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An 'A' in Kindness? College Admissions Movement Places Less Emphasis on Tests

Reading, writing, arithmetic — and kindness?

A report last month from the Harvard Graduate School of Education recommends college admissions officers de-emphasize standardized tests and AP coursework, and instead encourage applicants to volunteer and participate in their communities.

The report, entitled "Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions," suggests focusing so much on grades and scores can place undue amounts of pressure on high school students.

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"In the big picture here, we are trying to tell kids to lead more balanced lives," lead report author and Harvard senior lecturer Richard Weissbourd told NBC News.

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The report, which was endorsed by more than 80 college professors and administrators from across the country, has received a mixed response.

In an article in The Harvard Crimson last week, Harvard dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid William Fitzsimmons acknowledged that while he was "happy" to sign it, he "wouldn't necessarily agree with every point in the report." For starters, he still expected Harvard applicants to continue to take high-level courses, and said Harvard would not be foregoing standardized tests in its application process.

Image: TEST-PREPARATION-COLLEGE-SAT
An instructor points on a student's worksheet as she teaches a test preparation class at Holton Arms School, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016 in Bethesda. Alex Brandon / AP, file

Fitzsimmons raises a question that many parents, students and admissions experts have been asking: Are the goals of "Turning the Tide" realistic?

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"In many ways, 'Turning the Tide' makes us all feel good for a fleeting moment. But the responses from Fitzsimmons and others who have jumped on the bandwagon to endorse the report make it clear they aren't lowering their standards anytime soon," Sara Harberson, founder of Admissions Revolution, a college counseling service, told NBC News.

Weissbourd says his report's recommendations are attainable — but it will take a shift in perspective from colleges, parents, and students.

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"It's true that if you're just focused on very elite colleges, you're not going to see big changes in some of their practices," Weissbourd said. "But I totally believe the admissions officers when they say they aren't interested in students racking up achievement after achievement just for achievement's sake."

Susana MacLean, a Westfield, New Jersey, mother of a high school junior and an eighth grader, said she worried the scale could tip too far in emphasizing volunteer work.

"My son is picking courses and activities for his freshman year in high school. If he has to make time to do a community service project, that time has to come from somewhere. Should he take less challenging classes?" she said. "Should he give up being in the marching band, which he was totally looking forward to? Is that what colleges want? Because something will have to give."

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Weissbourd said he hopes the report will have the opposite effect.

"There are some kids who are going to be deeply involved in sports or the arts, and that can count as community engagement, if kids can describe on an application what they are learning about teamwork and community as part of those experiences," he said. "What matters less are brief stints of service rather than the kind of person you are in your community and your school every day."