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April 11, 2001 6 min read
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With University of California President Richard C. Atkinson’s proposal to drop the sat as an entrance requirement to that system’s campuses (“Uc President Pitches Plan To End Use of sat in Admissions,” Feb 28, 2001), it may be time to delve further into the impact of having college acceptance as the purpose of our high schools.

To the Editor:

With University of California President Richard C. Atkinson’s proposal to drop the SAT as an entrance requirement to that system’s campuses (“UC President Pitches Plan To End Use of SAT in Admissions,” Feb 28, 2001), it may be time to delve further into the impact of having college acceptance as the purpose of our high schools.

I use the term “college acceptance” very specifically, since any activities, college or otherwise, that follow the college-acceptance process have little or no relevance for high schools. If they did, high schools would do follow-up studies of their students, which, by and large, they do not. If they did, high schools would be embarrassed that three out of 10 of their college-bound students never make it to the second year of college.

Why does the focus on college acceptance inhibit education reform? Let’s begin with the SAT. Any test must start from some body of learning—a curriculum. The curriculum from which the SAT is derived is in no way connected, as Matthew Gandal, the vice president of Achieve, points out in your article, to the curriculum behind the high-stakes accountability exams being used in many states.

Why are they not connected? The College Board makes no claims, that I am aware of, that the SAT is anything more than a predictor of one’s potential as a college freshman. The assessment process is rudimentary and does not lend itself to more than rote learning and math answers (rather than process). One would expect that the curricula behind the high-stakes state exams are far more comprehensive, and that the assessment processes are much more thought-provoking. This would explain why the two tests are not connected.

As Mr. Gandal also points out, parents and students get mixed signals about state tests and the SAT. What parent is going to push for changes in the high school curriculum to more appropriately align it with the high-stakes testing, if he or she knows that the high-stakes curriculum is not aligned with the SAT?

Changing from the SAT curriculum and testing methodologies could actually cause the SAT scores to go down. What high school principal would be willing to take this chance and face the parents of the Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Stanford hopefuls? Where is the motivation to move the curriculum to a higher level?

There’s more. The high school credit, the Carnegie unit, is a college-prep device. In order to distinguish between high schools and colleges, the original Carnegie Commission defined what a high school was and what a high school student had to do to qualify for a bona fide college. High schools were to offer courses in the various disciplines. If a student spent an hour a day for each day of the school year in a discipline, he or she would earn one credit.

It was this process which cemented the single- discipline mentality of high school courses—one hour of English, one hour of social studies, and never the twain shall meet.

As you may have noted, the process defined time. There is nothing that guarantees any defined content for the time. Take English, for example. Ask 100 English teachers what a student must learn to pass English 11, and you will get 50 to 100 different answers.

The credit exists because it is a tool used by colleges to determine who will be accepted. It has no basis in specific content. This fact is bemoaned by many colleges that are required to offer remedial programs for students who have not learned the content the colleges thought was learned as part of earning the credit.

We now confound the problem with grades. We take a course with no standard definition, say Biology 2, and give it a grade. What teacher can define the learning behind the grade given by another teacher? What exactly does it mean when we report that a student received an 87 in Biology 2? It sounds very exact: 87 in Biology 2. In fact, 87 is a number no one can explain (most often, not even the teacher satisfactorily), which is being used to rate a student’s learning in a course in which no one other than the teacher can define the content that was taught.

Who uses grades? As has been noted in these pages previously, not businesses. Why would an employer want to know that a student earned a B in English 11, when there is no standard definition of either English 11 or a B? Who uses grades? Colleges. Grades are maintained for transcripts. Fortunately, colleges have very advanced mathematicians on staff. Who else could take X (the unknown content) and multiply it by Y (the unknown level of learning) and use the answer to make supposedly rational decisions about whom to accept for college?

We then carry this absurdity to another level. We take all of these grades and all of these credits and we develop a grade point average. Who cares about GPAs and class rank? Parents. Why? Because class rank is important in getting into a “good” college. Colleges like to brag about how many valedictorians and salutatorians they have applying. It’s important to be “at the top of the class.” It is so important that schools put weighted ranks in place, so that non-college-bound kids wouldn’t clutter up the upper levels of class placement. It is so important that top-level students will manipulate their course schedules to gain an advantage—not in learning, but in GPA.

Education reform at the high school level has been bedeviled by the notion that college acceptance is the terminal event in the lives of all high school students. Courses are taught so that students will do well on the SAT. Some courses are taught specifically for the SAT. This impedes movement into more thought-provoking content and assessment. Courses are taught for credits rather than content. Once a student determines he or she has been mathematically eliminated from earning the credit, all effort stops and discipline problems begin. What is being learned has no apparent value. All of the rewards, including graduation, are tied to the credits.

The same applies to grades: What is learned runs a distant second to the grade earned. Students, as well as parents, will fight tooth-and-nail for a grade. Have you ever heard anyone fight to know more about Milton or Burgoyne? As to class rank? It would be nice to think all of this competition to “learn” more than others would have some beneficial effect, like, perhaps, developing a love of learning. Sadly, it may be that the damage done in terms of stress, cheating, and the other negatives far outweighs any benefits of knowing who the first in the class is.

We really do need to reassess why we have high schools. Is the college- acceptance letter the be-all, end-all purpose of our high schools? Is there not something beyond that letter that might be worth preparing for? Should we prepare students to actually finish college? Should we prepare them for earning a livelihood (beginning preparation either in high school or in college)? Should we prepare students to participate in family units, to take part in their governments and social organizations, to enjoy the arts and leisure activities? Can we do all of these things, not because they’re college-prep programs, but because they’re what really happens after that college-acceptance letter does, or doesn’t, come?

John Dewey advised us to “relate the school to life.” Nowhere in Roget do life and “college-acceptance letter” share the same page.

Joseph H. Crowley

Director

Chariho Career & Technical Center

Wood River Junction, R.I.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters

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