Sunday, September 29, 2013

10,000 words

Which, just off the top of your head, sounds like a better way to get a diverse student body: Requiring that applicants do well on the SAT and get good grades (the former evidently relating to family income,  and then there are the families paying for tutors; but the latter by necessity opening things up to students from all schools), or asking them to write 10,000 words of research paper? 


Bard's new way... strikes me more as a way to make sure applicants consider your college their first-choice school, than a way to make that college more accessible. I get that as with all applications, the college applicant must appear to believe that they'd flourish best and contribute most at this one institution, while at the same time applying to a bunch. Which means, if nothing else, getting the name of the school right for each essay. But anything that asks a student to demonstrate enthusiasm by turning applying to that school into an extracurricular activity of its own seems... potentially more about selecting the kids who, to put it generously, are the best match for that school, than about avoiding the evils of the standard-issue college application process.

But then there's the diversity question, ostensibly at the heart of this, but the most dubious. Would essays bring in more disadvantaged students, or just more academically weak but quirky rich kids? Most obviously, anything that time-consuming will be tougher to pull off for the kid with lots of household responsibilities. And are we really thinking parents aren't at all going to help with these essays, and that this won't alter the outcome? 

I suppose the idea is that the assignment is just this pure way of looking at how different people think, it seems unlikely to play out like that: 
Bard’s audition is open book: Along with the menu of 17 questions, the college’s Web site will provide all the relevant source materials — from a Nobel lecture about prion disorders to the United Nations Charter to an Aeschylus play — with which to address them. (Additional research is permitted if properly documented.) Mary Backlund, Bard’s director of admission, said that that access will place students who may not have encountered the subjects in school or do not have good local libraries on equal footing with those who attended elite high schools.
Note the parenthetical bit. Kids who appear to be doing graduate-level work (citing scholarship, etc.), aren't they just that much more impressive? Or on a simpler level: kids who cite outside sources seem more committed to attending Bard. Kids who demonstrate existing contextual knowledge about the topics are bound to come up with something more impressive. The ability to write at the college level while still in high school seems like a good proxy for how nice of a high school you've attended. (You'll have an edge if you were in Mr. Gern's Stuyvesant English class, it seems, because by coincidence he assigns the same poetry as the Bard application. While yes, just reading that passage was a bit jarringly high-school-flashback, it's always nice to see a former teacher be the voice of reason.)

But to return to the main issue here, it's just bizarre to think that fairness is achieved by throwing primary sources at kids from all backgrounds, as if the ability to write a long essay on a complicated topic without any particular training is something equally distributed throughout the population. I understand the appeal of eliminating "potential" from the equation, but the way of doing so can't possibly be expecting college-level work (the real deal, not what APs cover) from those who haven't yet dealt with the steep learning curve of first term freshman year.

8 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

All these objections may be true, but so what? The existing college application regime rewards the best-prepared, and preparedness correlates highly with income. This research paper regime (if made the standard one rather than Bard's snowflakey route to admission) would also benefit the best-prepared, which would still correlate highly with income. So unpreparedness will never be your ticket into college, which is pretty much unavoidable so long as college is primarily about doing academic work. Therefore, poverty will always be an obstacle to college admission unless countered by high-level pre-college preparation.

Once we take these as givens (and I agree that Bard seems not to do so), the question is, which is a better predictor of academic success in college - standardized tests, or research papers? Assuming you don't cheat on the papers, probably the latter. (And I'm not opposed to standardized tests, but the connection between research papers and subsequent college work is simply much clearer.) Moreover, if college acceptance hinged more on such measures as your ability to produce a decent research paper than to be well-rounded or a "good citizen" or whatever, then perhaps more high schools would be motivated to follow Stuyvesant's model and teach more context.

The gaping problem though is how much easier it is to pay someone to write your research papers than to take the SAT for you. "Coaching" and its inequalities are one thing, but outright cheating suddenly becomes much easier in this application regime. What this proposal seems to point to is something like British A-Levels, or some similar kind of national exam that covers extensive and substantive material rather than aptitude testing.

And yes, I also doubt that Bard is going to receive enough real B+ papers to make a class, but they'll learn to adjust their expectations (or inflate their grades) accordingly.

Nicholas said...

Extra baffling because I just cannot imagine a way in which this won't end up with a bunch of really, really terrible essays. If I learned anything from teaching writing to freshmen, it's that even graduates of very prestigious high schools need a lot of training to hit basic undergraduate competency.

OTOH, I'm also a believer that there's an inherent ability to write an essay that has nothing to do with technical competence: if one assumes the students can eventually be taught the technique, then this may not be the craziest writing exercise, not least because it's very difficult to massage a fake/trite insight into 10000 words until you have had the professional training to do so. So the essay's subject matter may be irrelevant, but not just a means by which to screen out the lazy and uncommitted.

caryatis said...

Agreed with MSI. Colleges want smart students, but somehow want to determine intelligence without looking at grades, accomplishments or test scores in high schools. (And there are tons of examples of black students who find their high high school grades won't cut it in college.)

I'm a fan of standardized tests, but mainly because there is no better option. No one has yet come up with a way to make poor smart students look as good as rich smart students. (Maybe an IQ test would do so, but most people are extremely uncomfortable with that.)

Phoebe said...

MSI,

Do colleges look for preparedness? It seems like that's only part of it, and if that was what they wanted, they would have something more like Bard's approach. I thought they more wanted students who'd make something of the degree? (And maybe donate.)

In any case, the problem with the research papers - apart from the one you mention, that they could so easily be written by someone else - is that college is about being able to produce a good one once you've been taught how. To put it in UChicago terms, that means a quarter or two of floundering in Sosc doesn't rule out doing well in college. To do well on one in high school is some small % about potential, but almost entirely about whether or not you went to a prep school/had well-educated, English-speaking parents reading over your work. That's the world we do live in, so I can't imagine any shift occurring in high schools themselves.

This method seems (and I feel like I'm repeating myself, but it's b/c I'd written this on Facebook) more like a way to help out rich and UMC kids who don't have good scores (despite parental wealth) or grades, but might be smart in some other, as-yet-undetected way. Which, fair (if snowflake-ish) enough, but getting more of that kind of student isn't exactly a social-justice cause progressive types should be worked up about.

The problem for me comes when the fate of mediocre wealthy students gets conflated with that of poor and working-class students, as in, when the SATs are condemned for helping the rich, but the real issue at hand is that they hurt the rich who don't test well. I mean, yes, maybe 'doesn't test well' shouldn't be conflated with 'mediocre' either, but that's a separate question.

Nicholas,

"If I learned anything from teaching writing to freshmen, it's that even graduates of very prestigious high schools need a lot of training to hit basic undergraduate competency."

Absolutely. Or so I'd like to believe, because I studied with Mr. Gern himself, and I still had a lot to learn. But it seems like even if most students from elite high schools don't do well immediately upon arrival at college, the few who get it instantly are from those schools.

The reason I see this as a screening process of that nature really is that Bard is the only school asking this, and that it just seems like so much work. It's not a research paper, but four. If the idea is to screen for basic writing ability and whatever glimmer of ability to express an interesting thought process in writing, why the need for this highbrow, pseudo-research approach? Why not an essay on a more approachable topic? Why do there need to be *four* 2,500-word essays?

Caryatis,

"No one has yet come up with a way to make poor smart students look as good as rich smart students."

This tends to be my feeling as well. I haven't looked into the stats lately though, but as I recall, there were plenty of kids whose on-paper advantages should suggest their ambient privilege leading to 1600 (or whatever it is these days), as well as plenty with perfect scores who were far from tutored.

Britta said...

All I can think about is how much Bard must hate its admissions people. This sounds like grading from hell.

But I think you've hit the key part, which is Bard probably is tired of admitting people are using them as a safety school and turn them down for Barnard or NYU. This weeds out the people who are just hedging their bets and gets applicants with at least some serious thought to attendance.

"No one has yet come up with a way to make poor smart students look as good as rich smart students."

This tends to be my feeling as well. I haven't looked into the stats lately though, but as I recall, there were plenty of kids whose on-paper advantages should suggest their ambient privilege leading to 1600 (or whatever it is these days), as well as plenty with perfect scores who were far from tutored.


Yeah, this is a problem (not for Bard though, who I thought specialized in attracting wealthy ok-but-not-great students). Probably the fairest thing would actually be something like China's gao kao, which is a content based exam which is the sole requirement for admissions. It's hard enough to game that wealthy and powerful Chinese people generally choose to send their kids abroad over trying to pull strings to get a kid with low scores into a good school. I'm sure cheating and corruption do happen, but public perception seems that it's much less than in other areas of society. It also means that life is living hell for Chinese high schoolers. High schoolers put in 14 hour days in school, with homework and outside tutoring on top of it. It also is a system that doesn't allow for other ways to excel or other ways to develop talents, unless you've been groomed from birth to be an Olympic athlete, or something.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

"This sounds like grading from hell."

That it does.

"This weeds out the people who are just hedging their bets and gets applicants with at least some serious thought to attendance."

Yes. What it makes me think of is, the teachers who think their class is the only one any of the students are taking, or the only one that matters, and assign homework accordingly.

As for content-based exams solving the problem, France also has something like that, with intense prep, and free education, but what I recall from a French-sociology class a while back is that the students from the top schools still end up being from the upper classes. The exact mechanism that made it so, however, I've forgotten. Cultural capital? I don't think it was that the courses were expensive, but maybe?

Petey said...

"This method seems (and I feel like I'm repeating myself, but it's b/c I'd written this on Facebook) more like a way to help out rich and UMC kids who don't have good scores (despite parental wealth) or grades, but might be smart in some other, as-yet-undetected way. Which, fair (if snowflake-ish) enough, but getting more of that kind of student isn't exactly a social-justice cause progressive types should be worked up about."

Of course.

It's worth noting that elite colleges have two (slightly conflicting) imperatives:

1) They strive to appear to not favor students from wealthy families.

2) They strive to enroll as many students as they can from wealthy families.

The monetary incentives they have for goal 2) should be relatively obvious. Not only do they get more money via tuition from those students, but they also gain more parental donations from those students while enrolled, as well as positioning themselves to receive more donations from those students post-graduation.

Phoebe is entirely correct that Bard is doing this to differentiate themselves from a marketing standpoint. But they also see it as a way to achieve goal 1) while not impacting goal 2).

In short, it's a clever two-fer.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

Agreed re: the clever two-fer-ness of this.