To everyone whose SAT score made them feel inadequate or who stayed in a club they hated just to prove their dedication: I have good news. In a Jan. 20 report titled “Turning the Tide,” the Harvard Graduate School of Education offered an examination of current admissions procedures at top universities, along with suggestions for improvement.
The report found significant mental health issues in middle- and upper-class communities, indicating that high stress levels caused by the pressure to achieve in high school is causing real damage. The report also noted a link between standardized testing and financial privilege, possibly evidencing the oversight of many underprivileged students with excellent character.
The report also described how nowadays, high school students implement a script of activities and standards including community service, sports, high test scores and many AP credits. The report went on to suggest that colleges reevaluate their admissions processes in order to see where students’ genuine passions are and test how dedicated they were to those passions. This is an attempt to reduce mental health issues in high schoolers, encourage students to pursue their true extracurricular passions, facilitate genuine community service, fill universities with kind people rather than just high test scores and even the playing field for lower-income students.
My mother is a professor and former psychiatric nurse, so this discussion about mental health rates is extremely interesting to me. According to CBS News, the report linked “depression, delinquency, substance abuse and anxiety” with higher-income communities. These communities are pressured by both college admissions and parental units to fit a cookie-cutter mold of perfection. They are told that they must meet a certain mark or they have failed.
This only propels our culture’s dangerously common message — you are not enough. As mental health rates climb, students are not only suffering emotionally, but their ability to meet their goals decreases. We have to redefine our ideas of success in terms of quality over quantity and individual paths in order to help reduce mental health issues.
Perhaps even more interesting to me is what this report means in terms of increasing social mobility. Our country prides itself on its “American Dream” narrative of hard work and moving up in the world. Unfortunately, thanks to an overwhelming level of income inequality, that ideal is far from our reality. Since education is a major factor in a person’s financial — and consequently, emotional — success, this report speaks volumes.
Studies show more and more frequently that standardized testing is more a measure of family background than intelligence. Yes, your excellent SAT score may mean you are good at speed-reading and algebra. In the grand scheme of things, however, it merely indicates privilege. Privilege is a word thrown around in many different contexts. I want to clarify that “privilege” refers to not only financial opportunity, but cultural and educational opportunity as well. Many students in the college admissions process are at a disadvantage. Maybe their school’s funding was cut, so they could not afford SAT prep classes or did not have access to a tutor. For other students, maybe their school did not offer as many AP courses, their time was taken up by working to support their family or they did not have the money to retake the ACT 12 times.
Regardless, there is an absolute connection between financial class and education. Thankfully, this report encourages schools to value each students’ individual skills and situation more holistically. Within the next five years, colleges will likely place more emphasis on passion, essays, letters of recommendation and community service.
As a theater student, this makes me happy. If universities encourage more qualitative data than quantitative, more creative or abstract skills like music, public speaking, acting, empathy, compassion and photography will not be seen as secondary to a cookie cutter resume and excellent math and science skills. In any case, this report is certainly moving in the right direction.
My hope now is that this value system trickles down to elementary schools. I want to see children taught to find their passions early, foster their creativity, be kind to one another, volunteer in their communities out of goodness (not obligation) and maintain a genuine spirit. We do not need any more students burdened by requirements, working endlessly against the fear of their own insufficiency.
Institutionalized rigidity is impactful. Now imagine what could come of institutionalized compassion.