kitchen table math, the sequel: decline at the top: how math departments in wealthy schools treat students

Monday, February 23, 2009

decline at the top: how math departments in wealthy schools treat students

Ask any realtor: Prospective buyers with children compete for homes in neighborhoods where the public schools are top-notch, believing it will increase the youngsters' chances of admission to the best colleges.

A recent study, however, suggests that can actually put applicants at a disadvantage.

A paper published in the October issue of Sociology of Education finds that students at the 200 or so most elite public high schools face a tougher road getting into top colleges than do comparable students at other, less prestigious high schools.

To polish their school profiles, many "star" high schools have evolved systems of grooming only the top tier of their students for the most selective colleges, which handicaps all other students in the hot contest for college, author Paul Attewell contends.


Mr. Attewell offered two stories of students from "star" schools in Boston suburbs to illustrate the culling process.

One boy who wanted to take AP science and math in high school was told by math department faculty members that he wasn't suited to the work.

When his parents pointed out that he had scored in the top 1 percent on the Preliminary SAT, school officials responded that the boy was smart, but not smart enough, Mr. Attewell said.

The student ended up in the less advanced math track and went on to a good college, but not an Ivy League-caliber school as he had wished.

A girl from another school scored a perfect 800 on the math portion of the SAT, but received a C in math because the grading curve at her school was so high, Mr. Attewell said. She had A's in other subjects, but the C affected her class ranking and likely contributed to her failure to be admitted to her chosen college, he said.

Some Top Students Just Average At 'Star' Schools
By Catherine Gewertz
Vol. 21, Issue 10, Page 5

It's a myth that colleges "control" for tough grading in wealthy suburban schools.

They don't.


SteveH said...

"It's a myth that colleges "control" for tough grading in wealthy suburban schools."

I'm hoping someone has the knowledge or has done the search on this already. What are the important numbers (SAT, GPA, ..?)used by colleges? How are they weighted byt the college? I always thought colleges had some factor based on the high school. (I'm not sure how they would get that data or ranking, however.) Is there a preliminary formula that determines which pile an application goes into? One parent told me that it was most important to make the preliminary cut. He thought that some colleges looked at unweighted GPA for that.

Catherine Johnson said...

I always thought colleges had some factor based on the high school.

That's what everyone thinks.

Turns out it's not true.

Or, at least, a rich-school "C" does not translate to a middle-class school "B."

Catherine Johnson said...

Michele Hernandez is the person to read; Attewell based much of his study on her book. (Sorry - I'm forgetting the title at the moment.)

cranberry said...

I believe they look at class rank, when available.

We're seeing what you've noted before, Catherine, although I can't find the post on Kitchen Table Math. The tracking and sorting process goes on, while the administration denies its long-term effects on the students. Placement into high school courses is decided on the basis of teacher recommendations, not grades, strangely enough.

In our affluent high school, we're told, "all the students who remain in the top math track, who take AP BC calc, receive 5s." As a parent, I feel that this means that they are too restrictive in placement, and encourage too many children to drop out of the most demanding track. 3 is passing. Our society does not need to save tuition for 6% of the graduating class. Our society needs as many children as possible to take challenging math classes.

I took AP BC calc in my day, and received a 5. Frankly, it's not that challenging a course. More than 6% of the school population should be prepared to take the test. If the top 20% were encouraged to remain on track for BC Calc, or even the top 15%, I'd find it much more equitable.

I do feel the pressure of, "your kid's not that special, you know," in the insistence that the academic load is challenging, while seeing how restrictive placement is.

ChemProf said...

Colleges don't like to be clear on this, for a number of reasons, but I know UC Berkeley (pre-prop 209) had a really simple formula -- they added the SAT score to the GPA*1000 and got a number. That was the y-axis, and for the x-axis, they had a kind of "diversity" number based on race, rural background, poverty, etc. For any value of x, there was a minimum required y, and a value of y such that you were guaranteed admission. For a white or Asian student, that number was something around 5000, as I recall, but there wasn't any adjustment for tougher schools.

At my current institution, I've seen student files as part of making recommendations for scholarships. They list SATs and GPAs, and sometimes class rank, but usually only as a "check-box" -- top 25% of class, top 10% of class, not anything more detailed. Again, I don't think they adjust the GPAs. This is a private school, so the first cut is made based on GPA and SATs, and then they look at the details.

When I was an undergrad, at an engineering school called Harvey Mudd College, they knew about how many students they needed to admit. As they described the process (this was a tiny place, so things were a little more transparent), they first admitted about half the class as the top grades/SAT scores. For the other half, they looked at a larger pool, culling based on a minimum value of GPA and SATs, and then eliminating what they called the "dull and borings", so that they looked at activities, volunteering, etc. Of course, this is over 20 years ago, but even then I don't think they did much adjusting.

The same is true, to some extent at least, for graduate and medical school -- they don't adjust much for grade inflation/deflation. Students from my alma mater tend to have lower GPAs, and have a tough time getting into med school as a result (since med schools have to report average incoming class GPAs, so don't want to take anyone who will lower that stat significantly).

Rudbeckia Hirta said...

Part of my "extra-curricular" work has me involved in admissions and with admissions officers. They seem to be pretty savvy and to have opinions about the various schools and what the grades mean.

A lot of time and effort went into reading the essays. A disappointing essay was much more likely to bring someone down than an isolated bad grade.

SteveH said...

"... had a really simple formula ..."

Yes, I want to see formulas and weighting factors! I want to do my own sensitivity analysis.

"They list SATs and GPAs, ..."

Were they unweighted GPAs? One parent told me that it was better to get an 'A' in a non-AP course. He said it was important to avoid classes/teachers where bad grades were more common.

In our high school, General classes have a weight of 2.0. For College and Career Preparatory classes, the weight is 3.0. For Honors classes, the weight is 3.4, and for AP classes, the weight is 3.7. I don't know how this is applied or if it's normalized.

"For a white or Asian student..."

What percentage do you need to fall into another category? I suppose that 1/64th is too small for my son to qualify for "native peoples".

"A lot of time and effort went into reading the essays."

I was at the U of Michigan last week to give a talk and my old professor told me that they get so many applications that it was not possible to give every one a close evaluation. He didn't know the details, but was sure that only those on the borderline were studied with any detail.

By the way, how many applicants really write their own essay? Or, how long does it take them to write the essay? Wouldn't schools just look at the writing section number of the SAT. Can you use the same essay for all college applications, or does each college define its own theme?

I don't want my son to get weird about this and play the class ranking game when he gets to high school. However, I think it's important to know what the game is. How important are extracurricular and volunteer efforts? I don't want him killing himself based on some vague idea that it will get him into a better college. My impression is that you just need something to show that you don't fall into the "dull and borings" category if you are on the borderline. I would think that after a while, all of the standard extracurricular stuff that kids put on their applications become dull and boring.

Allison said...

in the late 90s at MIT it worked like this for US students:

They reviewed every app preliminarily and checked that it arrived on time, had all relevant materials included and met some low gpa and SAT criteria--a 3.0 say, and the SAT scores I don't recall (and don't match the SAT now given or the subject tests, either.). then if they passed that, every app was read by at least two people. each one read was given a score of 1 - 5. the 5s were the "strong admit/ take this student without reservation". two of the same score meant they were done reading your app; if there was a discrepancy, a third person read it.

The readers could really do whatever they wanted with your app, but largely, they looked at your SAT scores, your teacher recommendations , the classes you took, and your achievement tests. They had no rubric for how to score Thomas Jefferson vs. random public school, but they knew in their heads what to make of it. Really, there was nothing more quantitative in their scoring than the 1 -5. The big big qualitative part was the teacher recommendations. That's really where the "top school" issues came from. You got to Bronx Sci, and the recommending teachers know how to tell the schools who to recommend, so they don't need to worry about weighting various GPAs, etc.

To be admitted early, you had to be a 5.

Then for regular admission, basically, they admitted all of the 5s. then, they considered the 4s and occasionally the 3s. Remember, they weren't considering "does this student belong here" they were considering "should this student get in over some other student." They would discuss amongst themselves all of the 4s, and some of the 3s, depending on the personal or qualitative stuff--a fantastic science fair award like a Westinghouse winner, or the diversity card, etc.

All of the stuff about extracurriculars, essay, achievement test scores, specific scores in specific classes etc. mattered because it all went into what score they gave you, and it was all based on their impression--if the admin reading your app liked you, saw that you had all of these skills, were a great kid, well rounded, likely to contribute, etc. they gave you a higher score. They had some ideas in their own heads, but they weren't asked to make those concrete.

Now, things might have changed at MIT. There was quite a scandal about the faked degrees of the head of MIT admissions a while back....

Allison said...

re: UC Berkeley and the UC system: it's worth remembering that the UC system has a system wide application process, but then within that, you can apply to individual school programs. So, for example, to get into the UC system, there was just a "you need X GPA for Y SAT score" and the two were inversely proportional. But that wouldn't get you into the engineering program at UC Berkeley. Sometime in the 90s, the UC system moved away from the above and moved to a "anyone in the top X percent of graduating high schooler or Y percent of their own school gets in" also.

Berkeley engineering like UCSD engineering has done everything it can to not be gamed the way the rest of the school has re: ignoring SAT scores, etc. But their cutoffs were still SAT and GPA based.

Allison said...

Btw, how many of you have written a recommendation letter for undergrad or grad school? I've done it, and I have to say, that was the most interesting exercise.

It is a piece of cake to damn with faint praise.

I know it's part of this ridiculous culture that teachers are supposed to have TOTAL SECRECY and no one needs to know what they said, but really, even if they let you read, I think most people wouldn't know whether a letter was good or bad.

A letter that looks good to a student or parent can easily be the kiss of death.

First, proper letters put the student in context: of the 300/3000/30000 students I've had in this subject, this student ranks as 1/in the top 5/top 100/etc. This is the place where teachers say if this is the best student of the year, or the best student of their teaching career--or merely say they are in the top X percent.

Then they say whether the student has is sharp/bright/smart/stellar/insightful or they can say "the student works hard" without saying that, and implying that the student did well in the class through sheer effort, but doesn't have anything special. If they really want to say that the student is hard working, they would give an example of a typical amount of work done, or how much above the others they work, or how that effort manifests in the finished product. If they don't, they are implying with their silence that the student doesn't work hard.

Then they talk about their passion or creativity, or they can ignore it--again, implying dull, nothing special.

SteveH said...

Thank you Allison for the information. My wife and I (her especially) have developed a very good understanding of reading between the lines for yearly work reviews and letters of recommendation. But, I would like to hear more about how this works when applying for college? Can students select the teachers who write the recommendations? Do the letters go directly to the college without having been seen by the student? I have a lot to learn.

I find the distinction between someone who is a hard worker versus someone who is a natural very interesting. This makes me think of Dick Feynman. He surely didn't need to go out of his way to impress anyone, but he liked to do it anyway. In high school, he studied all sorts of trick or Mensa-like problems so that he could answer them in an instant. (Like why is a manhole cover round?) Later on, he studied safe-cracking and went out of his way to apply the skill in dramatic fashion. He also studied all sorts of tricks about doing calculations in his head, and then proceeded to challenge anyone and everyone. This was done many times to the annoyance of some of his colleagues.

I've seen this with my son. He likes to do things or showoff some knowledge that seems quite surprising to some grownups, but I know exactly where it came from. The reality is about hard work, but the presentation is about magic.

concernedCTparent said...

UC Berkeley and the UC system: it's worth remembering that the UC system has a system wide application process, but then within that, you can apply to individual school programs.

I believe that's changed. It used to work that way, but now you must apply to each UC campus individually. UCSD you gets even more specific because it has a *college system* within the university itself with each college having its own focus and requirements. For example, I applied to Revelle College at UCSD and it had its own entrance and graduation requirements that varied widely from the other UCSD colleges. Perhaps this is one way they work to prevent gaming the system, particuarly in certain rigorous or competitive majors.

Allison said...

More later for Steve,
but first this: re the UC:you do NOT apply to each campus individually. You have one app, and indicate your choices. Then your choice of campus isn't enough, you can apply to programs within that. At UCSD, they call those prorgams "colleges"; at Berkeley, they are schools or colleges (the college of chemistry, the engineering school, L&S, etc.) Revelle is where the engineering school is at UCSD; it's the rigorous one on campus. It's hard to explain why UCSD is like that, rather than having an engineering school per se..

"Submit only one application per term and indicate all campus choices on it. Submitting multiple applications will result in a serious processing delay."

"UC guarantees a place on one of its campuses to all eligible California residents who apply on time.
Freshman Admission

You are considered a freshman applicant if you are still in high school or have graduated from high school but have not enrolled in a regular session at any college or university.

There are three paths to eligibility for California resident freshmen:

Eligibility in the Statewide Context | Students must complete specific coursework and college admissions tests and earn the required GPA and test scores.
check your eligibility for admission
Experiencing technical difficulties? Contact us.
Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) | Students must rank in the top 4 percent of their graduating class at a participating California high school.
Eligibility by Examination Alone | Students must achieve specified high scores on their college admissions tests.
Because many campuses receive applications from more eligible students than they have space for, meeting the minimum requirements for any of these paths may not be enough to gain you admission to the campus of your choice. When you are considering where to apply, you can learn more about how each campus selects students from the pool of eligible applicants and who is admitted.

Allison said...

okay, for Steve:

I don't mean to say that schools don't appreciate both hard work and talent. I meant just to enumerate the way that a backward compliment like "he's hard working" can be a coded way of saying "he's not talented."

It's like the difference between calling someone diligent and calling someone disciplined. Diligent implies plodding along, whereas disciplined implies good use of one's time.

So "Sally is talented, and extremely hard working; her science fair experiment hypothesis was extremely innovative, and her experimental methods required her putting in dozens more hours work than any of her fellow students did for a fantastic result."


"Sam is hard working. He was extremely diligent in his experimental methods, working continuously to achieve a strong result."

Allison said...

Another thing to keep in mind is that at the top high schools, the ones with track records for sending kids to various colleges, the teachers will be literally comparing your child by name to prior high schoolers who went on to that university.

The universities want that. They want to know "Is Sally as good as John was 5 years ago, who went on to be phi beta kappa, class president, and head of the univ. glee club? Is she better than Jane, who did well but rather average?"

Which leads back to that point of high schools gatekeeping their AP and honors classes:

The teachers understand that the colleges don't want to take risks; they want to take the best, even if that includes a whole host of intangibles. The teachers have graded your child on those intangibles too, whether you realize it or not. The teachers will not risk THEIR reputation writing a letter that's stellar for anyone but the tip top. They will be gatekeeping the entrance to college with their letters as much as with entrance into the AP classes.

if the math teacher doesn't want your child taking AP Calc BC, DO NOT let that teacher be the one who writes the recommendation letter! Because that teacher has already decided your child isn't top notch material, and will write one of these faint praise letters if they apply somewhere that the teacher doesn't approve of.

Allison said...

Last followup, re: how the process works for letter writing at high school level:

I don't know anymore. It's worth finding out. It used to be that students personally and individually asked teachers for letters of recommendation. Some schools may have nixed that somehow, I don't know.

At both the ugrad and grad level, colleges provide waivers along with the recommendation letter form. The waiver is to be signed by the prospective student, stating that they waive their rights to request to read the letter.

At the grad school app level, is is UNTHINKABLE to not sign the waiver. If you don't sign, you're signaling you don't trust them, and they've decided the academic club doesn't want you.

At the ugrad app level, it was basically unthinkable as well, but not for any clear reason. Is it still? I would assume so. The notion is that the teachers need complete confidentiality to say how they REALLY feel about you, because otherwise they'd be unwilling to tell the truth.

(Which is such BS. If they can't show you the letter they wrote proudly, they have NO BUSINESS writing that letter, and should have turned down your request. Bit it's more of this "we are a secret important club, and you don't know how we work, and we must maintain our air of mystery!")

You want to specifically ask a teacher that you know is enthusiastic about yourself, AND the school/program you're applying to. You want, if possible, to ask a teacher with a track record of students getting into that school. Second best is to ask a teacher who thinks you're great. You literally want to ask "will you write me an outstanding letter of recommendation?" You don't want to ask anyone who has been suggesting you go to a different school than your first choice, but you also can't really game it and ask one to write the rec for Williams and another to write the rec for state U.

Allison said...

okay, so one last call to put this back in recent comments: anyone else here written a letter of recommendation for prospective ugrads??

Anonymous said...

I haven't WRITTEN any letters, but I've READ them recently. If a letter will become part of an "educational record" then there is usually a waiver to be signed. If the college has a policy of shredding all letters once admissions decisions are made, then there is no need for a waiver.

Students ask their teachers for recommendations. Some students choose poorly. Teachers all have their own quirks about how they write letters.

My best advice: Find the seniors who got into the colleges of their choices, and figure out who wrote them letters of recommendation. If you keep hearing the same name AND if that teacher like your kid, then get that teacher to write a letter.

SteveH said...

"My best advice: Find the seniors who got into the colleges of their choices, and figure out who wrote them letters of recommendation. If you keep hearing the same name AND if that teacher like your kid, then get that teacher to write a letter."

Thanks for the advice. This is what we parents need; inside knowledge from teachers and from parents who have gone through the process. I always thought it would be nice to have meetings with other parents just to compare notes and to help new parents in the pipeline get up to speed. I learn so much running into other parents at the grocery store. Unfortunately, the ice cream is melting and dinner has to be made.