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To Improve High Schools, Change College-Admissions Policies

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For more than 80 years, advocates of high school reform have confronted college-entrance requirements that push them toward a continuing reliance on discipline-based courses, credits, and grades. As the Coalition of Essential Schools, a group dedicated to changing the way learning takes place in high schools, has phrased the dilemma: "Ask any Essential School person to name the biggest obstacle to reshaping curriculum and assessment practices at the secondary level, and the answer inevitably turns to college admissions."

A recent study by the group I head, the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, adds further evidence to support the growing assumption by reform groups that admission requirements at many universities are a major restraint on reconfiguring the high school experience. Our examination of 22 high schools in 12 states that have tried to change their graduation requirements found that, while a few of the schools had broken out of the traditional pattern of courses and credits, with encouraging results, most had not. They retain the 50- to 60-minute courses and the usual system of credits and grades because of convenience and a concern from educators and parents that acting otherwise will endanger graduates' chances of being admitted to college.

For many years, some high schools tried to develop interdisciplinary coursework and to require demonstrated skill for graduation, rather than the standard accumulation of Carnegie units. One of the schools we studied, Walden III High School in Racine, Wis., a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, has based graduation on demonstrated skill for 23 years. The University of Wisconsin found this inner-city school's graduates were among its top students. Even so, university officials pressured Walden III to give grades like other feeder high schools. As Chuck Kent, Walden III's principal, explains, "It's tough to change without flexibility from colleges."

Ten years ago, Theodore R. Sizer, the Coalition of Essential Schools' founder, made "exhibition of mastery" part of his reform proposals. We interviewed faculty members at the high schools we studied that had moved in this direction, including New York City's Central Park East, Fairdale High School in Louisville, Ky., and Walden III. They agree with Mr. Sizer: College admissions "drive the kind of high school programs millions of students attend. Changing admissions is one of the central issues of high school reform."

And they are not alone. In Grand Rapids, Minn., three teachers developed an interdisciplinary course in which students study writing, history, and biology within the context of examining local problems. Students produce and present reports and videotapes to the public. Little Falls, Minn., high school teachers created a three-hour-per-day seminar on the Mississippi River. Youngsters conduct water-quality and other types of research for the county. Parents and students are enthusiastic about the program. Learning, by all accounts, is on the increase. But some college-bound students are reluctant to enroll in the program, fearing that they won't meet admissions demands for four years of English, three years of social studies, and so on.

Our research found that the high schools which had done the most to change their graduation requirements were options or "schools of choice": They were schools families selected. One of these, a K-12 inner-city public school in St. Paul at which I worked, was begun 23 years ago. The impetus for creating new graduation requirements came from answers students received when they wrote to 675 businesses, advocacy groups, and universities, asking them what students should know before graduating from high school.

Hundreds of people responded to the letters. And, from their answers, there seemed to be widespread agreement: Students should have strong mathematics and verbal- and written-communication skills, and they should be able to work as part of a group, be responsible.

The St. Paul school expanded those expectations. Before graduating, students had to demonstrate skills not only in mathematics, communication, and working with others, but also in such areas as information gathering, career awareness, school and community service, consumer literacy, cultural awareness, and health. Students had to obtain validations from teachers, employers, parents, and other adults showing how that particular young person had demonstrated his or her skills. Validation packets were then sent to universities. There were many interdisciplinary and team-taught courses. The school had no grades, class ranks, or required courses.

Since 1973, students from this unusual inner-city public school have been admitted to colleges and universities throughout the country. They have won National Merit scholarships and other awards. The U.S. Education Department has pronounced the St. Paul school "a carefully evaluated, proven innovation worthy of national replication."

As the educators, parents, and students from this school developed their graduation system, they learned the history of the Carnegie unit for graduation, which is useful to review. Briefly, in 1908 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching wanted to promote careers in college teaching. It decided that institutions could apply for grants if they required for admission completion of 14 "standard" (soon to be known as "Carnegie") units. This system was almost universally adopted by institutions of higher education. Most high schools responded, basing graduation on successful completion of the Carnegie units, rather than on demonstrated knowledge.

To help encourage high school reform that breaks this traditional arrangement, 24 private-college presidents and admissions directors have signed a letter developed by the Coalition of Essential Schools. The colleges, which include Amherst, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, M.I.T., Smith, Wellesley, and Williams, "applauded those schools ... which emphasize rigorous independent thinking and the direct engagement of students in serious work. ... " They agreed to "welcome applications from students at such schools."

What about large public universities, with thousands of applications each year? College-admissions officers acknowledge that an A from one school is not the same as an A from another--that in fact an A from one classroom often differs from one granted down the hall in the same school. But the traditional transcript, listing grades, courses taken, and class rank, is convenient and helps justify decisions. Nevertheless, there is progress:

  • Wisconsin's state-university system is responding to changes in high school programs. Beth Weckmueller, the admissions director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a member of the state committee overseeing the task, says that "universities must re-examine admissions policies." "We're asking a great deal from high schools," Ms. Weckmueller concludes. "We must ask more of ourselves."
  • The president of the University of Minnesota, Nils Hasselmo, has written that "as elementary and secondary schools change, colleges and universities are obligated, in my view, to be flexible and creative in developing revised or optional systems for making admissions decisions."
  • The Oregon state higher-education system is moving toward admission based on proficiency. A 1994 report from the system rejects the approach of trying to raise the required grade-point average, because, as it says, that "is likely only to promote grade inflation."
  • The National Governors' Association recently produced an excellent booklet on this subject, "College Admission Standards and School Reform."
  • In his 1994-95 agenda, the chairman of the Education Commission of the States, Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, noted that colleges and universities "have been slow to support K-12 changes and reflect these in entrance requirements." He urged thoughtful change.

While these actions are encouraging, the details are daunting. Are there simple, valid, reliable forms of performance to help admissions officers make decisions? What are the clearest, most cost-effective ways to express youngsters' skills and knowledge?

Test scores and grades don't necessarily predict success outside of school. A 1974 American College Testing program study examined four factors to see which would predict success in later life. The A.C.T. looked at students who earned high grades in high school, high grades in college, high scores on their admissions test, or were in extracurricular activities such as debate, drama, music, journalism, and speech. Three of the four factors did not predict success. Only extracurricular success seemed to consistently predict success in adulthood.

A study of what was then the Scholastic Aptitude Test found that it "offered virtually no clue to capacity for significant intellectual or creative contributions in mature life." The best predictor of adult creativity was a person's performance during youth in independent sustained ventures.

While a high grade-point average in high school often is a good predictor of college grades, many studies have found little correlation between college grades and success in fields such as medicine, law, education, and engineering. Nevertheless, grades and credits are used for admissions, in part because they are a convenient way to make difficult decisions.

The remarkable "Eight-Year Study," conducted during the late 1930's and early 1940's, offers important guidance in this area. Thousands of youngsters attended 30 high schools which had the freedom during that period to create nontraditional programs. Three hundred colleges exempted graduates of these high schools from traditional grade, class-rank, required-course, and credit requirements.

The study paired about 1,500 students from experimental high schools with 1,500 students from non-experimental schools. It matched students by sex, age, skills, family background, and race. The students from the experimenting high schools did better in college than the others in grades, participation, critical thinking, esthetic judgment, knowledge of current affairs, and leadership.

Graduates of the two most experimental schools, which featured extensive interdisciplinary learning in and service to the community, were found to be "strikingly more successful" in college than the students from traditional schools.

Unfortunately, this study has been widely ignored. Let's learn from it. As Michael Timpane, the past president of Teachers College, Columbia University, has said: "If the colleges and universities created new entrance requirements, we'd see real, valuable changes in high schools."

Here are a few steps that could be taken now:

  • Governors and chief state school officers should ask universities in their states to develop new, optional admissions requirements. Rather than totally discarding the admissions system based on grades and credits, there could be several ways to enter universities.
  • College faculties should support new admissions options.
  • Foundations and the federal government should commission new studies, based on the Eight-Year Study, which follow youngsters from different kinds of high schools in postsecondary institutions and in later life. This kind of research is expensive. But it's vital.

Many high school educators are eager to create new models of secondary education, featuring the best research about learning and teaching. But they need help from colleges and universities. Our study found that new university-admissions options are a vital part of national efforts to produce more skilled, competent high school graduates.

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