As many readers know, standardized assessment tests have
become the latest fad among state and federal legislators wishing to appear
concerned about education. Many states current have such tests, and the
recent federal No Child Left Behind Act requires standardized testing
of all students, with schools forced to meet progressively more stringent
requirements for yearly progress.
Here in Washington State we have the WASL (Washington
Assessment of Student Learning), administered in fourth, seventh, and
tenth grades. The WASL began as a way to evaluate schools, but in the
current climate has become a way to evaluate students as well. Right now
students can opt out of taking the test, but in the year 2008, passing
the tenth grade WASL will become a requirement for high school graduation.
One can assume that a student that Princeton would admit
should have no trouble passing such a test. Furthermore, the kind of "teaching
to the test" that the WASL and others encourage is not the kind of
preparation that students need if they are going to excel at Princeton.
On the other hand, having the courage to opt out of a test may well be
a demonstration of the independence and maturity that Princeton is
looking for. Unfortunately, in a few years such a courageous stand will
deny the student his or her high school diploma, which would in turn
cause Princeton to revoke his or her admission.
Therefore, I propose that Princeton adopt the policy
that any student that fulfills all the admission requirements for Princeton,
and is prevented from receiving his or her high school diploma only because
of a refusal to take a standardized test (such refusal being explained
in an essay submitted to the admission office), be nonetheless allowed
to matriculate at Princeton.
Such a policy, publicly announced beforehand, would strike a blow against
mindless testing and allow Princeton to demonstrate its commitment to
true quality in education.
As Princeton is actively engaged in the search for a new dean of admissions
due to the timely resignations of Messrs. Hargadon and LeMenager, I offer
up the final of my trilogy of West College Sonnets .
Oh, Princeton, when shall be your time to learn
Not to a hand sustaining often bite
Lest Murphy 'pon your glory may sojourn
Yet entertaining mock'ry in delight.
Perhaps, dear Nassau, will humility
Unleash its tethered talons to dissect
Licentious loons of Lord-knows-what may be
Unrav'ling mysteries of disconnect.
Might possibly your portals be portrayed
Selecting out the ones more truly meant?
In terms of seeking knowledge are betrayed
Nomadic souls belonging in thy tent?
Why not try toting as your major test
Consumptive love of learning in one's breast?
I would like to propose a special category under which applicants could
seek admission to Princeton: individuals who have demonstrated through
their interest, creativity, and actions prior to their admission that
they would basically "die" to have a Princeton education.
Admission to the university would be a high school form of the Harold
W. Dodd's award. Applicants considered in this group would be those who
in their pre-Princeton years helped strengthen and advance Princeton as
a pre-eminent learning center. Since ambition almost always trumps brilliance
in an individuals ability to make a contribution in this world,
this admission category should identify many individuals who after graduation
would exemplify "Princeton in the nations service."
Legacy applicants might well have an advantage in this admission
category since their parents could have inculcated their own love of the
university throughout their children's upbringing.
President Tilghman's letter and statement of August 13, 2002, and reports
in the New York Times about the Princeton admission office's tapping
into a Yale admission office computer have led us into a train of thought
or reverie that we now send to your readers for consideration and further
development. That this childish delict, of the caliber of a juvenile prank,
caused an outbreak of concern about "violation of privacy" and
"betrayal of confidence" that could only be quelled by an "internal
investigation" and a lot of moral huffing and puffing at the highest
level of the university administration is unfortunate but not surprising.
To us, more unfortunate is what the event and the public response to it
seem to imply about the admission process at Princeton, Yale, and we are
sure Harvard and others.
Among other things they seem to reflect an atmosphere of intense competition
between these places over the selection among candidates for admission
"Will Yale get some superstar that we want to attract?"
or, perhaps, uncertainty over whether we have correctly judged
some applicant "Did Yale agree with us about this one? If
not, maybe we made a mistake." The staff indulging in this pursuit
were operating at some ultra-refined level of the admission process that
we suggest can contribute nothing beneficial to the advancement and dissemination
of learning that we suppose is the goal of both Princeton and Yale. Their
admission offices as operated in recent decades have the duty of selecting
a few hundred from among thousands of qualified candidates, any of whom
could, if admitted, benefit from the education they would receive. The
officers carry out that function by grading the applicants on vague and
subjective if not self-inconsistent criteria, allowing the narrowest gradations
and distinctions to determine answers to the ultimate, arbitrary question
admit or deny. On these answers hopes are raised or dashed, and
those who are cast down are the more crushed because they have been given
to understand that they have been weighed and found wanting.
We cannot help wondering whether the goals and practices of the admission
office have diverged from those of the university. To test that, we are
offering a radical suggestion that we hope will open a dialogue among
readers on whether change in the admission process would be beneficial.
Our suggestion is to ditch this process and replace it by a drawing of
lots. As we said, nearly all the candidates in recent years have been
capable of benefiting from a Princeton (or Yale or Harvard) education.
And Princeton would be serving her mission carrying out her trust
as a public charity equally well by extending her educational benefits
to any of them. If their numbers must be limited, as they must, let the
selection be at random. We do not see it as part of Princeton's mission
to compete for the "best qualified." Rather let her devote her
efforts and resources to increasing the advancement and dissemination
of learning among her beneficiaries, whoever they happen to be.
Random selection would eliminate whatever incentive motivated the computer
break-in. It would shorten and simplify the work of the admission office
and would eliminate the task of drawing hair-splitting distinctions among
the indistinguishable. It would reduce the difficulty of applying for
admission candidates would find less benefit in embellishing their
records and their applications. And it would reduce the anguish of the
applicants who fail to be admitted.
Had the Class of 2006 been selected at random from among the applicants
who applied in 2001-02 we have no doubt that the resulting class would
have been consistent in its composition with the ideals of the university.
All the candidates were self-selected for the highest academic qualifications
and the finest of up-bringing, personality, and character. In the future,
however, were random selection to become the announced policy, new issues
would arise. In its purest form selection by lot would reduce the application
form to a name and address. But as this became known there would be an
incentive for students with lesser qualifications and, indeed, with inadequate
preparation, to put themselves to the hazard.
To deal with that risk, minimum standards would have to be imposed. We
do not, however, believe that the elaborate admission process that now
prevails need continue. In our view it would suffice to require evidence
of the successful completion of a required course of study at a secondary
school. If that alone produced too many unprepared applicants, the secondary
school records could be weighted by rating individual schools by the average
records achieved at Princeton by their graduates, and only those whose
grades surpassed the weighted minimum for their schools would be considered.
Such a technique was in successful use at the Harvard Law School during
the late 1940s, and, we think, for years before and perhaps afterward.
Ultimately, the preservation of academic standards would depend on Princeton's
willingness to dismiss students whose performance failed to meet these
standards. No longer would admission assure graduation; grades would depend
upon performance, and the faculty and administration would have to unite
in maintaining grading standards, as well as standards of behavior, whatever
the pressure to relax them.
Random selection would entail other innovations. No longer could there
be separate pools for athletes or for the children of alumni. We would
consider these developments to be improvements. In our view, Princeton
is placing far too much emphasis on intercollegiate athletics. Athletics
has become a nearly independent enterprise, involving financial considerations
and special treatment of athletes that contribute nothing to and, indeed,
detract from the general education of undergraduates. Sentimentally, one
of us has been a devotee of Princeton sports, especially football; the
other has no such sentiment. But rationally, we both concur with the wisecrack
we have heard attributed to Robert Maynard Hutchins that football is to
education as bullfighting is to agriculture. We are not unaware of the
claims of many who have taken part in athletics of the value they gained
from dedication, sacrifice, teamwork, sportsmanship, and other positive
traits attributed to their sports. But we think these benefits could as
well be obtained from intra-mural athletics, open to all students on equal
Similarly, although reluctantly, we would favor giving up the preference
for children of alumni. This is not easy or clear-cut, for we are both
children of alumni; both of us are entitled to suspect that absent the
"legacy" we would not have been admitted. But we feel the greater
good is to be found in the equality of treatment that our proposal presupposes.
Among other benefits would be that suspicions that some of those denied
admission were somehow "worthier" than some of those admitted
would become meaningless. "Worth" in that sense would have no
relevance, and self-esteem would depend on present success in the classroom
and laboratory, not past success in the admissions office.
To be sure, intercollegiate athletics and alumni preference are huge topics,
on which we have barely touched. Without fully analyzing the competing
considerations affecting these matters we put forth our suggestion for
admission by lot. As we say, our intention is to open a dialogue on whether
the admission process as now conducted furthers or is even consistent
with the mission of the university. If you publish this letter, we expect
that you and we shall receive a good many expositions of its defects and
virtues, as well as how it might be improved.
T.S.L. Perlman 46
Deborah G. Perlman 92