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Sophomore Standing: The Making of a Policy

Can A Student 'Omit' His Freshman Year?

When thirteen students were admitted to the College as Sophomores in the fall of 1955, many spokesmen of prep schools felt that the problem of bored and apathetic Freshmen was well on the way to solution. The new program was simultaneously hailed as a major step in abbreviating the process of professional education. And to those who viewed the Advanced Placement program as higher education's most powerful tool for reforming the secondary schools, Sophomore Standing seemed a revolutionary reward for schools willing to raise their standards.

Today it is clear that Soph Standing has been both a success and a failure. As an educational program which experienced almost every trial and pitfall possible, it offers an instructive lesson in how policy is made, and in why it is made as it is.

Like the General Education program which had been passed a few years beofre, Sophomore Standing was the result of a book--called General Education in School and College--which attempted to create a theory to deal with an educational problem, in this case the transition from school to college. But unlike the famous "Redbook" on which General Education was founded, the newer study drew on a lengthy questionnaire given to college students to find out how they learned as well as what they ought to learn. It was, in this sense, an intermediate step between Gen Ed--which simply set down what ought to be taught--and the Freshman Seminars--which were almost exclusively concerned with the method rather than the content of education.

Approach Empirical

Even though its approach was empirical, the problem of working with-in a long-established tradition set sharp limits on Sophomore Standing. When the program actually went through, about a quarter of the Faculty voted against it, and with such opposition it was unthinkable to attempt the kind of radical change needed to create a coherent three-year program for those who came in as sophomores.

The alternative was simply to carve out a three-year program from the existing four-year college by amputating the Freshman year. Apathy, boredom, and the other problems of the first year were "met" by merely removing the name and the directly associated requirements like Gen Ed A, physical training, living in the Yard, and two-thirds of the lower-level Gen Ed requirement. After all, if there is no Freshman year there can't be problems associated with it.

Sophomore Standing was also designed to improve American education by rewarding schools that gave particularly good preparation. The College's privileges of leadership have given rise to serious and somewhat unpleasant obligations. The Administration feels, for example, that abandoning Soph Standing is absolutely out of the question because it would impair the prestige of the national advanced placement program.

In effect, this national commitment means that an unsatisfactory program could perfectly well be offered for reasons unrelated to the needs of students for whom it is given. Whether this is actually the case remains moot. The relations to national A.P. programs has continued to dictate the use of standardized tests instead of the more sophisticated criteria used, for example, in determining admission to the College.

Program Restricted

The triple aims of promoting advanced placement, creating a three-year program, and enlivening the first year for well-prepared students has severely restricted the program by establishing highly diversified criteria of success. More important, it created complex demands on the mechanical operation of the program which made it very difficult to relate the program to actual educational requirements of undergraduates. The blanket decision to treat the new students exactly like Sophomores solved many uneasy administrative problems which would have been left open by a more student-oriented policy.

It was not just this conflict of objectives which turned the attention of administrators to the less emotionally loaded problems of encouraging schools and helping students get through in three years. Most administrators and educators are reluctant to take responsibility for a program whose aim is as vague as improving education. The need for a concrete process which is accepted as being good, which can be expedited rather than evaluated, has given rise to reliance on highly objective measures of success, such as whether students and faculty are satisfied, rather than on more debatable valuations.

It is much easier to decide the House system is good and then see if Sophomore Standing meshes with Houses than to decide whether the program is good taken on its own merits. Even after five years, most complaints about the program are based on theoretical conflicts with other programs rather than on judgements of what students have gained.

Student Problems

This may help to explain why to little data is available. But a year ago a Senior Tutor did go over the records of Soph Standing students in his House, and concluded that all but one had had unsatisfactory experience with the program. The Dean murmured polite assent to this finding and said he might be interested if more people said the same, but so far there has been no rush of data.

Nobody knows, for example, whether Soph Standing students perform substantially above or below predicted rank list ratings during their careers. Nobody knows whether they change fields more or less often than others, whether they go to graduate school more or less often than others, whether they go to graduate school more than a comparably intelligent group of Freshmen, or whether their personalities change more or less than other undergraduates. Nobody knows, in fact, whether any measure except academic achievement would show Soph Standing students more mature than ordinary Freshmen.

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