Sunday, August 04, 2013

Confessions of an Application Reader:  Lifting the Veil on the "Holistic" selection Process at the University of California, Berkeley

By Ruth A. Starkman, who teaches writing and ethics at Stanford.  "Starkman" is an Ashkenazi name.  She is polite about it but finds the Berkeley admission process fundamentally crooked.  It's just an underhand way of privileging a minority identity

A HIGHLY qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India.

Why was he not top-ranked by the “world’s premier public university,” as Berkeley calls itself? Perhaps others had perfect grades and scores? They did indeed. Were they ranked higher? Not necessarily. What kind of student was ranked higher? Every case is different.

The reason our budding engineer was a 2 on a 1-to-5 scale (1 being highest) has to do with Berkeley’s holistic, or comprehensive, review, an admissions policy adopted by most selective colleges and universities. In holistic review, institutions look beyond grades and scores to determine academic potential, drive and leadership abilities. Apparently, our Indian-American student needed more extracurricular activities and engineering awards to be ranked a 1.

Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G.P.A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A.P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. His score? 2.5.

Both students were among “typical” applicants used as norms to train application readers like myself. And their different credentials yet remarkably close rankings illustrate the challenges, the ambiguities and the agenda of admissions at a major public research university in a post-affirmative-action world.

WHILE teaching ethics at the University of San Francisco, I signed on as an “external reader” at Berkeley for the fall 2011 admissions cycle. I was one of about 70 outside readers — some high school counselors, some private admissions consultants — who helped rank the nearly 53,000 applications that year, giving each about eight minutes of attention. An applicant scoring a 4 or 5 was probably going to be disappointed; a 3 might be deferred to a January entry; students with a 1, 2 or 2.5 went to the top of the pile, but that didn’t mean they were in. Berkeley might accept 21 percent of freshman applicants over all but only 12 percent in engineering.

My job was to help sort the pool.

We were to assess each piece of information — grades, courses, standardized test scores, activities, leadership potential and character — in an additive fashion, looking for ways to advance the student to the next level, as opposed to counting any factor as a negative.

External readers are only the first read. Every one of our applications was scored by an experienced lead reader before being passed on to an inner committee of admissions officers for the selection phase. My new position required two days of intensive training at the Berkeley Alumni House as well as eight three-hour norming sessions. There, we practiced ranking under the supervision of lead readers and admissions officers to ensure our decisions conformed to the criteria outlined by the admissions office, with the intent of giving applicants as close to equal treatment as possible.

The process, however, turned out very differently.

In principle, a broader examination of candidates is a great idea; some might say it is an ethical imperative to look at the “bigger picture” of an applicant’s life, as our mission was described. Considering the bigger picture has aided Berkeley’s pursuit of diversity after Proposition 209, which in 1996 amended California’s constitution to prohibit consideration of race, ethnicity or gender in admissions to public institutions. In Fisher v. the University of Texas, the Supreme Court, too, endorsed race-neutral processes aimed at promoting educational diversity and, on throwing the case back to lower courts, challenged public institutions to justify race as a factor in the holistic process.

In practice, holistic admissions raises many questions about who gets selected, how and why.

I could see the fundamental unevenness in this process both in the norming Webinars and when alone in a dark room at home with my Berkeley-issued netbook, reading assigned applications away from enormously curious family members. First and foremost, the process is confusingly subjective, despite all the objective criteria I was trained to examine.

In norming sessions, I remember how lead readers would raise a candidate’s ranking because he or she “helped build the class.” I never quite grasped how to build a class of freshmen from California — the priority, it was explained in the first day’s pep talk — while seeming to prize the high-paying out-of-state students who are so attractive during times of a growing budget gap. (A special team handled international applications.)

In one norming session, puzzled readers questioned why a student who resembled a throng of applicants and had only a 3.5 G.P.A. should rank so highly. Could it be because he was a nonresident and had wealthy parents? (He had taken one of the expensive volunteer trips to Africa that we were told should not impress us.)

Income, an optional item on the application, would appear on the very first screen we saw, along with applicant name, address and family information. We also saw the high school’s state performance ranking. All this can be revealing.

Admissions officials were careful not to mention gender, ethnicity and race during our training sessions. Norming examples were our guide.

Privately, I asked an officer point-blank: “What are we doing about race?”

She nodded sympathetically at my confusion but warned that it would be illegal to consider: we’re looking at — again, that phrase — the “bigger picture” of the applicant’s life.

After the next training session, when I asked about an Asian student who I thought was a 2 but had only received a 3, the officer noted: “Oh, you’ll get a lot of them.” She said the same when I asked why a low-income student with top grades and scores, and who had served in the Israeli army, was a 3.

Which them? I had wondered. Did she mean I’d see a lot of 4.0 G.P.A.’s, or a lot of applicants whose bigger picture would fail to advance them, or a lot of Jewish and Asian applicants (Berkeley is 43 percent Asian, 11 percent Latino and 3 percent black)?

The idea behind multiple readers is to prevent any single reader from making an outlier decision. And some of the rankings I gave actual applicants were overturned up the reading hierarchy. I received an e-mail from the assistant director suggesting I was not with the program: “You’ve got 15 outlier, which is quite a lot. Mainly you gave 4’s and the final scores were 2’s and 2.5’s.” As I continued reading, I should keep an eye on the “percentile report on the e-viewer” and adjust my rankings accordingly.

In a second e-mail, I was told I needed more 1’s and referrals. A referral is a flag that a student’s grades and scores do not make the cut but the application merits a special read because of “stressors” — socioeconomic disadvantages that admissions offices can use to increase diversity.

Officially, like all readers, I was to exclude minority background from my consideration. I was simply to notice whether the student came from a non-English-speaking household. I was not told what to do with this information — except that it may be a stressor if the personal statement revealed the student was having trouble adjusting to coursework in English. In such a case, I could refer the applicant for a special read.

Why did I hear so many times from the assistant director? I think I got lost in the unspoken directives. Some things can’t be spelled out, but they have to be known. Application readers must simply pick it up by osmosis, so that the process of detecting objective factors of disadvantage becomes tricky.

It’s an extreme version of the American non-conversation about race.

I scoured applications for stressors.

To better understand stressors, I was trained to look for the “helpful” personal statement that elevates a candidate. Here I encountered through-the-looking-glass moments: an inspiring account of achievements may be less “helpful” than a report of the hardships that prevented the student from achieving better grades, test scores and honors.

Should I value consistent excellence or better results at the end of a personal struggle? I applied both, depending on race. An underrepresented minority could be the phoenix, I decided.

We were not to hold a lack of Advanced Placement courses against applicants. Highest attention was to be paid to the unweighted G.P.A., as schools in low-income neighborhoods may not offer A.P. courses, which are given more weight in G.P.A. calculation. Yet readers also want to know if a student has taken challenging courses, and will consider A.P.’s along with key college-prep subjects, known as a-g courses, required by the U.C. system.

Even such objective information was open to interpretation. During training Webinars, we argued over transcripts. I scribbled this exchange in my notes:

A reader ranks an applicant low because she sees an “overcount” in the student’s a-g courses. She thinks the courses were miscounted or perhaps counted higher than they should have been.

Another reader sees an undercount and charges the first reader with “trying to cut this girl down.”

The lead reader corrects: “We’re not here to cut down a student.” We’re here to find factors that advance the student to a higher ranking.

Another reader thinks the student is “good” but we have so many of “these kids.” She doesn’t see any leadership beyond the student’s own projects.

Listening to these conversations, I had to wonder exactly how elite institutions define leadership. I was supposed to find this major criterion holistically in the application. Some students took leadership courses. Most often, it was demonstrated in extracurricular activities.

Surely Berkeley seeks the class president, the organizer of a volunteer effort, the team captain. But there are so many other types of contributions to evaluate. Is the kindergarten aide or soup kitchen volunteer not a leader?

And what about “blue noise,” what the admissions pros called the blank blue screen when there were no activities listed? In my application pile, many students from immigrant households had excellent grades and test scores but few activities. I commented in my notes: “Good student, but not many interests or activities? Why? Busy working parents? And/or not able to afford, or get to, activities?”

IN personal statements, we had been told to read for the “authentic” voice over students whose writing bragged of volunteer trips to exotic places or anything that “smacks of privilege.”

Fortunately, that authentic voice articulated itself abundantly. Many essays lucidly expressed a sense of self and character — no small task in a sea of applicants. Less happily, many betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable, as were canny attempts to catch some sympathy with a personal story of generalized misery. The torrent of woe could make a reader numb: not another student suffering from parents’ divorce, a learning difference, a rare disease, even dandruff!

As I developed the hard eye of a slush pile reader at a popular-fiction agency, I asked my lead readers whether some of these stressors might even be credible. I was told not to second-guess the essays but simply to pick the most worthy candidate. Still, I couldn’t help but ask questions that were not part of my reader job.

The assistant director’s words — look for “evidence a student can succeed at Berkeley” — echoed in my ears when I wanted to give a disadvantaged applicant a leg up in the world. I wanted to help. Surely, if these students got to Berkeley they would be exposed to all sorts of test-taking and studying techniques.

But would they be able to compete with the engineering applicant with the 3.95 G.P.A. and 2300 SATs? Does Berkeley have sufficient support services to bridge gaps and ensure success? Could this student with a story full of stressors and remedial-level writing skills survive in a college writing course?

I wanted every freshman walking through Sather Gate to succeed.

Underrepresented minorities still lag behind: about 92 percent of whites and Asians at Berkeley graduate within six years, compared with 81 percent of Hispanics and 71 percent of blacks. A study of the University of California system shows that 17 percent of underrepresented minority students who express interest in the sciences graduate with a science degree within five years, compared with 31 percent of white students.

When the invitation came to sign up for the next application cycle, I wavered. My job as an application reader — evaluating the potential success of so many hopeful students — had been one of the most serious endeavors of my academic career. But the opaque and secretive nature of the process had made me queasy. Wouldn’t better disclosure of how decisions are made help families better position their children? Does Proposition 209 serve merely to push race underground? Can the playing field of admissions ever be level?

For me, the process presented simply too many moral dilemmas. In the end, I chose not to participate again.


Jeb Bush's Crony Republicans Against Higher Standards

By Michelle Malkin

The resignation of Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett couldn't have come at a better time. His disgraceful grade-fixing scandal is the perfect symbol of all that's wrong with the federal education schemes peddled by Bennett and his mentor, former GOP Gov. Jeb Bush: phony academic standards, crony contracts, big-government and big-business collusion masquerading as "reform."

Bennett stepped down Thursday after the Associated Press reported that he had meddled with charter school accountability ratings in Indiana last fall while serving as that state's schools superintendent. The beneficiary of his intervention? Big GOP donor and charter school operator Christel DeHaan, who has forked over nearly $3 million to Republicans (including $130,000 to Bennett).

DeHaan's Christel House Academy charter school magically went from a "C" rating to an "A" rating despite failing 10th-grade math scores. An abysmal 33 percent of the school's 10th-grade Algebra I students passed. Note: The school uses the widely panned elementary-level Everyday Math curriculum (which I've exposed in previous columns) and a newfangled secondary program called the Carnegie Learning Math Series, whose website prominently brags that its "courses were developed to align to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics." More on that in a moment.

Emails showed that Bennett was far more concerned about how a low grade would look than about maintaining the integrity of the grading system. Evaluators "need to understand that anything less than an 'A' for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work," Bennett complained. "This will be a HUGE problem for us," he worried in another message obtained by the AP.

Cronyism and corruption come in all political stripes and colors. As a conservative parent of public charter school-educated children, I am especially appalled by these pocket-lining GOP elites who are giving grassroots education reformers a bad name and cashing in on their betrayal of limited-government principles.

It turns out that Bennett's wife was hired by an outfit called "Charter Schools USA" to serve as a regional director in Florida. The group just happens to be the same one Bennett contracted with to operate schools in Indianapolis that the state had taken over. The Indianapolis Star reported: "Tina Bennett is now earning a paycheck from the company her husband handpicked to take over schools in Indiana, a decision that was very good for the company's financial fortunes." Like the Church Lady said: How conveeeenient!

Excellent charter schools across the country have a hard time as it is battling hostile public employee unions and far-left detractors. This dirty government scandal makes the fight for local and parental choice in education all the more difficult. Education analyst Jim Stergios at the Pioneer Institute sums up the damage caused: It's "bad for accountability, for the public trust and for education reform."

Amen. But instead of condemning his actions, the tone-deaf, ethics-blind Jeb Bush heaped praise on Bennett for his "leadership" after his resignation. Bush's nonprofit vehicle, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, chimed in, as well, calling Bennett a "bold champion for students" and "a good man and a good friend."

These good ol' boys bonded over their zeal for the top-down racket known as Common Core. As I've reported previously, this Fed Ed program is supported by both big-business interests (Microsoft founder Bill Gates and News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch's education arm) and government educrats.

Progressive activists in both parties have worked on nationalized standards, tests and curriculum for decades under previous names: outcome-based education, national school-to-work, Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind, for example. Obama administration bribery through "Race To The Top" greased the wheels for adoption of the Common Core program by cash-strapped states, many of which had more rigorous standards than the fed-imposed system.

Common Core cheerleaders falsely claimed that untested standards were "internationally benchmarked." Math and English standards have been dumbed down. And a plethora of data-mining firms stand to gain billions from student information gathered under the Common Core assessments umbrella. The Obama administration's sabotage of federal educational privacy protections will help supply that data to the highest crony bidders.

After Bennett was voted out of office in Indiana last fall over his efforts to ram the phony "standards" and nationalized testing scheme through, Team Jeb came to the rescue. In addition to greasing the wheels for the Florida schools chief job, Bush's foundation named Bennett one of its "Chiefs for Change." That group champions Common Core, and many of its members are part of a behemoth, federally funded testing consortium called PARCC (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), which raked in $186 million through Race To The Top to develop nationalized tests "aligned" to the top-down Common Core program.

Bush's foundation has now joined with the Common Core-peddling Fordham Institute under a new phony-baloney umbrella group: "Conservatives for Higher Standards." While its list of supporters includes federal bureaucrats, politicians and business interests, there are no grassroots conservative parents or teacher groups. So beware of this "conservative" front. And remember: Astro-turfing runs in the Bush family. Under George W. Bush, the federal Department of Education paid GOP mouthpiece/columnist Armstrong Williams to shill for No Child Left Behind.

Heather Crossin, a conservative Indiana mom who helped spearhead the drive to eject Bennett from office and reject Common Core in her state, put it best. She told me after the latest crony Republican education scandal this week:

"This situation illustrates why it is crucial that parents be reinserted into the decision-making process when it comes to the education of their children. When their voices and concerns take a backseat to 'command and control' approaches to ed reform, the public trust can easily be broken." It's elementary.


It’s no wonder none of my friends are teenage Tories

Left-wing propaganda on Britain's High School Politics syllabuses strongly influences 18-year-olds' opinions

I’m the only 18-year-old Tory in the village, and it’s often an unpleasant experience. At school, I was half-jokingly called a fascist by my politics teacher after expressing my enthusiasm for welfare reform. During Michael Gove-bashing lunches in the sixth-form common room, I sat in silence. Occasionally, filled with missionary zeal, I managed to get someone to extol free schools, but their overarching opinions on evil Conservatives always remained unchanged.

When I asked what the Tories meant to them, my friends’ responses were revealing. “I would never vote Conservative,” said one, “because I don’t think they value society. They believe in a world where it’s every man for himself.” When I asked what the party’s vision for Britain entailed, another told me it was “less of a priority to help people with less money”, while several commented on a willingness to “hurt people who need help most of all, just to pull in a few extra million”. Immigration was also mentioned, with one friend saying that the Conservatives are “obsessed with keeping foreigners out of the country”.

Then I asked about the Left, and the tone changed. “Left-wing people put a lot more value on making a world where everyone has the same opportunities for happiness,” I was told. Labour, someone said, “don’t think your background should influence what you do in life”. My friends were well versed in the doctrines of Left-wing idealism, but no one could tell me a single Right-wing idea for improving society.

Still, isn’t socialism something that everyone flirts with, then grows out of? Well, actually, no. In 1983, voters under 24 were only 2 per cent less likely to vote Conservative than those aged 25-34. In 2010, there was a bias in Labour’s favour, despite voters as a whole being likely to vote Tory.

What’s changed is not just the faces at the top of the Labour Party, but what young people are being taught. Indeed, what the exam board Edexcel has to say on the subject of Conservative ideology in its most recent A-level Government and Politics syllabus is downright scandalous. Alongside some recognisable Tory tenets – such as “reform is preferable to revolution” – we were taught that the Conservative viewpoint consists of a “fear of diversity” and support for “social and state authoritarianism”. It views people as “limited, dependent and security-seeking creatures” and supports “resurgent nationalism… insularity and xenophobia”. The equivalent entry on socialism contains such feel-good phrases as “social stability and cohesion, social justice, happiness and personal development” and doesn’t get any darker than a perfunctory mention of “conflict as a motor of history”. Which one would you pick?

The actual marking schemes, used in real exams and deciding students’ real results, are even worse. The “correct” answer as to why Conservatives might wish to alleviate poverty is out of “a pragmatic concern… in the interests of the rich and prosperous”. Authority is valued because it ensures individuals “know 'where they stand’ and what is expected of them”.

Not one of the five suggestions given as a potential answer to the question “Why has the Coalition government tried to reform the benefits system?” mentions improving lives by freeing people from the welfare trap; four are variations on “cutting costs”. The marking scheme for the question “ 'The Coalition government’s deficit-reduction programme goes too far, too fast. Discuss” provides nine bullet points in support and one against: hardly a discussion. But if teenagers didn’t regurgitate this stuff, they wouldn’t have got any marks.

So when my friends think about politics, they’re just following the script. If the Tories are to win back the youth vote, they need to try harder to match the utopianism of Left-wing politics with an exhilarating vision of their own. But it’s a hopeless battle if 18-year-olds join the electoral roll already indoctrinated. The only saving grace, at least among my peers, is that most of them don’t care enough about politics to take in the propaganda.


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