An Alternative College Admissions System

I have a long post about Ron Unz’s essay, but I kept on getting bogged down in too much detail, and it’s five days later. So I decided instead to propose an alternative to his alternative admissions process:

Since essays, personal statements, lists of extracurricular achievements and so many other uniquely complex and time-consuming elements of the American admissions process would no longer exist, students could easily apply to long lists of possible colleges, ranking them in order of personal preference. Meanwhile, the colleges themselves could dispense with nearly their entire admissions staff, since the only remaining part of the admissions process would be determining the academic ranking of the tiny fraction of top applicants, which could be performed quickly and easily. Harvard currently receives almost 35,000 applications, which must each be individually read and evaluated in a massive undertaking, but applying a crude automatic filter of grades and test scores would easily winnow these down to the 1,000 plausible candidates for those 300 Inner Ring slots, allowing a careful evaluation of those highest-performing students on pure academic grounds.

Note to Mr. Unz: Pure academic grounds simply can’t include grades. Besides, your method preserves the exclusivity of the top schools without requiring them to give up anything in return. Is there no way for any other school to break through, if the same group of schools get the top candidates?

So here’s my alternative.

Admissions:

  • All students must apply for consideration in one of five categories: Academic, Specialist (artist, language study, musician, actor what have you), Sports, Foreign National, and Development (people who pay a lot of money, legacy, disabled students who are asking for consideration).

  • Public colleges and universities must limit their admissions to non-remedial, citizen students. Practically, this means community college students at 450 per SAT section, lower tier universities at 550 per section, and top-tier universities to 600 per section. Or equivalent ACT scores. Or another test that hasn’t been invented yet. We need a more competitive market in tests; right now most test requirements should include the phrase “and so shovel still more taxpayer millions into the College Board’s pockets”. (What, you didn’t know how much federal money goes to pay AP fees?)

  • All admissions data is public information: test scores, biographical data, application/admit category (see above). Average SAT scores per university for white legacies, for Asians for blacks, for Hispanics, for Chinese, for whites from West Virginia, for black athletes, for Asian lacrosse players, whatever.

  • Employers have access (with permission) to college application data. It’s time to test Griggs.

  • Either universities pay for test score reports or they end admissions fees. Both would be nice.

Candidate Biography/History:

  • In: Parental education, parental income, race.

  • Out: Everything else, including GPA, transcripts, internships, what they did on summer vacation, jobs, favorite books, and admissions essay.

  • Specialist and Sports candidates have a separate portfolio. Presumably, development legacy candidates are given an amount to fill in on their checks.

Testing, all four year colleges (public or private):

  • SAT/ACT/alternate test to be named later

  • Four Subject Tests: Math 2c, English Lit, US History, Choice of Science.

  • New test series: Students sit for three 2-essay tests: English lit/composition, current affairs/history, and science/math. Prompts vary—say, student could get either free response or the AP DBQ, or some other form of essay question. Essays are graded on two 10-point scales, one for quality of response, one for mechanics and writing quality.

  • Universities can require other tests from Specialists.

That’s it. Students fill out a brief form, take the tests, and select the schools to get the scores.

Anticipated questions:

  1. What, no elimination of legacies or affirmative action?

    Universities blatantly do an end run about any attempt to curb either practice. My method requires absolute transparency, which will be much more useful. Besides, giving prospective employers access to college admissions data will once and for all prove whether elitist universities trump actual abilities: will employers prefer a black Harvard grad with 1800 SAT and an average 500 Subject test score, or a white state college grad with a 2200 SAT and average Subject test scores of 750?

  2. What, no foreign language test requirement?

    Foreign language tests should be reserved for students who are applying in the Specialist category for their facility in learning non-native languages. Why, you ask? Here’s the number and score distribution of all SAT Subject foreign language testers. Here’s the number and score distribution of all SAT Subject foreign language testers who studied for 2-4 years—mostly, but not all, non-native speakers of the foreign language. Can anyone tell me why we’re giving a gimmee to Hispanics, Chinese, and Koreans? Bryan Caplan has his head stuffed up his posterior on immigration, but he’s dead on about foreign language study in high school. Foreign language testing in this country has become a joke. It needs to stop.

  3. Why no admissions essay?

    Oh, come on. Public universities use them as yet another workaround state affirmative action bans. The Chinese and the rich have someone else write the essays. Sophomoric admissions directors pick their favorite sob stories and bias the results. The essay tests will be better. No doubt, the Asians will figure out how to cram for them, but it’ll be a lot tougher and cost them a lot more money. Plus, it will really hurt foreign admissions.

  4. Again. Why aren’t you banning affirmative action?
    If the transparency argument doesn’t do it for you, then I offer up my requirement of a public university SAT/ACT/other test score basement. As elite colleges have become ever more competitive and expensive, state schools should be an affordable alternative that still provide a good education. Instead, they’re drowning under a flood of unqualified, often near-illiterate, certainly innumerate students. Getting out of a decent state school usually requires 5-6 years now, simply because the schedule is too crowded with remedial classes. Lower division educational quality is often abysmal because the universities are highly committed to graduate anyone who does manage to escape remediation, even if they can’t factor a quadratic or read at an 8th grade level. So actually qualified students mark time and wait for openings until they get to upper level courses, where things are a bit better.

    State schools will improve dramatically with those score basements. They might not have the prestige, but qualified students can choose a state school instead of drowning in debt and know their peers will be equally competent and the needs of qualified students won’t be subordinated to an ideological obsession with equal access.

    Great idea, you say, but how does this affect affirmative action? Well, only 6% of African Americans get over 600, 23% over 500, and barely 40% over 450 on any section of the SAT. (Cite). As is always the case, Hispanics are just a bit better, but not much. An SAT/ACT limit will annihilate public universities’ ability to commit affirmative action; URMs with scores above 600 will be heavily courted by the privates.

    Given that most public universities have a remedial score requirement around the level I’m proposing, they will be hard pressed to argue that the test basement isn’t valid. Students can simply go to community college until they can achieve the necessary score. And if they can’t hit 450 per test, they shouldn’t be going to college at all. Hopefully, that will be enough for the inevitable disparate impact lawsuit.

  5. What’s your problem with grades?
    I’ve written before about the problem with grades on the URM side of things (The Problem with Fraudulent Grades, Homework and Grades, and a bit in The Parental Diversity Dilemma). But I haven’t written directly on the issues with grades and Asians.

    Yes, I understand that Asians, as a group (but specifically Chinese, Koreans, and Indians), outperform whites on tests. But the overrepresentation of Asians in colleges is explained more by their dominance in GPA than it is test scores. And that’s harder to fix. It’s easy enough to tell white kids with high test scores to go to test prep and maximize their scores, but by junior year, the GPA damage has been done. Public universities use grades as a workaround for affirmative action. Private universities—and here, I’m just guessing, but it’s a reasonable guess—have one grade standard for “development” and affirmative action but then, in order to keep their overall numbers up, they need extraordinary high GPAs from the students who don’t fall into their discount categories.

    And so, grades become phenomenally important to admissions. Little room for, say, the idiosyncratic white boy who scores 2250/34 on the SAT/ACT, scored 4s and 5s in 7 AP tests, got 780, 730, and 690 on the US History, English Lit, and Math 2c, but whose weighted GPA is a 3.8, unless he’s a legacy. Lots of room for kids with 4.2 GPAs, regardless of their AP scores, and here, Asians win over whites in a huge way.

    So just raise the GPA, you say. White parents need to raise their expectations for their own kids. Unless the white kid is ruthlessly driven and competitive on his own volition, parental pressure as a means of raising his or her grades to the degree needed to compete with Asians is a non-starter. Amy Chua isn’t kidding. If a white parent tried to drive her kid the way Amy Chua did hers, the kid would end up in therapy, and the therapist would make the parent stop. Asian parenting techniques are abusive in white people world. Full stop. (What disgusts me most about Chua’s story is not her own behavior, as she doesn’t know any better, but that her white husband stood by and let her abuse her daughters. But then, I’m a white parent.) Not only does this difference between white and Asian cultural expectations lead to lower GPAs for whites, but smart white kids with B averages are then denied access to AP classes (in most Asian schools, access to AP is strictly limited by GPA), which put even a lower ceiling on their GPA.

    And finally, understand that those Asian good grades do not necessarily translate to a well-educated student. Here I offer anecdata, but it’s a lot of anecdata. As my primary second job, I teach enrichment at a private educational company (aka, an Asian cram school), which over seven years adds up to a lot of Asian high school students. I love them. They’re great kids. But my experience has taught me to question any straightforward comparison between white and Asian academic credentials. All of my enrichment kids, as sophomores, are taking honors English and pre-calc. Maybe 10% of them can reliably read a complex text and offer an interesting or informed analysis without referring to Wikipedia and repeating verbatim what they read there, and in seven years and probably 300 kids I have never once had a student who could explain the derivation of the quadratic formula (that is, the generalized case for completing the square). I also teach an AP US History prep course every year, at two different locations, to a dozen students per class. All but a few kids each year will have taken six months of APUSH by the time my class starts, and fewer than a quarter of them have ever known who wrote the Federalist papers, or the most important achievement of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, when the class begins. Very few of them can even make a stab at naming the presidents in order, or even identify any of the “forgettable” presidents. These are kids attending public schools with some of the highest SAT averages in the country, more than a few of them topping out at 2400.

    In comparison, I’ve tutored and taught (as a public school teacher and a tutor) a lot of bright white kids. Their awareness and retention of their own education, including the above benchmark questions, is far superior, on average. Many white soulless swotters and creative inquisitive Korean eccentrics exist to skew the stereotype. But the betting goes the other way.

    Grades are lies at the bottom end of the scale and culturally skewed beyond all recognition to reality at the top end. Unless or until we move to a system in which grades are taken out of teachers’ hands and determined by outside standardized tests, grades must be eliminated from any truly meritocratic admissions process. End rant.

    I’ve been focusing on whites and Asians regarding concerns at the top end of the GPA problem, but: 1) bright Hispanic and black kids are far more like white kids than Asians, but they are rarer and are going to write their own tickets regardless; 2) just as Asian test performance may overstate their abilities, black test performance may understate their abilities because the tests focus too much on abstraction and generalized situations—and yes, I know that thus far, SAT scores show black underperformance. It’s just a hunch I have. That’s another reason I want to see a more competitive test market, to determine if the bottom half of the ability spectrum is tested accurately.

So there’s my plan. I think it’s preferable to Unz’s in that it allows universities more agency and the public more transparency. They shouldn’t be bound to a lottery. But they also shouldn’t be allowed to lie or fudge about their admissions process. Public universities shouldn’t be allowed to pursue their ideological romanticisms at taxpayer expense.

I also think my plan, or something like it, allows excellent students to thrive in any number of environments, rather than being forced to go into debt to prove they are worthy of one of the few slots an elite campus holds open after the mandatory legacy, athletics, diversity, and foreign student spots are all filled in. We really need to get control of our public university system again and stop using these schools to pretend that any illiterate can get a college degree if he or she just jumps through enough hoops.

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38 responses to “An Alternative College Admissions System

  • Bostonian

    “Public colleges and universities must eliminate their admissions to non-remedial, citizen students.” I think you mean they should stop admitting *remedial* students with low qualifications.

    If Asians’ true abilities were overestimated by their high school grades and test scores, you would expect them to underperform in college relative to their “academic index”. I don’t know of any evidence for this.

    • educationrealist

      No, you’d expect them to underperform in broader achievements out in the real world. And they do. Thanks for the correction.

      • Bostonian

        What evidence do you have that they underperform? It would be interesting to see if Asian alumni earn less than white alumni of the same colleges.

      • Hattie

        WRT Bostonian:

        I’ve seen a lot of hostility to ER’s kind of ideas about Asian education and grades, and I think it has very little to do with Asians. ER touches upon this: whites get lower grades than Asians, but much higher than blacks. (Hispanics don’t seem to impinge in the American consciousness, at least not yet.) If they acknowledge that Asians might be less educated than their grades imply, then they might have to question whether blacks are *more* educated than their grades imply.

        As a foreigner, I don’t disagree with white America’s hostility to African Americans – in fact, being desperate to avoid your situation is what makes me anti-immigration in my own country. But I really wish that people would just be open about it. The coded warfare and hidden, covert white flight is killing your country.

      • Bill

        then they might have to question whether blacks are *more* educated than their grades imply.

        Oh, please. Actually questioning that would not be the least bit threatening to even the most hardened racist.

        What whites really fear is the Maoist self-criticism circle which would get called “questioning whether blacks are *more* education than their grades imply.” Or whether wise Latinas are actually wise, say. When the talk turns to race, white folks know the PC lion is hankerin’ for its next scapegoat. To mix a metaphor.

  • anon1

    I initially found the Unz piece pretty remarkable, but as I thought about it more, I became convinced that there are some serious flaws in his argument. A couple of initial ones:

    1. As some commenters have noted, Unz uses a different method for counting smart Jewish high school students than he does for counting Jews at elite schools. In the first case he uses name recognition, which probably substantially undercounts Jews, and in the second case he uses data from a Jewish advocacy group, which has at least an incentive to overstate their numbers. So there are probably more top candidates and fewer actual students at top schools than he admits, which would reduce the admissions disparity.

    Still, the disparity he gives is so large that it must have some basis in reality. I blame this in part on the fact that…

    2. Not every socioeconomic group has an equal desire to attend Ivy League schools. Unz raises this possibility briefly and dismisses it, saying that the payoff to elite credentials is so large that few people would pass on a chance to get them. I’m not convinced. This obsession with elite schools is mostly found among upper middle class people in coastal areas.

    I know a little about this myself. I was a National Merit Finalist ten years ago, but I wasn’t a particularly disciplined student in high school. My school didn’t typically send kids to top schools, and I slacked off to fit in with friends, most of whom are doing blue-collar or otherwise mundane jobs now. I ended up at a UNWR top 20 school that I chose at the last minute because its intramural sports program seemed cool(!).

    According to Unz, I should have been obsessing about building credentials so that I could work for Goldman Sachs, but that kind of thing wasn’t even remotely on my radar screen. As far as I knew, banking was something done by middle-aged women behind the counter down the street.

    I’m not griping: things have turned out fine. Still, I suppose I missed my shot at joining the “elite”. Background and worldview influence kids’ school decisions a lot more than Unz admits.

    And then there is the issue of discrimination against Asians…..that’s a whole separate can of worms.

    • educationrealist

      Yes, the piece I didn’t write mentions the unconvincing nature of the name analysis. I don’t agree about the rest, though. Most kids who get accepted to Harvard would go to Harvard. Applying is a different matter.

    • Bill

      Jewish advocacy group, which has at least an incentive to overstate their numbers.

      Are you sure that is how the incentive runs? That is not usually how the incentive runs. How do you advocate for increased Jewish presence at elite schools by overstating their current presence? Did you miss the part of Unz article where he mentions Princeton’s shameful record of only over-representing Jews at 6X their population proportion instead of 12X and Princeton’s response?

  • Hattie

    This is a very interesting article about what happens once Asian-Americans go into the real world:

    http://nymag.com/news/features/asian-americans-2011-5/

    “While he was still an electrical-­engineering student at Berkeley in the nineties, James Hong visited the IBM campus for a series of interviews. An older Asian researcher looked over Hong’s résumé and asked him some standard questions. Then he got up without saying a word and closed the door to his office.

    “Listen,” he told Hong, “I’m going to be honest with you. My generation came to this country because we wanted better for you kids. We did the best we could, leaving our homes and going to graduate school not speaking much English. If you take this job, you are just going to hit the same ceiling we did. They just see me as an Asian Ph.D., never management potential. You are going to get a job offer, but don’t take it. Your generation has to go farther than we did, otherwise we did everything for nothing.”

    “The researcher was talking about what some refer to as the “Bamboo Ceiling”—an invisible barrier that maintains a pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America, with lots of Asians at junior levels, quite a few in middle management, and virtually none in the higher reaches of leadership.”

  • Barani

    What difference do you see between east asian students vs south asian students ?

  • nooffensebut

    “.the overrepresentation of Asians is explained more by their dominance in GPA, as opposed to test scores.”

    Since Asians do have higher test scores, especially at the high end, your logic is mysterious.

    • educationrealist

      They aren’t all that much higher. Not enough to explain the overrepresentation.

      • nooffensebut

        Really? On the SAT math test, Asians were more than four times as likely as whites to score within 50 points of perfect in 1992. Since then, Asians increased their average score advantage over whites by 50%. They now outscore whites on the writing subtest. They have reached equality on the critical reading test, but, in 1985 when whites had almost a half a standard deviation average advantage, Asians were 30% more likely to score within 50 points of perfect.

      • educationrealist

        Yes, I’m saying they aren’t all that much higher. If all universities needed were kids with average SAT scores over 700, they’d have far more whites, on average, than Asians. But if they are looking for average SAT scores over 700 and GPAs over 4.0, then the skew towards Asian gets huge.

      • nooffensebut

        By my rough calculations, Asians are underrepresented at places like Harvard relative to whites by a factor of about ten, based on SAT scores. It is fair to estimate that Asians are about ten times as likely to score at the top of the SAT. Whites only outnumber Asians by a factor of 14.5 in the general population. Asians are 17.2% of Harvard students, according to Unz. So, whites outnumber Asians by a factor of nearly five, when that should only be about 45%.

      • educationrealist

        Well, yes. But that’s because admissions are skewing the numbers. Are you somehow under the impression that I’m disputing that?

      • educationrealist

        Wait, I just reread your post and realized what you’re saying. You’re assuming that Asians getting a 2300 should be getting in so long as a single white with a 2250 should not. That’s just not the issue here, so I’m not going to debate it any more, because you’re being pretty silly.

        I wasn’t saying that Asians are overrepresented at elite schools, but overrepresented based on their population. That is not disputed. Your method of arguing that they are underrepresented is under dispute, because it assumes that so long as an Asian with a 2400 is not accepted, a white with a 2350 should not be. And that’s just goofy.

      • Derek

        “Your method of arguing that they are underrepresented is under dispute, because it assumes that so long as an Asian with a 2400 is not accepted, a white with a 2350 should not be. And that’s just goofy.”

        That’s how you would examine over or under-representation relative to test scores.

        Representation is defined relative to some factor or set of factors. “Representation” by itself is meaningless but must be defined in terms of some factor or set of facts.

        A group could overrepresented relative to population, underrepresented relative to test scores, overrepresented relative to chess skills, underrepresented relative to cooking skills, etc. all at the same time.

      • educationrealist

        I know. I’m saying that, for purposes of this discussion, it’s goofy to deal with overrepresentation in test scores to that level of granularity. So it’s not worth arguing about. As in, whatever, dude.

      • Derek

        You could reduce the number of discrete scores by lumping scores together. If you felt that 2400 and 2350 were basically the same score, you could combine them as being the single highest score on the scale. To examine over-representation relative to test scores, you’d still have to then assume that those with this new single highest score should be accepted relative to those with lower scores.

  • Bill

    creative inquisitive Korean eccentrics.

    I’m curious about this because it intersects with my own anecdata (much more limited than yours, I think). It seems to me that there are significantly more “creative inquisitive Korean eccentrics” than there are “creative inquisitive Han Chinese eccentrics,” proportionally. Agree or disagree?

    • educationrealist

      I chose Korean at random. Not sure I would venture a guess. It’s also like asking me about East vs. South Asians. Big, big differences, yes, but in an article where I’m already stereotyping madly, I’m suddenly shy about further categorizations. (g)

  • anon

    isn’t amy chua’s husband jewish, not white?

  • anon

    “Mike Wallace: Black history month you find ridiculous. Why?
    Morgan Freeman: You’re going to relegate my history to a month?
    Mike Wallace: Oh, c’mon.
    Morgan Freeman: What do you do with yours? Which month is white history month? Well, c’mon, tell me.
    Mike Wallace: I’m Jewish.”

    In all seriousness, inferring from what you mean by ‘white’ and as it relates to ‘gpa gunning’ or lack thereof, then no. In my experience my quite a few of my jewish classmates in HS were ‘gpa gunners’, they just didn’t have as much overt parental pressure but it was subtly known and expected from their successful parents.

  • MP

    According to Unz’s article, Asians are underrepresented at elite colleges, and white gentiles are even more underrepresented. Jews are dramatically overrepresented. Jews comprise around 30%, white gentiles around 20%, and Asians around 15-18% of the student bodies. Unz’s article suggests that based on academic merit, white gentile representation at elite colleges should be around 70%, Asian representation should be around 25%, and Jewish representation should be around 5%, and black and Hispanic representation should be very low.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    I also posted most of this response on Steve’s blog:

    A test that Asians can’t crush whites on? I think it’s quite easy. When devising a subject test (eg. Chemistry), contain the following types of questions:

    1. Some knowledge questions. No more than 40% of the score. Memorise, ho hum types. Easy as heck.

    2. Some application/data response questions. Again, no more than 40% of the score. Requires some brainpower, but set at a level that the slightly above average student can work through.

    3. Have 20% of the score based on questions that teach a concept right on the spot, and ask the candidate to solve them using the concept outlined. It’s great fun for the intellectually curious, but not so fun for the grinders, who might do well for the other question types but fall apart here when they realize they have to actually THINK. It’s the content version of the IQ test, assessing the student’s ability to identify and apply the patterns taught. In essence, the raw core of intelligence.

    To avoid disadvantaging the non-grinders (eg. whites), you can make questions belonging to type 1 and 2 really damn easy, or even make it pseudo-open book (you can bring in an A5 sized card filled with whatever info you want, for example) that enables good students to be able to do well on types 1 and 2 even if they didn’t really prep hard enough.

    Then toss in type 3 questions to sieve out the really brilliant who deserve to get into the elite ranks, able to think, improvise on the spot, and create new (for them) patterns of thought in a short period of time, which is where the smart but lazy students have a chance to shine. Works every time, and almost impossible to prep for, because the type 3 question content is often university level and there’s just too much content at that level to grind through. Interestingly enough, my experience tells me boys tend to do better than girls on type 3s – they are willing to take risks and are able to adapt faster in these situations.

    Regarding coursework grading, I agree that using them for admissions is a mistake. All too easy to game for.

    Lastly, the reason why the asian kids don’t seem to know about the facts you expect them to? They simply don’t care, because it doesn’t resonate with them at all, and even if it’s tested, the minute after the course/exam ends, it’s out of their minds.

    It’s worse when those facts have cultural significance, which again is dismissed easily because they might feel it’s not their culture (just taking a blind stab at assimilation issues). But for the white, hispanic, or even black kids, the sense of identity and history they have from their families and community, even their very race, makes it stick better (conflicts with Mexico, black history etc).

    • educationrealist

      I like the idea of stuff you learn right on the spot (although Asian cram schools will start to figure out how to prep them for it). I don’t think we should discourage a fact base.

      And you are exactly right about why it leaves their minds. Kids like that (of any race) don’t care about the knowledge. They care about the grade.

      • The Wobbly Guy

        It’s nearly impossible to prep students for it. If the cram schools can do it, they might as well take over the teaching of first year syllabus for most universities.

        What most teachers/tutors can do is to try to help them identify general patterns and get them to understand that the most important step is to learn on the spot. But if they can’t see it, then they just can’t see it – their brain processes can’t handle the complexity or the number of variables involved.

        I suspect it’s incredibly g-loaded, although I have no academic proof. It’s like IQ tests, the most difficult IQ questions (e.g. Raven’s Prog. Matrices) have patterns only the geniuses can identify – the non-geniuses might be able to understand it, but only after somebody explains it to them. Absent that somebody else (e.g. an exam setting), they’re dead meat.

        I know this intimately because my country is shifting our assessment standards in this direction. The A Level Science (Physics, Chem, Bio) papers for the past few years have been historically difficult due to the type 3 questions used, but a clearer and fairer indicator of who would be likely to excel in university.

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  • Jesse Pinkman

    “No, you’d expect them to underperform in broader achievements out in the real world. ”

    And why is achievement in the real world the best marker of retainment of knowledge? In 2007 all of Bernie Madoff’s wealth would count as a part of “Jewish achievement.” The real world is far less meritocratic than the education system, Nozick touched upon this in his 1998 essay “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” Are you so seriously obtuse as to deny that racism is an impediment to Asians in the real world? Remember that most people are cowards and though they may be as racist as you, they never express racist sentiments.

    http://isteve.blogspot.com/2013/08/higher-iq-people-just-better-at-getting.html

    If Asians continued to cheat and then their real world achievement converged with their academic achievement, I’m guessing you would say that their real world achievement doesn’t count either.

    How is it that the possibility that test scores understate black ability is only mentioned in the context test scores overstating Asian ability relative to white ability and not elsewhere?

    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/08/13/white-definitions-merit-and-admissions-change-when-they-think-about-asian-americans

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