Sunday, April 26, 2009

It takes private schools to foster excellence in England

Prestigious private schools are vying to offer scholarships to Tom Daley, the Olympic diver, after his parents took him out of a state school where he was being bullied. Plymouth College, the alma mater of Dawn French and Michael Foot, and Brighton College, a leading independent, are competing to educate the 14-year-old, whose skills earned him a place in the Beijing Olympics.

Tom’s parents took him out of school before Easter because bullying had reached an “intolerable level”. Rob and Debbie Daley are now in discussions about a place at Plymouth College, which is home to an elite swimming club and charges up to £18,000 a year.

Mr Daley, 38, told The Times last night, “They understand the requirements of elite athletes. Academically, Tom’s doing well and we need to concentrate on his education.”

The college said Tom would be offered a “very significant scholarship” to enable him to attend. Dr Simon Wormleighton, headmaster, said he would fit in well at the school, which has experience of dealing with pupils who are high-level athletes.

Tom, who finished seventh in the men’s 10m platform event in Beijing, has also been offered a full scholarship to the £25,000-a-year Brighton College. “Tom is just the sort of young person we welcome here and I am confident he would fit in very well,” said Richard Cairns, the headmaster at Brighton.

But Mr Daley dismissed the generous offer. “Brighton is out of the question because it is too far away,” he said. Tom is aware of the discussions with Plymouth College and is very keen to leave Eggbuckland Community College, in Devon. Tom will go to Plymouth College when he returns from competing in Florida next month if the abuse does not stop. He has been plagued by bullies since the Olympics, who allegedly threatened to break his legs.

Mr Daley said: “Tom’s not big headed, he doesn’t even talk about it at school. But some kids don’t realise what the Olympics are, or the scale of what Tom’s doing.”

His parents complained to the school 11 times but removed Tom from classes because the abuse had become unbearable and was threatening to affect his diving.

Katrina Borowski, head of Eggbuckland Community College, said: “Tom’s extremely high profile has led to a minority of students acting in an immature way towards him. “It is difficult for Tom to have a ‘normal’ school life, but immediate action was taken to address concerns. We have a clear policy for dealing firmly with any incidents.” [A failed policy, unfortunately]


SAT-optional: Will trend take off or sputter?

If you're one of those students afraid standardized test scores don't paint the full picture of your potential, your options are growing. More and more colleges don't require the SAT or ACT exams.

Wake Forest and Smith just admitted their first class of applicants who could decline to submit SAT or ACT scores, while Sewanee and Fairfield will do the same next year. But is the "test optional" movement gaining steam, or running out of it?

That was a big question hanging over a college admissions conference hosted by Wake Forest this past week. The answer could come in the next few weeks as colleges set their policies for next year's admissions cycle.

So far, several hundred colleges have gone test-optional for at least some students, including a small but growing number of more selective liberal arts schools. "I don't know if you can tell a tipping point until after it's happened, but it's very close," said Bob Schaeffer, the gadfly testing critic who heads the group FairTest. He said he's heard from at least a dozen very selective institutions reviewing their admissions policies and expects more to drop testing requirements this spring.

But the vast majority of colleges still use standardized tests in admissions. The College Board, which owns the SAT, says only 45 schools are truly test-optional for all. And the test-optional movement's "big fish" is still out there. If an elite college with the name recognition of a Harvard or Yale dropped testing requirements, it could be a game-changer.

Launched in 1926, the SAT was devised as a merit-based leveler to replace the old-boys pipeline from prep schools to top colleges. The idea was to let students show their natural ability even if they didn't come from the best schools. But many now view the SAT as the opposite — as an obstacle to opportunity. They point to scoring gaps between different racial and socio-economic groups, and concerns that the test is too coachable.

There's also a complex, long-running debate over just how well the exam (and its nearly equally popular cousin, the ACT) actually does what it promises: predict college success. Clearly, the SAT helps. But does it provide good enough guidance to justify the stress it causes students? More colleges are answering "no."

Some critics think test-optional is just a ploy for colleges to attract more minority students without having to report their on-average lower test scores to the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

But Provost Jill Tiefenthaler said Wake Forest went SAT-optional (along with other changes like interviewing more applicants) to send a signal it really wants a broader range of students. And it worked: Applications this year rose 16 percent — up 70 percent for blacks.

The new policy irked some Wake Forest alumni, who said the school was putting diversity ahead of standards. But Tiefenthaler said more diversity is was essential for building an educational community. "You've got to have different people from different backgrounds with different talents," she said. "The kind of students we want here are sometimes going to be great test-takers and sometimes not."

Wake Forest will re-examine the decision in five years. After a similar experiment in the 1990s, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania went back to requiring SAT scores. The change hadn't attracted the applicants it hoped for, and it concluded it needed SAT scores after all to predict student success.

The not-for-profit College Board said in an e-mailed statement the SAT has been validated in hundreds of studies and remains important because high school grade inflation makes it hard to compare students. The statement noted the organization has always advised colleges to use SAT scores in combination with other factors, especially grades.

Last fall, the National Association for College Admission Counseling encouraged colleges to consider dropping tests like the SAT in favor of others more closely tied to students' high school coursework.

But the report didn't go so far as to tell colleges not to use the SAT. Test scores "play a role in our process, and in some parts of our process I would have a hard time seeing what would be the replacement," said Jeffrey Brenzel, Yale's dean of admissions. Still, he said Yale constantly reviews how it uses tests.

Some critics doubt SAT scores often help disadvantaged students as intended — by revealing otherwise hidden potential, or persuading Yale to admit a riskier student without fear he or she will fail.

But Brenzel says that happens all the time. It happens "when you lack other information about a student that's reliable, where the teachers tend to write very short and unhelpful recommendations, where the course curriculum is suspect," Brenzel said. "The test is one of the few things where you might be able to identify a diamond in the rough," he said. "And we take kids like that every year."


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