Monthly Archives: October 2013

Noahpinion on IQ–or maybe just no knowledge.

Well, turns out that Noah Smith has made my last post for October an easy choice.

It all began when he and Miles Kimball declared that there’s only one difference between kids who excel in math and kids who don’t—the first group work hard, the second group doesn’t.

Robert VerBruggen did some neat research showing a strong correlation between ASVAB scores and algebra grades and even with my normal caveats about grades, that’s strong support for the notion that “smart” has something to do with “good at math”.

Then Steve Sailer chimed in with a great bit of snark on restriction of range, having picked up on a gem of a quote that I’d missed:

On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.

Hahahaha. Oh. Okay.

But then, Noah Smith pops in and doubles down in the comments section:

Even students at the 20th percentile of IQ can do high school math pretty well. I’ve taught them to do it many times. Dumb as a box of rocks, but a box of rocks can do algebra.

I instantly asked for a cite. Then I saw he’d made a similar claim at his own blog:

But you don’t need to be a math whiz to do algebra. Someone with an IQ of 70 can handle that, I bet. Do you have any evidence to the contrary?

Um, what?

So I tweeted it and he responded—well, I have no idea how to link twitter conversations, but here’s some of it. Smith then went on to snark at me for not proving my claim, somehow forgetting that he’d made two claims that I was asking him to support. Hal Pashler of the Learning Attention and Perception Lab agreed that documentation of algebra proficiency in low IQ students is important.

The tone of Smith’s response makes me wonder if he understands what he has said—and what it means in the world of education. Similar claims include:

“All my clients lose 50-100 pounds and keep it off. Permanently.” said the nutritionist.

“Our little country town lives in perfect harmony with the Palestinians.” said the Israeli farmer.

“Well, I get 60% of black voter support,” said the Texas Republican.

“Oh, I just logged onto and signed up for a cheaper policy for my family,” said the Florida plumber.

“Yeah, I just dip lead into this little tincture I cooked up and shazam! gold.” said the alchemist.

I mentioned that I had taught two students with documented low ability. Smith misunderstood, I think: Is your only quantitative evidence the fact that you personally were unable to teach two kids algebra?

That’s not what I said, of course. I was emphasizing that I could document an experience of teaching low IQ kids, and it’s actually quite unusual for teachers to have that info. Because I write about cognitive ability as I experience it in the classroom, I have mentioned time and again that I work with students on the lower third to the middle of the cognitive ability spectrum. But perhaps I should make clear that I’m talking about the ability spectrum you see in high school, which weeds out the bottom. Math teachers don’t run into all that many genuinely special ed kids, as opposed to those with mild learning disabilities.

I believe most states have two broad categories of special education. The kids are either educated as part of the general school population or they aren’t. The kids with mild disabilities–executive function, attention deficit, dyslexia—are educated with the others. These are kids who have the same academic requirements as anyone else, except they have a legal document defining their accommodations: extra time on tests, sit up front, use of a calculator, whatever.

The kids with severe disabilities–emotional, mental, physical—who can’t be educated with the rest, have their own classes. In most schools I’ve worked in, there’s more than one class. There’s the class for kids with mild IQ deficits and emotional difficulties, the class for the severely autistic or severely retarded, and so on. At the high school level, we don’t really call it “mainstreaming”—that’s much more of an issue in elementary school, as I understand it. Some of the kids in “special day classes” are capable of attending general ed classes in their strong subject (remember that not all disabilities are cognitive), sometimes in math. But high school teachers aren’t ever dealing with severely disabled children unless they teach special ed.

So who goes into special day classes, and who goes to general ed? Specifying a particular IQ as a cutoff is like standing up and saying “YO! Sue Me!”. But an IQ of 80 is generally considered the cutoff between “normal low” and “borderline retarded”. So I’ve always assumed that somewhere between 75 and 85, kids are deemed better off in their own classes.

Then in the general population, in math, you know that the basement of your class will usually rise slightly with each step, so the lowest IQ in your math support or pre-algebra class is usually going to be lower than the lowest in your algebra class, which is probably lower than geometry class, and so on. Using what I knew about special ed unofficial placement, and what I know about my schools (usually 5 or 6 on the Great Schools scale), I have used 90 as a rough bottom of the range of IQs I teach in public schools.

But I never had any hard knowledge of that until last year, when through a complete coincidence I learned the IQs of two of my students.

Tre, who was in a math support class of mine last year, had phenomenal retention of any concrete fact he learned. Total inability to grasp abstract concepts. Couldn’t estimate. Couldn’t isolate x. Couldn’t figure out what the slope of a line was. I’d ask him things like “if you rolled a ball down this line, which one would go faster?” and he’d struggle for minutes just to figure out what I meant. If it wasn’t real, it didn’t exist. He got pretty good at percentages without actually understanding them—but 20% was divide by 5, 25% was divide by 4, 10% was divide by 10. He was motivated. Great kid, fantastic athlete, failing algebra for the fourth time kept him off the his strongest sports team his senior year and broke his heart. But he took up a second sport and made the state finals. He seemed a bit slow in conversation, but nothing that would mark him as really low intellect. He held a job, worked hard, was a popular kid. There was no way he would be passing the test, and when I communicated this to the AVP, she said, “He was not classified correctly, for various reasons”—one of the reasons probably being that Tre is black. She mentioned his tested IQ that his parents included in his file, and it was well south of 90, but still much higher than 70.

Mohammed was in another of my math classes last year. Unlike Tre, does not communicate his mental disability immediately. He talks quickly, cracks decent jokes, likes people around, while Tre was happier off in a corner listening to music. It took me a while to realize that Mohammed, who is neither black nor Hispanic, wasn’t retaining any information at all. Once I did realize this, I looked more closely at his IEP and saw he was a special day students with an IQ in the mid-80s. Also an excellent athlete, but very different from Tre. No fact grasp at all. He couldn’t remember what you told him five minutes ago, much less yesterday. But he could solve a simple algebraic equation with a calculator. He’d have to relearn it almost every day, but he had the ability to abstract that Tre lacks. He very badly wanted to move on to the next math class in the sequence, against the recommendation of his special ed adviser, and nagged me constantly to support him in this quest. I was willing to help him try, but his sport kept him out of the classroom a couple days a week for nearly a month, and everything I’d managed to do to keep him not rolling backwards was undone. So I passed him and talked him into an easier course.

The point is this: Tre and Mohammed, while not obviously or actually “dumb as a box of rocks”, as Smith indelicately put it, were noticeably less able than almost all my other students in five years, despite considerable motivation on their part and a huge amount of support on mine. I have probably had a couple other students with as low intelligence, but couldn’t be sure because they were never around or made class miserable by misbehaving. This suggests to me that my rough approximation of my students’ cognitive ability is correct. I haven’t taught many kids with IQs south of 90, and most of them my lowest IQ kids were in my Algebra I classes.

And the bottom of my particular class distribution is not capable of algebra mastery. Algebra survival, sure. Ability to solve a simple equation with advice on how to turn it concrete, yeah. Remember with lots of reminders that 3-5 is a negative number, yes. Remember with lots of coaching that y=mx + b is a way to describe a line, okay. But not anything approaching knowledge, and you’ll have to cover it all again in the next year.

Since I began this, Robert VerBruggen did additional ASVAB crunching and found that kids who scored low on the ASVAB (2%) got mostly Ds and Fs, but some As in Algebra II. But he also pointed out “Not really clear that all of them both (A) genuinely have IQs that low and (B) genuinely learned algebra.” And here I’ve already linked in my post on fraudulent grades. As we teach algebra today, a kid with an IQ of 90 can’t get an A in algebra I, much less algebra II, unless his teacher is lying.

I’d be surprised if many 70 IQs got around to taking the ASVAB, but the caveat is this: 70 IQs would not be uncommon in a predominantly black population. My current school is 10% black and that’s the highest African American population in any school I’ve taught at. My sample size for blacks, total, is maybe 100—tutoring, teaching, everything–in 11 years. And most blacks in this area are high functioning. It would not surprise me at all if I only ran into blacks whose IQs were 80 or higher. I have many excellent black students who are top performers.

I do not believe that a 70 IQ of any race can master Algebra I, much less Algebra II. But I want data. I have been asking nearly as long as I’ve had this blog if anyone can show evidence of successful mastery of algebra by IQs less than 100. I don’t believe it exists, at least not since 1975, when we began ignoring IQ. And I’m absolutely shocked that anyone, even a liberal, even someone who sneers at IQ, would openly brag that it was no big deal to teach advanced math, much less algebra, to kids with IQs below 90.

Maybe Noah Smith is already trying to walk this back. I can’t find the original tweet to me in which he said math tutors are having great success with kids of 70 IQ. Here’s my response to it, but I can’t find the original tweet. Apologies if it’s there and I missed it, but most of the rest is there. He’s now saying to Robert VB (don’t make me type it out again!) “some” kids could pass but of course, this all began because he said an IQ of 70 could handle algebra and that he routinely teaches algebra to kids in the bottom fifth.

As I tweeted, if Noah Smith were right, we’d never need special education. We’d be teaching kids with 70 IQs algebra, a little geometry, maybe writing analytical essays on Of Mice and Men. But Jim, one of my commenters, had a much better analogy: the Supreme Court has made it functionally impossible to execute murderers with an IQ below 70. So someone with an IQ of 70 knows—barely—that it’s not a good idea to kill people, but can handle the quadratic formula and rational expressions, no sweat? Really?

It’s really quite simple: Noah Smith is almost certainly talking out of his posterior. But boy howdy, would I love to be wrong. Show me these IQ 70 kids learning algebra. Please.


I was bound and determined to get this in before my WordPress account thought October was over. Apologies for typos, I’m cleaning it up.

Second note: Tre and Mohammed are both pseudoynms, and I changed details about each. I went back in and changed even more info, just to be certain.

Teacher Quality Report: Lacking a Certain Quality

October flew by. I actually did a lot of writing, but not where anyone can see it. Plus, I’ve had my butt kicked, bronchially speaking. Apparently I’m asthmatic, but the only thing that means to me is that I hang on to coughs forever. So here it is October and just two posts? 20 days between? That might be a record. Even weirder, this has been my biggest month–25K+ views. Go figure. But let’s see if I can get two done in a day.

First up is a bit of a greatest hits montage occasioned by this report on Gains in Teacher Quality by Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch.

I noticed some, er, broad claims.

Smart Teachers are Better?

From the report: And the evidence on the importance of teacher academic proficiency generally suggests that effectiveness in raising student test scores is associated with strong cognitive skills as measured by SAT or licensure test scores, or the competitiveness of the college from which teachers graduate.

Nice to see a mention of licensure test scores, although not in the right context. But as Dan Goldhaber himself observed,

..we see that Black and other minority students appear to benefit from being matched with a Black teacher regardless of how well or poorly that teacher performed on the Praxis tests, and these positive effects due to matching with Black teachers are comparable in magnitude to having the highest-performing White teachers in the classroom. Removing the lowest of performers on the exam would necessarily remove some of the teachers that appear to be most effective for this segment of the student population.

He also found that there’s no relationship between licensure scores and reading effectiveness, but that licensure test scores operate as a reasonable screening device for white teachers and math. But not black teachers, I guess.

And RAND found less than that:

The results show large differences in teacher quality across the school district, but measured teacher characteristics explain little of the difference. Teacher licensure test scores are unrelated to teacher success in the classroom. Similarly, student achievement is unaffected by whether classroom teachers have advanced degrees. Student achievement increases with teacher experience, but the linkage is weak and largely reflects poor outcomes for teachers during their first year or two in the classroom.

Is there anything relating teacher quality to SAT scores? I couldn’t find it, but (and I mean this seriously) I may have missed it. Can You Recognize an Effective Teacher When You Recruit One? says there isn’t much of a link:

some researchers have found that teachers with stronger academic backgrounds produce larger performance gains for their children (see, for example, Clotfelter et al. (2006, 2007), in addition to the reviews cited above). However, there are also a number of studies which do not find this relationship (e.g., Harris and Sass (2006) on graduate course work and Kane et al. (2006) on college selectivity). …While several early studies failed to find a significant relationship between college admissions scores and principals’ evaluations of new teachers (e.g., Maguire (1966), Ducharme (1970)), a well cited study by Ladd and Ferguson (1996) did find a link between scores on the ACT exam and student achievement growth.

I often notice a study mentioning the “consistent” or “pervasive” link between teacher cognitive ability and student achievement, but all the research I find says that no conclusive link has been found, that some studies find a relationship, some don’t. Research is no more supportive of the smarter teachers campaign than it is for stricter gun control or tougher drug laws. Sorry.

Teachers used to be smart women, but no more

Another quote:

Over the course of the next 35 years, women still made up the vast majority of the teacher workforce, but their academic credentials began to decline. Research by Sean Corcoran, William Evans, and Robert Schwab indicates that the likelihood of a female teacher having been among the highest-scoring 10 percent of high school students on standardized achievement tests fell sharply between 1971 and 2000, from 24 to 11 percent.

Corcoran, Evans, and Schwab said that, but they said a lot more:

In the results presented here we find some evidence of a slight but detectable decline in the relative ability of the average new female teacher, when ability is measured as one’s centile rank in the distribution of high school graduates on a standardized test of verbal and mathematical aptitude. The magnitude of this decline is even greater when measuring ability using standardized scores. We also find that examination of the entire distribution of new teachers is more informative than trends in central tendency alone. Over the 1964–2000 period, women near the top of the test score distribution became much less likely to enter the teaching pro- fession than their peers near the middle of the distribution. The apparent conse- quence has been a much lower representation of women of very high academic abil- ity in the pool of elementary and secondary teachers. While the sample sizes of male teachers are much smaller, we detect the opposite trend among men.

Huh. So on average, women teachers are mostly as bright. (Consider that we have a lot more special ed teachers, who are predominantly female and who have scores as low or lower than elementary teachers.) But fewer really really smart women. Count that as a big “so what”, particularly since, as the report observes, we’re getting some more bright men.

But again, we don’t even know if we need really smart teachers.

We have no data on teacher quality

Absent persuasive evidence on the impact of efforts to raise the bar, some people have speculated that the rise of test-based accountability associated with NCLB and the ongoing push to establish more-rigorous teacher evaluation systems have made teaching less attractive and thereby contributed to further decline in the quality of the teaching corps. (emphasis mine)

Oh, come on. That’s crap. ETS has been telling the world that teacher metrics, particularly in elementary and middle school, have increased dramatically. I’ve written about this extensively, but I’ll just link in #5 on the list of heavily trafficked posts, Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II, which has the most linked image on this site, and a link to this ETS report on teacher quality:

In summary, the following can be said about overall licensure patterns and academic quality during the last decade, at least for the states included in this study:

  • Passing rates have decreased substantially.

  • The academic profile of the entire candidate pool has improved.
  • The academic profile of those passing the Praxis tests has improved.
  • These improvements are consistent across gender, race/ethnicity, and licensure area.
  • Profiles are markedly different for secondary subject teachers in contrast to elementary, special education, and physical education teachers.
  • The decrease in passing rates is likely attributable to increasingly demanding testing requirements put in place during these intervening years.

Yeah, the licensure tests! How about those?

Things that Shouldn’t Make You Go Hmmmm

After going through the many ways in which teacher metrics have improved over a seven year period, the authors scratch their heads:

What explains the apparent rise in academic competency among new teachers? As we show, the SAT scores of those seeking and finding employment in a teaching job differ in different years. It is possible that alternative pathways into the teaching profession have become an important source of academic talent for the profession. Unfortunately, we cannot explore this issue in any depth because the way in which teachers were asked about their preparation has varied over time. Regardless, alternative routes are unlikely to be the primary explanation for the changing SAT trends given that, with a few high-profile exceptions like Teach for America, alternative certification programs are not highly selective.

Wow, introduce alternative certification and before I have a chance to get huffy, walk it back. Damn skippy alternative certification programs are not highly selective. Many are set up specifically to recruit URM teachers, and in many ways “alternative certification”, outside of TFA, is a proxy for black and Hispanic teachers.

The 1998 Higher Education Act required ed schools to prove that 80% of their candidates passed all licensure tests. If I understand the politics correctly, the law was intended to force ed schools to spend more time covering content, which is absurd. Ed schools responded predictably—who the hell wants to teach 6th grade math in college?—requiring candidates pass at least one licensure test to be eligible for admission. A couple years later, NCLB’s “highly qualified teacher” criteria led to a wholesale increase in elementary and middle school content knowledge requirements, reflected in much tougher licensure tests.

So the 1998 Higher Education Act, coupled with the tougher licensure tests of the NCLB era, led to a tremendous decline in black and Hispanic teachers overall, and their virtual disappearance from education schools. Alternative certification programs sprung up as a way to bring in more URM teachers—they aren’t bound by the 1998 law, so they can bring in candidates and then spend most of the training time teaching them the content to pass the test.

Have you been paying attention? Because it’s pretty friggin’ obvious why the “academic competency” of teachers has improved. I’ve been writing about this forever. THE LICENSURE TESTS ARE HARDER. I shouted this back in March (It’s the test, Zitbrains!) and at least twice on the Clarence Mumford case, and I don’t know how to holler it any louder.

This authors mention the licensure tests twice, but never for the right reason. They never once consider whether the tests might be a source of the increase. In fact, they never seem to realize that their report is largely redundant, since ETS covered the same ground six years ago.

Meanwhile, despite this big boost in teacher “academic competency”, which I’ve been writing about for two years, we aren’t seeing a corresponding huge boost in student academic outcomes, and all research continues to show that, at best, the link between teacher cognitive ability and student outcomes is twitchy and unreliable. All research continues to play the Reverse Drinking Game and ignore student cognitive ability. Math professors assure us that the only difference between “math people” and everyone else is effort, and that anyone with an IQ of 70 can learn algebra.

So, here’s what I think, but can’t prove: our teachers are pulled roughly from the same pool as always, which is the 35-50% for elementary and special ed teachers, and 50-75% for secondary content teachers. But the bottom quintile or so is gone because of higher licensure standards, so the average has increased. This has resulted in far fewer black and Hispanic teachers, particularly black teachers. Existing black teachers are also being forced out of the profession by new requirements (hence the Mumford impersonation fraud ring).

Remember, anyone who pushes for improved teacher qualifications is saying, in effect, we need fewer black and Hispanic teachers. And, as the recent TFA study’s big takeaway shows, all you get for largely eradicating black and Hispanic teachers is, maybe, .07 of a standard deviation.

Just today Dara Zeehandelaar commented on my blog:

The point is that students might benefit if traditional certification programs were more selective in who they admitted (for example, by admitting students with higher GRE scores, higher undergraduate GPAs, undergraduate or even graduate coursework in the content area in which they want to teach, professional experience, etc. — the same things that TFA looks for). “Selectivity” in this case has nothing to do with race.

She said this with a straight face, too.

Sorry, Dara. Selectivity in this case has everything to do with race.

Painting Pictures

I quit my second job for a while, but got sucked back in by an importunate boss. He did move me out of PSAT/Book Club and into straight Book Club, for 7th-8th graders, which is a nice switch, except it’s in the afternoons and kills my Saturdays. But oh, the kids. Who are, in case you’re a new reader, first or second generation Chinese, Korean, Indian, and the occasional Vietnamese.

First day, a month ago, I face four eighth grade boys (one Chinese, three Korean), and I’m going into the usual spiel:

“The thing is, this class is about becoming readers, writers, and thinkers, not about getting a good grade. What do you want from this class? Francis?”

Francis just looks at me, wide-eyed and quiet. I am supposed to get the hint and move on. I wait. And wait. And wait some more. Francis realizes, to his horror, that I’m not going to move on. It is unholy how much I enjoy doing this, time and again. An unlooked for joy of teaching.

“Um. What was the…oh. Um. I want to get better grades.”

“You don’t get straight As?”

“Well. Yeah.”

“You just want more A pluses?”


“My mom wants me to come.”

“It’s always the mom, isn’t it? Bruce, what about you?”

Bruce is a Korean version of Ralphie from A Christmas Story, bright-eyed and chirpy.

“My mom wants me to come, too. But I would like to learn to write better. Not grammar.” He pauses, not sure how to say it. “Better. Like, with good vocabulary.”

“That’s a good objective. Arthur?”

Arthur would be a nerd, except no one around him would notice. It’s Saturday afternoon and I like to think that he took off the tie his outfit was missing the minute he was out of his mother’s view.

“I actually wanted to come. I need to develop a better writing style and take advantage of my vocabulary.”

“You want to get it drunk first? Kidding. Dino? What’s your pleasure–better grades, words you can love and leave, a chance to watch TV?”

Dino is slouched down, a shock of unruly hair pulled down over his eyes. “Not grades. I don’t care about grades.”

The other three boys literally gape at this anathema. “You don’t care about grades?” gasps Bruce.

“Look. We’re eighth-graders. None of this counts. I try to have fun. Read some books.” He looks at me. “I want to read deeper, find context and meaning. My teachers talk about analyzing literature, but when they analyze it I never agree with them. I want more ammunition.”

Huh. “I guess you didn’t get the memo?”

He’s quick. “Like ‘Rules and Regulations for Asians?'”

“Instead you read a pamphlet on the Beat movement.”

“What’s that?”

“Read up.”

Last week, that same boss begged me to cover two SAT writing classes in addition to Book Club, and although I was sick, I am nice. The class had already met for math so were in the room when I walked in. While I was doing my standard I’m a long time teacher here but don’t usually teach SAT spiel, I suddenly did a double take.

“Good lord, who let you in? Blond guy.”

The white kid slumped unhappily in the back eyed me cautiously. I seemed to be looking at him, but what could I mean? He looks to the left, then the right, then points to himself in query.

“Yeah, you. It’s Saturday morning. White kids are still asleep. And here you are. You don’t look half Asian, but I’ve been fooled before.”

The entire class is now unsure whether to gasp in horror or laugh.

“I think it’s your fault I’m here.”


“Yeah, a friend of mine went here last summer and his mom raved about the great teacher.”

“I”m flattered, but I don’t teach SAT.”

“That’s what I said! He went to PSAT class! But my mom made me come.”

“That’s what you get for having Asian friends.”

“I’m not blond, though.”

“Ash blond. Plus, look at the room, buddy. You’re blond.”

Now they’re laughing.

“You can’t tell half Asians?” a Chinese kid asked.

“Sometimes. But then a couple summers ago, I had this kid with blond hair. Not dyed blond, punky blond, but just normal blond hair. Blonder than this guy’s. He said he was half Korean, I said wow, he didn’t look it. He smiled, used both his hands to pull his hair away from his head and I fell out of my chair. His face was totally Korean! You know, slightly round, the eyes had the full epicanthic fold. But his hair was white people blond, and my brain just insisted his face was Caucasian until he pulled his hair back.”

“Oh, I know someone like that!” said an Indian girl.

“Hair color is white people’s. We own that trait. So much ours that I looked at a Korean face and ignored reality until the hair was gone. Hey, wait.” I suddenly stopped cold.

“You. Behind blond guy. You’re not Indian.” The kid shook his head, laughing, knowing what’s coming.

“You’re BLACK. Like, African American black! Jesus, there’s like, maybe eight of you in a ten mile radius from this spot. Where do you go to school?”

Black kid is enjoying this, names a very wealthy public school.

“Oh, well. You’re used to being one of three? Two? Just you? I know Blond Guy has to suffer through being the one no one wants on group projects–white guys never do homework–but you, you’re such a novelty they probably fight over you.”

The kids were now howling.

“My god. A white kid AND a black kid in this establishment deep in the heart of Little Asia. Cats and dogs sleeping together.”

And I started the class which I like to think lived up to the icebreaker.


So my last essay got a lot of attention, and I’m happy about that. I’m even happier that most readers took it as I intended.

But some didn’t, and by “some”, I don’t mean the various ethno-nationalists groups, nor do I mean the Stormfront and other vaguely or overtly anti-Semitic sites who liked the piece. They understood what I was saying, even if I disagree with where they took it next. I allow almost all comments, and allowance should not be construed as agreement.

No, I mean the people who said I “claimed” that all Asians were cheating, or that I didn’t “prove” that Asians weren’t living up to their resumes, or that white people cheat, too.

I am exactly the opposite of a scientist. I like facts fine. But proof is boring. It’s always so small. I like probabilities. And not calculating them, that’s boring, too. I like seeing things, reading about things, and thinking about what they mean. Then I start to anticipate. If A, which I’m reading about, is happening, then isn’t B happening, too? Let’s see what Google says. Damn, Google agrees with me! And I google, search, and keep reading, find ten other things that tie in, or are just interesting tidbits for later.

A good chunk of this blog is dedicated to describing and explaining the reality I see as an older but new teacher, as a math teacher, as a test prep instructor, as a white teacher who lives in a heavily Asian community and teaches many recent Asian immigrants. I paint a picture, and in many cases, people who work in the same reality say yeah, that’s an accurate picture. Others who aren’t familiar with the reality often find it an interesting and credible picture; still others say wow, you just took a kaleidoscope I was trying to figure out and made it clearer. All good. It’s rare that people say hey, that’s just not how reality looks and when they do, they are math teachers, and that’s religion.

But proof? It’s just a picture. Accept it, don’t accept it. Challenge it. Give data that directly contradicts it. I’m happy to realize that I’m missing a piece of the picture, or even misreading it entirely. Just quit whining that I haven’t proved it. Enough people clearly agree with the picture that I haven’t invented it out of whole cloth, and I’m not asserting anything beyond the picture. I give data to show it’s not one-off. Take it or leave it.

Over the past decade the open discrimination against Asians in college admissions has risen to the level of public notice. Many people hear the news and think, “We need to catch up! We need to make our kids more like Asian kids!” This, more than anything, is what I hope to—if not correct, then at least compensate for. Because no, we do not want to make our American kids—white, black, Hispanic, or Asian—like the kids who are, through “hard work, dedication, and cultural expectations” churning out 4.5 GPAs and taking 10-12 AP courses. Those kids are achieving those intellectual goals using methods we don’t value (and I mean more than just cheating), and they are not, in far too many cases, attaining the intellectual base that we in America assume comes along with that resume.

I can’t prove this. What I can do is show readers what problems arise from educating this population (again, recent Asian immigrants or their kids), and let them think about how that plays out in college admissions.

Our educational system needs improvement, and one of the areas that most dramatically needs improvement is our education and development of bright kids. I suspect, but can’t prove, that our failure in this respect is what allows the Asian “swot” method to dominate without actually learning all that much. What we need to do is track, is ensure that our top kids are getting a challenging education that doesn’t just allow them to regurgitate, but think creatively, intuitively, and engage their intellects. We used to do that, but our determination to pretend cognitive ability doesn’t exist has seriously damaged this area of education—both in high school and college.

Until we decide to fix this, however, the answer lies not in making American kids more Asian, but in making Asian immigrants—indeed, all immigrants—more American.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I love all my students. I teach this second job, and let my boss talk me back into it even though I’d like the time off, because I particularly love these kids, these recent Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indian immigrants who don’t all look alike and don’t all think alike, but who far too often dutifully obey their parents and live under extraordinary pressure to succeed. I want them to be more than the hardworking stereotype, to learn to ask why, to ask questions beyond “will this be on the test” and form the occasional opinion. And towards that end, I’ll be doing my best to convince my Asian students to win more concessions for their time in Saturday school, defy their parents on a daily basis, watch more TV, watch way more movies, tell their moms to get a job if they have nothing better to do than nag them, and skip their homework entirely a couple days a week.

Asian Immigrants and What No One Mentions Aloud

To continue my thoughts on college admissions and Asians:

Many people, reading of the clear discrimination against Asians, become all righteous, thinking of those poor, hardworking Asians. Come to America, work hard, and look how the system screws them.

But that reaction ignores the stereotype.

The stereotype, delicately put: first and second generation Chinese, Korean, and Indian Americans, as well as nationals from these countries, often fail to embody the sterling academic credentials they include with their applications, and do not live up to the expectations these universities have for top tier students.

Less delicately put: They cheat. And when they don’t cheat, they game tests in a way utterly incomprehensible to the Western mind, leading to test scores with absolutely zero link to underlying ability. Or both. Or maybe it’s all cheating, and we just don’t know it. Either way, the resumes are functional fraud.

Is it true for every single recent Chinese, Korean, or Indian immigrant? Of course not. I know far more recent Asian immigrants than most people, a fair number of whom effortlessly exceed their academic records, with style points to boot. That doesn’t make the stereotype any less relevant. Or less accurate, as stereotypes go.

There are two aspects to this story. First is the behavior of recent Asian immigrants who live in America. That part is largely anecdotal, because reporters are, as always, reluctant to be specific about race. Second, the behavior of Asians back in their native countries. Here, reporters are happy to describe behavior in great detail, because hey, it’s not race, it’s culture. Moreover, colleges have done a reasonable amount of research documenting the prevalence of cheating and “cultural differences” in Asian immigrant college students.

This piece will focus on recent Asian immigrants and cheating. I have been working on various aspects of Asians and college admissions for over six weeks now, and tried to figure out the best way to organize the chunks. Nothing ever seemed completely right, and I’ve got some several thousand words in addition to this one that may take me months to organize. I hope at some point to put together a piece on Asian nationals and cheating, but the one that’s hardest of all is the second part of the stereotype, the one that says okay, so they don’t always cheat—maybe—but even if they don’t, their test scores don’t match what we consider reality.

I will include a number of reported stories that back up my own experiences, as well as excerpt from School of Dreams, by Edward Humes, the story of a few years at Whitney High, a selective California public high school that is almost entirely Asian (as early as 1987, it was 45% Asian). Note again that this behavior is of recent Asian immigrants, kids who either came here very young or were born to recent immigrants. Humes’ book specifices this, and the aforementioned Wall Street Journal article also specifies that the troubles are with recent immigrants.

And so, cheating.

Cheating is a big problem in American high schools, and doom and gloom stories like this emphasize that high-achiever cheating is on the rise. Well, Asian immigration is on the rise, too, and Asian schoolkids are a huge percentage of high achieving kids. Is there any correlation, or is it rude to ask?

Teachers will tell you that high achiever cheating has a distinctly demographic tilt, which you can find in the stories if you look for it. Scratch the surface of any cheating story and odds are well above average the school or the class in question is disproportionately Asian. Journalists carefully scrub cheating stories of any racial references—unless it’s rich whites. In fact, it’s obvious that the SAT scandal was first thought to be “white” kids, which is why the reports contained names. Then it turned out they are mostly Iranian Jews, first or second generation immigrant. Oops. Which is not to say that impersonation is the typical cheating profile for Eastern and Southern Asians. (Cheating by high ability black and Hispanic students is virtually unknown, both in my own experience and a complete dearth of reported stories. The major cheating scandals involving black and Hispanic students is done on behalf of the lowest performers, usually by teachers, usually being ordered to do so by administrators.)

Researchers categorize cheating in three ways: impersonation, collaboration, and prior knowledge.

First, and least likely for Asians in this country, is impersonation, the method used by the Great Neck SAT scandal and the Clarence Mumford case. Cheaters need lots of money, an imposter who can guarantee results, and an anonymous setting. The Mumford case was so extensive, I think, because teacher testing is anonymous and a passing score, as opposed to a high score, was the only thing needed. That, coupled with a whole bunch of existing teachers who couldn’t pass the test. While impersonation is common in China and India, the ETS/College Board spot maybe 200 cases of impersonation a year in the US—at least, they only admit to that many. According to this story, impersonation used to be an issue among college athletes, which makes sense (and would therefore involve low-ability blacks more than Asians).

Next formal cheating category is “collaboration”, which means that students engaged in the work—test usually, homework almost always—are getting answers from other students also doing the work at that time. We don’t call this “copying” anymore, because getting answers almost always involves the consent and, well, collaboration of the person who has the answers.

Collaboration stories that hit the news usually involve Advanced Placement tests. “Chaos cheating”, as I call it, is nicely illustrated by the Mills High School story, in which the entire school’s AP scores were invalidated. While the first article only mentions one student with an Asian name, the student site protesting the decision has each student signing in by name, and the names are so Asian it’s funny, making it almost unnecessary to confirm that Mills is 60% Asian. The followup story has a revealing picture , and try playing “spot the white kid” with this video on the story.

Chaos cheating starts with a school screwup. The school doesn’t enforce security, sits the kids too close together, in circles or facing each other, directly against the rules. I know: what the hell does that have to do with the kids? They aren’t arranging this. At best, some kids are taking advantage of something that they had no control over.


From 2008 to 2013, I taught an AP US History survey course at two different SAT academies, for kids from around 20 schools, most of them 50% or higher Asian. I’ve been hearing from my APUSH students about exactly this scenario. I dismissed the first tale, thinking it absurd—any teacher knows how to proctor, particularly at the school in question, which had a long history of AP testing. Then I heard the story several more times from different kids, different schools, different review classes, always involving “Asian” schools or a heavily Asian testing population. I checked it against my white tutoring students, from a wide range of high schools, and the only ones who know of it also went to “Asian” schools. My Asian middle school students don’t know of it. The few Asian students I found who’d never seen it attended majority white or majority Hispanic schools—and they knew exactly what I was talking about, but told me that “wouldn’t fly” at their school.

The kids who know of it tell me some variation of this: the testers rush into the room as chaotically as possible, pull chairs close together, sit next to a buddy, whine like crazy when the proctor tries to impose seating order. The proctor sighs, exhorts them not to cheat, and pretty much turns over control of the class to the students. At that point, the kids can quietly discuss answers, text a buddy for help, and basically “collaborate” in any way needed.

Now, any decent, experienced proctor would never allow this. And yet, the “chaos cheating” stories that make the news all involve schools with a long history of high-achieving students taking all sorts of AP tests. The lax administration simply doesn’t make sense. But several major cheating stories of this nature on the AP have made the news in the past five or six years, in addition to the recent Mills High School story above. Here it is occurring at Skyline High School in Oakland, a majority minority school whose 22% Asian population likely comprises the bulk of the AP testers. Skyline’s cheating was limited to specific students, although it’s clear that the cheating couldn’t have occurred without incompetent or compliant proctors.

Another cheating scandal that involved both chaos cheating and texting occurred in Orange County, in which students were “allowed to talk, consult study aids, send text messages to friends and leave the room in groups during the exam” and we are supposed to believe that this was due to inexperienced proctoring in a high-achieving school in a wealthy district. I originally thought it was a primarily white student body. But back in 2008, Trebuco High freshmen through juniors were about 9% Asian, and CST scores reveal them to be a high achieving bunch. So about 150 Asians were juniors and seniors, figure perhaps a third of the AP testers were Asian. That’s plenty to create a chaos cheating situation. Ten students acknowledged cheating by texting, race omitted.

(AP Stats is a common cheating test. I mentioned this to a colleague, a third generation Japanese American, and he snorted, “Of course. That’s the math test for Asians who aren’t good at math.” and I suspect that this is, in fact, a good bit of the reason.)

The Mills students tried to sue. While the effort failed, the decision includes detailed descriptions of Mills, Skyline, and Trebuco testing procedures. It’s very hard to believe that Mills and Trebuco, in particular, were so blatantly incompetent.

I found one example involving the SAT, with the same seating violations and inattentive proctoring at a private school in Brooklyn, which surely should know better. When I first found Packer Collegiate Institute, I also intended to use it as a counterexample, of a case when chaos cheating involved a primarily white population, since the school is only 7% Asian. And it may–except the population is for K-12, and there’s no way to determine what age the Asians are. Are they all kindergartners? All high schoolers? Please note this article on Packer’s growing profile and resulting identity changes, paying particular attention to the increased competition, increased emphasis on college admissions, and changed atmosphere. The article doesn’t say “Asian student population has increased”, but given the school is in Brooklyn, which has seen a tremendous increase in Asian population, I do wonder what percentage of the testers are Asian.

We move from AP tests to every day classes and those ruthlessly consistent straight As that comprise a good bit of the Asian academic dominance, and there, teachers and students both can tell you all about the cheating. Collaborative cheating also includes splitting up homework assignments and texting answers on in-school tests and quizzes. All but one of the schools mentioned in that story are heavily Asian (Piedmont is not). I wrote part of this article at a pizza parlor in the late afternoon, packed full of students from one of the local high schools (80% Asian), openly “collaborating” on homework in late August. And I don’t mean “what’s the answer to question 9” but “we’re doing the front page, can you guys take the back side?” and then everyone switches answers. When you hear of Asian kids talking about all the hours they spend on homework, take it with a lot of salt. School of Dreams backs up the collaborative cheating on tests and the wasted time on homework.

The third category of cheating is “prior knowledge”—students are aware of the specific content of the test before taking it. Again, prior knowledge cheating occurs in every day classes as a way to get As on tests, as well as national tests. Students take advantage of prior knowledge in school by breaking in or in some other way obtaining the tests ahead of time. Students caught in the widespread cheating scandal at Stuyvesant High had both provided answers for their strong tests and received them for their weak tests—and this NY Magazine article makes it clear that cheating at New York City’s top high school is endemic and common. Notice that none of the schools mention the dominant race of the students involved, but the hints are there and all but one of the example schools are over 40% Asian. The North Carolina school, Panther Creek High School, is only 16% Asian, but it’s in a highly educated area, the students involved were all top-tier, and did you notice the mention of parental pressure? Dead giveaway. Some kids use the TA gig—TA for a teacher, get copies of the tests ahead of time (or in some cases change the grades) and either trade or sell.

Then there’s the national high stakes prior knowledge cheating scandals, in which the parties get the actual test information, sometimes from the Korean hagwons who pay testers to take pictures of the test, sometimes from principal whose brother works at a SAT academy that clearly has a large Asian clientele. (Wait–Asian schools in Plano, Texas? No way. Way: 32% Asian. Yeah, surprised me, too.)

(I’ve been talking about my work for a few months, and a friend just came back from taking her acupuncture board tests, shocked. She noticed all the “Asian testers” (no idea what countries) were disappearing into a large conference room, so she meandered down that way and discovered that they were all in a room with rows of laptops, typing ferociously. They weren’t studying. They were entering the questions for later testers.)

Whitney High School’s admission test was, and probably is, highly vulnerable to prior knowledge cheating. Back in the 90s, a test prep company bought a copy of the custom test from McGraw Hill, who created the test. Then later problems occurred with the essay portion. Cheating was so rampant that Whitney now uses CST scores and an essay—and of course, a private tutoring company, one started by an Asian (Brian Tom), and been around for 30 years (you gotta wonder, at least I do, if it was involved in the earlier shenanigans) is happy to tutor kids on the essay and the CST—that is, the California state tests.

In writing this piece, I have steeped myself in cheating articles, and this discovery of CST tutoring still caught me by surprise. White kids also don’t really care about their low-stakes state test scores, whereas Asian kids can tell me exactly what their last state test results were, because their parents get quite annoyed if they aren’t Advanced in every subject. And for that reason, I can’t dismiss the possibility that Asian kids are cheating on their state tests, too. Given that many state tests are given over a six or eight week period, I very much wonder if the tutoring companies aren’t buying copies or pictures of tests off of willing administrators.

Two actual data points to consider: in my first article, I mentioned the increased number of Asians getting high verbal scores on the SAT, during a period when far more recent Asian immigrants and nationals are taking the test. I find this….unlikely, and the fact that it hasn’t been investigated is pretty stunning. I also find it odd that far fewer Asians take the ACT (69,000 in 2012) than take the SAT (192,500 in the same year), when the ACT is taken by more students. Both are suggestive of cheating patterns—although they may also simply reflect the fact that SAT “academies” are better versed in gaming the SAT.

Go to any Asian school and ask the teachers. Ask the kids. And when the kids complain that gosh, everyone thinks we all cheat, ask them why. I do, and the kids always look shamefaced.

As if this whole story weren’t troubling enough, it seems a great deal of the cheating is facilitated by the schools, which are run primarily by white people. It’s not the kids who are arranging the weak proctors, who fold when the kids protest at changing seats. It’s not the kids who are refusing to expel students who’ve cheated on tests. So why is that happening? (Interestingly, the white male Stuyvesant principal was replaced, as a result of the cheating scandal, by an Asian female principal.)

I wonder about payoffs. Given its prevalence in China, Korea, and India and given the cheating history I’ve just outlined, it’s hard not to wonder if the practice isn’t continuing. The parents certainly aren’t in any hurry to assimilate; they view American kids as negative influences. (and when the Asians in question say “American”, they mean “whites”, as in this pretty horrifying tale of the fraud in Chinese English teaching industry.)

However, there’s also something that I don’t see reported much, but is common knowledge among teachers in Asian schools: many of the parents, who are recent immigrants, are ruthlessly and endlessly demanding. (This story focuses on Japanese parents in their native country, but remember, I’m talking about recent immigrants.) I know teachers who have quit Asian schools because of the 100 or more emails they get daily, demanding that grades be changed reconsidered. I can easily envision a proctor fearing the mountain of crap poured on his head if he held the line and forced kids to change seats, so instead just shrugs and hopes for the best. I’m not excusing it. But I can see it.

So is the cheating enabled by payoffs or fear? Beats me. Is this cheating just as prevalent among high-achieving whites and long-established Asian Americans? Not in my experience, which is not to say that these kids don’t cheat at all. But really rich kids usually have parents who buy their way in, and upper income “American” (and here, I mean all races) kids do not, as a rule, feel the same type of pressure that the recent Asian immigrant kids feel from their parents. Wouldn’t it be cool if reporters actually investigated, though?

As the universities know, these same kids go off to college and cheat some more.

I am not excusing their discrimination. I am attempting to explain it. Some version of this next occurs:

The universities look at the resumes of all Asian kids—recent immigrants, long-established natives, nationals—and know that many of them are fraudulent. They know that many of the kids they accept will not be able to function on their campus, whereas others will be able to get great grades so long as they cheat. They know that many of the students don’t have the inquisitive mind, genuine interest in intellectual pursuits that universities like to see in students (or pretend they do). But the universities want the great, if often fraudulent, stats to puff up their numbers for the rankings systems, to offset the athlete, the legacies (for privates), and the Kashawn Campbells (for publics). And so they try to minimize it, while still getting what they want—an improved profile, out of state fees for four years, instead of just one, while not overloading the campus with too many Asians.

That’s disgusting. But if that’s not bad enough—and it is—here’s the thing: the cheating I describe perpetuates two frauds. The first, of course, benefits the cheaters and their schools at both high school and university level. But the second perpetuates a much larger misconception: People really believe that our top high school students are taking ten-twelve AP courses during their high school year, maintaining 4.5 GPAs, and have the underlying knowledge one would expect from such study. But this almost certainly isn’t true. And once you understand the reality, it’s hard not to wonder about all the “weeding out courses” in organic chemistry and other brutal STEM college courses, the ones that Americans are abandoning in large numbers. The willingness to accept the cheating, to slap it on the wrist if that, is leading to lies that convince a lot of American kids that they aren’t smart enough for tough courses because they don’t cheat and aren’t aware that others are.

No one is going to pay any attention to this problem. Usually, Republicans/conservatives are willing to point out that supposedly racist beliefs are founded in valid stereotypes, and I find it pretty fascinating that they are practically gleeful about the discrimination against Asians, not because they approve, but because of what they see it revealing about Asian superiority, chortling at the need for “affirmative action for whites”, practically spiking the ball in their declarations that whites just aren’t up for the task of competing in a global market. I was originally confused, but have concluded that any reason to razz white liberals for racism is too good to be missed. Plus, reformers jump on the bandwagon because they think the news will help them convince whites that American schools suck. Others, like Charles Murray, are simply bothered by the lack of consistent standards. Liberals just ignore the news.

But at base, the Asian discrimination and the Kashawn Campbell story both reveal that our college admissions system is corrupt, that they are using students to build the metrics they want, rather than finding the students they want. I don’t know what to do about it. Fortunately, though, I just set out to explain why the discrimination happens, not offer any answers.

[Note: Given the comments of pseudoerasmus below, I want to be really clear: I am asserting that the stereotype of recent Asian immigrants exists, and I am reasonably sure the stereotype is why universities are discriminating against Asians. I also think the stereotype is accurate but not absolute. People who want me to prove the stereotype are out of luck. I’m just the messenger with an opinion. I’ve said the discrimination is wrong, regardless of the stereotype. That’s not just a bunch of words.]