College Guide


June 24, 2011 10:00 AM A High Stakes Problem, and a Low Stakes Solution

By Daniel Luzer

The dean of Stanford University’s school of education, Deborah Stipek, believes that there’s too much pressure on high school students to get into top colleges. Such pressure is “damaging many otherwise promising lives.” Well right, but what are we supposed to do about that?

Stipek recently wrote a piece in Science about this. According to Debra Viadero at Education Week:

Stipek takes issue with the competitive culture that surrounds young people in some high schools across the country, especially those that serve high concentrations of students from well-educated, middle-to-upper-middle class families. Drawing on 35 years of research on academic motivation, she says such pressure can lead to “debilitating anxiety,” cheating, and “take the joy out of learning,” as well as exacerbate achievement gaps between have- and have-not students.
“For the most part, high school has become for many of our students not preparation for life or college but preparation for the college application,” Stipek said in a telephone conference call with reporters this week.

Duly noted. This is something about which Stipek, who herself attended the University of Washington, has written before. She’s right that’s its probably very unpleasant to face pressure from parents and teachers, and participate in near constant activities, in some hope of an admit letter from a school like, well, Stanford. Stipek says the solution is:

…steps that educators can take to alleviate some of the stress on students and better engage them in learning. These include involving students in lessons that connect to their personal lives, collaborative studies, experimenting and debating the implications of findings, and solving multidimensional problems and teaching them to value learning skills over nailing high scores.
Schools can also help by using a master calendar to space out testing so that diligent students aren’t pulling all-nighters, giving students multiple opportunities to earn a good grade (such as by rewriting papers or retaking tests), and creating advisory periods during which an adult is available to monitor students’ homework and offer extra help.

The problem is that those things address only the symptoms of that problem, the high stakes admission game into America’s fanciest colleges. “Teaching them to value learning skills over nailing high scores” would only effectively address the problem if learning skills were really important to college admissions. And they aren’t.

High stakes admissions stresses students out because high stakes admissions values high tests scores and students participating in a lot of extracurricular activities. Americans can try and teach all high school students to rise above this admissions game by doing things like “involving students in lessons that connect to their personal lives “ but ultimately this leaves the problem itself unaddressed because college admissions doesn’t care about lessons that connect to students’ personal lives.

If high stakes admissions have taken the joy out of learning, the solution is not to shout “learning is joyful” at ambitious students, who will conclude only that perhaps learning at the schools they wish to attend is joyful; high school is boring and stressful.

The solution here is to destroy high stakes admissions. How about looking into that?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • bigtuna on June 24, 2011 6:15 PM:

    Another solution is to reinvigorate the state-supported education system, such that the University of [fill in name of state here] or ____ State University are a strong alternative to the Stanfords of the world. Many of these articles, when written by people from places like Stanford, are self serving. Better, more realistic options, and a realistic advertising campaign, along with other efforts, such as reduction in the mystique building that "elite" universities do, would help.

  • John Calhoun on June 24, 2011 8:03 PM:

    Ms. Stipek should consult with Stanford's own admissions office that, like all selective schools, weeds out applicants that value learning over test scores.

  • mfw13 on June 24, 2011 8:49 PM:

    How about changing the system so that instead of having admissions completely based on merit, they are instead based on both merit and luck (which is out of a student's control).

    Set a minimum standard to narrow down the admissions pool and then hold a lottery among all qualified candidates. This would enable students would stop competing with each other once they had reached the minimum standard to be included in pool and reduce a great deal of the pressure to reach the very pinnacle of achievement, since doing so would no longer increase their admissions chances.

  • toowearyforoutrage on June 24, 2011 11:09 PM:

    If parents stop judging a school's value by the admission requirements' minimum test score, I suspect the schools would be only too happy to ditch the cookie cutter formula.

    To change is to lower their prestige unilaterally.
    Who in a university setting is ready to take the blame for THAT?

  • R on June 25, 2011 1:45 PM:

    My daughter hopes to go to Stanford. I'm actually pretty impressed with Stanford's commitment to diversity, even though that hurts my daughter's chances.

    One of her good friends also has Stanford as her #1 choice. My daughter pretty much only sees her during school, as the friend is always pursuing the next line on her resume.

    Bottom line: this is only going to get worse over time.