Are the nation's children getting smarter or stupider?

The NY Times has written more about the state of modern education in the US than any other paper that I know of. I thought I'd take a moment to look at some of the prevailing themes that I've observed. The first is that the US is facing an educational crisis. As reported here and here, an uncomfortable proportion of today's high school students simply are not ready for college. In fact, the latest article states that only a quarter of high school students that took a college preparatory course are actually ready for college work.

What does that mean exactly? The apparent bar is a prediction of whether or not "the students had a good chance of scoring C or better in introductory college courses, based on their test scores and the success rates of past test takers." As with all of these studies, I'd say there's probably a fair amount of subjective fudge room in there, but let's just assume for now that they did their homework and got it right.

The broader case is that there are even more students that did not take college prep classes that are going to be even less prepared. The number of the "less prepared" is fairly significant, with only 54% of the test's participants (ACT exam takers - who takes the ACT anyway?) having taken at least a core curriculum class.

The second theme that's been emerging is the increasing competitiveness of the Ivy Leagues. Anecdotally-driven articles (here and here) describe the lives and accomplishments of students dealing with increasing pressure to be perfectly rounded students. One Harvard interviewer made the following comparative comment:

"What kind of kid doesn’t get into Harvard? Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake.

At his age, when I got hungry, I made myself peanut butter and jam on white bread and got into Harvard.

Some take 10 AP courses and get top scores of 5 on all of them.

I took one AP course and scored 3."

The take-away from these anecdotes seem to be corroborated by the admissions data reported in yet another Times article, which shows acceptance rates at top schools moving down year over year. In fact, the spillover of qualified students is so large that admissions rates at second-tier colleges are now approaching those of the Ivy Leagues from a few years back.

Taken together, what does this say about the American educational system? We have an increasing proportions of high school students that are not ready to college at the same time as we have an increasing number of students that seem to be overqualified by yesterday's standards.

The decreasing proportion of college-ready students can be attributed to either a faltering educational system that has relaxed its standards or a more-inclusive system that is taking in larger numbers of socioeconomically disadvantaged students with less access to educational resources outside of school.

Increased admissions competition can be explained by factors that increase the number of applications, i.e. larger high school populations, higher percentages of students applying to college, and more applications per student (thanks technology!). But this doesn't completely explain why today's rejected applicants outshine the easily accepted from the 1970s. It's not as if there were golden children doing cancer research over the summer that just didn't think to apply to Harvard. Is it a cultural shift? Is it because of an increased number of educational resources outside of school (e.g. Internet, Princeton test prep, etc.)? Or is it a general barbelling of the American educational system, with the spoils increasingly going to those affluent enough to afford private school/residential neighborhoods with good public schools?

[Addendum: Freakonomics posted a cute link on this subject]


  1. Anonymous said...

    Regarding competitiveness for top schools I think you hit it on the head with your last point, especially given the increased emphasis on college prep/admissions as an industry--everything sounds shinier and more intense because it's all part of a grand marketing ploy.

    I think the themes you highlight just indicate that the growing divide between rich and poor is being revealed strongly at the level of education in this country. I'm surprised you didn't throw in something in about GWBush's policy. Now there (W) is a prime example of education at its finest.  


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