Letter to the Editor: SHS Advisor creators respond to teachers’ criticism

October 3, 2016 — by Anthony Barthell, Apoorv Kwatra and Theo Luan


Dear Falcon,


As seniors at Saratoga High, we have long enjoyed the culture of collaboration at Saratoga. Teachers encourage their students to study academic material together, while students help each other choose classes based on their personal experiences and create Facebook groups to share study resources. This is why we have created SHS Advisor, a website providing tools to foster student collaboration and academic excellence. SHS Advisor is a centralized platform that offers alumni advice, study resources and crowdsourced difficulty levels for individual classes at our school. Is such a platform detrimental to the spirit of learning? Does enabling students to share resources regarding specific classes “reduce every class, every text, every unit into yet another hoop to jump through,” as English teacher Mr. Nguyen writes in his letter to The Falcon?


The first portion of Mr. Nguyen’s critique of SHS Advisor largely pinpoints superficial details. He criticizes our tagline, “A Guide to Breeze Through Your Four Years at Saratoga High,” and phrases such as the advice section headings, which were labeled “How to get an A.” We understand that these phrases may suggest a view that promotes “getting through” classes with minimal effort, and we have reworded these lines in order to better reflect our site’s ideals; our tagline now states, “A Guide to Success At Saratoga High,” and the headlines of our advice sections have been changed to “How to Succeed.” Regardless, we do not believe that these catchphrases hold enough significance to warrant a serious rebuttal.


Additionally, Mr. Nguyen states that the difficulty rating on our site does not provide accurate descriptions of classes. He asks, “Against what sort of metric are these classes being measured? Easy in what sense? Challenging in what sense? Is one subject’s level of ease/challenge equivalent to another’s?” We concede that difficulty is relative to each student and that it does not capture the full nature of a class; however, it is arguably the simplest way to describe a class. If one personally asks a student about a class, their first answer is typically either “easy” or “hard.” We added the difficulty feature as an efficient measure of this characteristic, and nothing more. In response to Mr. Nguyen’s suggestion for a more comprehensive overview for each class, however, we plan to add more qualitative identifiers of classes, such as workload and demanding concepts, gauged through a second round of crowdsourced surveying.


Mr. Nguyen also points out that the sharing of old study guides on our site will encourage foul play, suggesting that they are unnecessary and may morph into “power cheat sheets.” We disagree: Students already collaborate on the creation of study guides through social media platforms such as Facebook. In fact, many teachers encourage this cooperative effort because it allows students to spend more of their valuable time reviewing rather than searching their notes and books for information. We strongly support this kind of collaboration — students who benefit from our review material are given room to surpass baseline expectations and delve further into the subjects of their studies. Mr. Nguyen claims that doctored study guides created by students who have already taken tests can be misused to cheat; however, we personally screen each study guide submitted to us before uploading them. Also, students will not likely attempt to cheat through a site that is openly accessible to both teachers and students. Lastly, if any teachers have issues with our study guides for their classes, they can contact us and request removal.


Furthermore, Mr. Nguyen assumes the position of a student, stating, “It’s one more thing, one more site, one more routine that I, Stressed Out Student, must now incorporate into my academic life.” As students, we would not have created SHS Advisor if we did not believe it would benefit the student body. Students are not pressured to use the site at all — those who review better by creating their own study guides or reading the textbook directly will continue to do what works for them. Some students will find utility in the site, and some will not, but we are certain that no one feels compelled to add SHS Advisor to their daily routine. Comparing our site to Sparknotes or CliffsNotes is an unfounded accusation — our study guides do not replace textbooks like the aforementioned sites do, but rather serve as supplemental review sheets. Therefore, at best, our site decreases stress by allowing students to save time and energy wasted on busywork and focus more on learning; at worst, it has no effect on students who choose not to use it.


Mr. Nguyen’s article demonstrates a phenomenon that we have observed in our four years at Saratoga High: Students are often bombarded with the notion that grades should not matter; learning is what is important. While a system that values learning rather than marks is ideal, ignoring scores is impractical. All universities highly value the grades and test scores of their applicants, and students who want to dream big have to adapt to these standards. Moreover,  belittling the importance of grades deems learning and getting an “A” mutually exclusive. We believe that there is a strong, linear relationship between the concepts of learning and getting an “A,” as students who attain “A’s” have exhibited superior knowledge of varying subjects. Regardless of the controversy over the American grading system and its flaws, grades and test scores are still universities’ key indicators of a student’s academic ability and are heavily relied upon for admissions decisions. As students, we did not choose this system, but it is within our power to determine how to best excel under these conditions.


In creating SHS Advisor, we were not trying to reform the education system. Renovating the way the youth learn and move on to higher education is an admirable goal, and we agree wholly with the notion that the status quo does not fully represent the potential of a student; however, this is beyond the scope of our project. In reality, grades matter, scores matter and students care about these things. We built SHS Advisor in the hopes of creating a platform that will foster academic cooperation, empower students to get the most out of the courses they choose and improve students’ quality of life.