Two Education Stories That Are Just Begging for Good Journalism
Education and educational measurement are the subjects where I come closest to offering expertise; I studied educational assessment in grad school, wrote my dissertation on standardized tests of college learning, and worked in assessment for CUNY for four years. My first book is about our education system and how to fix it. I also have made education policy a centerpiece of my regular work here. (This is probably the individual piece on this newsletter that I’m most invested in.) I even got to debate on NPR as something like an expert recently. But I’m only one man, genius though I may be, and in particular I am not at all a journalist but just another pundit. So I’m laying out two cases where I think well-connected education journalists from respected publications could tell really interesting and important stories that would serve the common good and get a lot of pub.
College Admissions Grade Manipulation
Given the intense pressure high school students feel to get into a “good college,” and given the intense and increasing competition for getting into those elite schools, and given the immense resources that go into that effort, it’s amazing to me that this isn’t already a big story: many or most colleges now use complicated formulas to calculate a given applicant’s grade point average, and these formulas have profound consequences for who gets in where. You may be familiar with high school-side GPA manipulation for class rank purposes, where the level of difficulty of classes is used to weight various student GPAs for the purpose of determining a valedictorian and so on. Well many colleges, and certainly elite colleges in particular, do something similar on their end. The reason for this isn’t hard to divine - you have high schools out there where the valedictorian has a 3.8, and high schools where the entire top 20 has a 4.2. To simply take the raw number from each high school would disadvantage students from the stricter-grading schools. The issue here is that a) these adjustments can be very complicated and b) private colleges appear to keep the exact machinations very close to the vest.
I quote something called Flex College Prep.
At the most basic level, GPA is just the mathematical average of all grades obtained in high school. The simplicity of this definition is, however, deeply deceptive.
In actual practice, a student’s GPA is not a fixed number! In fact, the number on display on the high school transcript may well be different from the number that actually gets reviewed by colleges.
First of all, different colleges consider different subsections of the transcript as part of their evaluation process. Some schools, including the UCs, consider coursework only from sophomore year on. Most other schools consider coursework from 9th through 11th grade—but also request senior-year, fall-term grades, or a midterm grade report.
Second of all, different colleges follow different weighting rubrics. In fact, many high schools have different weighting policies, too. The “weighted” GPA is a calculation of GPA that adds extra value to grades achieved in classes characterized as honors, accelerated, AP® or IB®.
For example, some high schools might tack on a half-letter to grades attained in AP classes. According to this weighting principle, getting a B in an AP course would be roughly equivalent to getting an A– in a non-honors course. However, some high schools don’t weight grades at all. In order to equalize the playing field, each college uses its own weighting system to recalculate students’ GPA.
And here’s the thing: nobody outside of the admissions depatments really knows what those weighting systems entail. Public schools at least offer some degree of transparency, but private schools have no particular incentive to be forthcoming. These calculations can get complicated. I spoke to a former college admissions officer once who told me that his school created mathematical profiles of all the students who had previously applied to his college from a given high school. As this was an elite college, they had a large dataset for many of the more elite high schools. And apparently they used the GPA data of students from the same high school who had applied in the past to help weight the GPA of new applicants. That is to say, if most of the applicants from a given high school had higher GPAs, this would likely result in a downward adjustment of the GPAs of future applicants. Is this the right approach? Is it an equitable approach? Is it an approach consonant with basic fairness? I don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone else knows, either, because we don’t have a national conversation about this dynamic. These practices are almost never discussed in our national educational debates, despite their obviously loaded consequences, in part because they’re precisely the kind of proprietary information elite schools hate to share. (Look at how it took a major federal lawsuit to pry open Harvard’s books.)
As you know, I think getting rid of the SAT is a deeply-misguided mistake. (The GPA data is race and class-stratified too!) But given that some schools are going to do so, and emphasize GPA even further, doesn’t the fact that colleges are using completely opaque proprietary weighting systems disturb you? It disturbs me! Algorithms are never value-neutral. I ask again: why do you trust elite colleges to do what’s best for society rather than simply what’s best for them? Somebody could win a Pulitzer doing a really deep dive into this question, I’m sure of it.
The Integrity of Charter School Lotteries
Charter school lotteries are immensely important. They’re meant to be the process through which public schools and charter schools are placed in fair competition - the lotteries are supposed to ensure that the charter schools can’t get choosy with students in the way that private schools do. And some of the charter school research depends on these lotteries for their basic randomization processes, through which they supposedly derive evidence of charter school superiority. It’s absolutely essential to the whole system that charter school lotteries actually work, that every applying student has an exactly equal chance of being accepted to a given school than any other. (We will leave the inherent bias of having parents who care enough to sign a student up for a charter school lottery for another time.)
If you’d like a good summary of the great variability in charter school lottery systems (from a very pro-charter source), here’s a document from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Here’s the problem: we really don’t have anything like solid national understanding of what’s happening in these lotteries. There’s great variability from state to state - and, according to several people I talked to in the early stages of researching my book, within states - when it comes to who handles the lotteries and how the results are determined. As I understand it, it’s not unusual for charter schools to run the lotteries themselves. Which is crazy! These lotteries are an accountability mechanism. These charters are in competition with regular public schools for scarce public funds. They have every reason to bend the results in order to benefit themselves by selecting the easiest-to-educate students. And, indeed, there have been a number of scandals, such as when better than 250 California charter schools were found to be illegally manipulating their admissions practices. We know charters sometimes cheat. Shouldn’t there be a major public accounting of how their admissions systems work? And nobody should want such an investigation more than charter advocates. If you’re so sure your system works, you should want more daylight on how it functions!
I don’t mind being frank: I am an opponent of the charter school movement. Public services (such as public schools) are not an ATM. You are no more entitled to withdraw “your share” of the public school budget to educate your child someplace else than I am to take out “my share” of the public transportation system to buy a BMW. But look: prove me wrong. Show that, despite the great variability between states and even between schools, the lotteries basically work. Show me that there’s uniformity. Show me that independent authorities are handling the basic work so that the schools don’t have the opportunity to cheat. Show me that there’s an adversarial regulatory process to ensure fairness and consistency. Prove me wrong. Again, this could be a big, celebrated story.
I may be a bit of a pariah, but I know a good opportunity for an exposé when I see one, and these are two big, meaty, important stories that have real impact on our meritocratic process. I don’t have the contacts, access, or institutional authority to tell these stories. But the Atlantic? The New Yorker? The New York Times? ProPublica? These are big fat pitches hanging over the plate, waiting for you to take your swing. Go get it done.