When I teach percentiles in my Statistics class, I often ask my students if they have ever heard of such a thing. My students usually tell me that they have, in one of two different situations. The students who are parents have heard of percentiles from their pediatrician. I sometimes tell them the story of how a friend had a pediatrician tell her that “most children are in at least the 90th percentile” when describing height and weight. We then have a discussion about how it might be true that this pediatrician from the suburbs sees mostly children whose height and weight fall into the 90th percentile for all children. This occurs because those percentiles are calculated using values from all children, including those who do not come from such advantaged backgrounds.
The other encounter with percentiles that some of them have experienced relates to the scores on standardized tests that are often reported as percentiles. It is this use of percentiles, and memories of it from my past, that I found myself remembering as I read an article about a new approach to college admissions.
When I think of standardized tests, and the percentiles that go with them, I often think of my younger sister, who had a very difficult time with such tests. In years before anyone really thought of such things, she struggled through high school with what was later found to be a learning difference, called, at the time, a “learning disability.” In truth, although being a very smart young woman, she succeeded in school mostly by sheer force. I remember school nights at our house, with my mom sitting down with her and quizzing her about what she was learning, often staying up late at night until both were exhausted. The assistance that my mother gave my sister humbles me, as I find myself not always as enthusiastic about wanting to help my daughter with her own school work. Alas, I am afraid that I am much more selfish than my mother was.
But it all worked out; the woman about whom a doctor once said “it is amazing that you made it through high school” was inducted into the National Honor Society before going to college, a journey that was followed by graduate school. When she applied to colleges, she was accepted into every school to which she applied, probably in part because she was a great writer whom I am sure really impressed the schools with her writing skills and wisdom.
I can imagine that my sister would have truly benefited from this longer, more intense approach to college applications, one that may take a few years to navigate. She was a fabulous writer and was very insightful as she made her way through life with a serious disability. She knew from the time she was very young that she wanted to use her life to help others in her position, which was something that she did, indeed, do. Indeed, for her, getting her Master’s degree was quite easy, once she was identified for reasonable accommodations by her undergraduate college. My mother did not have to accompany her to graduate school to help her earn the list of As that she earned on the way to that degree!
So what are we to make of this new approach to college applications? Will this help students find a college that meets their needs in a more appropriate manner? Or will the new approach only lead to more frustration, or, perhaps, a new metric against which to be graded and assigned a percentile? As a teacher at a small college, I am hopeful that this new approach will help bring more students to us who might have otherwise not seen themselves as future college graduates. Do any of my readers know of people in their lives or in their pasts who could, or would have, benefited from this new approach?
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