Selective College Admissions And Who We’ve Become

“A 35 on the ACT Math Test is no good.”  So said my student, Jenny, from Shanghai via our effective, but somewhat blurry Skype connection last November.

Trying to boost her confidence, and add some degree of accuracy to her statement, I said, “I’m not sure you understand.  A 35 is at the 99th percentile.  You scored better than all but one percent of U.S. test takers,” to which Jenny replied:  “In China a 36 (a perfect score) is the only good score on the ACT Math and Science tests.”

And then it hit me.  The ACT, SAT and many tests like them are normed largely on American students.  In comparison with U.S. kids, Jenny’s 35 was extremely strong, but give that test to a million Chinese students, and her score may have fallen in the 65th percentile.   Chinese students and others across the world score, literally, off the charts, or at least off our charts.

That same week, my first grader’s class planned, organized, and executed a “Pow Wow” to help them learn about Native Americans, the pilgrims, and early American History.  I couldn’t help but think that while he was dancing and socializing with his friends, a class of first grade students somewhere in the Pacific Rim was getting drilled on Trigonometric functions.  And we wonder why our kids rank 32nd among industrialized nations in math proficieny and 17th in reading.

But the issue goes further than underperforming teachers and schools.  It goes to what we’ve become as an American culture.  The New York Post reported yesterday that officials at several elite Manhattan high schools have banned seniors from wearing the sweatshirts of selective colleges to which they’ve gained acceptance.  Nor were they allowed to post their admissions decisions on Facebook or MySpace.  I wonder what George Orwell would think!  The rationale behind the policy is that doing so will hurt the feelings of others who were not so successful in their college admissions quest.  Yours truly was interviewed for this story, and I expressed my disapproval of such a policy.

So I began to think:  Are we punishing students for their achievement?  Are we so cautious about not hurting the feelings of others that we fail to celebrate our own accomplishments?   Why do we give trophies to every child who took part in a sport?   Webster’s Dictionary defines a trophy as “anything serving as a token or evidence of victory, valor or skill.”  Clearly, every child on every team in my son’s Little League does not finish the season victorious – and many have no skill at all!  But this does not mean they will be scarred for life.  Quite the contrary.  It means that given the opportunity, and the right kind of encouragement, they will feel compelled to find a new activity in which they can excel.  An activity they enjoy.  For true self esteem is the product of hard work and achievement.

In short, I believe we’re coddling our kids into mediocrity.  This must stop or our Asian friends will continue to surpass us, and this could mean even darker days for our education system, our economy and the very Country we value so much.