The data is pretty interesting.

There are a lot of ways you might measure school performance. When assessing a school parents will often ask about outcomes, and they often use college admissions as a proxy for overall school strength. While we proudly collect and publish a list of college acceptances and matriculations, we shy away from pointing to any names on that list as evidence of the success of our program. There are just too many factors that go into any individual student’s acceptance and matriculation at a college or university. We believe that each student must find the right fit, and that there are many wonderful options.

However, there may be value to stepping back and looking at a broader data set. For my Cary Academy “State of the School” presentation, I often share the percentage of our students who are accepted at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill as a proxy for program strength. We use UNC-CH because of the large number of CA students who apply and because we can access a rich set of benchmark data from the state of North Carolina called Freshman Measures.

Here is the most recent complete data set that we have:

admits

If you dig deeper, you learn that Cary Academy students were more likely to enter into an honors program or take an honors English or an advanced level math class. More recent acceptance rates have been even higher, but benchmark data has not yet been released.

Digging Deeper

The data is pretty interesting, and as good data can, it made me want to know more.

Members of the CA Class of 2012 are now seniors and ready to graduate. After sharing the data with employees and parents, I couldn’t help but feel that there was more of a story to tell. I decided to embark on a little action research.

I first collected all the information I could about these 26 students: their test scores when they applied to come to Cary Academy, the grades of every course they took while they were here, and their standardized test scores when they applied to Chapel Hill.

The picture that emerged showed students with a broad range of academic abilities and interests were successfully served at CA. While the average reading score when they applied to Cary Academy was at the 76th percentile (of independent school norms), the range was broad. One student entered CA at the 25th percentile, another at the 99th percentile.

I chose to narrow my look at course selection to the junior year, where students at CA first take advanced level classes that might count for college credit. This cohort took a wide range of course before their acceptance and matriculation to Chapel Hill. While roughly 70% took one advanced science class, there was no particular path or course that seemed to dominate. Roughly 65% took a version of advanced calculus. Slightly more took an advanced world language. For the most part, students did well in these courses, but Bs were also in the mix. Standardized tests scores also varied.

Against a backdrop of anxiety over the “recipe” for college admissions success, the data tells me there are any number of paths that one could take through Cary Academy to land happily in college. Of course, students need to take a challenging academic program and do well, but beyond that there was plenty of flexibility for students to craft a path that fits them best. This is as it should be.

After my paper chase, I decided it was time to meet some of these folks. I invited them to lunch (what college senior will turn down a free meal), and took three trips to Chapel Hill to hear their stories. Here is what I learned:

Preparation

The students universally told me they were prepared for the academic rigors of Chapel Hill. Importantly, they felt prepared for both the familiar and unfamiliar. They knew how to write and how to think. When some professors told them they couldn’t use their laptops in class, the knew how to adjust and take notes by hand. They adapted, some quicker than others, to courses where assessments were infrequent and they need to study for big, make-or-break exams. Most referenced a teacher at Cary Academy who had a lasting academic or personal impact, some remembering even as far back as the 6th grade.

Adjustments

When asked about their biggest adjustments, our graduates talked about finding a home within the wider world of a big school like Chapel Hill. Academics were the reason they were in school, they said, but classes alone don’t make a community. Once they found their tribes — in the arts, through sports, or through service — they started to feel at home.

Success

The overall key for success in college, they said, was taking ownership over the experience. As our Upper School Principal Heather Clarkson likes to say: Own Your Learning. Cary Academy gave them the experiences and skills necessary for success, but our nurturing environment had plenty of built-in safety nets. In a bigger environment like Chapel Hill, our graduates needed to be proactive about just about everything: their housing, their course selection, their activities.

The Future

Future plans for the CA Class of 2012/UNC-CH Class of 2016 varied. Some are applying to graduate school, others full-time work or internships. I met those seeking to go into medical research or medical school. Interestingly, some future doctors took advanced science courses at CA, others did not. Some were looking to work overseas, and they pointed to the CA exchange programs as being a transformative experience in shaping their worldview. Others were headed into the work world, looking at roles as varied as communications and finance.

Overall, I am pleased to report that the graduates I met were thriving. They looked back fondly on their days at CA and were hopeful about their futures. Based on my time with them, I’m hopeful for the future for all of us.