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The Black Box

(On October 8, 2018, a group of the nation's top colleges hosted a high school counselors' breakfast in San Diego, and here are Dr. Grauer's journal reflections about that breakfast and about the state of college placement in the US.)

I. Rigor

The kid from Harvard is saying, "There is huge anxiety around rigor." This kid happens to be their Southwest regional admissions officer. (San Diego, October 8, 2018)

"What's rigor?" a local high school counselor asks him?

He skirts the answer. "It does not matter how many APs the kid has," Harvard says, "if you cap top level courses, and work within those boundaries. All that matters is that the student maximizes what's at their school. We just want to know what they will contribute, as a peer, as a roommate."

"The student has to do what they are passionate about," Yale pitches in, continuing to re-define rigor, but not everyone believes it.


Junior Francesca performs at The Grauer School's High School Theatre Café Night - October 11, 2018

Grauer School counselor Shelley Boniwell and I are at the breakfast hosted by admissions reps from a few Ivy League schools plus University of Virginia and Wellesley College. Almost everyone in the room clearly wants to ask about rigor, whatever it is. I want to ask about the lawsuit.

The trial is starting this week, but will not realistically resolve until it hits the US Supreme Court: Who gets into Harvard? Now this all has spun out of control. Western conceptions of fitness for life and success have become so conflated with college rank and something we used to call "rigor" that some of the most basic human values and qualities in all of Western civilization seem lost or buried. And now, one group is suing Harvard for an answer.

II. Warriors

Warriors is a term Eastern religions use to refer to a state of the heart, a state of courage, kindness, generosity, and peacefulness. Western concepts of warriorship focus exclusively on warriors who have weapons in their hands, hence, warriorship is removed from college and life preparation. Warriors are decisiveness in action, which can only occur in a clear state of mind. It is warriors I hope will graduate from US schools and go on to the great colleges.

But they are not. If we read the new report from the child Mind Institute, the "2018 Children's Mental Health Report," anxiety "is a nationwide epidemic fueled by contemporary stresses." Anxiety is the most common disorder in children today, and it is associated strongly with suicide. I want schools and colleges to care about a whole lot more about their role in this. Today, we are not particularly breeding warriors. Half of our nation's college students are anxious (http://www.futureofpersonalhealth.com/advocacy/most-college-students-suffer-from-anxiety-its-time-to-talk-about-it).

"What makes students interesting is not the number of AP courses they take," the admissions officer from Yale is assuring us. Well then, what does makes students interesting?


Seniors Chris P. and Grace T. perform at The Grauer School's High School Theatre Café Night - October 11, 2018

The presentation has ended, and now I am chatting with the Harvard rep, asking: "Harvard has well-oiled formulas for grades and test scores, so that's maybe half the admissions formula, right? That's the half that is causing the anxiety, right? But the other half of the formula, 'what makes students interesting, seems like a black box. You call it 'character,' right? I might call it warriorship. And your plaintiffs in the lawsuit call it 'personality.' Is that why you are getting sued?"

And as we speak here in San Diego, back in Boston Harvard's lawyers are sharpening their pencils—the law suit starts next week. Their race-conscious admissions policy goes on trial. The case, brought by a nonprofit group called Students for Fair Admissions Inc., which is led by the conservative activist Edward J. Blum, who already lost almost the identical case against University of Texas five years ago, claims Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants by limiting the number of those students it admits. He claims Harvard excludes them because they don't like their personalities.

"We are reading so many applications, it is other things that set you apart, personal qualities. What are you like in your community? We're building a community," Harvard is saying back to me.

I want to trust him and his ability to shape the next generation of college students, even though I have hiking boots older than this guy. Every admissions officer in the room here today is under 30. I want to know how they can assess character—I want to know that they know enough to address an applicant pool where 50% of the applicants are suffering from anxiety. Is that a factor? So I ask him:

"If you really want to include character in the formula, not just scholastic grades, why don't you start putting measures of character into your admissions formula? All that stuff seems like it's hidden in a black box and a cause of anxiety. Honestly, reliable character assessment batteries are available, and our school, Grauer, uses some. Isn't it just as easy to measure character as algebra? And either way, aren't we're just ranking a series of choices a student makes on one test or another." A few researchers are trying to sort this out, but not there yet. And if they sort it out, would it mean even more anxiety provoking tests?

In a recent research paper, a group of education professors from Harvard, MIT, and U. Penn says: "There is little agreement on which [non-cognitive] skills are most important, how they can be reliably measured, and their malleability in school settings" (https://cepr.harvard.edu/files/cepr/files/cepr-promise-paradox.pdf).

Writing is another area that is historically a big part of the admissions formula at great universities. And, writing is at least as hard to reliably measure as personality and character (two issues that the law suit conveniently conflates); or at least it was hard to measure until the test makers reduced it down to a ridiculously simplistic excuse for writing. For the purposes of graders and data crunchers, across the country, writing has been turned into a formulaic process wherein even terrible writing gets high grades if it follows the formula that can be computer graded. The sociological name for this is the "cult of mediocrity." In this cult, or culture, the outliers, the very ones who might bring in the most originality, the most creativity, the most insight, are often seen as data errors.


Cooper M., Jaden F., and Hannah W. perform at The Grauer School's High School Theatre Café Night - October 11, 2018

Now, these colleges are working on a fix: In an early effort to reject this hypocrisy of turning writing into a formula, most of these colleges here today at the high school counselors' breakfast claim they are moving away from the standard, age-old college essay, which they believe so many students have professional help with, "gaming the system." Instead, they are moving towards essays students choose from their English classes, which they will submit with the actual teacher grading right on them.

Admissions at all the top schools is a mix of part formula and part "black box" wherein lies personality, character, intuition, and inspiration, all of which could be measured if we really wanted to, but most of us prefer not to. And now, if you've made it this far, loyal reader, you can imagine why Harvard is saying, "Actually, we're happy with the way we do admissions and we don't want to change it." Bring on the law suit.

(Now I am wondering: Will the lawsuit explain how wilderness-schooled students with no GPA or rank get into Harvard?)

III. Two Tragic Figures

My friend told me about a guy in his high school. Ricky Roberts had high grades and high test scores. He was a bit insecure, never got matters of style right, and he was anything but "cool." One day, Ricky Roberts worked up his nerve, walked up to Charlie C., a swaggering player with a letter jacket and tight pants, and said, in all sincerity "Hey, Charlie, how can I get in the cool group?"

That did not go over well, and soon Ricky was a laughing stock, humiliated—though, later on, he got into an Ivy League school—something Charlie had zero chance of ever doing. It sounded like Ricky would have preferred the cool group.

IV. Ooze

Harvard, Southern Cal rep, says of his best applicants: "If you are really excited about what you do it oozes through the application. Valedictorians are not what sets students apart." Grauer has never ranked students and it won't, at least in my lifetime. But should we rank ooze? Will the law suit demand that Harvard at last quantifies and ranks ooze? And do Asian Americans ooze like Yankees?

Wellesley chimes in: "The conversations we are having are about culture." Then why not use measures of that, we wonder? Let's measure culture.

Wellesley replies: "We are trying to find a way to measure non-academic factors, the real challenge is that the measures are not as strong or as sophisticated and harder to get—if we start to take these other measures people will start to game them. Things like the Mastery Transcript will inform some of the work on culture that the colleges will continue to do." (Grauer was an early adopter of the Mastery Transcript mission.)

But aren't all the scores gameable? Especially the ones great colleges rely most upon, like SAT and ACT?And GPA? And as the gaming continues, the anxiety continues to rise and the focus on "non-cognitive" skills, the focus on what's inside of the black box continues.

"There is little agreement on which skills are most important, how they can be reliably measured," say the education professors from Harvard, MIT, and U. Penn, in their study on the measurement of non-cognitive skills. (https://cepr.harvard.edu/files/cepr/files/cepr-promise-paradox.pdf)

Fewer and fewer of these elite schools are requiring students to submit tests on SAT or ACT essay portions. All of these schools claim they are shifting to a greater focus on mental health: a sweeping change in mindset is underway... engaged, empowered students are their target, they claim.

All the while, today, the great universities swear that they are perfectly happy with their admissions processes and formula. In admissions offices small to large, somewhere between 15 and 40 admissions officers seated around the table for days at a time, take turns pitching their favorite candidates in a wholistic way. That's it. They like things this way, too, though it is a lot of work. They don't want to reduce candidates to a formula, or to quantify everything.


Jillian S. and Chris P. perform at The Grauer School's High School Theatre Café Night - October 11, 2018

Interestingly, Grauer quantifies many things that other schools and colleges put in the black box. We quantify values students are developing, just as we quantify algebra and writing. We crunch Likert-type scale scores for school values; we use the HSSSE battery of student engagement for all students; we use the Mastery Learning Consortium to quantify our core values assessments, and we use a variety of other measures of student "excellence." However, Grauer has never adopted the unreasonable practice of ranking students in our graduating class—this effort to boil our life's work down to a single number degrades our best work, and it degrades our students.

Our students and students all over try to quantify their lives, and it causes anxiety. And when it does not work, and they do not get into the college they think they deserve to get into, we here at school often have theories about why they did not get in. And we can almost never express those theories to them or their parents.

V. Tautology

The Professors write: "The non-cognitive skills we measured include conscientiousness, self-control, grit, and growth mindset. Of the many non-cognitive attributes that psychologists have studied in students, conscientiousness and self-control have arguably the strongest evidence of predictive power over academic and life outcomes, even when controlling for cognitive ability and demographics" (Almlund et al., 2011; Poropat, 2011; Duckworth & Carlson, 2013, as cited in https://cepr.harvard.edu/files/cepr/files/cepr-promise-paradox.pdf). Only trouble is: these skills they measured and tout are the same ones they said, in another part of the same paper, are not reliably measured. What's more, these researchers have shown that their non-cognitive skills like grit have a positive correlation to success on AP exams ... you know, those exams that the admissions offices say they are doing away with.

Will there ever be a way to know which among these non-cognitive skills are the good ones, the real ones? Most people think: No way! But nothing could be further from the truth. The way to know which skills and values are the good ones is to develop a school dedicated to the skills and values you want your students and teachers to achieve! If Harvard wants to win the lawsuit, they need to say what skills and values they are looking for.

The way to know which skills and values are the good ones is to develop a school dedicated to the skills and values you want your students and teachers to achieve!

(And then people would game the system, and their purposes would be subverted. I think this is called a tautology.)

VI. Eggs

We are in the age of scores and metrics. Yesterday on the phone, a guy helped me disarm the school's burglar alarm. Afterwards, I got an email wanting me to grade him. It was a lot like the email I got from Delta Airlines wanting me to grade the last flight I was on. We give scores to shoe leather, the wine we taste, and our grade A eggs.

University geniuses and admissions offices swear they don't know how to objectively score the things they care most about. Yet.

We're all are getting deeper into an age of metrics right now and getting pretty lost, and Harvard's lawyers are going to bill a lot of hours trying to stave it off. On the largest level, a consensus of scientists is blanketing us with data, screaming it at us, that our whole planet will be a wreck inside of 20 years, and I'll bet not a single student, of any GPA or any nationality, thinks any more of it than they think of the rank of the college they are going to. The Great Barrier Reef is 25 million years old and odds are it will be completely dead around the same time as my students. We have 100% of the data we need to help it live, and it helps TV ratings but that's about it.

This is the type of digression I kept running to during the counselors' breakfast, but it boils down to this: We say we are in an age of data driven decision-making, but that's crazy: we're in an age of anxiety. The latest UN report of the I.P.C.C., one of six such reports since the organization was formed by the UN Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization, is based on more than six thousand cited studies. It was written by ninety-one authors from forty different countries and it tells us the clearest, data-driven predictor: Unique ecosystems will vanish and species will go extinct by the thousands. Our own President of the US not only disregards the report, he is certain to mock it. We are not data driven, we are only data crazed. Unless the data support what we want. Then we're data driven, and then Harvard admissions will be data driven.


The actors take a final bow at The Grauer School's High School Theatre Café Night - October 11, 2018

In court this week, the Asian-American students will be claiming that they outscore other groups trying to get into Harvard—they'll claim they've got the data—but Harvard claims they are looking for other things, "other" data, that the Asian Americans I guess are not excelling in so much—or that they don't have data for. Is Harvard going to measure those "other" things? Do they already ...inside the black box?

Blum's group says "Harvard penalizes Asian-American applicants by systematically scoring them lower on metrics used to judge personality. The group says the university should not be allowed to consider race when making decisions about who is admitted as an undergraduate student" (https://www.chronicle.com/article/Harvard-s-Race-Conscious/244793?cid=trend_right_a).

The presumption there is scary: that if you use metrics to judge character, non-cognitive factors, personality, etc., it will end up penalizing Asian-Americans. That sounds weirdly racist. But if Asian Americans or anyone else wants to get into Harvard, shouldn't they study the non-cognitive, black box factors just as much as they study math and writing?

VII. Warriors

If Harvard wants warriors, they should identify and admit them. If they want urban coyotes, or poet-philosophers, or polymaths or frat boys, they should locate them and have them. What they must stop seeking out and admitting, though, is kids who have become anxious wrecks by virtue of building a Harvard-bound resume. It is clear that this law suit is bound to fight until they know exactly how to build that resume, creating even more anxiety and maniacal gaming of the system.

In short, in determining what will make successful college students in the United States, we tend to have broad agreement on the usefulness of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which has not been shown to make better college students; and we have zero agreement on the usefulness of courage. Zero on entrepreneurship. Zero on creativity. And, of course, none on warriorship. All of which make better college students—or at least better Grauer School students! All of these values and qualities are as measurable as scholastic aptitude, if we ever get the courage, entrepreneurship and creativity to start measuring them. That's an issue the trial could force, as they try to gouge their way into the black box.

I'll be watching the trial.

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