Why Chris Hayes Fails

Chris Hayes has a book to sell and guilt to expunge. The poor lad feels guilty that he benefited from the Evil Mostly White Meritocracy:

But the problem with my alma mater is that over time, the mechanisms of meritocracy have broken down. In 1995, when I was a student at Hunter, the student body was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Not coincidentally, there was no test-prep industry for the Hunter entrance exam. That’s no longer the case. Now, so-called cram schools like Elite Academy in Queens can charge thousands of dollars for after-school and weekend courses where sixth graders memorize vocabulary words and learn advanced math. Meanwhile, in the wealthier precincts of Manhattan, parents can hire $90-an-hour private tutors for one-on-one sessions with their children.

By 2009, Hunter’s demographics were radically different—just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the New York Times. With the rise of a sophisticated and expensive test-preparation industry, the means of selecting entrants to Hunter has grown less independent of the social and economic hierarchies in New York at large. The pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and cultural capital.

Here, Hayes is relying on the cheapest and most meretricious of the education myths: the rich have the ability to improve their test scores, SAT or otherwise, through expensive test prep, while the low income blacks and Hispanics do not. The higher scores are not genuine, and thus the acceptance is not truly meritocratic.

There’s just one tiny glitch in this mythology:

Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to use test prep than whites. Cite, cite, and oh look, this cite has a table:

Use of Test-Prep Courses and Gains, by Race and Ethnicity

Group % Taking Test-Prep Course Post-Course Gain in Points on SAT
East Asian American 30% 68.8
Other Asian 15% 23.8
White 10% 12.3
Black 16% 14.9
Hispanic 11% 24.6

The idea that blacks and Hispanics don’t have access to test prep is some sort of delusion that all the reality in the universe can’t shake out of progressives.

Within a ten mile radius of my home, at least 10 organizations are dedicated to providing free test prep, college admissions advice, and academic support to low income, first generation college blacks and Hispanics. Double the radius and the count will be in the dozens, if not hundreds–as it probably is anywhere in America. Any low-income black or Hispanic who wants SAT/ACT test prep and thinks he or she can’t afford it is the victim of criminally ignorant high school advisors–and the facts suggest that this isn’t a big problem.

Low income whites are a different story; few charitable organizations are dedicated to improving their test scores. Of course, given that low income whites trounce high income blacks on the SAT (Cite, cite, and
cite), I guess maybe organizations figure there’s no point making the gap worse? But of course, the very fact that poor whites outscore wealthy blacks pretty much kills whatever remained of Hayes’ theory about the test score advantage of the rich and powerful.

Furthermore, as Steve Sailer and commenters to Hayes’ article point out, Hayes complete ignores another reality: the huge shift in Hunter College High School demographics isn’t so much from low income to high income, but from whites to Asians.

If you read of a school that’s suddenly moved to elite status or seen a dramatic rise in test scores (e.g., AIPCS), or heard that a test prep process has gotten out of control, it’s a sure thing that it’s become “an Asian school”, as we call them in my area. Once a school “goes Asian”, hitting a tipping point of about 40%, it’s a short step to 60-80%. Check out the top-scoring comprehensive high schools by SAT average, and the highest ones will be “asian schools”. They end up Asian because of white flight. It’s not that whites don’t like Asians, but their kids will lose access to AP/honors courses and get lower GPAs—not because they have lower abilities, but because the white parents haven’t managed to convince their kids that the world will end of they don’t get straight As. Donations, as a rule, decline with this demographic change, which is why wealthy school districts get more than a little annoyed when their schools are at risk of “going Asian”, and come up with all sorts of odd rules to discourage it (giving up class ranking or limiting AP grade bumps).

Hayes engages in yet another fiction (and that’s just in this excerpt!): that through test prep, the rich are distorting their abilities. The poor and the rich have similar abilities in a purely meritocratic world but thanks to test prep, the rich are making themselves look smarter, even though it’s a mirage.

Clearly, that can’t be true, or rich blacks would have higher test scores.

But here I will bring in personal experience in test prep. For the past nine years, I’ve been preparing students for the SAT, the ACT, the Subject tests (Math, Histories, English Lit), the high school admissions tests (HSPT, ISEE, SSAT), and all grad school tests except the MCAT (although this last not as much as I used to). I do this both through private instruction institutions (Kaplan in the past, an SAT academy now) and private tutoring (with rates in line with those in tony Manhattan, apparently). I work with Asians of all income levels, wealthy and upper income whites (as well as middle income whites in my Kaplan days), low income Hispanics, and low income African Americans.

In other words, unlike many people who yammer on about test prep, I actually have some experience preparing people of all races and all demographics for all sorts of tests, and will draw upon that experience to assert this as fact: test prep primarily helps people use their existing abilities more effectively. With some people, the bump is huge, with others it’s minimal, with still others, non-existent. In only a very few cases are students actually distorting their abilities by improving their test scores, but rather showing their abilities in the best possible light.

Is it possible to game the test, to prep so much that the score is a blatant misrepresentation? Yes, but it’s rare. The people who are most likely to do this are not the rich of any color, who can buy their way into whatever school they want. And it’s not low income blacks or Hispanics, who I’ve coached and seen huge increases that still only bring the majority of the kids to just below national averages. It’s certainly not middle-class or low income whites, who are clearly the least likely to even use test prep.

No, the students who might be actually distorting their abilities through test prep would most likely be Asian. (Please note that this statement is only assuming such distortion is possible.) I work at an Asian SAT “cram school”, teaching book clubs and math enrichment. Their parents call it “SAT school”, even though the kids are rising freshmen and sophomores for book club, and rising seventh and eighth graders for geometry, because as far as the parents are concerned, the kids are doing this as part of a five year program to improve their SAT scores. Junior summer, they are in SAT boot camp: 20 hours a week (plus a test) for 10 weeks in the summer, and then Saturday school until the test.

The kids I’m working with, dozens of hours per year, aren’t distorting their abilities, but going through all that work for the last 10 or 20 points possible of their score range. That’s leaving aside the Korean cram schools, which somehow enable kids with limited English skills to score an 800 on the SAT reading section. Now that, I would argue, is distortion.

Unfortunately for Hayes, though, these Asians aren’t rich. Wrong again.

Hayes is correct about one thing, though: the elites are locking out the hoi polloi from highest-level institutions. But it takes a real ignorance to pretend that the rich are doing this because of over-reliance on test scores or test prep, as opposed to buying their way in, using their powerful networks to only hire from the “right” schools, and the fuzzy math of the “holistic” evaluation process. Give me test scores any day.

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28 responses to “Why Chris Hayes Fails

  • Bostonian

    Why do you think East Asians benefit so much more from test prep than other groups? Are the East Asians more likely to do the homework assigned in test prep classes?

    • educationrealist

      They go to more hours, and they take the test more times. Most of the kids I know take the test 5 or 6 times; a kid who gets a total of 2200 is sent back to review and practice and get 2250 or 2300.

      Also, I think, they are working on getting a higher score, as opposed to learning more information. When you only get 2 wrong in the entire math section, a higher score does not involve learning more math. Far fewer whites do this–in large part because there’s no point if they don’t have really good grades, and if they also have really good grades, then they don’t need every single point that an Asian does, because elite schools discriminate against Asians.

      • johndraper

        Personally, I take the evolutionary psychology view that recent human evolution has selected for certain traits in Asian populations. (See The 10,000 Year Explosion for arguments about recent human evolution).

        2,000 years of rice farming in Asia has selected for people who are very good at working highly repetitive jobs for long hours day after day. (See Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers). This has selected for people who are mentally capable of getting something out of hours and hours of repetition. iPhone manufacturing hasn’t moved to Africa because only in Asia can you find millions of people willing to solder electronics for 16 hours a day.

        Meanwhile, Western Europe, especially Britain, was largely populated by the offspring of the rich, who had the most children and suffered the lowest mortality (see A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark). Thus, Westerners are more likely to be intelligent strivers, but not necessary to have the patience for long hours of test-prep labour.

      • Lissa

        That’s not evolutionary psychology. That’s not how evolution works – 2,000 years isn’t long enough for that kind of genetic selection. Gladwell was talking about socialization. When it’s the norm in a culture to do very detail-oriented memorization work, you’re more likely to get it. Also, Western Europe was not more populated by the offspring of the rich; very few people in Western Europe before the 19th century were rich.

      • Foolish Pride

        Actually Lissa, Gregory Clark in “The Son Also Rises” provides more than enough evidence via surnames that richer Britons were having far more children than their lower class countrymen. Not all of these children could remain rich. Many became poor, falling into the underclass. When middle classes started rising in Europe they were more likely to be people who descended not from poor folks rising, but children of rich folks who weren’t inheriting their parents wealth but had enough of an advantage to make their own.

    • Alexman

      The richest nation for thousand years was China.
      The world 2nd largest empire was Mongol
      The Highest I.Q are East Asians on average
      China, Japan, S.Korea were top 5 in olympics
      Taiwan won invention contests in U.K, Russia, Ukraine

      East Asia was already thousand years more advance than most of Europe who were backward savages conquered by Mongols, Arabs, Moors, Turkic for thousand years. East Asia have never suffered these invansions fron non-Asian because they were military adance that time. Europeans only started became powerful when the stole Chinese invention gunpowder. China was the most inventive nation in the world until communist took over and made China backward, now you have Japan and S.Korea who are good in advancing products. China still controls trillions of American and European debts.

  • Joshreiss

    Most Asians of first generation are not rich. I wonder how much this guy knows about east Asians besides teach some prep classes. Most asian students in the US take prep SAT prep class in Princeton review or Kaplan. It is extremely unusual to go to 20 hours per week boot camp. Those camps are mostly oversea in South Korea or China. SAT is simply too easy to warrant such effort, particularly for Asian students born in the US. SAT math is pathetic to Asian students: No more than a driver license test. Whites not as good as Asians in SAT math are not because of lack of prep effort, but because of not as strong in fundamental skill and problem solving capability. Get over it, guy.

    • educationrealist

      Most first generation Asian students take boot camp classes. Second and third generation Asians take Princeton review or Kaplan. If you don’t live in an area with huge Asian saturation (over 50% Asian), then you are probably not familiar with the huge business in SAT cram schools.

      And yes, most Asians are not rich. That’s my point–that Chris Hayes is probably (although not provably) wrong about the influence of test prep on the rich.

      Finally, none of this should be taken as criticism of Asians. The common stereotype of Asians as unimaginative swotters is just completely wrong, and I am not insinuating that they should not be taking hours of test prep. I wish the kids would start rebelling against their parents, though!

  • KLO

    I think there is some equivocation on the term “rich.” As a veteran of the commercial prep industry, I would say that most of my students were not poor, but also not rich. Indeed, it is absurd to think that the commercial test prep market could prepare the volume of students it does by only targeting the truly rich. Nevertheless, in the minds of many, “not poor” translates into “rich,” particularly when we are speaking about race and ethnicity.

    As someone with perhaps even more exposure to the test prep industry than I, I would ask you whether poor black and hispanic students are more likely to take test prep than truly poor white and Asian students. The common belief is that test prep disadvantages poor non-Asian minority students. It seems to me that this has led to an effort to target these students for test prep in ways that other students, including more affluent black and hispanic students, may not be targeted. Thus, it is quite possible that non-poor black and hispanic students are less likely to take test prep than their non-poor white and Asian peers even while blacks and hispanics as a group do take test prep courses more frequently than white students. This is just speculation, but I must say that I had very few traditional black students in my classes. Of the few that I had, most were older, non-traditional students studying for graduate school entrance tests.

    • educationrealist

      Yes, it’s likely. I said as much in the post. All sorts of organizations exist to push low income blacks and Hispanics into test prep and other college plans. Kids who don’t take advantage of these are failing to do so out of ignorance, not a lack of access.

      It’s also likely that high-income blacks aren’t taking as much test prep as low income blacks. However, they are still more likely to take test prep than high income whites, if the research I linked is accurate.

      But I think there’s some research on high income vs. low income blacks. I’ll dig it up if I can.

      Oh, and you’re absolutely right about test prep. I worked for Kaplan and now work for an Asian “SAT academy” (among other jobs), and these are primarily middle-class customers. Wealthy customers get individual tutoring.

  • One test to rule them all | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine

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  • random mutation

    One half Chinese, half Caucasian individual I know went from 1400 to 1530 on the old 1600 SAT with a little tutoring …

    It’s mostly about not making unforced mistakes.

  • Bostonian

    The report “From High School to the Future:
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