Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Maybe All Of These Kids Are Above Average

by Tom Bozzo

If you didn't click through Kim's link from yesterday, the danged strangest thing about the ETS's drive to measure "non-cognitive strengths" (other than that some of them, like "knowledge and creativity" sound like cognitive strengths to me) is that it's directed at the graduate admissions process.

I'd'a thunk that "cognitive" strengths would be about 99 and 44/100ths percent of what most graduate programs were really interested in — that grad school is (apart from the low pay) a nerd nirvana where brains and hard work really are valued and hotness, athletic prowess, etc., may be present but are basically along for the ride.

So I wonder, is it an actual controversy within academic departments (*) that grad students are being admitted with cognitive strengths that are "too high" relative to their non-cognitive strengths, such that there's a pool of not-quite-so-bright students with excellent "team work" and "integrity" out there to improve programs if only their strengths were properly standardized and reported?

My take, which goes back to my pre-grad school days as an undergraduate RA working with a grad student in my undergrad department's non-PhD granting (at the time) grad program was that even third- or fourth-tier academic grad programs (**) don't (or rarely) admit the shit-stupid. Yes, there are students who can barely hack coursework much beyond advanced undergraduate material, some of whom will wash out or otherwise decide they have other callings. Etc. But if there's currency left on the floor, it's more like a $1 bill and not a twenty. Academic friends out there, is that about right?

There is overt comedy in the article. The new ETS measure, which goes by the warm and fuzzy-sounding yet pretentious "Personal Potential Index" was born as the "Standardized Letter of Recommendation." That wasn't sexy enough:
Carol Lynch, the former graduate dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder and now a senior scholar at the Council of Graduate Schools... said that the original name of the index was a problem because it put too much emphasis on standardization and not enough on the idea that graduate schools want to know about students’ non-cognitive abilities.
Without style, nobody will be interested in the substance?
Relying on letters doesn’t work well, she said. “There are some busy faculty members who write the same letters for every student,” Lynch said. “And it’s amazing how many students are in the top 10 percent” of those taught by those writing letters.
Is that really amazing? I'd be surprised if there were many well-advised applicants to elite programs who weren't in higher fractiles than that. The rub seems to be that while separating the really smart from the merely smart may be an issue, a five-point scale from "below average" to "truly exceptional" ranking nebulous personal qualities doesn't obviously fit the bill. Or, as critics suggest at the bottom of the (long) article, the measure seems to provide insufficient detail while raising questions of how small variations at the top of the index's range will be interpreted.

(*) I wonder how much this is driven by administrators pressured to hitch their wagons to quantitative measurements. Jeremy recently raised the issue of grad schools offering seemingly-high-dollar funding packages to grad students all-but-sight-unseen, though I don't think that it takes a Truly Exceptional grad student to pay back the funding in TA and/or RA services.

(**) All bets are off for law and business schools.

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I think you're right, Tom, about what grad programs are looking for and what they get. If anything, I think the main interpersonal/emotional issue facing early-stage grad students is a big fish/small pond problem. Most grad students were uberstudents in their undergrad institutions but, when they hit grad school, are suddenly much more typical. Some students seem to fold up under the realization while others excel. Later on, of course, the problems shift to despair, but that's not the current point.
Speaking for those of us who folded up as undergraduates, I doubt that the PPI will solve that problem, since it is dependent on review from the previous level.

The people most likely to despair are the recommenders.
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