The University of California may eliminate SATs scores
February 17, 2001 7:29 AM   Subscribe

The University of California may eliminate SATs scores as a criterion for admission of undergraduates.
posted by MattD (38 comments total)
I think this is both an opportunity and a tremendous risk, depending upon how they do it. (And I have a vested interest, as an active Berkeley alum.)

They do mention that they will continue to look at the Achievement Tests (now known as the SAT II) -- the subject matter specific areas. IF they follow through on this in a concerted way, and also add some reliance on AP tests, wonderful: I've always thought that testing "verbal" skills in an abstract way is rather nonsensical; makes much more sense to test them contextually as part of history, literature or other examinations, which, as a bonus, also test substantive knowledge. It is also great to incorporate specific mandatory testing on sciences and social sciences, which are currently not required in either the SAT or SAT II.

However, if they just put almost all the admission decision on high school grades, it will be a disaster of terrible proproportions. It will be an incentive for every parent to send their kids to the WORST, MOST GRADE INFLATING school they can possibly find, and for parents who aren't willing to move their kids to demand that their skills grade inflate even more than they do already. It will destroy any willingness of kids to take experimental curricula, to take a risk (i.e., take calculus instead of auto shop), because the SAT score "insurance" which protected a smart kid against a couple of B's or a couple of disregards as a result of taking very hard or off-track material, will be gone.

And, of course, the most competitive UC campuses (Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis) would have to institute a weighting system of high schools, in which an "A" from a suburban schol is worth more than an "A" from an inner city school, or risk having their classes be filled with people who would flunk out in the first term, which would be controversial and divisive.

posted by MattD at 7:41 AM on February 17, 2001

I would hate to see admissions based wholly on high school grades, which are so subjective, and don't measure anything...

On the other hand, I didn't have to take the SAT, I took the ACT, and got an absurdly high score with comparison to my mediocre high school performance. I don't know quite what the difference is, though.

What standardized tests protect you from is a total tyranny of high school teachers. I almost failed AP English, and got a 5 (the highest score) on the AP English exam. A person grading the AP exam does not have the personal bias a high school teacher has. (eww... another paper from Dagny, I don't like her, she's not at all popular, and her hair isn't bouncy... I swear to God, that was Dark Schneider's "thought" process)
posted by dagnyscott at 8:23 AM on February 17, 2001

Okay, first a tiny bit of background: I scored 1520 on the stupid test when I took it last fall.

Now my thoughts on the UC decision/proposal.

I think it's a wonderful, wonderful idea if... they replace the SAT I with 3-5 SAT IIs of the student's choice. You see, the SAT doesn't measure much besides one form of critical thinking and vocabulary size. I've been a voracious reader all my life so it was no big deal for me to get an 800 on the verbal. I'm not quite as good at math, so I only scored a 720 on the math section. It wasn't really that much trouble. How did I do it so easily? I took about 12 full-length practice tests ahead of going into the test center. That's all it took for me to score in the 99th percentile of all test-takers. Anyone who is of average intelligence and wants to put in a little effort can easily score above 1400 on the test. And this is *exactly* why it is a bad test and should be replaced. Any test that requires nothing more than ultra-familiarity with its nuances is a WORTHLESS test.

The SAT IIs, on the other hand, are quite excellent tests. They measure real knowledge, note fake "IQ test" knowledge. Additionally, they cannot be crammed for as easily and you will not beat them merely by understanding them.

If colleges want to give their students a square deal and want to assemble the brightest and best body of students possible they should give up the unfair SAT I and switch to SAT IIs.
posted by hanseugene at 8:54 AM on February 17, 2001

I have a hard time believing that any numeric test score can accurately depict a student's academic level. I especially find these tests highly unfair when a friend of mine was able to take the ACT untimed due to his ADHD. Beating the test-taking system, he managed to get the highest score possible simply by using a doctor's note. Sure, he spent around six hours taking the test. It even granted him an awesome scholarship and easy entrance into college.

Although I can not conceive an adequate alternative to SATs, SAT IIs, and ACTs. If this were a perfect world, perhaps colleges would require personal interviews in order to determine whether a student yields enough potential and a high academic standard.

But then again, that itself wouldn't be perfect. I think any kind of process will grant some level of biasness and unfairness for students.
posted by crog at 10:07 AM on February 17, 2001

The college admissions process has always been more of an art than a science, and probably will remain that way.
posted by hobbes at 10:30 AM on February 17, 2001

Fatalism does not become us, mon ami hobbes. The world does not improve if we continually accept the status quo with a grimace and a sigh.
posted by hanseugene at 11:04 AM on February 17, 2001

hanseugene, true.

However, I think that the admissions process is fairly good the way it is now. If anything, there should be a bit more emphasis placed on interviews and essays to try to get to know the person better. Yeah, it's true that some people BS on their essays, but there are also teacher recs to back that up.

I actually like how it's more of an art than science as it gives non top-tier kids like me a chance of getting into some of "those" schools *cough*stanford*cough*.

We're not completely logical creatures.
posted by hobbes at 11:18 AM on February 17, 2001

I would argue that standardized test scores are generally better at measuring intelligence than grades are. It's far too easy for a smart person to receive bad grades, and vice versa.

But the thing is, in the "game" of academia, and even the real world, intelligence isn't what counts. Grades are. If someone can get good grades in high school, then they can probably get good grades in college. In the real world, intelligence does count for more, but it's still mostly a game.

So the truth is, neither tests nor grades accurately measure intelligence, but grades are an accurate measure of one's ability to play the game, as the game consists entirely of trying to get good grades...
posted by whatnotever at 11:19 AM on February 17, 2001

I agree that more emphasis should be placed on essays and interviews than on grades & tests. I like the way St. John's College [webpage] is SAT optional but requires all of their students to write between ten and twenty pages of essays and attend an extensive interview. Unless someone has read voraciously and has strong writing skills they should not really be considered "educated", even if they can bring in that 1600 on the SAT. If I were on a college admissions committee I'd defenitely lean towards admitting the student with the 1400 who reads 150 books/year and passing up the egghead who got the 1550 but can't write, doesn't read and has no social skills. College admissions should be about people, not numbers. Unfortunately many schools are so large that it's impossible to give individual attention to every applicant.
posted by hanseugene at 11:24 AM on February 17, 2001

yes! yes! st. john's is the most progressive college around in terms of admissions policy. my essays for st. john's were 27 pages long, as opposed to the three that most of my friends sent into their colleges (stanford included).

dagny, i agree with you in theory about the SAT, but it's really important to keep in mind that some people just aren't good at taking tests. some people fold under pressure. can these people still be very intelligent? yes. and i would still want them at my college. while i'm sure it was the exacy opposite of your intention, you come off a little arrogant. i have friends that worked as hard as they could (and are brilliant people) who couldn't break the 1400 mark. i don't feel like i deserve my score because they scored lower and deserved higher. the sat is really based a lot on luck. while it isn't supposed to matter what form you get, it makes a big difference in the long run because they take out a different section for equalizing every time they give it. in my first one, they took out a verbal section, which hurt me because i suck terribly at math, and all my math mistakes were there on display. my second time, they took out a math, which helped me out. there are too many factors that go into the sat for me to think they're reliable, and i think they do awful things to self-esteem. the day the psats came out at my school, i saw who i really hated. "oh, bridget, you're going to hate me, i did so well..." and the ever-present "what did you get?" just made me want to kill all of my classmates.

ahem. i'm a little spastic on this issue.
posted by pikachulolita at 1:35 PM on February 17, 2001

Here's some background on me... I'll be taking the SAT I this coming March 31st and I'll be applying to colleges next fall (including UCs Berkeley and LA for sure).

Now, I have to say I'm glad I'm gonna make it no matter what. Plain and simple, the SAT is going to help me a lot more than it hurts me. I got to a really small and HARD independent high school (University for those of you living in SF), and As are difficult to come by. If my entrance into college depended solely on grades, it would not take into account that I go to probably one of the most rigorous high schools in the country, and that B+/A- average will have 7-8 AP courses in it and advanced levels in everything else.

It's easy to see that all grading schemes are not alike. Just this past summer, I went to a (guess what) SAT camp. Among the students there, about 3/4 had A+ averages, with 4. something GPAs after weighting. My school doesn't weight and at the time I had around a 3.4 or 3.5. Anyways, as we took those practice tests, many of those A+ averagers were struggling with 1200-1300s, while on the first night we got there I scored a 1420. And I think it will only go up from there.

I must say though that I agree that essays, interviews, etc. should play a large role as well in the application process. The SAT II's are also good, and I'll be taking lots of those. But to completely remove the SAT I from the process is simply unfair. Like someone said before, it will be the people who don't challenge themselves as much that easily get the straight A's, and the SAT is probably the best available yardstick where the college can compare all the high schools in America. I know that while we are probably some of the brightest high school students (about 100 per class) in the bay area, the majority of the people in my school will have 3.3-3.4 GPAs, but most people will also score 1400 on the SAT, if not 1500+.
posted by swank6 at 1:37 PM on February 17, 2001

One of the criticisms leveled against the SAT is that it is culturally biased and unfair to disadvantaged students.

The SAT is culturally biased? When I took it years ago, the only assumptions that could be made were that you were competent in math and were able to read English. Has the test changed?

And "unfair to disadvantaged students"? Is disadvantaged being used in a politically correct sense here? Frankly, I read this as "if you're not good in math or English, you'll be at a disadvantage in taking the SAT." Well, duh.

posted by milnak at 2:56 PM on February 17, 2001

The SAT has been progressively dumbed down over the last decade to the point where someone who got a 1320 in 1990 would be scored at 1440 or better today. It's a good idea to chuck the whole thing and smash the monopolistic Educational Testing Service, which is the most disgusting money-grab outfit I've ever dealt with. Example: Cost for taking the GMAT these days? A mere $190.
posted by Chairman_MaoXian at 3:42 PM on February 17, 2001

College was a long time ago (nearly 30 years) but my memory was that even then the main limit on where you could go to school was usually money, not scores. Generally, if you had the bucks a way could be found to get into nearly any school except the very cream. Most universities even then were actively recruiting students, and this in the middle of the baby boom (yup, I'm one of those).

Now that the "baby bust" is college age, it's even more of a problem with colleges; the supply exceeds the demand and a lot of colleges have been hard up for a long time. Generally, I had thought it to be the case that if you were reasonably intelligent and had the money, you could attend a very good school albeit not exactly the one you wanted. If you didn't, you were SOL.

More to the point, if you have the mind for it, you'll get an education no matter where you go.

I scored 690/770 in 1971, but I attended Oregon State because that was all I could afford. And even a school that unprestigious taught me a hell of a lot. I studied Computer Science (a nascent field back then) and I learned more hanging around the computer center than I did in the classes. But I learned, and I became a software engineer and a successful one.

Looking back on it now, I can see that the advantages of attending a name-school are much exaggerated. When I interview someone now I never pay any attention to their education nor, in fact, to anything in their resume at all. I can find out whether someone is good by talking to them and asking questions. If they're good, then it doesn't matter to me where they went to school or where else they've worked.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 4:02 PM on February 17, 2001

First, a minor qualification: I took the SAT only once, but scored 1590. I teach SAT part-time at a national SAT prep company. While this doesn't make me an expert on admission guidelines and how the SAT should actually be used, I do have significant first-hand experience at dissecting how the test works.

So I'll start with this: the SAT I is biased, unfair, and silly. It's well-known (at least to SAT instructors) that the strongest correlating factor to SAT I scores is parental income. On an anecdotal level, I was not admitted to any of the Ivy League scores (low HS GPA), and flunked out of college after two semesters--even with my absurdly high SAT I and II scores.

Clearly, the SAT tests don't measure what they were intended to measure: the SAT I is broadly predictable and therefore highly coachable, while the SAT II encourages--no, demands--rote memorization. Navigating past tricky time-killing questions is far from being a good indicator of "scholastic aptitude" (the SA in the SAT I). The SAT II is also flawed: it reinforces the lessons of advanced high school classes found mostly in well-funded schools to begin with. The regular HS course in US history taught broadly as a HS graduation requirement would not suffice as adequate preparation for the US History SAT II exam, but an Advanced Placement US History class would. So in this sense, the SAT II's are more fair than the SAT I's, but still heavily stilted towards the course offerings of rich school districts.

In my dictionary, the words "aptitude test" has the definition "a standardized test designed to measure the ability of a person to develop skills or acquire knowledge." In other words, a measure of a student's academic potential, not how well-coached he is or how well-funded his high school is. The SAT tests are shams as aptitude tests. I do feel we need some kind of a yardstick standardized test (or a battery of them) to streamline admissions (especially in public schools) and to offset grade-inflation, but not a test like the SAT which purports to "measure" something it clearly does not. It is easy to lambaste the SAT; it's much more difficult (but ultimately more productive) to ask, "well what else then?" in its place.
posted by DaShiv at 4:35 PM on February 17, 2001

So I'll start with this: the SAT I is biased, unfair, and silly. It's well-known (at least to SAT instructors) that the strongest correlating factor to SAT I scores is parental income.

Statements to this effect have been posted several times, yet with no anecdotal evidence. Is there any, or is this all part of the mainstream "let's help the 'SAT disadvantaged'" campaign?
posted by milnak at 4:44 PM on February 17, 2001

ETS says, "colleges use SAT I scores to help estimate how well students are likely to do at its school."

Milnak: Try this link. If you want to go look up the studies, go for it. The information is summarized here.

In terms of economic disadvantages, the term is being used correctly, as far as I can tell. The SAT used to claim you couldn't "prepare" or "learn" how to score well. But now, the College Board itself offers prep classes. If you can't afford a class, or an SAT practice book, yes, you're at a distinct disadvantage. Heck, not everyone can afford to take the test as many times as they need to.

I won't even get into property taxes and education spending.
posted by gramcracker at 4:55 PM on February 17, 2001

BTW, I'd like to add that it's not wholly ETS's fault for creating and administering the SAT's, but also largely the media's college "rankings" for the misuse of SAT scores. Milking a few bucks out of ranking colleges to take advantage of the wallets of overanxious middle-class parents has turned standardized tests into a method of "rank inflation" for colleges, instead using them as supplemental admissions information. Nowadays, the best colleges are full of absurdly high test scorers, absurdly talented people in a very specific field (say, in playing the viola de gamba), and absurd legacies, rather than intelligent and interesting people. IMO, bachelor's degrees from schools like Harvard are certification of a certain kind of social desirability, rather than holding any particular educational significance. You can earn that level of education from many places, even though all bachelor's degrees aren't created equal. IMO the difference between schools only becomes truly pronouced at the grad school level.
posted by DaShiv at 4:56 PM on February 17, 2001

God, I hate even discussing test scores. I took the SAT twice and scored around 1150 both times, which was dumb, because if I had taken it only once, they might have been more swayed by the 30 I got on the ACT. At any rate, Berkeley wasn't interested in me with scores like that. So, of course, I'm biased in favour of the ACT, but I also believe it is more all-encompassing in that it tests you on various aspects of education (including separate scores for math, science, writing, reading, etc.) and not just math/written like the SAT. I'm all in favour of changing the rules so that other things are taken into account, and not just standardized test scores. I don't know if I buy the parental income correlating factor; I'd be more inclined to take into account the educational level of the parents as a correlating factor, but that's just me. Either way, change in this area is a very good thing.
posted by evixir at 5:03 PM on February 17, 2001

Statements to this effect have been posted several times, yet with no anecdotal evidence. Is there any, or is this all part of the mainstream "let's help the 'SAT disadvantaged'" campaign?

milnak: statistical evidence, rather than anecdotal, proves the fallibility of the SAT as an indicator of "scholastic aptitude" (or "how well this chump will do in college, as measured by his college GPA"). Colleges are interested in the SAT's as a test that measures this so that they can keep their retention/graduation levels high to boost their rankings, as a stastical way of compensating for "mistakes" made in the admission process.

gramcracker: thanks for the great link.
posted by DaShiv at 5:03 PM on February 17, 2001

DaShiv, I'm interested in your comment about how the SAT measures preparedness rather than aptitude. As a high school student in a very small school, I pretty much know everyone in my class. And although no one talks about it directly, it's usually VERY easy to tell the difference between the "smart" kids, who got there based on their pure intelligence, and the "hardworking" kids, who got there through just that - studying hard all of their life. I'm not saying either is better or worse; in the end both types usually hover around the same grades and have the same success in school. However, it is usually the "smart" category that seems to naturally do better on the SATs. It's always seemed to me that standardized tests measure "aptitude" better than school grades do.

However, I haven't really thought about the SAT coaching aspect. I guess you have a point about richer families being able to afford better SAT coaching, but that's just an extension of the everlasting poor vs. rich situation. I hate to be a little socially darwinistic on this but a lot of the time, education is always going to lead back to money. Richer people usually get sent to better schools, which will in turn make them do better on the SAT, and also get them into better colleges. You can't really say the SAT is being biased towards poorer or "disadvantaged" people, because the truth is that usually people sent to better schools throughout their life will end up being more qualified to be at a high-level university. That doesn't mean poorer kids are stupid, but by not having been given the chance they still may not be prepared for those colleges.

I'm also looking to hear a response from someone anti-SAT on the school scale argument. How else should colleges measure the difficulty of a school? Grades can be very different from different schools. I'm not saying the SAT is the end-all of yardsticks, but at the moment it is probably the best one. Until someone thinks of something better, what can we use?
posted by swank6 at 6:43 PM on February 17, 2001

Er, let me try and rephrase something. The SAT is not a perfect test, I think everyone will agree to that. But its use as a yardstick cannot be denied, and the fact is we can't drop the test and then leave that yardstick role unfilled until we think of something. Instead, we have to keep the SAT around long enough so that we can think of a better system. If the UCs dropped it in 2003, how would they measure all those schools that year? Or the year after that? The fact is that no other device can measure schools (at least for the time being), and for that alone the SAT has to stay.
posted by swank6 at 6:54 PM on February 17, 2001

I cannot recommend the book, The Big Test by Nicholas Lemann enough. A fascinating history of the Educational Testing Service, the SAT, standardized tests in general and the competing theories that swirl around them.

I was well and truly ticked off by the end of the book. As a solid B+ student in high school, I managed only a meager 1140 on my SAT in 1989 and felt like a moron for a long time. And now that I understand the genesis of the test and how randomly it evolved, and continues to do so, I am absolutely in favor of abolishing all forms of standardized (read: Scantron, fill in the circles) testing.
posted by gsh at 8:17 PM on February 17, 2001

If SAT is bad, what's better? I guess it depends on what colleges want. Since ETS's claims about what the SAT measures aren't always accurate (see above), there seem to be several ideas about what colleges might want.

1) If they want to see how students will perform in their first year at school, grades and course selection would be important. Sure, high schools are VERY different, but usually, Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) classes are more rigorous (especially AP classes, since the intended goal is usually to take the tough AP test at the end of the school year). Of course, not all schools offer these courses.

2) If they want to measure intelligence, well, first you have to define intelligence, which is just near impossible, because there seem to be different types of intelliegence. Maybe a test with multiple question types, based on cognitive skills? (Some of these are culturally biased, too, surprisingly.)

3) To see what they've learned from their classes in school? Although the SAT 2's are still biased, they *do* focus more on subject matter than the SAT, and everyone could have at least some opportunity to "prepare" for them, by studying their text books.

It's quite a mess. I took an Educational Policy class last quarter. The US has some major problems... curriculum, SAT, tracking, vouchers, the list goes on and on.
posted by gramcracker at 8:57 PM on February 17, 2001

ETS is up against a bind. With 10 million kids to test each year, they have to have some way of testing which is objective and efficient. If the test involved essay questions, for instance, then you'd have to have an army of graders and the test would cost $1000 per pupil and any given pupil could get screwed if their grader happened to have a hangover that day. On the other hand, fill-in-the-circle tests are objective and efficient but may not actually test anything important. They're between a rock and a hard place. I'm not sure that what they're trying to do is actually possible.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:01 PM on February 17, 2001

DaShiv: IMO, bachelor's degrees from schools like Harvard are certification of a certain kind of social desirability, rather than holding any particular educational significance. You can earn that level of education from many places, even though all bachelor's degrees aren't created equal.

I emphatically agree. Quality learning can and does come from damn near anywhere. My geek friends and I dissipated into all sorts of sundry four year colleges; while our classes and focuses and difficulties encountered were somewhat disparate, when all was said and done, we ended up with roughly-equivalent skill sets and parlayed them into roughly equivalent jobs.

Steven Den Beste: Looking back on it now, I can see that the advantages of attending a name-school are much exaggerated. ... If they're good, then it doesn't matter to me where they went to school or where else they've worked.

Unfortunately, Steven, a lot of people are not nearly as background-agnostic as you are. Half the time when I'm introduced around at work, I'm labeled as "Anthony, the recent Stanford graduate!" and get deluged with "omigod-you-must-be-so-smart-did-you-ever-meet-Chelsea?"-style questioning. Experience suggests that there's no valid reason for them to think that way just from my college of choice, but there's still a significant amount of real world bias like that nonetheless.
posted by youhas at 9:13 PM on February 17, 2001

swank6: It's a very fair question, and something that I've considered myself. The SAT I does require one to have a fair amoung of aptitude in test-taking and reasoning in order to score very well. Having said that, however, it fails as a measure of aptitude (which is a term ETS eventually abandoned).

A simple example: I scored in the 1400's on my PSAT, and 1480 on a practice SAT before I took an expensive prep class. After taking the class, I scored 1590 on the real SAT. According to these tests, my scholastic aptitude in the year between my PSAT and my practice SAT stayed roughly constant in the low-90's percentile. Suddenly, after a six-week course, it rose to the 99th percentile, implying that I would fare as well or better than 99% of the other SAT takers in college for no other reason than my score. Had I suddenly became that much smarter, grew more knowledgable, learned better study skills, gained self-esteem, or got a huge boost in whatever it is that helps people to learn and do well in college? Nope. When you consider the hundreds of thousands of other very high-scoring and very intelligent students in the 90-something percentile zone that this six-week course suddenly catapulted me over, does this test really measure something meaningful? What if you were the one whose 1500 suddenly wasn't "good enough" because of my "new" 1590?

Now I do think that no amount of prepping can turn everyone, or even most people, into 1590-scorers on the SAT. Not everyone has the aptitude to understand the risk-and-reward tradeoff and the statistical rationale behind the difficulty of the questions on an intuitive level. Some of the students simply don't see this relationship, but yet I can still offer them simple follow-the-direction rules to raise their score. Even if they don't learn, or even have the aptitude to learn, the conceptual methodolgy behind the test--they can still improve their scores, and thus improve their hypothetical "scholastic aptitude" and make them that much better college students, supposedly. They've simply paid to be exposed to the test and had a chance to practice a few proven strategies in a controlled enviroment with a responsive coach. Is this what we should be testing?

Don't get me wrong-- I do think that we should have some kind of standardized testing. However, I would rather see standardized tests used as a measure of compentency, rather than of excellence (which is what the SAT's are about). One of the reasons I fared so poorly during my college freshman year in college, in fact, was that I'd done so well on my standardized tests that I figured I must be supremely qualified (or even overqualified) for whatever was thrown at me. Nothing could be farther from the truth: I had to learn the hard way that these tests really measure very little in the long run. And I still count myself fortunate. At least the tests worked for me by gving me a chance to stick my foot in the door, instead of the opposite: having the door slammed on the hundreds of thousands of other students for whom standardized tests are an unfamiliar, frightening, and genuinely exclusionary obstacle. The tests are a means of demonstrating excellence only to those who have the means to, and that's why I don't believe the meaning behind the scores for a second. All the studies showing the SAT's rather weak statistical usefulness is just icing on the cake. We don't need to abolish the SAT: we need to replace it with a better test that measures something more meaningful than how well you're "supposed" to fare in college. And although you can quantify competence to some extent, how can you quantify excellence?

By the way, I think all that stuff about the "bias" in the test questions is just a red herring that avoids the real issue. Rich white people in New Jersey write the test: that's the way our society works. Hello, reality check. Enough with the racial baiting. There are bigger issues at stake.
posted by DaShiv at 10:04 PM on February 17, 2001

I think that varies depending on the field you're in. In CS, at least, there's a long tradition of people getting into the field long after leaving school. One of the best programmers I ever worked for had his degree in meteorology. So software people tend to be a bit less hung up on credentials. One good reason for that is that once you're five years out of school, most of what you studied is obsolete because the field is moving so fast. Consider that when I was in college there was no such thing as a microprocessor, and the C language was designed when I was a junior and didn't become broadly used until well after I was out of school. In CS you have to be constantly studying just to keep up. I've spent most of my career programming microprocessors in C, but I learned all of it on the job. On the other hand, I'd already learned several languages and picking up C in 1979 wasn't all that hard, nor have any of the other languages I've learned over the years. Nor have I had much difficulty learning all the different operating systems I've used over the years.

What a college needs to do for you is to give you a broad base of knowledge, good tools for continuing to learn, and a zest for information. I either already had or got in college all of those things so I've never had any trouble keeping up. That's really all I could have hoped for; I have no regrets about dropping out of college and never earning a degree. It's never affected my career in any way.

My attitude about the kind of people you (youhas) describe is that if they're more concerned with credentials than with talent then they're not people I'd want to work with anyway.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:06 PM on February 17, 2001

Yes, I agree with you exactly. By no means am I saying the SAT is a good test at all, it is just the best thing we have. I'd rather have a horrible test that can at least somewhat illustrate how hard my school is, rather than ignoring that altogether.

Someone has to agree with you, I guess. According to my college counselor, it started out as "Scholastic Aptitude Test" until someone decided it really wasn't an aptitude test. Then they changed it to "Scholastic Assessment Test", and someone realized that it means the same thing as Scholastic Test Test. So now it's just SAT and it doesn't stand for anything.
posted by swank6 at 10:12 PM on February 17, 2001

Since posting the original link, I've had a chance to read quite a bit more about the UC President's proposal, and I must say that I like what he's talking about even more.

The primary evil he seeks to combat is not some inherent or calculated bias in the test, but, rather, the incredible distortion that the SAT works upon the secondary education system. His key piece of anecdotal evidence was walking into an elite private middle school and seeing 12-year-olds drilling on analogies, (e.g., "milk:dairy as (a) bread:wheat, (c) steel:iron, (d) steel:foundry), rather than actually learning anything substantive.

I was taking the SATs in a small town back in the 1980's, and although all my fellow honors/AP students certainly thought the tests were important, we spent about 4 weeks studying for them, and took them once, as a senior, usually. (I also remember that the few of us who were really the most accelerated looked on the kids who took Kaplan / Princeton as wimpy, suspicious of stupidity, and in a certain moral sense cheaters -- although by the time the LSATs rolled around in my senior year of college I was first in linke at Princeton...)

As for the criticism that even AP and Achievement Test scores are "biased" towards kids who attend good high schools or whose parents have high incomes, what can you say? That's the bias of society, and, more importantly, it is essentially impossible for someone who doesn't already know history at the level it is taught in an AP class not to fail a history class taught at Berkeley or UCLA, or math at the level tested by the Calculus BC advanced placement test to pass Physics 7A (Berkeley's first-semester high-track physics intro).

How do we solve that problem? My view: some very well-funded, magnet gifted and talented schools (7th grade through 12th grade) which have the express mission to select, by some metric of teacher recommendation, IQ test, or other aptitude test, smart kids of poor parents, or other disadvantaged situation. 6 years of intensive, culturally- and economically-sensitive accelerated education from the age of 12 to 18, with all of the disruptive elements and underperformers kept back in the regular schools, should more than allow smart kids to exceed the academic attainments of the typical bright, but easily distracted by sports, cars, and the other suburban temptations, upper middle class kids.
posted by MattD at 6:59 AM on February 18, 2001

And why exactly are these "magnet" schools for poor parents only? Dammit, suburban schools aren't fun and games for smart kids, you just get stuck in an AP class that isn't any different from the regular class because it's still taught by a god-damned football coach.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:26 AM on February 18, 2001

Didn't your school know how to deal with that, dagnyscott? Our football coach (nice guy) taught the health class. We watched a movie every week (ranging from Hoosiers to the infamous The Miracle of Life). We also used a wonderful textbok from the early 1980s (I took the class in 1995) that focused more on anti-smoking than contraception, pregnancy, or abstinence.

Flip-question for MattD and dagnyscott: Why exactly are these "magnet" schools for gifted children only? The vast majority of students wouldn't qualify as 'gifted' or 'talented;' they're the ones who need the basic education the most.

It's really interesting what kind of an effect neighborhood community and environment have on a family. Take this VERY powerful research: a court ordered relocation project moved 4,000 families from the inner-city projects to various white suburbs in Illinois. The result? More students were placed on a college track, and more mothers were employed. Not all poverty is in the inner-cities, of course, but it helps dispel the idea that all inner-city people are just lazy, or don't want to find a job. They've all got potential, but they just can't reach it with bullets flying every hour.
posted by gramcracker at 7:50 AM on February 18, 2001

Gram, I think the reason for the "target school" concept is a recognition that a society is driven by its top two percentile, not by the other 98. If you waste that top two percent (and you need 'em all) then your society is doomed. It has nothing to do with the kids; it's a completely utilitarian purpose.

Schools aren't intended to benefit the students. (I don't know where you got the strange idea that they were.) Schools are factories which take as raw material 6 year old kids, process them for twelve years, and turn out good and productive citizens (cough). Part of that process is creating movers and shakers out of that top two percent (and turning the other 98 into good worker bees to follow the orders of that top two percent), and when everyone in the school sits in the same class a large percent of that elite are stunted. (Some will surmount it, some won't.)

If I sound cynical, it's because I am.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:01 AM on February 18, 2001

I see where you're coming from, Steven, and in some ways, I agree with you. I agree we need the 2 percent, but I would think a *small* increase in the education/skills/knowledge of the 98 percent would reap HUGE productivity benefits. Just look at this thread on Internet usage... if people were more efficient with their computers, wouldn't productivity increase in the long run?
posted by gramcracker at 8:15 AM on February 18, 2001

I do think that we should endevor to have a solid basic education for all students.

I am also sympathetic to smart upper-middle-class kids who don't exactly fit into the sports-dating-booze social order of their schools and who don't get the best possible secondary educations -- but these kids still get into Berkeley with no problems. (Many of whom immediately embrace booze, dating, and the gym almost as soon as they hit Bancroft Avenue, quickly making up for lost time and losing any claim of moral superiority over their alleged high school oppressors.)

This, however, has nothing to do with deciding who is qualified and prepared to attend Berkeley. The very raison d'etre of Berkeley is to exclude "the vast majority" of people and to educate the top 2%, the creme de la creme (or the "creme de la rejected by Stanford or not qualified for financial aid" if you must).

The things to do are (a) make sure the mechanisms of qualification don't actually produce a worse educated group of high school grads through over-emphasis on SATs, and (b) make sure that people who are natively smart enough to become prepared in fact get the resources needed to be prepared when their neighborhood schools and their home environments can't supply those benefits.

posted by MattD at 8:25 AM on February 18, 2001

About my school -- there were three football teams, hence quite a few coaches, and a few guys who got tenure and decided to quit coaching. So, basically, enough to fill the phys ed and social studies departments. One of these taught AP Government, which was the same copy down specific answers to vague questions as regular Government. (Question: What traditions have continued? Answer: Prayer in Congress.)

About "magnet" schools and such: I don't like the idea that people who are smarter need good education less. I mean, some students will read James Joyce in their spare time, others will ditch the system altogether. Kids want to be challenged. When they're not, they become bored, and they might become troublemakers, and increasingly disinterested in school. I mean, one of my friends, who's very smart, dropped out of high school. Why do you think this is? You know, think about it.
posted by dagnyscott at 11:17 AM on February 18, 2001

Gram, my cynical comments were about what schools are really for, not what I think they should be for. I think every kid at school should be challenged, motivated and interested by good material taught just slightly faster than the speed that student can handle. But since some kids are brighter than others, it means you have to stratify them into separate classes. (I know that when I was in grade school I could absorb material about four times faster than most of my classmates, and I'm by no means the smartest person in the world.) So I do support the "target school" concept. That doesn't mean I think the rest of the schools should stagnate and decay. All schools should be good.

I think it's a scandal that the US has the best university system in the world and probably the worst primary and secondary schools among the G7. If you ask someone to list the top ten universities in the world, easily six of them will be in the US. It's really hard to say bad things about colleges like MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, USC, UCSD or Berkeley. And in the second tier there are at least fifty extraordinary universities such as UofW and Michigan State. The "land-grant" college concept was a stroke of genius and at least 30 of the finest colleges in the world are land-grant colleges.

World wide, about the only competition at the top bracket would be Oxford, Cambridge and La Sorbonne. But even Europeans can rattle off the names of many US universities at that level.

So why do our grade schools and high schools suck so badly? From what I've seen and heard and read, I think no more than 5% of them achieve the quality I think they should all have.

That said, I'm not sure there's any practical answer to the problem. There are a lot of idealistic answers, but I don't think any of them are practical. The answer is money, and lots of it, but not only is the tax-paying public not willing to spend it but there's no evidence that the majority of school systems would use it properly if they had it.

An appealing idea would be to abolish tenure. Tenure is a form of protectionism with all the evils that implies; no other profession (except federal judges) has such a system and I can think of no reason why teachers should. It should be possible to terminate any teacher for poor performance or incompetence irrespective of how long they've been an employee, just as it is for engineers. One never terminates professionals lightly, but it shouldn't be illegal. But while I think that is a necessary part of the answer, I don't think it's sufficient and the other parts are non-trivial.

So if we can't salvage all the kids, at least we can try to salvage the top 2%, who are the ones who will make the most difference, and that's what target schools are for. That's not a nice answer, and I don't like it. I just don't see any alternatives that I think would actually work.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:04 PM on February 18, 2001

I totally have to agree with DaShiv here. I went to University of Pennsylvania for the last year and a half, and finally dropped out, because it just sucked. While i had my friends, jesus christ, I've never met so many money-grubbing, status-seeking, and very uninteresting people while I was there. Not worth 30 grand a year to me.
posted by ookamaka at 11:19 PM on February 18, 2001

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