As the independent school admission season heats up this winter, numerous news stories and journal articles have appeared, devoted to the topic of “getting in.” Some authors have challenged the efficacy and equity of the admission process itself. Others have called on American educators to abandon standardized testing in favor of a democratized form of admission, such as throwing away selection tools altogether and admitting students by lottery. Still other voices are enjoying their yearly rant about our “elite” community, all while pleading for independent schools to participate in their magazine’s best-selling school ranking issue. And across the Pacific, accusations of cheating have reached frenzied levels.
Whether you work in a selective school or an admission organization with test services or an independent school association, “the heat is on” right now because the stakes are high. All over the country, young people are waiting for those decision emails and phone calls, and emotions are at a peak.
Admission leaders aim to build communities of students that fulfill their schools’ educational missions. This goal can be subverted when a well-meaning but misguided family pressures a child to get a particular test score, produce perfect grades, or deliver the most astounding interview, hoping somehow to beat the “system” and “get in.” The problem is, there really isn’t a system to beat in our world. The more test prep companies and conspiracy theorists claim to have the perfect tool to increase your child’s odds, the higher the level of anxiety—about testing, performance, and who does not get in to his or her first choice—will soar. I just wish these entrepreneurs understood the damage they are doing to children and their families.
It’s easy to understand why people outside the process find the idea of enrollment management mysterious. In independent schools, the admission director’s decision-making power is significant, and while our community of professionals makes admission choices that fulfill the missions of our schools, there is no formula available to fully capture and explain how those decisions are made. Admission work, as we know, is both an art and a science—but that nuanced story can be hard to sell to a reporter.
Here at SSATB, we care deeply about the national and international stories that circle around our schools. We care about how they affect the admission officers we serve. We care about the effect that they have on the students who take our tests and seek admission to our schools. We care about families who are seeking a better educational alternative for their children. We want all those stakeholders to know that the work of enrollment management—while not easy to explain—is difficult, emotionally demanding, and a continual balancing act. It is also, as all of you know, incredibly rewarding to build a dynamic group of learners and to watch them flourish as they join your school.
We all know that “getting in” is about “getting it right.” That means producing a true portfolio for each applicant that reveals the child’s strengths and weaknesses so admission committees can “get it right” by making strong matches for their school’s particular program and mission.
I do not object to some of the questions that seem to come up every year at this time about how and why independent schools assess children for admission and why standardized tests are useful tools to that end. In fact, I welcome the debate—it raises all our games to be asked to take a close look at what we do and why we do it. I think that the future of assessment for admission is fascinating, and I look forward to collaborating with our community about this matter in the months ahead. Let’s plan to deepen the conversation next fall at our Annual Meeting by discussing new methods and tools for more fully assessing prospective students.
I can’t end my blog this month without noting an important piece of news from the independent school world. My former boss, Pat Bassett, will be retiring as president of NAIS in 2013. Pat has been a cheerleader for our community, yet ever restless for the continued progress of independent schools—always provoking school leaders to consider the best methods for readying children for their roles in this brave, new world. I look forward to joining with Pat’s many fans and celebrating his accomplishments in the months ahead. Here at SSATB, the seed of his inquiry continues as we look anew at assessment and the future of our work to improve and enhance our selective school admission process. Nothing is more important than getting that right.