A model for all school admissions

March 9, 2007, midnight | By Jordan Fein, Ashley Lau | 16 years, 11 months ago

Imagine a school that admits students without regard to race or legacy and instead considers the educational facilities students have available to them — one that balances opportunities and results instead of unfairly favoring certain groups of students over others.

It's not just everyone's dream college — it is Blair's own Math, Science and Computer Science Magnet Program, which just recently chose its class of 2011.

Every year, the Magnet selection committee receives around 800 applications from students representing 40 to 50 middle schools across the county. Of these candidates, about one out of every eight students is accepted and only 25 to 30 are placed in a waiting pool, making it one of the most selective Magnet programs in the nation. Although one of the most competitive programs in the country, the Magnet has an admissions process that surpasses those of most top-tier colleges in equity and impartiality.

Admission by association

Many high school seniors rely on legacy or connections to gain acceptance into prestigious colleges. At Harvard University, the acceptance rate for students with legacy is 40 percent, compared to a general 9.3 percent admissions rate; at Princeton University, 35 percent compared to 10.2 percent; and at the University of Pennsylvania, 41 percent compared to 17.7 percent. Penn even has a special Alumni Council on Admissions that offers information sessions solely for descendants of Penn alumni.

But in the Magnet, legacy is not an advantage. Magnet teachers who taught siblings of current applicants do not judge those particular applicants, so any bias, positive or negative, has no bearing on admission. According to Magnet Coordinator Dennis Heidler, teachers are often familiar with last names of certain applicants, but they readily recuse themselves from the discussion to preserve impartiality. This stands in sharp contrast to the college admissions process, since many colleges often prompt students to note connections with university faculty, alumni or current students on their applications.

The policy of affirmative action is equally controversial, since it gives some students an advantage over others in college admission to compensate for the disadvantages faced by underrepresented minorities. Most colleges take a student's racial background into consideration when choosing whom to admit. Racial diversity in education is important, but it is unfair to admit one applicant over another equally qualified student solely on the basis of skin color. Colleges already favor students coming from high schools with fewer opportunities for advanced-level coursework (such as the Magnet), a policy which in and of itself contributes to racial diversity.

But the Magnet has a strict policy against affirmative action and follows equity guidelines established by the county. According to Heidler, such guidelines are developed by county personnel and Magnet coordinators in consultation with legal counsel.

The actual application to the Magnet Program includes many of the same elements as does the average application to college. Eighth-grade applicants must take a standardized test (the Pearson test, which includes an essay), write another essay about their interests and hobbies and submit teacher recommendations and grades. The Magnet selection committee, which includes about 15 Magnet staff members, as well as other special education, ESOL and non-Blair teachers, stores each applicant's test scores, grades and teacher recommendations (which are on a numerical scale but also include additional comments) in a matrix and reads through each individual's application in its entirety. The Magnet application process allows members of the selection committee to more effectively judge prospective students in several ways.

Reading the fine print

Most important, the selection committee reads the applications of all students, except those whose test scores, grades and teacher recommendations on their own merits are enough to guarantee the student's admission to the Magnet. There are no minimum test score or GPA cutoffs. According to Heidler, even though a candidate may have low test scores, a poor GPA or bad recommendations, he or she is not eliminated until the entire application has been reviewed.

But according to a 1998 article in Stanford Today entitled "Admission Impossible?" Stanford staff members first sort all applications into two piles, one of "competitive" applications, the other of non-competitive. The author reports that, at that point, "about half the files drop out of the competition." Even if this practice of rejecting applications without reading them thoroughly reportedly occurs at only one school, it is one school too many. This narrow-minded approach does not account for students who have extraordinary skills not represented in test scores or grades.

Second, each Magnet applicant's transcript includes quarter and exam grades in addition to semester grades. Since many applicants earn mostly As for final grades, it is helpful for the selection committee to be able to distinguish between, for example, students who received the same semester grade but a significantly lower final exam grade — it is possible for a student who got an A on a final exam to get the same semester grade as a student who got a C on the same final exam. If colleges had access to this information, and not simply semester grades, many high school students would undoubtedly either study harder for final exams or see their chances for college admission drop substantially.

Such equity in evaluating applications continues to be a key factor at the beginning of every year when the Magnet selection committee convenes to review applications. There is no such thing as a faultless admissions process, but in removing unfair biases and judging students impartially, the Magnet Program reflects a well thought-out procedure, providing an exemplary model for other schools and colleges to follow.

Jordan Fein. Jordan Fein is a magnet senior (woot!) who is enamored of politics and journalism. He is very politically active and enjoys talking politics with whomever is willing. Politics, politics, politics. He is looking forward to his second year of writing on Silver Chips and especially … More »

Ashley Lau. Born in Boston, Ashley is a huge Red Sox fan and sometimes wishes she could just live at Fenway Park. She loves to run, do tae kwon do, travel, cook, go to concerts and has a new obsession with the TV show 24. Someday Ashley … More »

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