Preparing for the College Application Process- A Timeline

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It’s crazy to say but I’m almost done with the getting-into-college process. My daughter will be making her decision in the next few weeks. She has already been accepted to two of her top choices so we are all breathing a little easier. I wanted to take some time while everything is fresh in my head to write down everything I’ve learned over the last few years during this often confusing process. This is a general timeline that I wish I would have had a few years ago. I hope it’s helpful!

Middle School

In middle school, your child’s grades (for the most part) won’t show up on their high school transcripts but this is the time when study habits are formed and  academic tracks are set. By now you should know what type of student your child is. Spend these years closing any gaps in their education, developing independent study skills and making sure they are on the right track, whatever track that may be. In the district where I live, all students begin a language in 6th grade so in 8th grade it’s considered an advanced level high school course, all students take Algebra in 8th grade and all are given the opportunity to take Earth Science, typically a 9th grade course (we have optional self-selection). Potentially three classes in middle school will appear on students’ high school transcripts. There is no doubt that taking Earth Science in 8th grade will put them on an advanced track for high school but many students are not ready and that’s perfectly OK. The door is not shut- they can still take honors/AP science classes down the road. A note on districts that allow self-selection for advanced classes- I highly recommend choosing classes based on teacher recommendations. If you are surprised or disagree with the teacher’s recommendation, speak to the teacher to understand why they feel the way they do. They may offer an insight that you don’t have. 

High School

9th and 10th grade-

  • Encourage your child to join many clubs and participate in many sports to see which ones they like. Basically, they should try out everything, especially if they don’t have a “thing”.
  • Familiarize yourself with which core classes are offered for each year and come up with a plan, knowing that your child may deviate from these courses.
  • Encourage your child to start building their relationship with their guidance counselor. You should as well.
  • Monitor grades very closely at the beginning of the year, especially in advanced classes. Be aware of the drop dates and level change dates.
  • Consider tutoring or test prep for regent exams because these grades will be on high school transcripts.
  • Plan your child’s summers for the next three years. As it was explained to me at a college workshop, your child has three summers to use to showcase their interests and passions.
  • At the end of 10th grade, your child should apply for leadership positions in the clubs and activities they like. Anyone can join a club but not everyone will hold a position.
  • Attend all college nights your school offers. Its valuable information that you can bank away.
  • Find out how many community service hours your child needs to graduate. Encourage them to get started.

Summer before 11th grade

  • Decide which standardized test your child will be taking. Gone are the days everyone took the SATs. The ACT is just as prevalent and one test might be a better fit for your child than the other. Make sure your child takes a practice test on both, compare scores and discuss with your child which one they preferred. Note- if the school doesn’t offer a practice ACT test, it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to take one at a local testing center.
  • Begin test prep. Will your child have private tutoring sessions? Join a group class? Take an online course? Decide now and begin.
  • Find out the SAT and ACT dates for the coming year. Write them down!

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11th grade-

  • The beginning of 11th grade (usually October) your child should take their first test. Register right away for the second test. Each test is scored differently so your child should plan on taking it at least twice. When registering for the tests, you have an option to send scores directly to schools. DO NOT DO THIS. Yes, it’s free and you can save a few bucks but you don’t want scores to be sent to any schools without you seeing them first.
  • Aim for finishing all standardized tests this year. 
  • With your child, begin compiling a list of potential schools. Some things to consider are in-state/out-of-state, public/private, distance from home, large/small school, city/rural, greek life, specialty programs, and graduate programs offered. After her Junior Conference (a conference with the student, parents, and guidance counselor- if your school doesn’t offer this, then I highly suggest you request one yourself) we added and subtracted a few schools from our original list. I then created a spreadsheet to organize the potential schools’ information. I made columns for average GPAs and test scores, rankings, tuition/room costs, and application deadlines. One thing that I wish I would have known is that many private schools with hefty tuition costs offer lots of merit aid. We then narrowed it down to two “safe” schools, two schools that were right at her level and two “reach” schools (we made these determinations by looking at average GPAs and test scores for admitted students). Then at the last minute, three more schools were added for various reasons, which I’m guessing is fairly common for most families.
  • Plan college visits. This is a great way to spend Spring Break trip during Junior year. Some schools do factor in demonstrated student interest in their decision so make sure to find out whether the schools your child are interested in looks favorably on visits and plan accordingly.

Summer Before Senior Year-

  • Encourage your child to complete their college application essay. Essay topics usually get released very early in the year. Check the Common App site for 2017/2018 prompts. In many schools, students work on an essay in their English class in 11th grade so your child may have an idea of what they’d like to write about. You can hire a specialty tutor to help your child with this but make sure they are guiding your child and not writing the essay for them. Admission officers say time and time again that they can tell when a student writes the essay versus an adult. High school English teachers often tutor students in this area so that may be a good place to start if you feel your child needs help.

12th Grade

  • As soon as possible, your child should apply to any schools with “rolling admissions”.
  • Aim to apply to all schools by November 1st if possible. My daughter managed to get four out of 8 done by 11/1. She is still waiting to hear back from the other four that were submitted after November 1st. Otherwise, she would have been able to make her decision by January! It’s tough waiting when many of your friends know where they will be going.
  • Your child should express interest in the college(s) they really hope to attend. They should reach out to the admission reps for their area and introduce themselves. If they have specific questions regarding programs, encourage them to email the department heads. If they can’t visit, an email requesting information shows that they are interested.
  • Celebrate the acceptances! There’s not one school your child MUST get into. There are hundreds of colleges and rest assured, your child will get in where they belong.

Thinking about college is both stressful and exciting for us parents. Knowing what lies ahead and having a solid plan in place will help you deal with the anxiety. Now I can shift my stress to her actually leaving…

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Why My Daughter Sits For The State Tests

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The opt-out movement is huge on Long Island. I’ve received numerous emails from friends and even strangers and have read countless posts on social media, all stating that we should “opt-out” our children from the standardized tests. Besides discussing it with a few close friends, I’ve chosen to remain relatively quiet because, drum roll please, I actually think our kids should take the test. Since the other side has been making such a concerted effort to convince people to opt out, I figure it was about time to speak up as to why my daughter sits for the state standardized tests.

First, my background- I am a NYS certified teacher and I also hold a professional teaching certification in Florida. I spent eight years teaching in what is considered a “high-stakes testing” state. My school was given a grade based on our test scores and we as teachers received bonuses if we were an “A” school. I have been out of the classroom for the past five years as I spend this time at home with my own kids but I remain extremely passionate and up-to-date on all things related to education (I even receive daily google alerts regarding any articles related to education) and volunteer my time in my daughters’ schools. My point here is I have sat at both sides of the table.

The hoopla about these tests is related to the new standards, the Common Core. Before the Common Core, each state came up with their own set of learning standards. For example, what a child was expected to know in the 2nd grade varied greatly from state to state. The idea was to come up with a set of uniform standards that all states would adopt. I don’t think many would argue with the rationale behind that idea. However, the issue became with the assessment of these new standards. Some states started assessing right away. Some states gave it three years, meaning they would begin teaching the new standards right away but hold off on testing for a few years. Others started the new standards in kindergarten and would assess when those kindergarteners were in 3rd grade. As you can see, this part got a bit tricky.

New York decided to assess right away. It was not a good call in my opinion but, like most things related to politics, money was involved as an incentive so our state signed up. We were told the students would not do well and they didn’t. There would be no penalty for the students, teachers, or schools for the first year but these scores would serve as a baseline to measure future growth. As a parent, I was OK with that. As long as there is not a negative consequence to my child for not performing well, I understand we have to start somewhere.

Now we are approaching year 4. There are still no consequences for students who do not perform well on the test. This is important to note because not all states are set up this way. In Florida, for example, if your child does not pass the yearly standardized test, they are in danger of being retained. Many states use these tests for promotion/retention decisions. We in NYS do not.

There seems to be three main reasons for opting out. There are people who believe these tests are harmful to their child, people who are taking a stand because they don’t believe in the actual standardized test and people who do not want teacher accountability to be tied to standardized tests. I’m not going to spend any time discussing teacher accountability because, for now, that piece has been removed from the equation in NYS.

First and foremost, if you believe that taking these tests will be detrimental to your child, by all means opt them out. If your child is suffering from a real, overarching anxiety about taking these tests, that’s a serious matter. Having said that, in eight years of teaching, I can only site one experience where a child had true test anxiety. Most kids get nervous and that’s OK~ it’s our jobs as parents and teachers to help them learn to manage their anxiety and nerves. I would also look to where the stress is coming from. Teachers should be working to create a “We’re not scared, we’re prepared!” vibe in the classroom. If you feel your teacher is putting undue stress regarding these tests onto students, pick up the phone and speak to them about it or speak to your principal. In addition, if your child is significantly below level and will not be able to read the passages or perform the equations, I can see why opting out would be a consideration. Before I continue, I want to state that I do believe strongly in a parents right to choose what they feel is best for their child. If you feel taking the test will hurt your child, opting out may be your best bet.

But lets assume your child does not suffer from any type of severe test anxiety and is not significantly below level. Next is the argument that these tests are pointless or invalid. I’ve heard many say, what is this test going to tell me that I don’t already know? The answer is a lot! Standardized tests are not new; they’ve actually been around since the mid-1800’s. I took them as a child and I’m guessing you did too. The reason why standardized tests are so important is because they are objective measures of student achievement. Yes, your child’s teacher knows them well and can offer more insight than one test can. I do not disagree with that point. However, insight can be subjective and often relative to your child’s classmates and even the community you live in. “Danielle is a great reader!” used to be an acceptable form of feedback for parents at teacher conferences. What exactly is a great reader? Is she a great reader compared to her classmates? Is she a great reader compared to other students her age? Does her teacher think “great” means the same as the teacher next door? Even in-class tests can be subjective, especially at the elementary level. Teachers often give a test back to a student and have them “look again”. Questions are often deemed “bonus questions” because the teacher may feel they are too hard. The students in the same grade but different classes often complete different assignment and may take different tests. All of this creates a subjective view of how the student is doing. A standardized test, that all students in the same grade, at all schools in the same state take, provides an objective measure of student progress. You will see how your child is doing compared to all the children in the entire state. This is valuable feedback to me as a parent, and should be to my school and teacher as well.

For example, I, as a parent, can see on last year’s mathematics test, in the sub-area of Number and Operations in Base Ten (what exactly that means is also spelled out), my child earned 15 out of the possible 18 points. The state average was 11. I feel pretty good about that! If I didn’t, I would know what area to ask her teacher for extra enforcement of skills. I would also know what to work at at home with her or, if she was significantly below average, I would look into a tutor. Do I take this as the end all, be all? No way. If the test told me she was below the state average and I did some digging and found that her teacher disagreed strongly and felt she just had a bad day, I would take that into consideration too. Regardless, I want to know where my child stands so that I can make informed, personal decisions pertaining to her education.

The school SHOULD be doing a lot with this information. Teachers should use the data to reflect on their teaching. Did a large portion of students struggle with vocabulary? Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the methodology used for teaching vocabulary in the classroom. Your child’s teacher the following year will have access to their test scores and be able to see specifically which areas they were successful in and which areas they encountered difficulty. It’s true; they will not be able to see the entire test but over 50% of the actual test is released each year. If teachers do not use the data from these tests, then yes, it is a waste of time. That would be a district/school issue that would need to be addressed.

In the end, we as parents need to do what we feel is best for our children. I only hope the decisions are based on facts and not just that the children don’t want to sit for a test. What child would? Beginning in 8th grade, Regent grades are listed on high school transcripts, as are AP exams and, of course, SAT and/or ACT scores. Tests are an integral part of education and are necessary to measure knowledge gained. I’m happy that this is sparking a dialogue about education reform and look forward to hearing other viewpoints.