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It’s high-anxiety time for high school seniors as acceptance or rejection letters from colleges will come streaming into their mailbox any day now.

CPR’s education reporter Jenny Brundin talks with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner about a new study showing that high schoolers grades are a better predictor of college success than the entrance exams they took.  They also talk about a radical new breed of playground that lets kids roam free, manipulate their surroundings – and – build fires.

The following Q&A captures their discussion:

Ryan Warner: Let’s start with the findings about those college entrance exams. Some are calling it a "game changer.”

Jenny Brundin: Yes, in that it could prompt schools to evaluate whether there’s value in requiring the tests.  And that’s because it shows that high school grades, not standardized test scores, are a better predictor of how students do in college.

Ryan Warner: How did researchers go about figuring this out?

Jenny Brundin: Well, first you have to understand that 800 of the 3,000 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S. are test-optional. That means, you don’t have to apply with ACT or SAT test scores in hand.  The researchers looked at 123,000 students at some of those schools --- it’s the first real look at how students who didn’t use scores to get in fared compared to students who did.

Ryan Warner: How did they do?

Jenny Brundin: Bottom line – researchers say colleges who admit 10s of thousands of students without looking at their scores --- and only looking at their grades -- have no reason to worry.  There was virtually no difference in GPA and graduation rates between test-submitters and non-submitters. The study also showed that students perform better in college than their SAT and ACT scores might lead you to think.

Ryan Warner: So high school grades matter?

Jenny Brundin: Yes, that was another clear result. For both groups of students – high school grades were the best predictor of success in college. And this is interesting – kids who had good high school grades but low or moderate test scores did better in college than those with good test scores but modest grades.

Ryan Warner: The main author of the study is Bill Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bates College. We should also point out that a recent survey of the country’s college admissions officers shows that a student’s high school record and the toughness of the courses they take are the most important factors in college admission decisions. But now,  what do SAT and ACT proponents say about this study?

Jenny Brundin: Well, there’s a lot at stake. Something that started as an IQ test in the Army has grown into a $2 billion dollar a year industry. The head of ACT told NPR that more information is better and many colleges still find the college entrance exams to be useful.

If you want to get an inside peak into crunch time at an admissions office, we have a link to a great Washington Post article. The reporters got access to the George Washington University admissions shop, which shows how officers dissect an applicant’s academic and personal life in a matter of minutes. It too, shows grade transcripts get far more scrutiny than test scores – sometimes, though, they say, the grade pool is so inflated that they have to use test scores – but the article shows they really do look at a lot more beyond both of those!

Ryan Warner: So let’s move to other interesting things you’ve read recently, the April Atlantic cover story, “The Overprotected Kid.”

Jenny Brundin: Yes, there has been a surge of articles and books over the past couple of years on how detrimental “helicopter parenting” is. That is, being involved in and scheduling every aspect of your child’s life. This has led to a dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore as they choose. This article by Hanna Rosin. I loved it! It’s definitely a cut above the rest. She writes, “Hey parents! Leave those kids alone.”

Ryan Warner: So what’s so cool about this article?

Jenny Brundin: Cool is the word. Rosin travels to Wales where she visits a radical new breed of playground that allows kids to manipulate their surroundings. It’s called “The Land.” It seems more like a junkyard. It's got old couches and tires, and ramshackle boards, a creek and even fires. Kids just arrive on their own in this sprawling place and explore, jump on old mattresses, build, create and just “be” in their little groups without adults interfering or organizing.

Ryan Warner: There are fires?

Jenny Brundin: Yes, kids sometimes build fires. We should say there that there is a staff to support children as they run, climb, build and play….but they rarely interfere. Kids figure out the lessons of fire on their own. There is a video of “The Land” in the article (an excerpt from a forthcoming documentary) that shows a kid figuring out how to saw and build a makeshift paddle to hit snowballs with. It shows kids being thrilled at the challenge of just swinging in an old plastic tube. There’s a great line in the article where the author’s son asks a girl: “Why are you rolling tires into the water?” The girl replies: “Because we are.”

Ryan Warner: It sounds a lot like a typical childhood in say, the 1970’s?

Jenny Brundin: Yes. I had a tinge of sadness reading the article because it made me realize how incredibly far we are from the days when children created their own fun, they made their own rules, they negotiated and solved problems on their own. There was a sense of risk and discovery and adventure.  The author includes insights from a dissertation in the 1970’s on the “geography of children’s play” – looking at how far kids would roam from home and what they’d do. She says reading the dissertation today seems like coming upon a lost civilization that’s utterly foreign now. The article is also sprinkled with all the latest research showing how overprotective parenting does more harm than good, robbing kids of creativity and courage.

Ryan Warner: ….without actually making them any safer?

Jenny Brundin: Yes, that’s right. Accidents on today’s risk-free playgrounds are about the same if not higher than in the 70’s and she also has the stats on things like the extreme rarity of child abduction.

Ryan Warner: There are some interesting observations in the piece – about what our safety-obsessions say about how we view children….

Jenny Brundin: Yes, it’s the view now that children can’t be trusted to find their way around tricky physical or social situations. The piece gets into evolutionary psychology, that children are really born with the instinct to take risks in play. That’s because learning how to negotiate risk has been crucial to survival. Growing up is a process of managing fears and learning to arrive at good decisions. Some who’ve studied this area argue that by letting children engage in risky play, they’re forcing themselves to do something they’re afraid to do in order to overcome their fear. If they never have these experiences, fear can turn into phobia. But if you want to know how this staggering loss of trust in children came about – you’ll have to read the article.

Note: The Land suddenly had to close last week because of an arson attack. They are fundraising to repair their losses here.

Ryan Warner: Finally, we know that low-income children who start school with many disadvantages often struggle with their school work. You’ve read a study that finds something else.

Jenny Brundin: Yes. So children who are homeless or have poor medical care or a parent without an education–also end up hurting the achievement of other students. The results of this study should come as no surprise to teachers, but now that an Ivy League school has studied the phenomenon, it seems more people are paying attention.

Ryan Warner: Tell us about the study.

Jenny Brundin: The University of Pennsylvania studied more than 10,000 children who enrolled in public schools in Philadelphia – K through 3rd grade.

Ryan Warner: These were schools with high concentrations of children with “risk factors”?

Jenny Brundin: Yes. It found that academic performance of all children was hurt.  An example of this would be researchers discovered that children who were homeless or mistreated – those without a supportive, stable home environment -  disrupted their classrooms. That in turn would pull down reading achievement and attendance rates among children who were not homeless or mistreated.  Much like if you were continually interrupted as you tried to work, or were sworn at or had things thrown at you, it would be hard to get work done.

To draw these conclusions, the researchers created a sophisticated data system. It combined information from schools, social service agencies and other sources. They could then probe the risk factors that affected thousands of kids going back to before they were born.

Ryan Warner: So right now we have a system that clumps students in groups - by race, by income, whether English is their first language and it grades schools based on how well students do in their group. It would seem that this study is implying that system of accountability isn’t accurate?

Jenny Brundin: Yes, the Washington Post article quotes the researchers as saying that it’s too blunt.  It doesn’t recognize that “at risk” students can affect their peers.

Ryan Warner: What’s a better approach?

Jenny Brundin: Researchers said to target support and interventions to individual “at risk” children-- then the whole school benefits.

Ryan: Warner: Thank you Jenny, for being with us.