Over at the Washington Post, Jay Mathews has posted a letter from the parent of a gifted child who, shockers, wasn’t accepted into every university to which he applied. Here’s an excerpt:
I’ve started this letter many times over the past several months. After my gifted son received rejections from Virginia Tech, James Madison University and William and Mary, I figured it’s time to warn other parents. If you have a very bright student, home-school him.
My son was reading a college-level book in third grade when the gifted education specialist recommended just that. Academically, we figured he’d learn and grow regardless of the environment, but his weakness was social interaction with his peers. We believed childhood should include high school sports teams and clubs, and we remembered being influenced by one or two teachers who were passionate about their subjects. We decided to leave him in public school.
Fast-forward to high school. To minimize frustration, we focused my son on learning, not grades. If he could get a 100 on an exam without doing the homework, we believed his time was better spent doing another activity in which he actually learned something. His grades are less than stellar (3.275 GPA), but he has done very well on all his standardized tests (SAT: 800 verbal, 760 math; SAT subject tests: 800 higher math, 740 chemistry, 710 biology; ACTs: 34). As a junior, he took three AP tests and scored 5 in chemistry, 5 in calculus BC and 4 in U.S. history. He’s enrolled in the University of Cambridge program. He’s taking seven Cambridge/AP classes, including third-year biology, third-year chemistry and second- and third-year physics combined.
He was not encouraged or pushed by the counselors, but he is more motivated because he is learning at a pace he needs, and he has discovered his passion for science and math. He’ll take AP exams in biology, physics, statistics and U.S. government this year. So what’s the problem? He has gone way beyond the class work to learn the material in-depth and has demonstrated his knowledge on national and international exams. Unfortunately, none of these exams is factored into high school grades or college admission decisions.
Prince William County’s grading system requires a minimum of 18 assignments each quarter. My son received a C-plus in his chemistry class because he didn’t do all of his assigned work and received zeros on many of the 18 assignments. The class didn’t move fast enough to cover all of the material, so he did different work — on his own — and handed notes to his teacher and classmates to help them. He’s the only student in the history of the school to get a 5 on the AP chemistry exam, but this type of result never gets fed back into the course grade. He still got a C-plus, not an impressive grade for someone who wants to major in chemistry or chemical engineering.
We’ve spent considerable time talking to admissions counselors at Virginia Tech. They say they won’t look at AP scores until after the students are admitted, don’t look at SAT subject test scores and don’t recognize the educational value or rigor of Cambridge classes. I have a student who will place out of a year (about 44 credits) of college classes, but they won’t let him in because, in their opinion, his GPA indicates he’s lazy, he can’t do college-level work and he’s an underachiever because he scored well on his tests but has only a 3.275 GPA. They recommended that he go to a community college (where the classes are much less intense than the Cambridge curriculum), so he can prove he can handle college-level work. These are my tax dollars at work.
What was the goal here? If the goal was to get into college, then the son and his letter-writing mother acted with stupidity, not with a breathtakingly gifted approach. Colleges and universities are educational institutions, not institutes of mindreading, and they teach courses, preset packages of readings and assignments designed to build the intellectual skill set of the student. Colleges and universities reasonably assess the extent to which applicants have a demonstrated track record of successful course completion, because that is the standard by which success within the college and university is measured, at least at the undergraduate level (you have to head to the PhD level to find a system that fully embraces independent study).
I used to be an educator within that setting, and I can’t tell you how many times students who hadn’t done their course work stood before me at the end of the semester with a slack jaw, protesting that they really understood the material and were were really smart, then demanding that they get the A befitting their intelligence. Such students never got their A, because what matters in getting a grade within such an educational institution is the outward demonstration of mastery, not the inward accomplishment of understanding or virtue of ability or pride of intelligence. “Understanding” and “ability” and “intelligence” are, after all, just unmeasurable concepts. Colleges and universities are designed to train people who can do (and do what they’re told, to boot). If the letter writer’s son really wanted to get into a college or university, then he should have done his homework. To fail to do so is to demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the nature of undergraduate educational institutions.
Besides, if this “gifted” student really knows it all already, why should he go to college at all? I mean that sincerely. I figured out a few years ago myself that I was sick of the cog-and-wheel system of collegiate education, and I left it. I’ve been much happier since.