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College Preparation

( Originally Published 1924 )

AN important consideration — though by no means the most important — in discussing any changes in education is their effect on college preparation and college entrance.

College requirements at one time absolutely dominated the content of courses and the methods of the secondary schools. They still dominate the preparatory schools, and influence tremendously, if they do not dominate, a large proportion of the public high-schools. An increasing number of schools make no pretense of college preparation, so are free to educate their pupils as they think best.

Two results are probably the most important of the ones favorable to college control : the first, that the pupils going to college study in the fields which the colleges believe furnish the best foundation on which to base future study; the second, that college-entrance requirements have set standards to which secondary schools have been forced to attain, and by varying them as conditions have changed, have improved the quality of school work.

College-entrance requirements and examinations do, however, limit the development of the schools. The requirements of most colleges are such as to restrict preparation to those pupils who are strongly linguistic, by asking for what seems to many an undue amount of language work. It has been quite common, for women's colleges especially, to demand that about two thirds of college preparation should be in languages. Even now many colleges allow not more than one fifth of the preparation to be chosen from outside of languages and mathematics. Perhaps the actual need is for more kinds of higher institutions, and consequently more varied opportunities for those of different mental types. A boy or girl who is not academic, who does not show a rather high result on intelligence tests, or has no taste for the required subjects, has little chance of getting into college now, and little chance of success if ever in. When it is considered that man's advance in civilization comes so largely from two elements, his increasing under-standing of and control of his environment, which comes from natural science, and his increasing ability to live with and cooperate with his fellow man, for which social science is the preparation, it does seem that the lack of school emphasis on these two fields comes from tradition rather than from unprejudiced analysis of present-day conditions and needs.

The requirements somewhat fetter the strong teacher also by defining rather closely what shall be read in the languages, or exactly what content shall be taken in other subjects. There is on this account too little opportunity to vary the work to suit different classes or individual needs. Naturally these limitations reach out beyond those actually going to college and influence the courses of all secondary schools.

Naturally also the fear of college-entrance examinations affects the state of mind of both teachers and pupils and in that way militates against natural and interesting methods of teaching as well as against work differentiated to fit all abilities and types of mind.

Many parents and teachers are in fact afraid of any departure from the most formal drill-methods for fear that it may lessen the effectiveness of preparation for college. I have known a teacher drilling eleven-year-old children to exclaim in surprise, when it was suggested that she should use freer and more interesting methods of handling her classes, "Why, wouldn't that interfere with their college preparation ? "

If normal living and learning could not prepare children for college, that fact in itself would prove that college requirements were wrong. As a matter of fact, that is not strictly true.

A pupil who has been taught to get information for himself, to think clearly and to enjoy thinking, to express himself in both oral and written form, and to make decisions and act upon them, has a most valuable equipment for college as well as for any other future use. Schools that are working in a free, happy way are not having, so far as I have been able to find, undue difficulty in entering their pupils in college, and their graduates seem to be making excel-lent records. One such school, which has sent over eighty per cent of its graduates to college, has found that many of them finish the college course in three years, while the average standing of the whole group has been unusually high.

Naturally also the interests of children trained in a broader way and taught to love school and school work are much more complete, and should serve as a better foundation on which to build a college education, as well as to give a more general later-life interest. It has been proved over and over again that any subject can be well and interestingly taught not only without sacrifice of fundamental knowledge of it, but instead with greatly increased grasp of its foundation facts and principles. So taught, it prepares a pupil excellently for any reasonable examination, and college-entrance examinations are so safeguarded and studied that they are increasingly reasonable. A teacher should not then make too great a bugbear — to herself or her pupils — of the examination ahead. Certain limitations she must recognize; beyond that she may still be free to teach as well as she can, and the better the teaching, the more it stimulates to investigation and thinking, the more certainty there is of success — even in college entrance !

But even those who have had the advantages of better methods of teaching, and have entered college successfully, have suffered, in the opinion of many educators and parents, from two lacks.

The first is a lack of richness in the curriculum, particularly in the four years preceding college. If a school believes that art, music in various forms, handwork, — whether industrial art, mechanical art, printing or home-making activities, — public speaking, and other such "non-college" subjects— not to speak of more natural science and social science than is now accepted — should help to broaden the horizon of these years, it is sorely pressed in the attempt to get them into the day.

And if it believes, as an increasing number do believe, that time to investigate, to think, to follow worth-while interests and hobbies to their conclusions, to read about present-day events and problems and discuss them, is part and parcel of real education and should not be crowded out of a child's life by mere "subjects," then it must compromise with its ideals, or fail in college preparation.

I would not, if I could, reduce college-entrance requirements, but I would allow perhaps one fifth of the entrance-credit to come from a school's testimony that the time had been spent in constructive activity, whatever the field, and I would widen the choice of the other four fifths so that any important fields, within certain limitations, might be made major interests throughout the four years of college preparation. The examination would then be de-signed to test total preparation and power in those fields rather than details of specific ground covered. There are, of course, practical difficulties in such a programme, but I do not believe they are insurmountable.

The greatest, of course, is the fact that 'so much more varied college curricula would be necessary, to fit the pupils coming with less standardized preparation.

It must be added that the colleges are deeply concerned about this whole matter and are continually searching for better ways of judging pupils who are sent to them. They are not satisfied with a method that keeps out some pupils worthy of entrance, yet admits others who do not survive the freshman year. Some of the colleges are making use of mental tests to determine the natural abilities of their candidates and are accepting pupils on their success in these tests supplemented by their school records. Others are requiring schools to keep a more complete characteristic-study of their pupils in order to give the college a better idea of whether or not they will fit into college life. New kinds of examinations are also being tried, influenced largely by the type of questions asked in the mental tests and standardized subject-tests.

The College Entrance Examination Board recently authorized the expenditure of a large sum of money in experimenting with different types of examinations, in the hope of finding those that would vary the least in difficulty from year to year and would suffer least in accuracy by occasional slips that even the best pupils make. A possible examination may ask fifty questions, each of which can be answered quickly, rather than six or eight requiring answers of the essay type. Another suggestion is that examiners shall meet all candidates personally and that some examinations shall be oral.

Whatever the future method of college entrance may prove to be, it will undoubtedly be improved in its sureness of diagnosis and will tell more and more certainly whether or not a candidate is ready for college work. The schools that study their pupils, analyze their interests, adapt the work to the capabilities and needs of each, that broaden their horizons and give them pleasure in intellectual pursuits, need not fear such a test. Certainly no teacher needs to deaden her work and antagonize her pupils in order to conciliate the more or less imaginary dragon that guards the college gates.

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