remains coded, although "thoughtfully knitting" offers a warm-and-fuzzy, grandma-sitting-by-the-fireplace image of what happens when an admissions committee gathers to decide who doesn't get to go to a certain school.

As it happens, my sense from this article is that "holistic" is not code for race- and class-based affirmative action, because if that was all that was desired, public colleges could just take the top whichever percent of each high school. No, holistic just means making it so that if you get rejected by a college, you feel as though you as a person were thoroughly examined and deemed unfit. For some reason, colleges imagine students will see this as fair, and convince themselves that referring to whatever criteria they come up with as capable of assessing someone's entire humanity will leave the schools themselves more effective at accomplishing whatever it is their missions might be.

So my anti-holistic views are already familiar here, and I won't rehash now. All I'll add is where the holistic approach screws things up once kids get to school. There is a rather widespread idea amongst college students - and I remember this from college myself - that a good grade on even an undeniably quantitative assignment means 'the teacher likes me', whereas a bad grade is assumed the result of a teacher extracting cathartic revenge on a student who parts her hair on the wrong side or has otherwise unintentionally offended her instructor. Now having done a bit of grading at this point, I'm well aware how very untrue this assumption is - grading is necessary for providing feedback and all that, but is the least interesting aspect of teaching, falling well behind lesson-planning and giving a class. Objectivity in grading is not only the right thing to do, but the default. The power games the student imagines are, a few nutty teachers aside, absent from the grading process. No teacher lingers over the marked-up assignments, savoring the experience. And... I do sort of think the student imagines the teacher grades on the basis of overall feeling about him as a person because he is under the impression that he was admitted to the college on the basis of what he's like as a person. It's not the student's fault that he takes these things personally, because that's just what he's been told to do.

It's weird. I don't think the individual factors that make up 'holistic' assessments are a problem, so much as the idea of as-a-person judgments being made. 'Multiple factors' sounds much better to me than 'holistic,' even if the process behind them is identical.


Matt said...

Before I would hand back grades on papers I would always give out a handout that was a copy of one given to me as an undergrad. One on side was a picture of a gladiator with his foot on the throat of another gladiator, preparing to finish him off. On the other side were two quotations meant to sum up my approach to grading and, perhaps especially, writing comments on papers. The first was from Socrates in Plato's Gorgias, where he says, "What kind of person am I? I am one of those who are delighted to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and delighted to refute anyone else who says what is not true, and quite as delighted to be refuted as to refute, for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater o being oneself cured of a very great evil than curing another. For I hold that there is no endurable evil so great as a false opinion about the matters of which we speak; and if you claim to be one of my sort, let us have the discussion out."

And from Josiah Royce, in his The Spirit of Modern Philosophy, when he says, "I distinguish very easily between a student's person and his teaching. Let the man be respected according as he has meant well, and has labored with sincere devotion.... But let the teaching be tried wholly without mercy, whether meant well or not. The criticism of the pubic deeds of scholarship, offered in the public service, is wholly independent of our personal fondness for a man, and involves no desire for other than intellectual contest with him. Therefore such criticism, whenever its wholly objective motive is understood, does well to be merciless."

Of course some kids still manage to take grading personally, and a few especially dim ones believed that these claims were just dodges and that I really was grading them on their personality. If that had been so, they usually would have been even less happy with their grades.

Britta said...

Hmm. Interesting. I always assumed a good grade was the result of me handing in work that was, for an undergrad, well done, and a bad grade represented work that was subpar. I never in a million years assumed the teacher was grading me on anything but the quality of the work, except that I noticed that towards the end of a semester of being a diligent student, I was probably more likely to get the benefit of the doubt than I might have at the beginning or than if I had been a disrespectful slacker student.
I also never even considered a teacher would want to play power games with grades rather than try to objectively judge my work.

Anonymous said...

I think you are been a bit too quick to assume that "holistic" isn't code for affirmative action. Yes you can take 10 % of the top High School class but you soon get push back from middle class parents and eventually they will start trying to game the system. With a "holistic" assessment you can stay under the radar.

PG said...

As it happens, my sense from this article is that "holistic" is not code for race- and class-based affirmative action, because if that was all that was desired, public colleges could just take the top whichever percent of each high school.

At least for the Texas public universities, the top 10% system imposed by the legislature and then-Gov. Bush in the wake of Hopwood's ban on considering race in admissions has not been good.

First, there's the rather nasty underlying fact that in order to achieve a racially diverse college class, this system depends on Texas's racially segregated high schools remaining so. My high school was integrated, but it was still under court order for that integration until about 2000, and it was only possible because we were in a rural area where there wasn't enough money floating around for private high schools to exist.

Second, quite often the top 10% students from some truly terrible (as opposed to my school, which was merely mediocre) urban and border-town high schools are not prepared for university-level work. Because the top 10% program required that any student who graduated in that percentage be accepted to a full-blown public university (as opposed to community college for the first year), the state universities -- particularly the UT system -- had to add literally dozens of remedial classes in English and math to get these students up to speed for a university education. A lot of these students understandably felt discouraged and ended up dropping out.

I honestly don't understand why community and junior colleges are not more clearly made options as stepping stones to the public universities, for students who attended poor public schools that did not prepare them for a university education. The most driven people I knew at UVa were people who had transferred in from the community colleges. Some had gone to bad schools; some had slacked off too long in high school and didn't compile a good transcript until they were in the preparatory college. Community college offered the opportunity to start fresh and catch up, generally with teachers better than those available at the public high schools. (I ran out of classes to take at my high school and took a couple at local colleges; the history teacher at the community college was much better -- and a stricter grader -- than the AP History teacher at my high school.)

Anyway, I think Anonymous may be correct that "holistic" can be code for using affirmative action, at least in states that haven't instituted the top 10% program. "Holistic" is precisely the safe harbor the Supreme Court has provided for continuing to consider race and gender in admissions: you can't do it with crude metrics like a point system in which being of a particular race or gender gets you more points, but you can take those factors into consideration in a holistic assessment.

PG said...

My college admission was probably within the beginning of the "holistic" trend at private universities, but while I initially felt personally hurt by my rejections from Harvard and Yale (they came in the same mail), my mother unintentionally made it clear that this was not an evaluation of "PG as a person" but a judgment based on my grades. She called Harvard's admissions office and asked why I hadn't gotten in. Not because she was challenging the decision, but because she had another kid still to go through the process, and she wanted to know where I had screwed up. I don't think they got that sort of call very often -- a parent who was cheerfully certain that the fault lay with her child and not with the admissions office -- so they told her that given the quality of my high school, I needed to be in at least the top 5 (not 5%, but 5 people) in GPA ranking to be considered. That I had racked up good scores on the various SATs and APs was not sufficient. My parents then spent the remainder of my little sister's time at home not giving a damn what she did so long as she brought home outstanding grades.

Which is all to say, I think the "holistic" thing for private universities (which aren't governed by the Supreme Court's 14th Amendment jurisprudence, though I'm sure there will eventually be a case challenging affirmative action by private schools as a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) may well be a cover for the general exercise of discretion, particularly when faced with the kind of parents (or students) who do think they can argue their way into a different decision.

As for grading, when I've done it myself it's only been for classes that were pass/fail. I had to fail a few kids each time because they clearly either hadn't bothered to take the class seriously, or hadn't grasped the basic method of legal analysis (here's the rules from the set of facts presented to courts in three different cases; here's a new set of facts, apply those rules from the court's decisions in the prior cases to this new set of facts, there's no wrong answer so long as you can cite the prior cases and explain why you think the decision for the new set of facts should come out this way based on the prior rulings).

I didn't get the impression that people thought I was grading them based on whether I liked them or not. It was a 200+ person class and I was merely the TA; there were proper professors to give the lecture, and then I took questions -- mostly of the "which part of that will be on the exam" variety -- handed out outlines to be used for the open-book exam, wrote the exam and graded the exam.

Anonymous said...

PG--I must ask, did your little sister get into Harvard?


PG said...


I can't remember. She didn't care much for Harvard when she visited, and ended up at Brown, which made her an even worse case of "Republican father spends thousands in tuition money for his daughters to be educated by commies" than I, since at least I went to a public U.