By definition, when we prepare people, we are making them ready for use. With regard to education, the fundamental question should be, “what is the use for which we are preparing learners?” 

By definition, when we prepare people, we are making them ready for use. With regard to education, the fundamental question should be, “what is the use for which we are preparing learners?” The answer to this basic question challenges teachers, administrators and parents and therefore, it is too often side stepped. Our rhetoric too often simply refers to the destination without contemplating the purpose of the journey. This is the reason why young people lose motivation in school. Learning to simply get to the next level does not inspire powerful engagement in learning.

Applying to college and getting into a “good school” has become an intensely competitive process. Getting in is the goal. We learn in elementary school to be prepared for high school, and we learn in high school to be prepared for college. Rarely do we stop and consider what students are being prepared for. This is the cause of much anxiety in the lives of young people. They do not know their options for careers, they are uncertain about what they want in life, where they will live, how they will connect to others, and what their purpose will be. We focus them on achievements: grades, accolades, scores and devote little time to helping them discover purpose, meaning and passion.

The drive to prepare students for college causes intense anxiety for students. This anxiety is exacerbated by the race to the brand name college or university.

Annually since 1983, U.S. News & World Report magazine has ranked America’s 100 Best Colleges. This publication has changed the way parents and students choose institutions of higher education, leading them to believe that the value of a college degree is only as good as its brand name.

For the past 25 years, this annual ranking system has almost guaranteed that SAT scores are considered the most important factor in college admission. In reality, SAT scores remain a notoriously poor measure of both student ability and likelihood of success in college.

Success in college is largely a result of a number of wellness indicators rather than standardized test scores that have no correlation to daily stresses and challenges of college life. The following traits are some of the most important for navigating college life successfully:

  • Adaptability
  • Self esteem
  • Time management skills
  • Sense of purpose and direction
  • Understanding strengths
  • Physical health
  • Self control
  • Resiliency

If educators are truly interested in preparing students to be successful at the next level, they will prepare them in these indicators rather than solely focusing on scores and grades.

The Fallacy of the S.A.T. as Preparation

Maggie, a diligent, socially adept student with a great talent for dancing, was not going to be accepted to college. She had average grades throughout high school, and her teachers considered her a good, consistent student. Maggie’s confidence on stage impressed her teachers. She performed in many school musicals and on the competitive dance team. She felt motivated by dance, and worked hard to become good enough to build her life around it.

Like many students, Maggie bombed standardized tests. She had a poor short term memory and suffered from all too common test anxiety. Everyone was proud of Maggie after she returned from her dance audition at a small liberal arts college in a nearby state. She had chosen the college specifically for its very selective dance program. Over 65 students had auditioned for the program, and Maggie was one of 16 chosen. When her mother called frantically one day and asked us to contact the college’s admissions office to see if they were going to admit her or not, my first reaction was one of nonchalance. Of course they would admit her. Another week passed, and our school’s college counselor stopped me in the hall.

“Maggie hasn’t heard from any of the schools she applied for yet, and her mother is getting really anxious. Can you call her?”

I called the admissions office to find out what was going on. Tania, the admissions person in charge of Maggie’s application, was warm and friendly but told me that she felt it would be very difficult for their admissions team to admit Maggie because of her low SAT scores.

“But what about her grades?” I asked.

“We are just worried she won’t be able to handle her courses.”

“What gives you that idea? She’s a solid student here.”

“Yes, but her scores indicate she hasn’t been prepared to handle a rigorous college program.” she said.

“No, I think you misunderstand. We are a college preparatory school. Have you looked at the transcript?”

I went on to explain that while Maggie may not be able to earn all A’s or B’s in college, she would be a good student, a solid student motivated to succeed, one who would by no means flunk out of school. The admissions officer told me she would take this information to the dean, but that we shouldn’t get our hopes up.

The next day I placed another call to the admissions office. I again told the officer that Maggie was a right choice for admission, and she told me again that she would bring the information to the committee, but that her SAT scores were most likely going to prevent her admission.

“If she had mailed in only her ACT scores, she probably could have gotten in without being sent to committee.”

I quickly rifled through the green college file that the college counselor’s assistant had left on my chair that morning. I found the right paper and saw that her ACT scores were not that much better than her SAT scores. I asked her about this.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Her ACT scores are only slightly better than her SAT scores. I told you, she doesn’t do well on standardized tests.”

She told me that ACT scores don’t count. I asked her what she meant by “count.”

“You know,” the admissions officer explained, “for the ranking data.”

I listened while she explained that they had to submit all the SAT scores of students who were admitted in the freshman class to U.S. News & World Report for the rankings, and that Maggie’s scores would bring down the average and negatively affect the university’s ranking.

In the mad rush to make their school seem more desirable, the admissions office was driven to deny admission to the very type of student who would actually contribute the most to the community and make the institution better.

How Can College and High Schools Work Together to Best Prepare Students?

The S.A.T. issue described above is clearly one that is generated by the colleges and then acted upon at the secondary level. So how can educators stop this chicken and egg dilemma? The answer comes when we shift from a focus on achievements to a focus on meaningful lives and developing individual’s strengths over the pursuit of achievements that have nothing to do with young people’s real desires. Such achievements do not activate their essential strengths. Empty achievements, those that lack a connection to an inner sense of meaning and purpose, are pushing unprecedented numbers of college students into campus mental health offices with complaints of depression and anxiety. In a 2010 report by the American College Health Association, 45 percent of college men and 50 percent of college women surveyed said they had experienced depression so severe at some point in time that they could “barely function;” 14.9 percent said they had been medically diagnosed with clinical depression. In the same survey, 60 percent of students reported “feeling things were hopeless” one or more times during the previous school year.

This anxiety starts developing as early as middle school, when parents and teachers begin to warn children that if they don’t get good grades, they will not get into college. These kinds of threats make getting good grades and high scores more important to children than learning.

When “getting in” becomes a matter of family pride, children will do anything to get good grades, including cheat. Children cheat in school when they do not feel invested, committed to, and motivated by learning. Earning good grades and pleasing parents and teachers are not effective motivators for true learning. Good grades alone do not help students discover their strengths, and the emphasis on getting good grades just to get into a school has caused cheating in high school to become a national epidemic. The results of the 29th Who’s Who Among American High School Students poll found that 80 percent of the country’s best students cheated to get to the top of their class; 54 percent of middle school students said they had cheated on an exam within 12 months of the poll. Ask any middle or high school student to tell you how many of his peers cheat at some point during school just to get by, and he’ll most likely say that everyone cheats.

Truly prepared students are engaged in meaningful learning that directs their lives toward authentic success. Here is how to do this:

  • Provide context and relevance for learning rather than simply learning to get to the next level.
  • Help young people discover their strengths– the things that energize and interest them enough to build a career from them.
  • Differentiate instruction so learners can discover individual systems to manage time and work loads.
  • Offer courses and programs in relationship building, resilience and conflict management.
  • Place the focus on fulfillment and contribution rather than achievement for its own sake.

Educators know intuitively that real preparation involves the above suggestions. It will take bold leadership and acts of faith to push these agendas in schools. The leaders who embrace these concepts will ultimately push the standardized test makers to retool their assessments to include wellness indicators to determine future success.

Jenifer Fox, M.Ed is the author of Your Child’s Strengths (Viking, 2009) and The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists (Jossey Bass, 2011). Fox is a national teacher trainer, educational speaker, and consultant. Fox also is the Head of the Clariden School, a progressive K-12 school in Southlake, Texas. Her degrees are from the University Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard University. Her work can be found at