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IN A DYSTOPIAN WORLD, A COMPELLING CASE FOR INDEPENDENT CURRICULUM?

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A colleague observed the other day that the recent proliferation of unusual essay and short-answer prompts on the applications of super-selective universities might have a purpose other than making 18-year-olds commit to a decision on their favorite movie or what, exactly, inspires them. The colleague’s hypothesis is that these colleges are packing their applications with such provocations—interesting as they may be—against the day when “affirmative action” is overthrown by the Roberts-Trump court.

When affirmative action goes, argues the colleague, colleges at the apex of the admission food chain will abandon their requirement for applicants to submit standardized test scores in favor of asking students to impress (and perhaps even entertain) admission readers with their arcane tastes in films—Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, anyone? (and yes, I have seen this as a student’s choice)—and witty responses to clever questions. The very colleges that the Testing-Industrial Complex was built to serve will send “double 800s” the way of the dodo.

The basis of the idea is that the most forceful arguments put forward by those who oppose affirmative action are always based on quantitative applicant data. Every test score, every Grade-Point Average, every tally of Advanced Placement courses on a transcript, becomes a metric by which students can be objectively ranked, for admission or rejection. This is the argument put forward by many activists who maintain that high-scoring Asian-American and international students, for example, are actually underrepresented at selective universities. This is the argument that the families of many bright students use against the advantages conveyed by legacy admissions and “athlete preference.”

Get rid of all the numbers, a college might be willing to say, and we’ll focus on the subjective, personal data that we collect through our smart applications and school and teacher recommendations—à la the varied application prompts Tufts University created some years back based on Robert Sternberg’s work on the nature of intelligence. (Perhaps along the way colleges could even get rid of the annoying checklists that are an optional part of standard teacher recommendation forms.) And while we’re at it, get rid of class rank and GPAs.

Coincidentally, I believe, some leading and forward-thinking independent schools have already been taking steps to get away from numbers-driven programming. Since 2002 a number of independent schools, including Phillips Exeter Academy, have ceased to offer classes with the College Board’s trademarked “Advanced Placement” designation. No one can count the number of “AP” courses on an Exeter transcript in order to make a comparison against an Andover or New Trier High School transcript; Exeter has made the case for its own high-level courses, and colleges get it. No Exeter student is disadvantaged by not having taken courses that their school doesn’t offer. Nor are students from Riverdale Country School, Crossroads School in California, University Liggett in Detroit, St. George’s (the Rhode Island one), Westtown, or Lawrenceville. Or Beaver Country Day School, Fieldston, Christchurch School, St. Mark’s (in Massachusetts), or Sandia Preparatory School—to name but a few. As it happens, the Independent Curriculum Group, where I work, a good source on this.

Many independent schools gave up reporting student class rank to colleges years ago, on the premise that in a class of 50 or even 90, individual ranking points don’t mean much and that ranking inevitably led to unhealthy competition that corroded schools’ communitarian cultures. Colleges scarcely blinked.

Currently a-borning in the independent school community is the Mastery Transcript. Being developed by a consortium of schools that happens to include Andover and Exeter, the Mastery Transcript is an effort to replace grades as we know them with a more descriptive and fine-grained descriptive articulation, possibly on multi-dimensional continua, of skills that the student has mastered, supported by evidence of actual student work that can be examined and adjudged by college admission officers. No grades, and of course no grade-point averages.

All of these practices—score-optional admission, doing away with class rank, eliminating Advanced Placement-designated courses, and the grade-less transcript—are the darlings of the some of the most advanced thinkers in contemporary education. They see each of these as supplanting current practices that contribute to a numbers-driven, competitive, and unhealthy culture of learning whose instrumental values displace relevant curricula and de-value creativity, deep critical thinking, and—broadly—whole-child learning.

How ironic, then, or perhaps cleverly strategic or maybe just inevitably right that these very practices could soon coalesce somehow as the centerpiece of a “new and improved” system of college admission whose single goal is to obliterate the power of quantitative data after the demise of affirmative action. Colleges say that they are looking for creativity, multiple perspectives, and a vast range of skills and interests, and, absent test scores and GPAs, the schools that have embraced the idea and practice of independent curriculum and assessment, often in forms that are still a bit radical in 2017, will be preparing students to present applications that truly reveal the personal qualities and authentic skills that colleges say they desire and may be consciously positioning themselves to elicit when the numbers have to go.

There’s a caveat here, however. If this is indeed a strategy, it’s a strategy that appears to be emanating from elite colleges, and the “creative” questions that I have run across so far seem perhaps too comfortable to my own white, male, middle-class self. The minds that will be developing application forms in years to come will need to design prompts and provocations free from cultural bias; if the intent is to use idiosyncratic prompts to develop diverse classes, these can’t feel too much like extensions of familiar bourgeois parlor games. This will call for the kinds of research on validity and reliability across cultural and gender lines that Big Test should have been conducting on all multiple-choice questions all along.

And how even more ironic that the right-wing reactionaries who must hate every one of these radical new educational ideas might be the very people to force their wide adaptation as part of an “affirmative-action-free” college admission process. Cleverness, diversity of perspective and experience, critical analytical skill, and authentic engagement with real-world problems: imagine a student cohort whose members bring these skills and qualities to their college experience and couldn’t care less about the one right answer on some silly test.

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