Last year, when my 16-year-old was a freshman in high school, we attended his school’s open house. I was interested in meeting his teachers and getting an idea of what his school day was like. It was more intense than expected. I was surprised how many teachers used their allotted time to discuss our children’s college prospects. My son’s algebra teacher urged parents to sign their kids up for the upcoming PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test), even if they were mere freshmen. “The more familiar they are with the test, the better they will do when it matters. If they see the test three times, imagine how easy it will be for them.”
He lectured while looking around the room at the parents, many of whom were feverishly taking notes. The teacher went on to stress the importance of PSAT/SAT/ACT tutoring. “You need to be thinking about this now. It’s never too early” he bellowed. I had a headache and was jonesing for some red wine and a bit skeptical. Still, we signed our son up for the PSAT the following week.
At times it seems education is no longer the point at local high schools, even some middle schools. Instead, they seek to help kids develop a résumé of high test scores, advanced-placement classes, and impressive grade-point averages to impress colleges. If education happens along the way, great. If not, well, getting them to college is the real point. And it’s hard to blame them. San Diego State University, which was once viewed as a party school, boasts an average 1174 SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) score from incoming freshmen. University of California San Diego’s incoming class of freshmen scored an average of 1350 on the SAT; University of San Diego freshmen averaged 1290; Point Loma Nazarene, 1210; Stanford’s students scored an average of 1520.
California University Requirements
The aim for all California high schools is for their students to meet eligibility requirements to go to a California State University school such as San Diego State or a University of California institution. Eligibility is based on three requirements. First, students need to pass 15 high-school courses with a C or above. These courses include two years of history/social science, four years of college-prep English, three years of college-prep Math, two years of laboratory science, two years of a foreign language, one year of visual or performing arts, and one year of a college-prep elective. Second, for University of California schools, the minimum grade point average is 3.0 and for California State Universities, 2.0. Lastly, students must take the ACT Plus Writing or the SAT Reasoning Test by December of their senior year.
Public school kid
Seventeen-year-old Megan Williams isn’t considering any of the San Diego colleges. She is a senior at Grossmont High School in El Cajon, where only 45 percent of the graduates meet University of California and California State University eligibility requirements.
“There is a ton of pressure on kids nowadays,” Williams exhales, pushing a strand of blond hair out of her eyes and sipping a latte. “From a young age we are told, ‘You need to get good grades so you can get into a good college!’ Even in middle school I remember someone telling me that colleges will now look at your middle-school grades. It’s crazy. There is a lot of pressure today because there is more focus on everyone going to college. College isn’t necessarily for everyone, but people don’t mention that.”
Williams is confident, but not in an overbearing way. As long as she can remember, she has been labeled “the smart girl.” “It has just sort of carried on throughout middle school and high school. At this point, it would be weird to be anything different. That is one of the things that will be strange for me going off to college. I am going to be in classrooms full of the smart kids. It will be interesting to adjust to that,” says Williams with a laugh.
The pressure to succeed, Williams says, does not come from her parents. “The more I succeed, the more pressure I put on myself. Going into high school, I told myself, I am just going to do my best. I am going to take the classes I want to take, and if I do get Bs, that will be okay. Last year, I almost got a B in my history class. I kept telling myself, It’s okay! It’s okay to get a B, but really, I wasn’t okay with it. After experiencing a pattern of success in school, I expected to continue that pattern. I have never gotten a B in a class before.” She grins and looks down at her hands as if embarrassed to admit this accomplishment.
Williams began taking her first advanced-placement classes her sophomore year. In total she took 11 such courses at Grossmont High School. In the spring, students taking advanced placement courses take tests. If they pass the tests, they receive college credit. These courses can be beneficial when applying to college because it shows schools that the student can handle a college course load. Not all universities give credit for advanced-placement courses. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, does not accept credit for advanced-placement calculus. They require students to retake the course no matter what they score on the calculus advanced-placement exam. Most Ivy League schools do the same.
Advanced-placement courses have become increasingly popular. What began as a modest 11-course offering for privileged students in 1952 has morphed into 38 high school advanced-placement college classes for United States students. In 2013, 26.9 percent of California public school kids took advanced-placement courses. Some argue that advanced-placement classes overload students, many of whom become overwhelmed by the coursework. While colleges like to see that their prospective students have taken advanced-placement courses, it doesn’t necessarily give applicants a leg up. Universities are more concerned with SAT scores and extracurricular activities than seeing advanced-placement classes on a student’s application. In Williams’s case, she saw these courses as a way to challenge herself. “I have always wanted to do well in school — well enough that I could go to whatever school I wanted to. The summer before my junior year, I went on a college trip and we saw schools like UC Berkeley, which is a super-competitive school. At first I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it because it is so competitive. After junior year and doing so well and getting a really good score on the SAT, I was, like, Oh, wow! Berkley is actually an option for me! I am now able to consider schools I didn’t think I would be able to.”