Beyond Grades, Beyond College Admissions
This morning at the high school I've taught at for 23 years, we had a meeting to discuss the gun incident that resulted in a recovered firearm yesterday afternoon which had the school in a soft lock down. This was our third gun incident this year. A colleague had pepper spray go off in her room yesterday with a group of 9th graders who are learning English...still trying to parse out that situation.
We have open teaching positions that are not filled...and they've been posted for months. And so we're politely asked to take on overages to the tune of 2/3 of my personal actual hourly rate. So as you can see, things don't feel great.
Our district is also going through a system-wide revamping of grading that nobody really seems to understand very well and the evidence behind the efficacy of this move to standards-based grading. Teachers are trying to figure out this system, both philosophically and pragmatically, without confident guidance. Families are confused, so are students. So are many teachers, admin, and counselors.
This a very standard, average high school of over 2K students in a standard suburban district with several elementary schools, middle school, and many, many administrators. We have many great programs, lots of AP options, lots of PSEO partnerships, and many students who are struggling in SO MANY WAYS. This is likely very similar to the large school district you all live closest to in all ways (and more).
So, yeah. It's been a morning and I as much as I look forward to AHP every week (every day!), I can't actually bring myself to read this interview. At least not right now, as I need to figure out how to address the ChatGPT-generated essays two kids turned in while at the same time trying to find a way to have them earn credits and I need to do it before 9:55 this morning but for some reason my hands are shaking and I'm writing this without proofreading instead.
Love this conversation! My late mother was a community college English teacher for 35 years, and there's no question that her students—many of whom went on to 4-year degrees—made the right choice for the start of their post-secondary education.
Now, switching hats from daughter to mother. I have a suggestion for parents whose kids are in hyper-competitive high schools (as my son's was, in Lexington, Mass.): Consider only visiting schools that your kid has been accepted to. I saw so many kids be disappointed because they didn't get into their "dream school," especially after making visits. My son (wise beyond his years—this was his idea!) said he wanted to wait for his acceptances before making any visits. He applied to 12 schools (several in the "overreach" category), and was accepted at 6. Much less anguish and a happy outcome that he felt more in control of. (And—bragging now!—he'll be graduating with a PhD in electrical engineering next year. 😁)
I teach English at a community college and I'm looking forward to reading this book. I've spent the past several years trying to redefine what "success" looks like for students but because I have an overwhelming number of PSEO students (high school students taking college credit) it feels impossible to move them beyond a grade based success model. And grades are so stupid! I hate them! They are especially stupid in a writing class where all my students are at totally different writing levels.
But when I've tried standards-based or ungrading or some other non-traditonal ways to assess, my students freak out. At the ages of 16, 17, 18 they appear to want the safety and security that grades seem to provide.
I know developing executive function and organization skills are important for academic success; this wasn't in the interview (hopefully it's in the book) but I know part of the struggle is that many students still haven't developed that pre-frontal cortex of the brain that helps with executive function and abstract thinking. It's one of the things that frustrates me about PSEO. It's such a great program and can help young people save so much money on college costs. But my observation is that quite a few of them just aren't ready because of where they are at in terms of brain development. It's not their fault! It's just part of growing as a human.
One other thing: Writers, PLEASE STOP USING COMMUNITY COLLEGES AS A CHARACTERIZING DESCRIPTOR FOR FAILURE. Or for socio-economic status. I feel like every month I read a novel or a short story or watch a show and there's some slam against community colleges. This derision continues to perpetuate shame around an option that can really help students succeed later in life. Since they are teaching institutions, the focus is on actual andragogy with teachers who are continually honing their practice. Classes are smaller which means you have better access to those highly-skilled teachers. And, of course, it's a much more affordable option.
There are a million things I want to say here, but the most important is THANK YOU! I am a student who always got good grades but didn't create the skills I needed to succeed outside of the classroom because I didn't realize that the structure provided to me by the classroom is what helped me succeed. It wasn't until 10+ years after I graduated (as I was starting a PhD program!) that I finally started building the executive function skills I needed. I really wish I had someone in high school tell me "Grades aren't the only measure of success" so I could start looking into other ways to grow myself.
One of my biggest fascinations is how college has evolved from an aspiration to an expectation and how that might be affecting all of the rhetoric we hear about the so-called declining value of college, so I can't wait to read this book and get some great insights. Again, thank you, Ana, for your work!
I’m a college dean. I oversee, write and research academic policy institution-wide. One key for me is making our policies as flexible as possible to be responsive to student needs. I think policy should reflect care not be an impediment to it.
In doing this work, I think one of the biggest myths I was told was about the “permanent record.” Everything supposedly went on that record and therefore everything was high stakes, high stress and meant you were constantly hustling to not ruin your future.
I ended up graduating from a state college not a selective school and I’m thrilled with that choice. I made that choice after hopping between a few selective schools and hating all of them. The hustle culture made so many people in these institutions cruel. I didn’t want that for myself or the work I wanted to do in the world.
There’s evidence that elite schools are less able to critique power and its insidious influences (see Jane Mayer’s Dark Money).
I got the education I needed at a state school. And for my master’s and PhD I actively sought schools that fought against elitism and selectivity as their rationale for acceptance and existence.
There are things that can have some influence on our futures, sometimes a big influence. But even our permanent criminal record is not necessarily something that prevents an education or a change in direction. It can absolutely make it harder. But I try to tell students in my life not to obsessively worry about these things because I think that worry stifles their feelings and creativity. For example, there are many subjects like languages, art, and theatre that I didn’t try in high school because I didn’t think I could get a good enough grade. I tried some in college like languages but never got to the others. It’s heartbreaking to me that we don’t allow students to explore and too often only reward talent cultivated in a few weeks in these courses.
I don’t want to seem overly rosy. I know I had advantages in having supportive parents who were able to pay for college even though we were working class and my dad is disabled. We lived very simply without many extras or even some things people consider basic (a source of school bullying) because they prioritized education. My parents didn’t get to go to college and it’s a great honor to not only be the first in my family to do so but also to get a PhD. I’m glad I could also do that and hold onto our working class egalitarian values. I want that to be the norm and not the exception.
This resonates so much with me at this particular moment, as I'm ranking the 26 high school programs we've selected for our 13-year old son's high school application (Chicago Public Schools). High school admissions test is today, which sends kids here into panic mode since they get one shot, there is no opportunity to retest, and so many parents push the narrative that getting into one of a handful of "selective enrollment" high schools is the ONLY path to success. These are 8th graders!! He's one of the few in his class who did not have private coaching and extensive test prep, we just gave him a good breakfast this morning and said, "Good luck, you'll be fine." But if I'm being honest, it's hard not to get caught up in the pervasive anxiety of this process.
Oh, I love this! This is exactly what college *should* be about - finding yourself, discovery, challenge, creativity - and those things happen inside classrooms but outside them too. What a deeply humane way to approach the late high school and college years.
A lot of my students have been told that what they do in college will shape their whole life. They've been told this in terms of getting good grades, mostly, and taking "productive" extra-curriculars. This leads to so many of my seniors freezing when they think about what comes after college, because they've been led to believe that the choice they make at 21, 22, will define absolutely everything, without room for reorientation and change, forever. And it's not true! How much better if we could all say, you are kind, thoughtful, and self-reflective, and those skills will serve you beautifully no matter how you make an income. How much pressure it would take off my students who have to find a job and fast because they need to support their families; who have caregivers who want to see a particular return on investment; who truly have no clue what they want to do next and need space to figure it out.
I'm ordering this book immediately.
As someone who was a conventional high achiever, got a PhD but left academia, now teaches rabbinical students, and has a neurodivergent toddler whose barometers of success will probably look different than mine and her father's, this was super interesting. One of the challenges we talk about a lot where I work is how to think about assessment when we are not a university, and where the skills to be a good rabbi are not necessarily the same as the skills to be a good rabbinic students. I know that some of my students are going to be amazing rabbis but they are hard to teach, and there are some who are a pleasure to teach but I worry about whether they have the soft skills needed to succeed as rabbis. (Some, of course, are both, and unfortunately there are a few who are neither.) Part of what's interesting about the work I'm doing now is the ways in which is pushes my colleagues and me to think about our students more holistically, rather than only about how they do in each class in a vacuum, and it really challenges and changes the ways I think about what it means to define success in my classroom.
I’ve written and deleted several comments because I can’t quite figure out what I want to say. My daughter is 16 and a junior. I have no ego behind where she goes and have been encouraging at least a gap year and/or community college. She’ll be 17 when school starts if she goes right after HS graduation and I feel like could benefit from some experiences to hone her interests so she enters school more confident about her abilities.
We’ve really tried not to put pressure on our kids around school aside from putting in effort (i.e. effort is more important than grades), but it’s so difficult because grades do matter! I don’t know how to thread the needle between being ok with a failing grade in a hard class she was put in to fit in another class she needed as long as she works hard and also not reinforcing her fears that making a bad grade in this class affects her chances of getting into college or meeting other goals, like getting into National Honor Society.
Thank you for this conversation! Yesterday, my colleagues and I spent 4 hours after school reading and discussing personal statements with our students as part of our College App Party (yes, calling it a party does not make it so). It's so exhausting to observe the level of stress and anxiety this process causes. Because we have constant conversations about how there are only 30 name brand colleges, students, parents and teachers miss the reality that the schools with the best social mobility are often schools like CUNY or Cal State LA. With my 10th graders, we do a unit each year about what admissions mean: that it's not necessarily validation of the student, but that students are selected because they fill an institutional need. This is both a liberating and depressing realization.
I have two young adult kids who fell off the autism cliff, hard, after graduation, which for them happened after COVID lockdowns, where they lost a ton of ground.
They tried community college and flunked out; one ended up in inpatient psych care, and we learned after getting neuropsych testing (accessible through our privilege of having good health insurance) that she has autism and ADHD, or AuDHD.
The other was diagnosed with autism at age 11 and was denied much-needed IEPs for years because their grades were too good. The curse of the "high-functioning" person with autism. Their grades and faith in the educational system slid off and they started failing classes and ended up with a GED. Today, at 21, and no one will hire them, not even McDonald's.
Testing shows they're incredibly intelligent--smarter than 95% of the general population--but they could not even begin to function in this sort of academic framework being described here. I will say that we emphasized effort and curiosity over grades and definitely opted out of the race to have our kids get free college or get into the "best" schools out of our own anxiety for them to make it in this world. And that anxiety is valid; it's really, really hard out there for Gen Z with the current cost of living. My oldest has a bachelor's degree and a good marketing job and is living with us to save up to move out.
I find myself bewildered and lost, and pursuing options through our state government job coaching (which does offer them a path back to college or trade school) and social security disability.
I'm sharing this to say that there is an entire world of students who don't even begin to fit into the discussions happening here, and they are definitely not being served--believe me, I fought for it. I'm still fighting for it. And every day I think of the parents who can't fight for it because they're working two jobs, who don't have great insurance, or a great school district like we did, and I just want to cry.
So many thoughts!! I was a very “high achieving” student, and graduated high school in 2001. As I’ve watched these developments unfold, I’ve always been SO grateful that I was able to do the college thing without all of this pressure. Which isn’t to say there was none: I definitely caught flack from teachers, friends, and guidance counselors in my small rural school district for not applying to any of the Ivies or schools with similar status; I think there was some disappointment about not being able to brag on me as a super-successful student? But I just applied to one school, Ohio State, which was out of state but had a few very appealing features (in addition to being my parents’ alma mater): an *amazing* scholarship (including full tuition plus a housing stipend!) for out of state National Merit Scholars students who listed them as “first choice” (which I had), automatic acceptance into the Honors program for ACT scores over 34 (mine was), and an excellent linguistics department (my intended major). I had a great experience there, and met my husband!
I went on to grad school at the highly-selective private institution where I now teach, and have seen firsthand just how much of a pressure-cooker this competitive environment is. And we’re now raising our neurodivergent almost 12yo in a school district that prides itself on how “well-prepared” their students are for selective colleges. We’ve been trying to make sure we talk a lot about how great community college is, because it’s so obvious that she’s gonna get nothing but “go to the best possible 4 year college!” from her school, and maybe that will turn out to be both possible and desirable to her, but it’s so important to us that she not feel like a failure if her path looks different.
(I also think about how much I was expected to go to graduate school...both my parents have graduate degrees...and while I love the work I now do as a 1st-year writing professor, I also am just so deeply sad for my past self, for whom earning a PhD just felt like an “of course” that wasn’t worth celebrating - and no one in my family
DID celebrate it. I’m so conscious of how expecting something of someone can rob them of a sense of joy and accomplishment when they do it.)
Love this discussion and the comments as well! As a “former gifted kid” who did all the “right” things to get into a college (albeit one known for partying as well as academics) and who swiftly told administrators who suggested I apply to Ivy League schools “no,” I WISH I had more time in high school to just be a kid in the early 2010s.
Between homework (and there was tons of it), extracurriculars that we were told would be the ticket into college since grades and test scores weren’t enough, jobs, and trying to have a social life, I was exhausted all the time. It didn’t help that school started at 7:20am.
As a result, I feel I have very little handle on what actually makes *me* happy and what’s important to me. All that has been programmed out in place of what my family, community and institutions think of as right. At 27, I’m just starting to look around and see if what I’m doing (after graduating with a dual Bachelors and working in a field that was picked at 18) is actually making myself happy and if I’m accomplishing what’s important to me.
The answer right now seems to be a resounding no but I’m hoping to change that over the next few years.
A few thoughts from a Canadian academic advisor of 13 years/therapist-in-training:
We don't have even close to the same rigorous, competitive admissions processes here in Canada. In fact, there are many schools that still admit based solely on a student's grade 12 marks - no qualitative measures at all. Sure, we have schools that are considered more elite than others that demand higher admissions averages than others, but the sense of competition and the stress placed on high school students is not nearly what I see in our neighbours to the south. And yet, I have seen this exact same evolution in our students. They are outcome-focused and extrinsically motivated. They lack executive function and critical thinking skills, and they don't pause to consider the metacognitive factors that might be contributing to their academic challenges.
I have long considered all of the above an effect of the scarcity mindset that's characteristic of so many of us in the post-Great Recession era. I went to one of those "elite" schools whose name appears on lots of "best in the world" lists. And yeah, I went as a former gifted kid who never had to apply herself and I have spent a lot of my adulthood grappling with the lessons I missed out on as a result, but I went to university and did a liberal arts degree in the early 2000s for the love of learning. So did almost all my friends. I don't think the kids these days have that luxury as they look out on a world with ridiculous housing costs, wages that haven't kept up with inflation, and an ever-quickening climate crisis. To them, it truly feels like they need to have their life figured out ASAP, and they believe, rightfully or wrongfully, that getting into the "best" school (instead of the school that's the best fit for them) is the answer. Unfortunately, when they get on campus, they are often lacking the skills to excel in academically demanding programs, and that can lead to poor mental health outcomes and identity foreclosure.
It's heartening to read about the central points of Ana's book. I am hopeful that we can shift the conversation with middle and high school students and place their focus on cultivating skills that will help them be good learners and actually enjoy the learning process. I love the emphasis on the engaged university student and this is something I'm going to come back to in my work with this demographic.
What a great discussion. The world has changed and sometimes we have a hard time keeping up with that change. I too was "enormously lucky'. Here is why. I am a first gen college student. My parents had no idea how to guide me. I had no support from high school counselors. I wasn't a high achieving student, so I wasn't on their radar. My parents wanted us to go to college, so my father said he would pay if I went to the local state school. Done.
That opened up the world to me. I was able to test things out, discover new ways of thinking, fail, succeed and flourish. I was able to study abroad which opened other doors to me. Without that I don't know where I would be. Yet I am in a wonderful place and am still able to grow and succeed.
In today's college market. I might end up where I did anyway. The one thing schools offer now, that they didn't is guidance. Their student body is their success, so they have to help these students. I volunteer through my alumni associations and that gives me a view into how they work with incoming students. It is remarkable.
First of all: I deeply appreciate your compassionate and contextual approach to helping students, Ana. The world would be better off if more people whose job it is to guide students were like you!
Second, It's going WAY back in time, but some really good background context of how college admissions even started being a thing can be found in the podcast Gatecrashers about Jews in the Ivy League.
I highly recommend the whole thing, but if I recall correctly, it's episodes 1 and 4 that really dig into the way that the foundation of the modern admissions system (legacy admissions, prioritizing out of state students, etc.) got started. No surprise that it was a way of keeping out undesirables.
Another thing that the show does well is say just why Jewish students in the first half of the 20th century and Asian-American students in the second half were such a disproportionate part of the student body--it basically comes down to immigrant striving and a desire for the first generation of American-born kids to prove themselves and "make it" in a new country.