Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Testing, Testing. Testing?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

School counselors report that their summers seem to be getting smaller and smaller.  That may be the case, but some pretty big news occurred on the standardized testing front during the few weeks counselors were off the clock.  These changes affect everything from college applications to K-12
assessment, so let's catch up:

Colleges Drop Writing Test Requirement  In addition to the traditional
multiple choice testing formats, both the ACT and SAT have offered students
the chance to receive a Writing score by staying after the other sections
are complete and putting together a writing sample based on a prompt.  The
Writing test is offered for an additional fee, and can stretch the testing
day near, if not over, the five hour mark for some students. 

Critics have long questioned if either Writing test really told the colleges
all that much-and it looks like the colleges were asking themselves that
question this summer.  That's when a remarkable number of college announced,
seemingly spontaneously, that they would no longer require the Writing test
when students apply for admission.  Some of the colleges cited the extra
cost as being burdensome on low income students, while others seemed to
acknowledge that a writing sample students have produced in about 30 minutes
doesn't reflect the process, or product, of college-level writing.

This leaves the number of colleges requiring the Writing test to about 15.
Look for them to reconsider their policies by next fall.
Subject Tests Also Falling Out of Use  A number of colleges also dropped
their use of SAT Subject Tests, the one-hour exams designed to measure what
students know about specific topics taught in school (History, Biology,
etc.) Since most colleges requiring Subject Tests also require the ACT or
the regular SAT, it's a safe bet that this reduction in testing is based in
part on the cost of the extra testing.

This also brings the number of colleges requiring Subject Tests to about 13,
with 9 of those colleges making up the University of California system.
This makes it more than likely that one meeting of the UC Board of Trustees
is all that's keeping the Subject Tests to go the way of the dodo bird, New
Coke, and campaign finance reform.

University of Chicago Breaks Away Access and opportunity were the clear
reasons The University of Chicago announced its plans this summer to become
a test optional school.  Once considered a ploy to increase applications,
test-optional schools now cite data-based evidence showing SAT or ACT scores
gave few additional insights into applicants to their schools.

Chicago's announcement is notable, since it is the most high profile college
to go test optional.  While their announcement hasn't led to similar
decisions from Ivy League or Ivy-like colleges, keep an eye out a few years
from now, if Chicago's student profile is more diverse and just as strong as
in years past. 

K-12s Going Test Optional?  Debate over the merits of test-optional college
admissions continue, but the idea seems to be spreading.  Politico reports
that the US Department of Education is offering states money to review their
statewide testing program, and come up with "more innovative exams."  While
the call for proposals suggests the goal is for states to develop new tests,
it wouldn't be unreasonable for a state to use this opportunity to develop a
research-based assessment that looks more like a portfolio than a
paper-and-pencil exercise, a common practice for test-optional colleges.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Life Beyond Us Versus Them

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Something pretty great happened a couple of Saturdays ago your students need to know about.  The University of Maryland was playing The University of Texas in football, and when Maryland’s offense came on the field, they started with only ten players.  Football requires eleven players, but Maryland did this on purpose, leaving a position blank for Jordan McNair, a Maryland player who died this summer.

It’s a pretty remarkable show of respect when a team is willing to play with one less player they truly miss, but the referees didn’t exactly see it that way.  When they counted ten Maryland players where eleven should have been, they penalized Maryland five yards for delaying the game, because you have to play football with eleven on the field.  The penalty would have put them in a little bit of a hole, but Maryland didn’t seem to care.  The head coach for Texas quickly figured out what was going on and even though his team would have clearly benefitted from the penalty, he declined it, and the game went on.

This reminded me of the time President Obama went to visit New Jersey a few years ago, after Hurricane Sandy destroyed an incredible amount of property there.  Chris Christie was the governor of New Jersey, and he and President Obama toured the damage together, discussing how the state and federal government were going to work together to help the people who had lost everything.  Governor Christie was a Republican, and when he was asked why he was working so closely with President Obama, a Democrat, he said “This is what adults do.”

It’s doubtful many teachers will ever share these stories with their students, but they should.  Maryland and Texas are both very proud of their football teams, and once Texas declined the penalty, you’d better believe both sides fought hard to best the other side.  The same is true for Republicans and Democrats, in ways no one has to point out to anyone.

Even in the midst of these fierce rivalries—one in the name of sport, one in the real world—competitors realize when something more important calls for a response, something more than a win, or bragging rights, or lording  your success over others. It may not happen often, but when it does, it moves us in ways we just simply understand to be right, and we dwell in that sense of right because it is just so strong.  Like the football referees and the press accompanying Governor Christie, it might seem like others don’t understand what’s going on, but that doesn’t it make it less right—or less important—to act on that intuition to step up.

Our students are being raised in a society where people seem to be paying less and less attention to those moments.  The “he said she said” and instant judgement that too easily pervades adolescence is more intense than ever, thanks to social media outlets young people just can’t turn off or away from.  These same outlets become centers of cynicism when genuine moments do occur, with voices claiming someone is only trying to increase their Likes or Hits by pretending to be human.  It’s as if no one can tell the difference anymore, or at least doesn’t want to.

That’s where we come in.  The tape of the Maryland-Texas penalty isn’t even a minute long, but there are enough life lessons there to fill a class period.  See what you can do to advance the cause of civility in your school, this week and every week.  It’s what counselors do.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Welcome Back to School Letter from A School Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Have you ever wondered why only the principal gets to write a “welcome back to school” letter?  Why not a counselor—better yet, a counselor who works for the US Department of Education?

My work with the Department is almost up, so here’s my one and only effort to welcome back every student to school.  Share widely, OK?  And welcome back!

Patrick O’Connor is in his thirty-fifth year of service as a school counselor.  His work as the inaugural school counselor ambassador fellow with the US Department of Education ends in October.

Some of you have been in school for a month now, so it’s a little late to say Happy First Day of School.  Still, now that nearly all of you are back in the classroom, I wanted to offer three pieces of advice for the coming year.  You may have already heard them from your own school counselor, but just in case, I hope you’ll keep this close—in your locker, on your phone—to help make this year a great one.

Keep wondering Many students get the message that the main reason they’re learning whatever it is they’re learning is only because it will get them ready for something else.  We learn to read in first grade so we can learn to read more in second grade.  We take French in eighth grade to take more challenging classes in ninth grade.  High school gets us ready for college, or a job, or something else.

My hope is that you’ll never feel that way this school year.  It’s important to be ready for what comes next, but everything you learn—everything—is an idea all by itself, something someone first thought of that no one else had considered.  There was a first person to think about what keeps plants green, how courts should make sure laws are fair, and how to make The Twist different from a waltz.  The first step in wondering about something new is taking the time to look at something you know, and think about how it got here.  Keep doing that—it will encourage you to keep asking the questions you want to have answered, and that is important to all of us.

Step forward  Kindergarten classrooms are pretty amazing places.  When the teacher asks a question, a million hands go up in the air and wave around like crazy.  Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter what the question is—students just have something to say.  Remember when your kindergarten teacher asked what day it was, and the student they called on said “My dog had puppies?” That’s really putting yourself out there.

For some reason, students in older grades often think they don’t have anything to say anymore, or what they have to say doesn’t matter.  If your teacher didn’t want to know what you think, they wouldn’t have asked you a question—and if somebody else laughs because they think your answer isn’t perfect, that’s about them, not about you.  Live your life.  Use your voice.

Know you aren’t alone  Not everything grows in light.  Doubt, frustration, anger, despair, disappointment—all thrive in darkness.  In fact, they like the darkness so much, they’ll do whatever they can to keep you isolated, so no one can help you end the darkness by turning on the light.

Keep that in mind the next time you’re not sure what to do.  Friends, neighbors, teachers, counselors, and parents are all there, waiting to help the best way they can.  Something inside you may say “no one can help”, but that’s the same voice that says it’s OK to eat cake for dinner—it’s never helpful.

Finding the right helper may take a couple of tries, but keep at it. Thomas Edison thought he could make a lightbulb, and a thousand failures later, he finally made one—he’d found the right combination to turn on the light.  There’s a million light bulbs in you.  Reach out, let others help you light them up, and watch them shine.

This Year’s New (School) Year Resolutions for College Counseling

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Welcome Back, and Happy New Year!  Now that schedule changes are done, let’s look ahead with a mutual commitment to the best year ever.  Start with these three resolutions, all related to college advising:

Resolve not to use college rankings as my guide for building college lists. It continues to amaze me how many counselors continue to use rankings in their work with students.  When things as simple as the number of applications received, and the number of students rejected, can move a college up or down in the rankings, it’s hard to see what any of that has to do with whether a student with a B+ average and an interest in Biology would be happy there.

It’s easy to see why parents are addicted to arbitrary lists, since they so desperately want their children to be happy, they’ll cling to anything that seems to offer some kind of guidance.  But that’s the job of someone who sees the student as a complete person, not of a company who sees them as just another customer.  In the long term, you may need to think about strengthening your parent education program in middle school and early high school, to show them the futility of relying on rankings.  For now, it’s time to set an example, and quit them yourself, cold turkey.

Resolve to learn about 20 colleges I know nothing about.  A couple of counselors have contacted me lately, saying they’re a little burned out with all they have to do.  They’re looking for something to focus on that will give them a new perspective on their work, and rekindle their energy.

Learning about some new colleges will do just that.  I teach a college counseling class online, and students have to research 10 colleges I assign them.  It’s one of the favorite part of the classes, since students learn about some pretty unique schools, like the ones where students take one class at a time, or offer BOGO scholarships for twins, or are free for every student admitted.  Other counselors pick a major that’s popular with their students—say, business—and decide to find out about 20 business schools they’ve never explored. 

It may seem odd to say that the best way to refresh your outlook on work is to do more work—but it works!  Give it a try.

Resolve to confront any counselor who uses “The Phrase.”  I’m sorry to say I continue to run into students who tell me their school counselor discouraged them from thinking about college.  It’s one thing to have a meaningful discussion with a student about options to college, but these students are talking about interactions that were cut painfully short when the counselor told them—in these words—“You aren’t college material.”

This is my 35th year in counseling, and I have never understood what that means.  With thousands of colleges offering millions of courses, does anyone really know enough to say there’s no level of college that can create new opportunities for a student?  I doubt it.

On the other hand, should Every. Single. Counselor. intuitively know the cognitive and affective damage they do to a student when they offer an assessment that’s so blunt, so cruel, and so wrong? They should.

It’s time to retire The Phrase, and, likely, most of the counselors who utter it.  If you find a colleague who still uses The Phrase because “it’s for the student’s own good”, have a chat with them, or email me, and I’ll chat with them for you.  We’re talking about kids here, not sheet metal.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

New Ratios Show Counselors Overworked in Most States

By: Patrick O'Connor PhD

School counselors have long known that they have more work to do than they have time in the day to do it, and a recent report from the American School Counselor Association offers a clear reason for this.  ASCA released its annual graphic report of the Student-to-School Counselor Ratios yesterday, showing that the national average caseload is 464 to 1 for 2015-16.  

This is the last year the ratios were reported by all states, and represents a drop from the average of 482 from 2014-15, but few counselors are rejoicing at this news.  The primary reason for the drop in the national average is a drop in the ratio in California, where new investments in school counselors led to a caseload decrease of over 50 students.  Most other states showed modest gains or declines, with Arizona once again having the highest ratio, at 903 students per counselor. Since ASCA recommends counselors work with caseloads of 250 students, the progress some states are experiencing is promising, but still suggests counselors as a whole aren’t able to fully meet the needs of their students. 

Since the national average is based on the number of counselors in all grades, it doesn’t tell the whole picture.  Many states have few, if any , elementary counselors, still leaving counselors in middle and high schools with caseloads well above the posted average.  At the same time, that means many younger students have access to no school counselor at all—and even with that consideration, 21 % of all high school students have no counselor either, according to a report by Ed Trust.

It’s also bracing to realize that a counselor with a caseload reflecting the national average, working a seven hour day, would have 464 back-to-back meetings, each lasting 55 seconds, in order to see every student on their caseload every day, a number that includes no breaks and no time for lunch.  Arguments that all students don’t need counseling services every day are rebuffed by the rise in services school counselors have taken on in the last year alone, as issues including safe schools, social-emotional learning, opioid addiction, financial literacy, cyberbullying, and major changes in college and career advising have been added to the already existing array of services 

The ASCA release comes only a few weeks after a research report from Penn State University identifies a significant lack in college and career training for most school counselors.  In one of the first comprehensive reviews of the state of school counselors and college advising, the report includes the absence of training in college counseling as one of the key voids that needs to be filled, plainly stating “school counselors rarely receive training in college readiness counseling during their master’s program in school counseling.”

Combined with the high ratios reported by ASCA, the lack of preparation in college readiness counseling leaves most counselors ill-prepared to provide quality postsecondary planning, a factor that can affect students’ and parents’ perceptions of the ability of their counselor to be of help with any counseling issue, including those affiliated with creating a safe school environment.  This is one of the reasons a recommendation to create a block grant program for states to hire more counselors has been forwarded, and favorably reviewed, by the federal government’s Safe Schools Commission.  Built on a successful counseling initiative in Colorado that saved the state $300 million, this proposal would offer lower ratios and better training for counselors, leading to safer schools, and advancing the goal of making sure all students understand the full array of postsecondary options available to them. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Living on the Edge of the World

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

A designer, a comedian, and a chef.  Ostensibly not a lot in common, other than success—living different lives in different parts of the world, pursuing different goals.

But I had each of them as a college counselor, and I can tell you, they had a lot in common.  None of them took the world at face value; they wanted to see what was underneath the surface, because the only way they could appreciate the quality of life’s outcomes was to understand the integrity of the process creating that outcome. 

If the process challenged the status quo along the way, asked a question that had an answer no one else pursued, was based on a clear understanding that there was something better out there that wasn’t in focus just quite yet—well, that was worth pursuing.  If it was a question with an answer that was already a part of the milieu, well, forget it.

It isn’t easy seeing the world that way, ever—but especially so at seventeen.  Convinced you’ll live forever, sure the rest of the world can’t possibly see things the way you do, the designer, the comedian, and the chef embraced professions that required them to make people see the world they way they do.  It wasn’t enough to see the line on that groundbreaking skirt if no one wore it, or to bring those flavors together in a new way if no one tasted them as an ensemble, or to get to a punch line with a new perspective if no one heard it. 

They didn’t have the adolescent convenience of dreaming up their version of the way the world is supposed to be, and living cozily in that bubble until reality came along to pop it.  The only way their life was fulfilled was for someone to embrace their new idea and welcome it into the everyday world.

Even then, the joy was momentary.  When you live on the edge of the world, your job is to bring What If to life in a way that delights others.  Once that happens, the newness of What If quietly folds into the huge mound of What Is, and the idea that was once seen as innovative is now business as usual, pushing the boundaries of the known out a little farther—and pushing the designer, the comedian, and the chef a little farther away, to a new edge of the world. 

Creation implies newness, and once an idea becomes part of what’s known, fidelity to creativity is only measured by concocting a new something new.  It is your calling; it is who you are, and fidelity to self is the ultimate badge of honor in the world of something new.

If you aren’t careful, that life can be pretty tiring, given everything else the teen years bring that isn’t new to the world, but can be painfully new to you.  Like every student I’ve ever worked with, I had to sign a form telling their colleges they were ready to engage in the uncertain world of creating among thousands of other like-minded young adults.  They were ready, so I signed their forms, but the creative life offers no guarantees—and as I lifted my pen off the page, I hoped the balance they had in their lives right then would stay with them all of their days.

The headlines have been sadly full of stories about a different designer, comedian, and chef.  No one can say what their balance was in their final days, but it is a reminder that we must look sharp and stand guard for all our students, most especially the creative ones.  Their minds are mighty palettes of the possible, but their hearts must be equally resolved to keep one eye on the world as it is, and one in the world that could be.  We must always help them do that.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

2018: The School Year In Review

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

A former boss once marveled that parents thought June was the month when teachers and counselors were “winding things down.”  “We aren’t winding anything down” he told me, “we’re running of a cliff.  We go faster and faster, gaining momentum as our feet teach the ground, and then, the last day of school—nothing.”

This year certainly seemed like a perpetual marathon for school counselors, with events that pulled even the most dedicated counselor away from their own work long enough to look around at national trends in awe, grief, or delight.  Here are some of the most memorable events that shaped our year.

School safety  The string of school shootings and safety issues continued this year, as the start of the year suggested our profession and our students would simply be victims to more cycles of violence, promises to change things, and more violence.  That gloomy prognosis was mightily stirred by the survivors of the Parkland shooting, who saw to it that things would have to change.  Months later, there is the memory of a DC demonstration; the work of a federal School Safety Commission, and an upcoming bus tour where Parkland survivors will urge young people to register to vote, and bring in a change to Washington.  The Santa Fe shooting that came this spring is a tragic reminder of how far we have to go; the Parkland students are determined to help get us there.

Opioid abuse  Legislators took notably swift action in many states to try and disrupt the pattern of opioid abuse that is affecting every families, schools, and towns of every size and status.  From limiting the size of related prescriptions to increasing state recordkeeping requirements to increasing school budgets to make schools safer, states are eager for more information on how to create teams of support that join the efforts of schools and communities to turn the tide of addiction.

Increased interest in career and technical education  The chant of “every student must go to four years of college”  was sharply muted this year, as a number of advocates urged schools to make sure all students had a complete understanding of the full array of options open to them after high school.  One of the most notable proposals is working its way through the Michigan legislature, where CTE champions are asking for more career counselors—but also asking schools to rethink the way even the most basic skills are taught, all in the name of teaching the skills students will need to develop the habits, attitudes, and skills needed to engage the ever-growing field of CTE.  The best news is that many of these skills are the same ones students need to be successful in college, further proof that the CTE/College choices of yesterday are no longer an either/or option.

Increases FAFSA completion  A large number of states are reporting significant increased in FAFSA completion, thanks in part to the earlier October 1 filing date.  At the same time, up to 30 percent of these applications are being flagged for verification, a time consuming process that can discourage low income students from finishing the process.  Calls to simplify the FAFSA process continue, as counselors await the rollout of the FAFSA app for smart phones.

College applications get easier  A record number of colleges are now letting students self-report their grades and their test scores, making the application process much more inviting.  Combined with a growing number of colleges that require no test scores at all, much was done this year to open up college access to a wider audience.