Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Subject Tests Are Gone. So?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counseling offices across America are abuzz with this week’s news from College Board. If your spaceship has just landed, the announcement had two parts:

  • The optional writing section of the SAT is no longer being offered;
  • Subject Tests are being discontinued.

The early response to the first announcement seems to be a unanimous “”good riddance”. While the objective of the writing sample was noble— give colleges some sense of how a student writes without the “help” of an essay tutor—the writing portion was greeted with little enthusiasm from the get go. Could a piece of writing produced in 45 minutes really give colleges a glimmer into the ability of a student to do college writing, a task that typically involves putting together several drafts over a week or more?

Combined with the training the graders of the essay received, many colleges opted to collect the writing scores but not use them for admission, waiting to see if any patterns came forth between the scores on the essay and student grades in their first freshman English class. When no such patterns appeared, colleges began to drop the essay requirement, especially since it cost students an additional fee on top of the basic SAT. SAT’s dropping of the essay may be the greatest ex post facto decision in the history of standardized testing.

Of course, killing off the Subject Tests may be a close second. I always thought Subject Tests would prove to be a more accurate measure of student ability than the SAT, but they were always used in addition to the SAT, not in lieu of it. This meant added cost and time, factors that skewed the use of the tests towards wealthier students and more selective colleges.

The few colleges requiring Subject Tests started to question their validity as the test optional movement came into vogue, with the last college dropping the requirement in the years before COVID came. While some colleges in the US still “strongly recommended” them, even that requirement was generally abandoned this year—so, their demise isn’t all that much of an earth shaker, either.

What seems to be the biggest issue behind this announcement? Early speculation is that some of the colleges that used Subject Tests will now urge students to submit AP scores instead. Since the value of AP classes has fallen into scrutiny in the last few years, battle-scarred counselors are afraid this emphasis could renew efforts to get students to take more APs, even if it’s not in their best academic interest to do so.

The worries about a new reliance on APs is likely to be overblown. The number of students taking Subject Tests has declined steadily because fewer colleges use the scores; if that’s the case, are the colleges really likely to replace Subject Tests with anything? In addition, Subject Tests are designed to measure what students learn in high school, while AP classes are designed to measure what students learn in classes that contain college-level material. Are colleges really that eager to basically tell high school students they need to start taking more college-level classes as early as 10th grade, when their current models of admission don’t even include Subject Test scores anymore?

The counseling world is eager to see what role testing will play in next year’s round of applications, as test sites for the SAT and ACT remain closed in many states. This week’s announcements are likely to affect the admission requirements of less than two dozen schools, if that—and since those will be highly selective schools, most students will only know what a Subject Test is because their counselor will be telling them they don’t exist anymore.

It’s business as usual, where the possible admissions behavior of about 25 colleges may make the headlines, but won’t mean a thing to most of our students. Carry on.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Colleges—Go Test Optional for The Class of 2022 Now

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There are two big no-nos when it comes to telling college admissions offices how to do their business. The first rule is, don’t. It’s not exactly rocket science to assume that colleges don’t like someone else telling them how to run their offices, since we—that’s counselors—certainly don’t like it when other people tell us how to run our counseling offices.

The second rule is, if you’re going to make a diplomatic suggestion for colleges to consider, don’t do it during application season. December–April is all about bringing in the next class, not about planning for the following class.

Knowing these two rules all too well, I hesitate to break either one, let along both—but here goes.

I’d like every college that typically requests test scores of all of its freshman applicants to either continue the moratorium they started this year, or start making the scores optional, for the students in the high school Class of 2022. My reasons for this request are simple, and most are for the benefit of—wait for it—the colleges:

Not every student you want on campus will have test scores to give you. A good number of states offer the SAT or ACT for free to their public school juniors. Many of these same schools are meeting online, and some have never met in person at all this year. Expecting these schools will open for the sole purpose of testing is wrong at an incredible number of levels. So is assuming that the states giving students vouchers to take a national test are safe states for students to expose themselves to students they’ve never met before. The reasons school is closed are the same reasons why those states shouldn’t offer tests—and if the students don’t test, they can’t meet your testing requirements, no matter how bright they are

Most of the test scores students will submit won’t reflect their best effort. I have long had issues with students who are convinced they won’t get a good SAT score unless they take the test four times, but I understand their point—it’s pretty tough to take the test once and say you can’t do any better. Students had trouble taking the test once this year, let alone more than once, and most of the obstacles they had to deal with are still present. This includes the school-based test prep classes and seminars many students participate in. They may have migrated to online, but reports suggest most of them have lost something in translation. Unprepared students don’t do their best on the test, making their scores inaccurate—and it’s harder to deal with inaccurate scores than with no scores at all.

The validity of the scores will be at risk next year. All of the hurdles students are facing in taking the tests would make it impossible to compare scores for next year’s applicants to scores from pre-COVID classes. Would we expect fully-prepped, in-person-taught students from two years ago to score higher that their under-prepared, online-taught peers from next year? Yes. Does that really mean a 25 on the ACT two years ago isn’t the same as a 25 on the ACT this year? Probably. Will the college rankings folks see it that way? No.

It would be easy enough to point out that this decision is also in the best interest of very stressed, Zoomed-out students, and that many colleges going test optional this year saw record increases in early applications, but you know this already. You also know that many students typically start their testing cycle in December of the junior year, and many couldn’t get to a test. Combined with the lack of test prep access for many students—including a huge swath of first generation and low income students—it’s time to set aside this year’s applications for five minutes and give the Class of 2022 one less thing to worry about, right now, doing your institution a favor in the process .

In exchange, I’m more than happy to hear your suggestions on how my school can improve on its highly unreadable transcript (especially since I don’t work at a school anymore). Deal?

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Remembering Six Students

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

2020 closes out a 31-year career in school counseling that stretches across 36 years. Don’t worry—I’ll continue to work as a college consultant, doing all I can to advance progress in college access, and professional development for college counselors. Thanks to the opportunities I’ve had to write, speak, and teach other counselors, I’m grateful to say my work has touched no less than one million students—and as I move into work in policy development and college access, there are more to come.

I’ve worked with truly wonderful students from all walks of life, and as I say thank you to all of them, six come to mind who hold a special place in my heart. The lives they are leading today can only be described as phenomenal. 

One of them just graduated from high school this spring, after negotiating his way through the path to becoming an Eagle Scout. I’m eager to see where the world of work will take him, but I know he will be the same strong, wonderfully stubborn lad I have known for a long, long time.

The second is a scholar, having earned her Masters degree just last year. If you think the jump from high school to college is stiff, try making the jump from undergrad to graduate school—it’s kind of like going from driving the bus to designing one. She made the switch without batting an eye, and is leading a life that is principle rich, centered on others, and rich with kindness.

One of the other students has a powerful sense of the possible and the genius of a classically educated gentleman—ask him anything, and he’s heard of it, understands it, and analyzes it with keen insight He’s moving up in his company, and he and his wife are making a very nice home out of the cutest little house, one nail at a time.

Another is equally loquacious when coaxed, and has taught himself nearly every musical instrument known on the planet. When his job as a high school accompanist went online, he taught himself how to make choir videos, and in is high demand during this time of choirs on COVID. If you haven’t considered the task of getting 45 separate singing videos to sound like they’re all in the same room, let me urge you to do so while reconsidering the complexities of AP Calculus in comparison.

The remaining two students, of course, are the shoemaker’s children—my two, who chose to go through the college process in bare feet. The older one set the tone; complete the applications in your room, with the door closed, and Dad will leave you be. The lesson was absorbed by the younger, who I swear managed to apply to the only four Common Application schools at the time that required no additional essays. Scholarships greeted both of them; more important, they are living lives of service, are strong, independent thinkers, and see the world for what it can become.

I’m changing jobs in a profession where, sadly, the belief is only expanding that there are four good colleges in the world; that four years of college is a must to success, and that the only way to secure a good life is to secure strong letters of recommendation for those four colleges by learning how to nod, smile, get along, and stare at your shoes. Now that you know about the six students who stand out to me, what you don’t know is where they did—or didn’t—go to college. Imagine that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Three Steps to a Great College Admissions Holiday

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

’Tis the season when things are more than just a little crazy in a school counseling office. Even in a year of COVID, this time of year is awash with the traditions and pageantry of our respective schools, making it all the more challenging to get students to focus on their studies, and seniors on their college applications.

But the annual Winter Concert and the principal dressing up like Santa aren’t the real reasons this time of year seems so rushed in a school counseling office. Emotions run high over the holidays, especially if students have to spend time with family members they don’t often see. The anticipation of those events can often be more than students can take, and understandably so, since it’s also more than most adults can take. As is always the case, the mental health of the students is the top priority.

So what can be done to help school counselors keep their calendars focused on the affective domain? These three steps can make sure seniors move forward with their college plans in a smooth, supportive manner, while leaving everyone the opportunity to give the season its proper due:

Set a high school-based deadline for college applications

Try as we may, counselors have a tough time pointing out to seniors that, while they have maybe 4 or 5 college applications to complete, the high school counseling office has several hundred—and they all need transcripts, and letters, and more. Throw in the fact that many colleges have a January 1 application deadline (more on that in a moment), and it’s easy to see why some students walk in to your office the last day before December break—or the first day after—and say “I forgot to tell you. I’m applying to these six colleges. Can you send the transcript?”

Nothing is foolproof in avoiding this, but this sentence can be a lifesaver—“I need the name of every college you’re applying to by December 5.”

Not only is this direction clear, it’s student-friendly. You aren’t saying they have to apply to all those colleges by December 5; if they want to write college essays on Christmas Eve, that’s completely their call. What you are saying is that December 5 is the day they give you their entire list, so transcripts and teacher letters can get sent to colleges on time. This includes every school the student might apply to, including those that are back up schools in case their Early applications don’t work out. If a student decides not to apply to one of these schools, the college shreds the transcript, and nothing is lost.

Stating this deadline loud and often will give you about 90% of the colleges your students are applying to, and you can work with the latecomers. This deadline also urges you students to finish their applications before vacation.

No email over break

It’s wise to urge students to complete applications early, in part because you simply will not be available over break to address college questions. While this can be a sore point for counselors who believe they always need to be there for their kids, it is not a sore point with me.

Counselors come to work early and leave late. They work weekends. They give students their cell numbers, and advise parents in the middle of the grocery store. Add in the demands of COVID, and counselors are working themselves silly. It’s time for a break.

Some school counselors may need to be on call for their students’ mental health issues, but two weeks away from the world of college applications are in order for them right now. As long as the students know you won’t be there (and get that message out often and early), they will be fine.

And if your boss is telling you about the need to monitor email for college counseling emergencies, feel free to tell them they are out of their minds. There is no such thing as a college counseling emergency. There are students who don’t pay attention to deadlines and who don’t read counselor e-mails, but those behaviors don’t create emergencies. They create consequences.

Colleges should give up on January 1

It made perfect sense for colleges to have a January 1 application deadline when students mailed their applications. All the mail got there by January 10, which is about the time college admissions offices reopen, and they could jump in to reading season.

Nothing gets mailed anymore, and admissions offices are closed January 1. Given the speed of technology, January 10 applications can be sent, oh, say, January 10, and still get there on time. More important, students could work on applications over break, share their progress with counselors when school is back in session after break, and still turn everything in on time, all while the counselors have a real holiday, just like their college admissions colleagues do. 

God bless us, every one.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Why Johnny Can’t Learn Digitally—A Clarification

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I’ve received quite a bit of feedback on my column from a few weeks ago about the challenges our students are facing as online learners—and that feedback has not been positive. School counselors and administrators alike are saying they feel as if I have thrown them under the bus, and that I have no idea how hard they have worked to make sure the transition to online learning has been as smooth as possible. They also cite the increased level of counseling services students need during this time of COVID, saying that the mental health needs of the students are more than taking up their time. One writer said that, now that I have returned to life as an independent counselor, I’ve already become out of touch with the needs of school counselors.

It seems I have some explaining to do.

First, believe me when I tell you I understand how hard it is to be a school counselor, teacher, and administrator in the time of COVID. Everything you have experienced with your students, I have experienced with mine—and since I’m still a school counselor until late next week, I continue to experience it every day.

The mental health, academic, social-emotional, fiscal, and employment challenges all of our students are experiencing are heart breaking. So is that feeling we all have when the school day is over, and the number of students we could help far exceeds the number of hours in not just the school day, but in the whole day. Not a day goes by when I feel like I could do more, if only I had a little help.

This leads to the reason I wrote the column. Knowing local educators were working like mad—last spring, over the summer, right now—to find a way to make this work, I tried to sort out just what was missing. Sure, some tasks just can’t be accomplished no matter how hard you try. But this one felt, and feels, different. There’s a voice that’s missing in this chorus of student support, and I wanted to figure out which one it was.

I didn’t have to look far. Every effort to help kids make the most out of the online learning experience was coming from local resources and local experts. These fiercely dedicated folks were throwing everything they had in to making this effort work, and many of them said they’d like to do more, if they just had a little more money, a little more time, and a little more expertise…

…in other words, a little more national money, a little more national time, a little more national expertise.

It would have been wonderful if the US Department of Education could have been counted on to gather themselves and offer Blue Ribbon workshops on best online practices. Couple that with some federal dollars for states to use as they see fit—including universal online access—and those local efforts would have been enhanced immensely. If only.

To be frank, it came as no surprise that ED did not pursue this strategy. Education veterans will tell you that the Department of Education has rarely taken the lead in curriculum development or best teaching practices in the entire history of its existence. It would have been hugely helpful and inspiring, but it wasn’t expected to happen, and it didn’t, and that had brought us to where we are.

That’s one of the main reasons I wrote the column—to call out ED, and let them know they can still do better.

But ED is not the only national leader who could turn up the support for local efforts to strengthen distance learning. If you stopped and wrote down ten companies or organizations that influenced national education policy, there’s a good chance ED wouldn’t even be on your list—but what about the others? All of them have the clout, money, and expertise to put together the same kind of national campaign of support ED can, and it’s likely many of them would, if they could sell it to local school districts. But charging for this kind of help would just be grotesque, so to them, the choice is either to develop it and give it away, or hope for the best. One mobile phone company promoted an eight-figure effort to make sure every student had Internet access—the rest have largely looked at their shoes.

A national effort to make a difference in the online education switch could have made all the difference, and it hasn’t happened. It still can. 

That list of ten national educational influencers you just made up? They have community relations departments, all of them. Phone calls and emails from educators saying “Hey, where you been?” will go a long way to move them forward, since you are their customers. They are viewed as leaders in the field because they meet our needs. Those departments know better than to incur the wrath of educators…

…and thanks to those of you who have written in the last two weeks, so do I.

Local educators have worked like crazy to make things work during the time of COVID, and that was the reason I wrote the column—you’ve done your share, and now it’s time for others to step up. 

If the column was missing that acknowledgement—or worse, suggested you’ve spent too much time at the beach this year—I could not be more sorry. I’ll do better in the future to make my assumptions more clear; this time around, that assumption is that you are moving heaven and earth to make things work for your students, and, as usual, it is appreciated beyond description.

Now, about your calls to those nine national leaders…

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Early Returns Suggest Students are Courting Colleges

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It won’t be long before colleges that have Early Action and Early Decision programs will start notifying students with decisions. This group of applicants is of particular interest this year, because colleges who offer early programs usually take a high percentage—as much as 60%—of their admitted students from these early programs. Given the hesitancies brought to college applications due to COVID, there has been speculation that this might be an unusual year for the early programs, one way or the other.

(If you need some help remembering what these programs are, you’re not alone—try this quick reference.)

We’re about two weeks away from hearing decisions, but news about the number of students applying early is out, and it’s uneven. As a rule, the most highly selective colleges in the country are seeing a significant increase in the number of early applications. This has been the case for the last several years, so this could represent business as usual; it could also mean students want to secure a spot in the class while they are still available, should changes in the COVID situation over the winter lead to an increase in students interested in applying to colleges away from home.

This is less the case with the selective colleges—still tough to get into, but not as crazy tough—which are generally seeing early applications even with last year. Since COVID is everywhere, it’s hard to say why colleges that admit 25% of their students aren’t seeing more early applicants than colleges that admit 7% of their students, but the differences in application data between these two sets of schools has always been a little mind boggling, since both schools have far more applicants than they have room to admit.

We’re all now waiting for the next shoe to drop, to see just how many of these record or average classes are going to be admitted through early programs. Conventional wisdom suggests colleges with Early Decision programs will, in all likelihood, admit a large percentage of their class early. ED programs have always helped colleges navigate uncertain times, since a yes to an ED applicant means the student must attend that college. It also earmarks financial aid money early, giving the college earlier insight into its budget.

EA decisions may have a little more flex in them this year, since saying yes to an EA applicant doesn’t lock them in to a firm commitment—it just gives the student an early answer. The plus to colleges with this program has traditionally been data saying students are more likely to attend a college that says yes early in the application process, but given the economic uncertainties that accompany COVID, affordability may trump that tendency this year. Without the promise of some kind of early incentive—scholarships in particular—EA programs may be the wild card this year.

The only heightened risk ED colleges may take on is also economic. Colleges must meet the financial need of all admitted ED applicants—if they don’t, the student is free to walk away from the commitment. But what happens if the college meets that need in December, only to have a spring shakeup in the economy redefine just how much ED admits really do need? Is there a moral requirement for colleges to meet these genuinely higher needs, or have they honored the spirit of ED by meeting the demonstrated need at the time of acceptance? Either way, if the end result is an increased number of students who abandon their ED commitment, the face of college admission could be in for a significant change.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Different Thanksgiving, Sort Of

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

We all kind of figured we would be in a different place this Thanksgiving, but we really had no idea it was going to be this different. Last Thanksgiving, we were speculating how different college admissions would be, now that the Justice Department told NACAC it could no longer enforce a code of ethics that was counted on to keep students sane and colleges on the straight and narrow. We wondered if the Harvard decision, allowing the use of race in college admissions, would change very much—or would the ruling itself be changed by the US Supreme Court? And, on the lighter side, we wondered just how many cable movies it would take before The Hallmark Channel made a Varsity Blues Christmas show.

I don’t know about you, but I’d gladly have those be my biggest concerns now. Our profession saw radical change right before St. Patrick’s Day, when college campuses were closed, SAT tests were cancelled, and students with plans to demonstrate interest in a college had to do so without ever setting foot on campus. We college admissions folks are an inventive bunch, so we’ve taken to the airwaves to meet students and show off colleges, reduced the value of standardized tests, and asked students to talk about what the quarantine has done to their college plans. In a profession where change is glacial, we turned the Titanic on a dime and dodged most of the major icebergs—and wow, are we tired.

Thanksgiving has always been an important time for most of us to put our feet up and consider the big picture, and thank goodness that hasn’t changed. Once you catch your breath, consider where we need to head as we look at our new reality:

Numbers look bad, especially for low income students. The stock market lost a third of its value in March, as families watched their college funds literally fall apart. The market rebounded in time, but the job market didn’t, and neither did the confidence of many families in colleges’ abilities to take care of their children. This was particularly true for low income families, as FAFSA filings dropped 16 percent last year, and the number of students requesting Common App fee waivers this year is down about as much, as of now.

Early Application Numbers are Down. Many colleges are reporting double-digit drops in the number of Early Action and Early Decision applicants, leading many to wonder if colleges are still going to take a disproportionately high percentage of its class from these programs, or open up more slots to students who apply on a regular deadline. The answer is the first—colleges jones on Early programs like you get a buzz on Aunt Marie’s oversalted stuffing—but given the uncertainties of the economy, that could in turn lead to more Early defaults, if students get to this spring and find they just can’t afford their first choice.

Juniors are in need of some guidance—er, counseling. Many colleges made ACT and SAT scores options for this year’s seniors for one simple reason—not enough seniors could take the test, since test dates were being cancelled with the last-minute panache of an absent-minded valedictorian. With December testing cancelled in most of the US, juniors are wondering if they’re going to get the same assistance, not having to choose taking a test you say doesn’t matter this year over, say, their health.

These issues won’t need answers by December 1, but they will need the benefit of fully recharged hearts and minds, just the kind of break we’re used to getting at Thanksgiving. Family and friends may be quarantining this year instead of gathering around our hearth—or, sadly, gone from us too soon—but there is still much to be grateful for.

Justice Department or not, ours is largely an ethical and thoughtful profession, not because it has to be by some code of ethics, but because we choose it to be. This is the same reason why efforts to diversify college campuses will continue in every legal way possible, no matter where the appellate path of the Harvard case may take us. And, happily, there is no sign of any Christmas movie trailer where Taylor Swift is holding a Fiske Guide.

So let’s take a page from a different Christmas movie, and be grateful for the chance to right some new wrongs, and know we are there for each other as we move forward. Aunt Marie’s stuffing may have to wait, but our gratitude for our ability to change the world in our work makes a pretty nifty meal all its own.