Wednesday, February 24, 2021

State and Federal Governments Need Assessment Intervention

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I hadn’t heard from my colleague in quite a while, so I was pleased to see her name pop up on my social media—until I read the contents of her message.  It seems her daughter, a very bright high school junior, had to take a state-required merit exam yesterday.  Following the safe distancing protocols, the school required her to take the test in the school gym.  On the bleachers.  Balancing the test and answer sheet on a lapboard.


The test was the ACT.


Just when it seemed things were heading in the direction of common sense, along comes the government to put logic in its place.  Your school isn’t offering in-person instruction—or is doing so, but  with severe limits using social distancing protocols?  Let’s put these to the test (sorry) and have you do annual state testing as if nothing had happened this past year.  After all, we need to see what the children have and haven’t learned.


The children have learned plenty, thank you very much—but most of it isn’t measured on the test.  It’s pretty likely scores will be down this year compared to past years; but even if school had been open every day and we were still saving the use of masks for Halloween and Mardi Gras, would learning really be accurately measured while students are taking the tests in a semi-fetal position on bleachers? Since many of these tests are used to award state scholarships for college, are leaders prepared to reduce the cut scores to reflect the realities of reduced learning and the effect of testing logistics that resemble Twister more than Oxford? 

Students have learned all about flexibility, altering study strategies, and the huge difference learning platforms can make when it comes to understanding ideas.  Last time I checked, the ACT measured none of these, and the items it does measure have often received short shrift in the back-and-forth conversion to online learning.  What exactly are the states expecting?


In fairness to at least some states, part of the blame for this goes to Washington, where a change in presidents and Education secretaries has evidently done little in the name of student learning.  Leaders of my home state anticipated test scores would cave this year, so they asked the US Department of Education if they could just take a pass this year on mandatory testing.  The response of the we’re-not-Betsy-Devos leadership was remarkably familiar:  Nope. As a result, schools that have never been open all year in the interest of the health of the students must now open up for mandatory testing.  You can’t help but wonder if Dr. Fauci’s going to scratch his head when COVID cases jump among high school juniors in March.


We’re entering year two of social distancing, so it’s easy to understand if people are getting  a little cabin fever, deciding it might be worth a chance to eat a meal out or attend someone’s wedding.  The vast majority of colleges that waived testing requirements this year are wise enough not to take the bait, and are extending the testing freeze another year (note—this clearly means most of them will never be going back to test requirements.  You heard it here first). After seeing the successful transition colleges have made to an ACT-free world, many government officials have decided to wait until the last minute and require tests anyway, reflecting the too-little-too-late decision-making that has plagued the COVID crisis since day one.


If that’s not an assessment of what hasn’t been learned, nothing is.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Common App Adds a Happiness Question, and Drops the Wrong One

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Common Application is doing record breaking work this year, and it isn’t using COVID as an excuse to rest on its laurels. CA announced its essay prompts for next year, and decided to make just a slight modification this time around, much to the relief of essay writing coaches everywhere. The one new prompt reads “Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?”

Common App says the prompt was added as a result of the input from school counselors and admission officers, “along with input from psychology and gratitude researchers.” It’s clear Common App has the current COVID culture in mind as part of their selection, as the announcement adds “An essay prompt can’t erase the loss and anxiety of the last 12 months, but it can validate the importance of gratitude and kindness. We hope students see the new prompt for what it is intended to be: an invitation to bring some joy into their application experience.”

It's certainly noble that the producers of the most used college application want to make sure applying to college is no less of a burden than it needs to be, but using joy as a rationale for adding this prompt is a little mystifying. This prompt is one of seven options students can choose from; if the goal is to make sure the process adds some joy to filling out a form, wouldn’t it be better to make this the only prompt? Will admissions committees assume a student has predominantly Eeyore-esque qualities if they select another prompt, one whose central theme may not be joy—particularly the highly used and often-tortured prompt where students are asked to relate a time they failed at something?

This logic especially falls into question when considering the prompt Common App got rid of to make room for this new entry, where students are asked to “Describe a problem you’d like to solve.” Common App says this prompt is not used very much, but this now-defunct prompt has the same potential for excitement and joy as the prompt replacing it. I know this, because I’ve worked with many engineering and science majors whose applications went to another level when they wrote about the projects they’d like to take on, and how they’d proposed to take it on. Talk about a prompt that is a guided tour of how big a thinker a student is.

Instead, any effort to try and infuse the college application process with more joy and gratitude would go a long way if it included giving the boot to the “failure” prompt. Each year, several counselors post to professional discussion lists about students who spend hours in counseling offices, asking their counselor if a particular failure is “big” enough to write about, as if the prompt were not a narrative but a competition. This same prompt also leads more students to write about athletics (a topic many admissions officers find difficult to be fresh with) or the dreaded essay that talks about the challenge of writing the essay itself, another topic that is tepidly received and rarely successful.

No one wants the college application process to produce anxiety, and the experience of writing about a time of gratitude or excitement will certainly go a long way to meet that goal. So would getting rid of a prompt where too many students feel compelled to out-Sturm-und-Drang their peers. That’s something to consider for next year.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

You Can Never Leave Dondero High—and That’s a Good Thing

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I only saw him on campus once, and it was clear he was a visitor. I was a school counselor at Dondero High School in Royal Oak, Michigan, about a 20 minute drive from downtown Detroit. Royal Oak was a Detroit suburb from the get-go, but its roots were clearly blue collar. I spotted this visitor in the late 80s, when guys wearing dusters were all the rage, and this guy’s duster was not the Target knockoff—it radiated with authenticity.

It was also easy to see he wasn’t a teacher by the way he moved. Teachers—and counselors for that matter—always seem to walk at a pace and an angle that allows them to carry the maximum number of unchecked papers, juice boxes, or dioramas. This guy was flying in and out of offices and classrooms with his head held high and a keen sense of purpose. It was like he knew the place and loved every nook and cranny of it, and he wanted to see all of it, right now.

It turns out there was a reason why it seemed like he knew the place—he had gone there as a student, and tried out his early hand at music in high school, as did so many budding Les Pauls of the day. Turns out, it stuck with him, as he went on to write and record some of the most played music in American history as part of the Eagles.

I ran into Glenn Frey twice that day, once as I was leaving my office, and once when he was going into the attendance office to say hello to one of the secretaries. I was later told he only made it back into town one or twice a year, but he always—always—came back to Dondero to say hello to the teachers and staff he still knew—and he said hello to all of them. Overhearing him interact with his role models, you could tell this was pretty standard “catching up” stuff—have you heard from this guy, did these two finally get married, why did this teacher retire so soon? Any of these visits could have been a serious press event, or an all-school assembly where he would sell a few records and tell kids to keep their grades up. Nope. This was just Glenn, catching up with the people who raised him.

In a two thousand dollar duster.

This is one of many moments that stay in the front of my head about Dondero, which closed in the mid-2000s due to low enrollment. There were about 1000 students when I worked there for two years, but the place burst at the seams for many years at 2400 kids. In a tribute to administrative overplanning, there were 4 different lunch periods back in the day, including two where students went to class for twenty minutes, left to eat lunch, and then—watch carefully—returned to the same class for twenty-five more minutes of instruction. Classrooms were crammed to the gills, it was an open classroom because administrators were praying students would go loiter somewhere else, and while the football team was never all that good, every opposing team knew you went straight to the bus after the game, because Dondero may not win the game, but they would sure win the postgame rumble.

And it all worked. Like every public school at the time, the only thing all Dondero students had in common was a zip code. They came from different backgrounds and different countries. Many were born in the houses they would ultimately own and die in, and college was still an iffy proposition for many of them. But at the end of the day—literally the end of every school day—each student had the chance to go home knowing a little more about the world, knowing a little more about themselves, and knowing they were loved for who they were. This was due to a veteran staff—when I was there in the 80s, the tenure of many of my colleagues went back to the Eisenhower administration—who had to learn the vital elements of teaching in a hurry. With 2400 in the audience, there’s no room for dress rehearsals.

I’ve worked at schools with better college admit rates and nicer buildings, but these were private schools that got to pick and choose who got to go there. Dondero opened the front doors every morning and created a sense of community with whoever showed up, every member wincing at the team nickname (the Oaks), every member willing to defend the honor of the school if an outsider was doing the wincing.

I’ve studied a lot about community building, and worked in many high schools that had slogans about students coming first. They have all been pretty great places, to be sure, but there’s something to be said about teaching at a school where kids live in art deco and Craftsman houses built so close to each other, they might as well be one big house for one big family. At Dondero, we were. Glenn Frey thought so, too. That may be why the road by the south side of the building was named after him. Like all of us, he’s part of the family forever.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Three Ways to Celebrate National School Counseling Week

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It takes a lot for me to recommend another counseling article in this space, let alone use the first few sentences to tell you to go read something else. That’s what makes the article by NACAC CEO Angel Perez all the more compelling. Angel’s now in charge of one of the biggest college access organizations in the world, and he owes it all to the counselor who, despite the standard ridiculous caseload, tracked Angel down, asked him about his college plans, and then helped him live the dream. If you’re somehow getting through National School Counseling Week without enough props for all you’re doing, read the first half of Angel’s story. Twice.

The second half outlines many of the key things that need to be done for counselors and for the counseling profession so we can be more effective in our work. This is a great call to action, but it did occur to me all these items had one thing in common—they are completely out of our control. More counselors? Administrative decision. Better training in college counseling? Graduate school decision. Time to talk with more students? Closer call, but as long as we’re still changing schedules, not our decision.

This means only one thing— it’s time to take action now. As in, this week.

Look, it’s pretty reasonable to say you aren’t going to get much more attention than this week, unless you do something really nuts like put 45 students in an American Government class when the contract limits class size to 35 (Yup—and man, did we get attention!) If this is the only time you get a major spotlight, now is the time to use that spotlight and engage in some meaningful conversation. I’m not suggesting you start talking about counselor ratios at the cupcake reception they throw for you, but this is probably the best time to pick your top three needs, and see what can be done about them. What they are depends on your school and your needs, but here’s my standard starter list to get you thinking:

Get what you do in writing. It’s still pretty amazing how many counselors show up for work each year with no effective job description. Most union contracts don’t deal with this, since counselors only make up about ten percent of the membership.

That’s why, as always the ASCA agreements form is your best friend. ASCA has updated its counselor model, so there are some reports of difficulty finding this form—but when it comes to being clear about who does what and when, it’s tough to beat this outline. You may not get rid of schedule changes in a year, but an annual discussion of this form is a strong foundation for change. Take a look, and remember, if it’s not in the agreement, you don’t do it.

Does anybody know what you do? I have long said that the main problem with our profession is NOT that people think they know what we do. The problem is they think they know what we do—and they’re wrong. But do we really have time to set them straight?

The answer is, kind of. If you’ve got a counseling department web site, it’s about a day’s worth of work to build a page talking about all you do. It would be great to include a “typical day” scenario, and you could spend a minute in the summer creating a video where you talk about your work. Administration can support this work by giving you a webpage if you don’t have one, and by referring others to it in activities like parent orientations—once the administrators read the page themselves, of course.

Build your team. Even if you have the right ratio and incredible resources, there’s no way you do your job without help. The Counseling Advisory Committee does that, since they are the key advocates of your work, both in the school building and the community. If pro football teams have cheerleaders, you could benefit from getting some as well. Look here on how to start one.

Write your grad school. The first three are just suggestions—this one is something you really need to do. Angel’s column briefly supports my favorite pet peeve—better training for school counselors in college counseling. There are about two dozen counselor training programs in the US that offer a class in college counseling. Others teach college counseling with career counseling, leaving about 20 hours of instruction in college counseling—as if that’s enough to even scratch the surface.

It’s time to write your grad school program, thank them for the credential that allows you to follow your passion, and urge them to create this separate class. I have tons of syllabi from folks who have taught the course, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel—they just have to jump on the bike, and all they need is someone to tell them to do that. Take the time.

And thank you for all you do.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Education Is Getting National Attention Again!

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This has been a week of higher education in the news, particularly funding of higher education. We may be just a week into the new legislative cycle, but talk in Washington is already centered around loan forgiveness for student debt, and free community college for everyone. Meanwhile, states are once again picking up on the idea of requiring completion of the FAFSA as a high school graduation requirement, an idea that has not been discussed in the better part of four years.

The debate over student loan forgiveness is a little more complicated than most people would think. It’s easy enough to say, give the students a break, so they can use that money to stimulate the economy by buying a house (note that I’m passing up the obligatory avocado toast joke here), while others say this is the least that can be done for students who got hit with excessive tuition increases when government funding of colleges just about dried up in most states.

The other side has its share of legitimate points as well. The undercutting of higher ed funding was largely done by the states, not the US government—and that’s who underwrites much of the student debt in question.

In addition, while it’s true the federal government is making money off of the interest they’re charging on student loans, the rate of interest is much lower than banks charge—and, there is a difference between changing loans to interest-free loans and forgiving the loan completely. Look for some kind of compromise here involving interest-free loans that will be forgiven after, say, ten years of timely payments.

The case for completely free community college is even more detailed. K-12 public schools are said to be free, but they aren’t—they are paid for by taxpayers. Applying the same model to community college would mean an increase in taxpayer funding of education, which means the money shows up either by taking it from an existing program, or raising federal taxes. If you want to see some serious backpedaling done by someone wearing $200 shoes, ask any legislator what entitlement program they would cut to fund “free” community college. And a tax increase to pay for community college? Sure.

Other data gives an even longer pause to consider this idea. Many states and cities offer some kind of free community college program, and their data tends to show that the students who take advantage of the program are students who either already planned on going to college, or students whose families can afford to pay for community college. There’s also the question of participation levels. An incredible program exists in Detroit where all Detroit high school graduates qualify for free community college (or even four year college) and get mentorship support once they’re there. The participation rate? Less than 50 percent.

Finally, there is the argument that is borne out by very new data, showing that FAFSA completion among low-income students has dropped dramatically. If they can already get free college, but aren’t, why would another free program make a difference?

This last point is also driving more states to consider adding a FAFSA completion requirement for high school graduation. Several states have realized incredible increases in FAFSA finishes as a result of such a requirement, which always includes a parental waiver. Still, others are concerned that adding this requirement could simply make it harder for students to graduate—especially students who have no college plans, and forget to fill out the form. Reducing the odious number of questions on the FAFSA may be the compromise both sides are looking for.

These are not easy issues to discuss, but it is good to see them once again making headlines, a sign that perhaps—just perhaps—education is once again getting some of the national attention it deserves.

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?