Friday, March 21, 2014

Sometimes, the SAT you read about in the news doesn't look much like the actual SAT

[Unless otherwise noted, 'SAT' refers to the SAT Reasoning Test]

There are real concerns about the SAT. The emphasis on vocabulary can and sometimes does create a problem with cultural bias and the test has a history of being misused, as do most psychometrics. Though it is possible to make too much of these abuses, we should remember that, like the IQ test, people have and in a more subtle fashion, continue to use tests like the SAT to make racist arguments.

But while there are valid arguments for changing, deemphasizing, or even eliminating the SAT, these are not the arguments you will see in the anti-SAT editorials in Esquire or the New York Times. Instead, we get attacks on an SAT test that doesn't actually exist (Though it quite possibly may after David Coleman is finished with his reforms).

Though it has long tried to live down the fact for various reasons, the SAT was designed to be what its original name suggests, a scholastic aptitude test. It was also designed to be largely orthogonal to GPA and other information found in high school transcripts. (you can find a more detailed discussion of this point here and here)

In order to achieve that orthogonality the SAT test to be written in such a way that students have taken more advanced classes do not have an unfair advantage. Partly for that reason, the SAT is perhaps unique among major measures of academic accomplishment in that it has almost no rote memory component other than vocabulary.* (From here on out, I am going to focus primarily on the mathematics section though most of the general comments will apply to the entire test.)

An old professor of mine, Bill Condon, once described the analytic SAT as the toughest ninth grade math test you will ever take. That's an extremely apt way of putting it. All of the mathematical concepts are either common sense or things which a ninth grader should have covered. Almost all of the rules and formulas needed for the test are printed in the front of the booklet.

The trouble with coverage of the SAT and to a slightly lesser extent the ACT is that virtually everyone whom you will find discussing it in the pages of a major newspaper or magazine has intense but old and usually highly unreliable memories of the test. Add to that the generally poor quality of the emotionally-charged education reform debate and the result is an incredibly unproductive discussion.

For a  representative example, check out this opinion piece written by Jennifer Finney Boylan for the New York Times, which puts the trauma front and center starting with the first sentence:
I WAS in trouble. The first few analogies were pretty straightforward — along the lines of “leopard is to spotted as zebra is to striped” — but now I was in the tall weeds of nuance. Kangaroo is to marsupial as the giant squid is to — I don’t know, maybe D) cephalopod? I looked up for a second at the back of the head of the girl in front of me. She had done this amazing thing with her hair, sort of like a French braid. I wondered if I could do that with my hair.

I daydreamed for a while, thinking about the architecture of braids. When I remembered that I was wasting precious time deep in the heart of the SAT, I swore quietly to myself. French braids weren’t going to get me into Wesleyan. Although, in the years since I took the test in the mid-’70s, I’ve sometimes wondered if knowing how to braid hair was actually of more practical use to me as an English major than the quadratic equation. But enough of that. Back to the analogies. Loquacious is to mordant as lachrymose is to ... uh ...

This was the moment I saw the terrible thing I had done, the SAT equivalent of the Hindenburg disaster. I’d accidentally skipped a line on my answer sheet, early in that section of the test. Every answer I’d chosen, each of those lines of graphite-filled bubbles, was off by one. I looked at the clock. Time was running out. I could see the Wesleyan campus fading before my eyes.

High school is a trauma-filled time and its humiliations and disappointments can stay fresh for decades as they obviously have here. They do not, however, often lead to objective or accurate analyses. It may well have seemed unfair at the time to be judged on knowledge of relatively obscure words, but given that vocabulary tracks fairly well with reading ability, it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask a future English major to display an understanding of words like 'loquacious,' 'mordant' or even 'cephalopod.' As for the math section, I assume from the definite article that "the quadratic equation" refers to the quadratic formula. If so, that's an interesting choice because that formula does not appear on the SAT.

The math that does appear on the SAT relies on the following:

properties of numbers;

basic algebraic manipulation;

very basic (junior high level) geometry (with relevant formulas printed on the first page);

simple probability;

reading graphs and tables;

logic and problem-solving.

All of these fall into the good-to-know category for the general population and I'd argue the last is especially valuable for English majors (bad logic makes for bad literary criticism and often bad literature).

Boylan then goes on to complain that the SAT relies too much on memorization and to argue for the superiority of high school GPA as an academic metric. As mentioned before, the rote learning component of the SAT is extraordinarily small, far smaller than the corresponding component for almost every test-based grade a student will receive in junior high and high school.

This oddly self-defeating argument "We should drop the SAT because it's too ____; instead, we should rely more on grades/other tests/whatever (which happen to be more _____ than the SAT)" also features prominently in a less personal but much less coherent piece by news editor Ben Collins. Collins' argument consists of a series of largely arbitrary but highly emotional associations (it's not entirely clear why he makes these connections but he certainly feels strongly about them).

The first and possibly strangest of these associations involves Google.
Google, a company that evolved from a search engine into the world’s de facto incubator for great ideas that define our future, does not look at standardized tests when they hire applicants. They don't look at whether or not an applicant went to a Holy Grail of the standardized test lottery -- an Ivy League school -- either.
The wording here is somewhat unclear (this almost sounds like the company redacts the education sections from applicants' resumes), but I know that the big players like Google are very interested in students coming of top computer science programs like the UC schools and particularly Stanford. Take a look at this SAT breakdown for the school that produced Google:

Percent of Applicants
Admit Rate
Percent of Admitted Class
Below 600

Keep in mind that these numbers include humanities majors.  The graduates that a company like Google are interested would almost all be in the first two bins. Google doesn't talk much about SATs at least in part because they've largely maxed out the metric.

Collins' piece actually gets worse from there.

All of that is antithetical to the dog-eat-dog, score-high-at-all-costs test-taking culture that America has distilled in its young people. And all of that is exactly why Google is the most futuristic corporation on this planet.

They know that this kind of ingenuity and collaboration — not just knowledge — is what makes a smarter world. It is also what makes better people.

We have ritually and ceaselessly sucked the fun and wonder out of learning in a country that is pushing kids into adulthood aimless, goalless, robotic and depressed as a way to feed a system that we now know does not work.

Then we blame the adults for questioning the intent of that system, even when there is none.

Do not mistake a less-tested America for an Everybody Wins America — an academic extension of those soccer games where nobody keeps score. We need to keep score to stay competitive, to remark on ingenuity and encourage drive, to understand where help is needed and where greatness needs to be challenged further.

But we don’t need to do it in this increasingly antiquated, old-world way, a holdover from when we knew much less about our kids’ biology, how they learn, and how to compel them to be better.

Currently, we have our kids fill in bubbles, and if those kids fill in the bubbles wrong on a forgotten Saturday morning when they are 17, they’re cast to a lower lot for the rest of their lives.

This cannot be the American ideal.

Make no mistake: The next revolution is not another industrial one or another technological one but it will be our first educational one. America can lead the pack if it gets over its hubris, identifies and changes its faults, and unshackles itself from the tyranny of rules and routine that exist only for the sake of themselves.

Why try to play catch up with the old world when the greatest companies in the new economy are already here, in this country, creating new ways to make the world better? These companies are disregarding the rest of the world’s urge to retrofit an exponential stream of new information into a few hundred bubbles on a thin, white sheet of paper.

Only those kinds of companies are forging our future. Why don’t our kids deserve to be taught the same way?

China has better test scores across the board than the U.S. They do not have Apple or Facebook or Microsoft or Google. They do not have our ingenuity. Let’s start appreciating it, rewarding it, fighting for it. Let's start drilling a love of learning into the brains of our kids, in the place where fear and anxiety currently reside.

Where to start...

In some parts of this passage, Collins seems to be talking about some tests other than the SAT such as the PISA exams when addressing China** or VAM-based tests when discussing the effects on learning.  If this had led up to a condemnation of tests in general the conflation might be at least internally consistent, but with the paragraph about the importance of keeping score that possibility goes out the window. We have to limit his criticisms, however odd, to the SAT.

The only real specific Collins offers about why the SAT should be singled out for elimination is that the test is old. That's partially true. The test has constantly evolved, driven by some of the best and most sophisticated analytic techniques in the field, but in terms of the test's format and its role in the education system, we've had the current set-up since 1930.

I'd argue that the country has had a pretty good run of innovation since 1930 and while I wouldn't claim that the SAT was a major driver, it would be difficult to argue that it held us back. Collins seems to agree on the first part but he takes a strange turn from there. As best I can make it out, he's arguing that America is the most innovative country in the world so it's essential that we drop a major, longstanding component of our education system or we'll become like China.

All snark aside, we probably should have a good debate about the way college admissions work and about the (I think misplaced) emphasis we have come to put on getting into the 'right' schools. Unfortunately, writers like Boylan and Collins aren't contributing to that debate; they're just supplying misplaced anger and emotional baggage.

*There's a big question (too big to address here) about the role of vocabulary in the SAT. Ideally there should be no rote learning element here at all. The vocabulary component is supposed to measure things like how reading volume and comprehension. Memorizing lists of words is, in a sense, cheating; it's also of questionable effectiveness compared to good, active reading habits.

** From China Daily:

The first annual report on the SAT performance of Chinese students found the average score was 1,213 points out of the total of 2,400, some 296 points lower than US students and 337 points lower than the benchmark set by College Board, the organizer of the test.

The gap is mainly derived from the reading and writing parts of the test. Chinese students scored 170 points less than US students in the reading part, which reveals Chinese students lack training in critical thinking, according to the report.

Chinese students, known to excel in mathematics, earned 547 points out of the total of 800, only 30 points higher than US students. The report attributed the lower-than-expected performance to Chinese students' poor knowledge of English mathematical terms and the test is aimed at a junior level which is easier for US students.

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