Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Disclosure

Here are a few things that you should be aware of:

1) The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, contains a provision in Section 4155 that requires each state to have in place, a procedure to facilitate the transfer of a student’s disciplinary records, with respect to a suspension or expulsion, when the student enrolls in another public or private elementary or secondary school. Specifically, public schools are required to provide for the transfer of these records when the student is enrolling in either a public or private elementary or secondary school; however, private schools are not subject to these requirements. The transfer of disciplinary records policy pursuant to this requirement must be consistent with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 (20 U.S.C. 1232g). Further, this federal requirement does not apply to any disciplinary records that are such transferred from a private, parochial or other nonpublic school, person, institution or other entity that provides education below the college level.

2) In my state, NJ, public high schools who receive a student from another school must request disciplinary records from the sending school within two weeks. If the student transferred from a public school, the sending school is required to send records to the receiving school. This does not need parental permission but it does require parental notification. Private schools are not required to seek disciplinary information or send it out. But public schools are required to send out disciplinary information requested by private schools.

3) If there is a health or safety emergency where the transferring student is deemed to be a threat to harm himself or others, schools are required to communicate this information without delay.

4) The action is taken by the chief school administrator or his/her designee (generally the principal or assistant/vice principal).

5) When a student is seeking to transfer to a post-secondary school, schools may (except in health or safety emergencies, where they must) send disciplinary information to where the student intends to enroll. This does not require parental (or adult student) permission, but it does require notification. Many schools have parents sign forms when they ask records to be sent to college. If the forms state that the school records sent include disciplinary records, that should be sufficient notification.

6) Parents and students have a right to view and request amendment any and all student records. This includes anything which resides in a student's permanent file (either on paper or electronically) or is sent out about the student.

7) Students (and only students, even minor students) may waive their right to access recommedation letters sent on their behalf. If students do not sign the waiver, parents do have a right to view the recommendation letter. Schools personnel, including teachers and counselors, MAY refuse to write a recommendation letter unless the waiver is signed.
Ironically, even though ONLY the student, even a minor student, may waive the right of access to recommendation letters, only the parent or adult student may request access to and amendment of these records.

8) We have a few policies in place to deal with this. For one, we have all students complete the Common Application Secondary School Report Form, no matter where they are applying. Thus we have the waiver of access on file for all students. Most students are confused about whether to sign this or not, so we spend a lot of time educating students about this. We have had a few parents recently say that they did not want to have their children sign the waiver of access and wanted to see the letter of recommendation before it went out. We informed them that this would affect what we sent out (for instance, we would not include any teachers comments that come to us in confidential letters) and that we would send a separate letter stating that the recommendation was viewed by the parent and student. No one has called our bluff yet. Mostly we are successful by explaining the similarity between the college admissions process (which they do not understand) and the job application process (which they do understand).

9) The FERPA regulations only apply to schools and colleges where there is a legal relationship to the student. Thus parents and adult students do have a right to see records of the school where a student was enrolled in the past, will be enrolling in the future or is presently enrolled. They do not have a right to see records from schools where they seek to enroll unless the student has been accepted and enrolled (at most colleges, this means signing a contract and/or paying a deposit).

10) The questions on the Common Application Secondary School Report Form and many other SSR's about discipline are problematic for public schools. For one, counselors at our school are not involved in many disciplinary decisions and we do not have access to all disciplinary records. We are not generally the designees of the Chief School Administrator, the Principal or Assistant Principals are. The law places this in their hands because they have training and education in school law, something not required of counselors. Thus counselors, at least in New Jersey, are not the ones who are authorized to communicate disciplinary information. In addition, though we have a right to communicate disciplinary information without parental permission, we do need to provide notification.

11) I have tried many times, with school lawyers and administrators, to come up with a disclosure policy where we agree that we would send all suspensions and expulsions to anywhere a student seeks to enroll. The lawyers always say the same thing: that they would consider such a policy ill advised for it would tie our hands in difficult cases and open us up to possible litigation. I still remember Colleen Quint's words in a panel I did with her about ten years ago (she is the wife of Bill Hiss from Bates, and is an expert in school law) that just because sending disciplinary records is permissable by FERPA, does not mean that you will not be sued for doing so, and possibly lose. The school lawyers stated that if we had a case where we thought a student might be a danger to others, they of course would approve us transferring that information.

12) If we had a disclosure policy for students that stated that we sent out suspensions and expulsions for students, we would not be able to selectively send out this information. By doing so, we would be considered to be acting capriciously, something that would put us in jeopardy. Thus we would need to send out all suspensions during the high school years. I do not think that is desirable or workable. When you add up all the in-school suspensions and out-of school suspensions, we would need a whole new office of Disciplinary Information Dissemination to handle this.

The major problem, though, is in my experience, is that in the cases where we would like to send records, we almost never can. In the most agregious cases, it is rarely simple. Many kids who do some outrageous acts are not suspended. Some are placed on home instruction for psychiatric reasons pending a Child Study Team evaluation, something we are forbidden by ADA from communicating. Many times these acts occur outside of school and the student's case is not adjudicated through the justice system until after the student graduates. And even if it is adjudicated before then, convictions or minors are frequently sealed convictions.

14) Personal notes that do not reside in the student's file are not subject to FERPA regulations.

15) In the very few cases where I had concerns about a student's mental health or integrity, I have placed a call to the school or college where the student was enrolling and stated that I had concerns about the student and this should be communicated to psychological services at the school or college. I am usually only as specific as I need to be. I believe that saying that I have concerns about "integrity" or "stability" or "security" usually are sufficient. I have only done this a few times in 25 years and no one has asked for specifics. If I was pressed, I would ask the receiving school or college to send a written request for records and would present this to the administration. I realize this course of action could open me up to litigation, but this is a risk I was willing to take. I always asked for this information to not be put in writing and for it not to reside in anything that could be construed to be a student record

So, in summary,

1) Our letters of recommendation are not confidential and ARE school records which can be seen by parents or adult students. But we can refuse to write recommendation letters or communicate that they are not confidential if there is not a waiver of access.

2) We may send disciplinary information to where a student seeks to enroll, but we cannot do so selectively and we need to provide parental notification. It is best to have a written policy, something I have not been able to achieve at either of the public schools where I worked (it was never a problem at any of the 3 private schools where I worked).

3) Disclosure is always more complex than just having a policy or checking boxes. It is always messier and more complicated than it seems.

4) College representatives (Bruce, are you out there?) who state that we should send any and all disciplinary information should spend a one-year internship working at a public school and they would see how unworkable a policy this would be. Though it would be nice if we could send out disciplinary information only to the colleges that ask for it, we do not have that freedom. On either side of the desk, we often engage in platitudes that sound great in theory ("all colleges should deny all inadmissable students who apply Early Decision or Action") but are much more complicated in practice.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Delay in Introduction of College Board 8th Grade Test

It was a wise choice of the College Board to delay the introduction of ReadiStep, the 8th grade version of the SAT. When is it that we decide as a country that there is simply too much testing?

In New Jersey, as in many states, there is testing every year of schooling after the 1st grade. In the junior year of high school, the state has proposed testing in virtually every subject area, rolling out tests in Biology, Algebra I and Algebra II and proposing perhaps a dozen more.

At what point do we determine that testing becomes a distraction from learning rather than an assessment of it? The College Board stated that ReadiStep is not a Pre-PSAT, but, truly, what is their legitimacy on this issue?

Since exploring for-profit business opportunities with its website (the website is now not-for-profit) the organization's mission has come under scrutiny.

The College Board has rejected modular testing with a series of post-hoc arguments that fail all logic tests. They have taken the worst aspect of the ACT as their own, Score Choice, leaving one to the conclusion that they desired to dramatically increase revenue gained from sending test scores with minimal increase in costs.

So the decision to delay (and hopefully scrap) ReadiStep should be applauded by the educational community. 8th grade is way too soon to begin thinking about college admissions tests and, despite all their protestations that this was not the purpose of this test, the College Board clearly knew that would be its effect. If the College Board is looking for some new initiatives to aid students, maybe they should consider these:

1) Allow modular testing, with students re-testing on the SAT in only the section(s) they need or want to re-test.

2) Eliminate Score Choice. It only will increase the student frequency and emphasis on testing.

3) Eliminate the penalty for guessing

4) Work with the states and federal government to have one test to be used both for high school graduation and college admissions. Then maybe the educational community will stop questioning the motives of the College Board.

To date, I have had no reason to believe that any decisions the College Board has made as an organization are made for anything but business reasons. When they pretend to act as agents of the educational community rather than as a business seeking to maximize profits, they really are acting as wolves in sheep's clothing.
Visiting Colleges

It was fascinating visiting colleges this fall with my daughter after having visited hundreds of colleges myself as a college counselor. I read the student newspapers, looked at the graffiti in the bathrooms, the comments on the student doors. I looked throughout the lunchroom to kept a mental note of how many kids had their baseball hats on backwards or what groups of kids seemed to be sitting together. I looked to see whether trash was picked up, weeds pulled and routine repairs made. Were there buildings with water stains on the ceilings that seemed to be there for a long time? I listened carefully to the kids there…did they say “like” every other word? Could they express themselves? What did they wear? How many kids were at the gym, in the library, in the pub? I thought I had this nuanced view of the colleges I visited.
Soon after beginning each visit with my daughter to these same schools, I looked over at my daughter and saw by her expression that she had made up her mind. She was seeing many more things than I had from eyes that understood them more than I ever could…they were 17 year old eyes, not 51-year-old eyes. She could pick up, by the pocketbooks the girls carried or the brand of jeans the kids wore, some things I was blind to. She could interpret subtle differences in the language that I could never hear. She is in a culture that, as much as I try, I will never truly understand.
I was disappointed when, at one school that I thought she would love, she said immediately after the tour began that she thought the kids were snotty. Snotty, what do you mean? The tourguide seemed articulate, friendly, interesting. We hadn’t talked to a single other student. "Let’s go to the dining hall for lunch," I suggested. "No, dad, let’s leave."
At another college, we stayed overnight in the town and ended up playing ping pong in the basement of the campus center building. She met this boy who lived in the town next to ours who to my daughter seemed so normal. This college suddenly moved to the top of her list.
Being in the business, I probably went overboard trying to stay out of the process with her. She decided where to apply and I never saw any part of her applications. But I think her process was sound and thoughtful. Were her decisions overly affected by initial impressions? Of course, but they were valid. She could see things (like the kid in the Sixth Sense).
She in the end was choosing between a highly selective liberal arts college and the honors program at our state university. She was leaning toward the state university, because she had heard of the reputation of the small school (Swarthmore) was that kids were always working and she did not know how she would handle that pressure. She also knew she would have to take out loans at the smaller school and, due to a merit scholarship, would have money for graduate school if she went to the honors college.
She visited both colleges overnight and sat in on classes. she came back and said she was going to Swarthmore. “Dad," she said about the other school, "they didn’t talk in class. It was the teacher and one or two kids talking.” How could I argue with that logic? She wanted to participate in her class discussions, not just with the teacher but with the other kids in class. Without a moment's hesitation, I wrote the deposit check and mailed it in.

Friday, May 01, 2009

I just read that they passed a law in CT banning 16 year-olds from owning or shooting machine guns. Really? Machine Guns? Good thing they couldn't drink until they were 21 before this, because machine guns and 16 year-olds and Mad Dog 20/20 are not a good mix!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Cost of College

Lost in much of the discussion about admissions and costs is the drastic change this year in loan rates and availability. Though loans for those who have a home and a strong credit rating (either through home equity loans or re-financing) are relatively easy to come by and rates are very low, other loans are much harder to get and the difference of rates between secured and unsecured loans is higher than I have ever seen. For instance, NJ Class loans rate were less expensive than most home equity loans and went up over 2% from last year to 7.62 percent. Unsubsidized Stafford loans are at 6.8% and plus loans are at 8.5%…when home equity loans or lines of credit can be had from 4-5%. In addition, it is getting much harder to qualify for loans with a reasonable rate of interest. This is one further impediment to access to post-secondary education for all but the well-to-do.
The Future of College Admission
I hate to sound like the Chicken Little, but I think we are in for a period in college admissions over the next two years that will be unlike any other. Because admissions are on a cycle, everything is delayed somewhat. I believe that the crisis that we are seeing in housing and banking will be coming to college admissions over the next two years.

This year there will be some impact. We will see some private colleges that are not highly selective taking some relatively desperate steps to meet their expenses: canceling capital improvement projects, freezing salaries, laying off staff, taking out loans to cover operating expenses, admitting and funding students to get short-term cash infusions, selling assets (one college recently sold their art collection, for example), etc. I did admissions at a private high school which declared bankruptcy, so I certainly know what it's like to try to get cash together in a tuition driven school. These schools will have a number of simultaneous pressures: returning full-pay students seeking aid, more freshmen seeking aid, more merit or need-based aid needed to attract applicants, higher loan rates, etc.

The other trend will be record numbers of students flocking to public colleges. As parent and student college funds tank in the market meltdown and loan rates for everything but home equity loans skyrocket, more and more students will be forgoing the benefits of small, private colleges for the financial benefits of public colleges. This will be less apparent at the highly endowed and "prestigious" colleges, but even they will see the impact. Many parents and students will associate the opportunity to attend college with financial risk, sacrificing financially only on what will be perceived as a return on one's investment.

The real crisis will hit in May of 2010. College closings in the news will be as common as home foreclosures. The costs of the short term financial decisions of 2009 will come home to roost. Colleges will need to start paying back the loans and will not have the stability to get more loans. What were decisions to get short term capital in 2009, particularly dramatic increases of financial aid budgets, become huge liabilities, and the ability to raise cash quickly will become much more limited. There will be fewer assets to divest, greater need to get revenue and more and more students and parents expecting less selective private colleges to match the costs of public colleges.

I hope I am wrong, but I fear that even if we are to emerge from this recession, the trends are not good for a large number of tuition driven schools. I think that there is a long term mindset of economy, return on investment and financial security that will drive huge numbers of students to less expensive colleges or to colleges which offer large amounts of aid. This could be a crushing blow to rural or regional colleges who do not benefit from state funding and who are at the financial margins now.