"We are all slaves to our GPAs. Naviance is the perfect representation of this; an entire high-school career, everything you have said, done, thought or thought about thinking, saying or doing, is reduced to a pixel on a screen. Who you are becomes a small dot, and you are either above the line or below the line; that...." (Written by one of my students after a conversation about SATs and grades on 4/3/14.)
We are demoralizing our kids. Seventeen years reduced to a dot on a graph. Either
above the line, or below it. This push to be perfect; to build their college resumes, is killing them with stress. They can't take risks, because that one low grade might ruin their average... and their chances. How can anyone be good at everything? In the real world, is anyone really perfect? Is everyone you know successful at everything they attempt? Are you?
As more and more students apply to colleges, the pressure increases to differentiate yourself from other applicants. Students "game the system," by padding their resumes with clubs that don't really function or community service done just for the sake of the resume. I hear students all the time saying things like, "... I'm just doing it so I can put it on my app." Or, "... I don't really like it, but I have to do it for college." I can't blame them. Our society has created this paradigm and they are just navigating their way through it as best they can.
But how sad is it that students dance, sail, play sports and do community service that they don't really care about, just because they "have to" for college? No wonder our kids are strained and disengaged. Add to that the tests and the AP or honors classes they have to take, and we have burned out, stressed and sleep deprived adolescents.
I talk to my students every day about this. I ask them again and again why they are jumping through these hoops. They know it's not what they want to do or what they care about, but they are trapped by the college pressures. If colleges start looking beyond test scores and grades, then students and parents will feel less pressure to follow this narrow path. If colleges accept that 'outside the box' thinker, or that kid who doesn't necessarily have the best scores or grades, but has proven their talents in some real-world way, then, the focus might begin to shift. There are positive signs: MIT began, earlier this year, to accept Maker portfolios. Some schools, like Bard College and Bates, are part of an increasing number of high-level schools that are test-optional or test-flexible. (The list is on the Fair Test website: http://www.fairtest.org/university/optional)
It's not entirely the fault of colleges. At the other end, middle and high schools must develop students who aren't afraid to take risks, who see potential in the world around them, and who know that they can make a difference. As educators, we must develop our students' creative confidence, revitalize their curiosity and empower them to become active participants in the world. Perhaps if there is pressure from both sides, we can help our students.