Category Archives: College Admissions

Braindumping the PSAT: A Few Questions for David Coleman

The day after the first PSAT sitting, two parents (at least, I think they were parents), posted this this exchange
on College Confidential (click to enlarge):


The day of the PSAT carried this slightly more obscure exchange:


Suzyq7’s comment seems to come out of nowhere, because almost certainly the College Confidential moderators purged a post or two. It appears that FutureMMAChamp or some other poster explained that some testers knew exactly what they’d gotten wrong because they had an early copy of the test, which led to Suzyq7’s outburst. That post got purged, so it’s hard to make sense of the conversation, but the gravamen of the charge comes through.

Notice the lack of “what on earth are you talking about?” responses. These posters aren’t being challenged for their grasp on reality.

So on October 4th, someone posted actual PSAT content. No one knew for sure it was PSAT content, I assume, which is why the content remained on the site until October 15th. At that point, it appears, the moderators became aware of the posts and purged them. Or maybe the posts are still online, although lord knows I’m a determined searcher and I can find no record of them. The moderators also deleted or modified posts referencing the content whenever possible.

From October 3rd until some point after October 15th, actual PSAT test questions were readily available on a forum that sees about 2 million unique viewers a month. Then that same forum, with the help of Google, Reddit, Twitter, Tumbler, and other social media sites, provided October 28th testers with a roadmap of all the questions on the test.

You really have to chuckle, don’t you?

All those reporters writing indulgently about the PSAT testers violating their promise to refrain from discussing test questions. Most or all of the tests passage texts have been revealed: Frederick Douglass 4th of July speech, the Jason Goldman’s article on researchers establishing differences between dogs and wolves (images included), and Julia Alvarez’s In the Name of Salome (the one about Herminia and her papa). Brian Switek’s piece on Nasutoceratops, the large nosed horn faced dinosaur or a similar piece was used in the writing section.

Peter Greene of Curmudgucation went so far as to include tweets with images from the test, and thinks it’s a big joke because the PSAT is “a test which everyone takes essentially on the same day” (it’s not. More on that in a minute). But then, Peter tells his students that the “P” stands for “Practice”, so hey. (It’s “Preliminary”, but then, the SAT doesn’t stand for anything any more, so maybe Peter thought he could just invent a P.)

I can only assume that the journalists, idealistic humanity majors sorts, found the tumblr posts creative. They might not have been as thrilled by the more, er, explicit discussions that were taking place out in the open Internet.

For example, the google doc in which participants discuss as many of the questions as the participants can remember. You can check out the original, but my pdf takes less time to load and omits the first page of obscenities. (The first link the author made was apparently deleted by Google as a violation of the terms of service.)

The google doc participants discuss the math and reading questions, with the occasional English query as well. They go into considerable detail; the enterprising student can become considerably aware of the pitfalls even without authoritative answers. This isn’t a particularly impressive brain dump file compared to the SAT recreations I’ve written about. But of course, the reddit thread where I found the google doc contained links to the several of the reading passages directly, and another thread openly discussed the specifics of a math problem. An employee or founder of Wave Tutoring was cheerfully in the same thread as the google doc link, giving advice and offering his services.

And there’s still good ol’ College Confidential, which has been the venue for organized SAT braindumping for years. The moderation appears a bit more vigilant this year, although the goal seems to be hiding evidence that cheating occurs rather than, you know, actually ending cheating.

So this page is blank because the moderator purged it, but the cache shows detailed question recollection. (Image capture in case cache disappears.) When a poster expresses surprise that there isn’t more specific chatter, he or she is told that just minutes earlier three pages of comments had been wiped out, presumably because students had been actively and specifically discussing the test.

I wonder if the reporters would have written cheerful stories about the google docs, the reading questions and topics, and the carefully worked math problems. Well. Not really. What I really wonder about is why the reporters can’t be bothered to write about the google docs, the reading topics, and the carefully worked math problems.

In the meantime, you can see why it’s all worth a chuckle. All this effort: the google files, the Tumbler memes, the careful hints, the chuckles, the sly media approval, and all this time the entire test was available online—and, undoubtedly, in hard copy for the right price.

Another College Confidential thread on SAT cheating via the forum inquires of the moderators why they allow blatant discussion of SAT questions without banning and posting a list of the offenders. A moderator responded that they have created a friendly place and that “public shaming” is not productive.

The discussion continues on to debate whether the site should be shut down so that the 10/28 PSAT isn’t compromised by all the “specific questions” being discussed.

What, you didn’t know that the PSAT isn’t over for the year? October 28, this Wednesday. Many high schools districts across the country take the PSAT on the “alternate date”: North Colonie Central Schools, Greenville High School, West High School, Dos Pueblos High School, Ridgefield High School, and the entire Seattle Public School District.

Is it the same test? Probably. I’m pretty sure the College Board used the same test for the “alternate” test date (note the wording) in the past. This year, with a new format, an entirely different test is probably impossible.

Wouldn’t it be cool if someone asked the College Board about it? Maybe a reporter, even.

Hey, David Coleman! Has your company discussed the publication of actual test material at College Confidential? The ACT constantly monitors the College Confidential boards for mention of their tests, but your company doesn’t. That’s why people routinely post passages and answers to SAT tests for the Chinese and Koreans too poor to pay for the actual tests from organized Chinese crime rings, while the ACT has almost no international market. But you don’t care about market advantage, right? You’re “non-profit”. In the future, are you planning on using previously issued tests for the international market, so the Chinese and Koreans can buy copies of the tests and pretend they are capable of 800 SAT reading scores when in fact they can’t even read English?

And speaking of the the Chinese SAT cheating ring, are your employees selling the tests? Maybe they’ve decided to develop a sideline in PSAT tests for Americans? Or perhaps the source is just a corrupt principal who sold a few copies to a test prep company and well, kids talk. But given the huge dollars schools pay for your product, have you considered delivering and proctoring the tests with College Board employees?

Do you have a different test planned for 10/28? If so, how will you ensure that the two different test dates are equally reliable?

If not, do you think it’s fair that all 10/28 PSAT testers, as well as 10/14 testers who had an actual copy of the test are better prepared to compete for the National Merit Scholarship Program, winning recognition and scholarships?

And please, Dave, don’t try and fob off questions with “Only a few schools take the test on the alternate date” or “The College Board spends millions on test security but we can’t be responsible for corrupt high school principals” or “We rely on our students’ honor and integrity and while there are sadly a few bad apples, the majority of our testers act responsibly”.

This is your product! You sell it to schools in exchange for a metric ton of money and student information–which you then turn around and sell to colleges, along with….oh, yeah, the TEST SCORES from a test that was available online for two weeks before the first sitting.

You’re busy breaking your arm patting yourself on the back for paying Khan Academy to provide low cost test prep to disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics—because you’re basically ignorant of the fact that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to get test prep than whites (all races are pikers compared to East Asians). Given your products’ abysmal integrity, why shouldn’t blacks and Hispanics abandon test prep and get in on the advance knowledge action? Right now, it’s probably (but not certainly) restricted to Asians, but that will change if you continue to shrug off the blatant test corruption that happens every month, every year–corruption that the ACT does not have in anything approaching the same level.

And while I’m on the topic, hey, Tim McGuire, president of the National Merit Scholarship Corporation! Have you ensured that PSAT is issued fairly and consistently, giving all testers an even shot at the scholarships you offer? Or are you so worried about constantly losing colleges that you ignore the fact that the PSAT is becoming as corrupt as its parent? Have you considered perhaps using an ACT product for scholarships?

Tish tosh, you say. No one really cares about the PSAT. It’s just a “practice” preliminary test. The scores don’t matter. They aren’t used for college admissions. So what’s the difference?

Yeah, you’re right. I shouldn’t point out that the kids most likely to use the advance copies are the kids who have a shot at National Merit scholarships. I shouldn’t remind everyone that the braindumping for the SAT, another College Board product, is exponentially worse than the violations I’ve discussed here. I shouldn’t worry that we’re becoming as corrupt as China. I shouldn’t worry that taxpayers pay millions to the College Board, a non-profit company, to deliver a testing product whose validity and reliability can’t be assured. I shouldn’t care that reporters don’t care enough to worry the College Board enough to bother scaring College Confidential, that reporters, like the colleges dropping the National Merit Program, only care about the average performance by SES and race.

What I really worry about, frankly, is all the organized braindumpers thinking jesus, that Ed. What a dolt. Only losers use College Confidential. You can download advance copies of all College Board products at darknet/yangchan for a small fee.

The Prima Donna Rock Star Tester Treatment

I met with her the first time last Sunday a week before the SAT, mother looking on, and the conversation went something like this.

“I want to specialize in one test. Which one should I take?”

“Yeah, okay, back up a bit. You took SAT test prep over the summer, right?”

“Yeah, but I knew everything they told me. It didn’t help.”

“What’s your course load?” (she goes to a 50% Asian school.)

” I’m taking a history honors class now, but it’s my first. Precalc for math.”

“And your GPA? What colleges are you considering? ”

Shrug. “3.8 or so. Colleges, I have no idea. But what I want to know is, should I specialize in the ACT or the SAT? And should I take the old one or the new one?”

“Do you have a target SAT score?”

“2000. What’s the equivalent in ACT? But I really think I should take the old SAT and be done. ”

“Your last practice test was a 1400.” She winced. “Even if all colleges take the old SAT for 2016 admissions–something I find unlikely despite assurances to the contrary–I’m not sure how you can find the time to focus on improvement between now and January, the last sitting of the old test. Besides, why the hurry?”

She waved dismissively. “I want to be done with all this. I hate the SAT. Maybe I should specialize in the ACT. I don’t want to learn the new SAT.”

“Yeah, we’re back to this whole ‘pick a test’ thing. Let’s discuss something touchier. Are you frustrated by the difference between your school performance and your test performance?”

She got very still. “Yes.”

“When I see an academic profile significantly higher than a test score, the student usually mentions it first. I’ve met many kids, a lot of them girls, with a profile like yours. They’ll tell me that they really just want to improve, to get their score into a respectable range, and that they haven’t had good luck with test prep so far. I didn’t hear any of that from you. Instead it’s ‘gotta pick a test’, need a 2000′ despite no college plans, without any acknowledgment of what must be a very disappointing practice history.”

I said all this as delicately as possible, but she was already surreptitiously wiping away tears.

” I don’t see your mom behind this. You’re causing your own pressure but are also very resistant to making more effort or exploring options.”

She started nodding before I finished, and her mom handed her a Kleenex. “I just think I’m wasting my time.”

“So let’s start there. Do you have trouble with school tests? No? How about your state tests? So it’s not a general testing problem, just big standardized tests. Is it nerves?”

She laughed, sadly. “No. My big problem is motivation.”

I snorfed involuntarily, and she looked up in shock. “Sorry. I’m not at all laughing at you. Just the idea that the kid I see in front of me barking orders like an executive suffers from motivation problems.”

The mother demurred here. “Well, her GPA is only a 3.8.”

“Forgive me, but you’re Chinese and prone to distortion on this point.” They’re American enough to laugh. ” I see an articulate, bright, driven girl who appears to have an intellect that I would put conservatively three or four hundred points above this practice score. You are using that intellect in school. I don’t see an obvious motivation issue.”

“No, not in school. Not studying. When I’m testing–you know, like the practice tests? I lose all motivation.”

Well, hey now.

“Tell me if any of this is familiar: The test begins and you’re working away, feeling good. Then you run into a problem that you don’t know how to solve and suddenly, as you try to figure the problem out, everything seems pointless. You give up, make a guess, go on to the next problem. Except now you aren’t sure what to do with this one, either. Suddenly, nothing matters. You simply stop caring. I see by your face that I’m not off-base.”

“How did you know?”

“I’ve seen it before. I describe it as a sort of stress reaction.1

” I’m not nervous at all.”

” You should be so lucky. Jitters don’t usually affect performance. You get bored by stress. What happens, best I can tell after hearing many students describe the feeling, is that your brain shuts down to avoid feeling stress.”

My first case was a short, slight blond boy back before the SAT changes, so before 2005. I was going through his practice test explaining the missed problems, and he’d finish my sentences. That is, he knew how to do many of the problems he’d gotten incorrect on the test.

So why the high error count, I asked.

It was after I got bored, he replied. Once the boredom hit, he’d start to randomly bubble. I was aghast. He may as well have told me he sucked dead chickens’ eyeballs for candy, so incomprehensible was his behavior.

“So what you have to start doing, have to understand, is that you are a testing prima donna.”

“A prima donna?”

“You know how movie stars always order off-menu? Because they’re just too special for the pre-arranged menu that the rest of us use. Or the ballerinas or opera stars who simply refuse to be rushed, because they are artists. Or rock stars, the kind who make huge demands for their hotel rooms sometimes—Van Halen famously demanded brown M&Ms be removed from the candy bowl (yes, I know they had another reason, but her parents are never going to let her listen to Van Halen, so I’m safe). You need to be a prima donna rock star tester.”


“Take two SAT sections daily, from the blue book. Use deadly serious test conditions. No music. No interruptions. No stopping the clock. No laying on the floor or on your bed. Sit at a table, door shut, start the timer.”

“That’s not even an hour.”

“And when the timer starts, I want you to take two minutes, at least, to go through the test and cherrypick. Circle the problems you’ll deign to do.”

“Um. What?”

“In math, pick and choose your problems. Circle the good ones. ‘This one, I shall do. This one, pah!’ Spit upon it. If you don’t instantly vibe to the question, avert your eyes and scratch an X next to that problem, which clearly must be for peasants and other little people. Can you do that?”

She giggled. “Really? What about reading?”

” Skip anything with long paragraphs that looks less desirable than root canal. You like sentence completions?”


“Do them first, then evaluate each reading passage to determine whether or not Her Majesty–that’s you–is interested. Which part of the writing section do you like best, the paragraph at the end?”

“How do you know this?”

“Do those six questions at the end first. Then go back to the front. The second–I mean the second—you find a long sentence you can’t instantly decipher, that question OFFENDS you. Turn up your nose. Move on.”

“So that’s all I want for the week. Two sections. Vary the subject. Every night. Take them like a rock star looking at candy bowls to make sure there are no…oh, look there’s a brown M&M. Skip it.”

“But I might only want to do four or five questions a section.”

“Great. Do those. Then, oh, hey. You’ve still got 20 minutes to kill. What’ll help pass the time? Let’s look at the other questions to see if they hold any interest. You are a movie star stuck in Podunk, in search of decent dim sum.”

“But the whole thing is a lie. The problems I can’t do aren’t stupid.”

“Sure, but we need to fake out your psyche. You have a fragile testing temperament that must be coddled and swathed in protective coating.”

The mom was a bit stunned, but accepting. “So none of the strategies she learned in test prep?”

“Mom, they didn’t work anyway. But what if I don’t have enough time to go back and do the problems that bored me?”

“Then you will have spent a whole test section working on problems you can do. How is that worse?”

“But if I try to read the long passages, I know I will get bored.”

“Well, I have some ideas for that later, but for now, read the passages that meet with your approval, and do the questions. Then for the rest, amuse yourself with the peasant passages. Do the vocabulary questions. The ones with line numbers. Don’t read them if they bore you. Normally, you understand, I wouldn’t suggest this.”

“So practice that all week. Eat pizza, chocolate, noodles, sesame balls with red bean paste, whatever your favorite food is Friday night. Saturday, have a good breakfast and visualize rejecting all those peasant problems.”

“What if I get bored anyway?”

“That’s a very real possibility. At the first moment you identify boredom, put your pencil down. Take a breath. Remind yourself that while it’s scary, this boredom is a valuable opportunity to practice dealing with it. That it only feels like boredom. Do not give up. Do not let yourself randomly bubble. If you feel done and can’t fight off the boredom, put your head down and take a nap. Otherwise, go back to the test and look for test questions that pique your curiosity.”

“But you said I didn’t have to read the passages.”

“Sure. But don’t randomly bubble, or give up. Estimate. Eliminate known wrong answers. Guess based on the context. But if you can’t kick off the boredom and feel hopeless, take a rest until the next section.”

“And here’s the important part: under no conditions are you to worry about your score. You’re not there for the score. You’re there to practice being a rock star who picks and chooses her projects. We’ll do scores later, if you like.”

“That’s okay. I don’t think I’m going to improve now, so at least I might know why.”

“It’s helpful just to know what the problem is,” her mother agreed.

They actually smiled as I left, both noticeably less anxious than they were when I arrived.

Note: she’s a junior, and has no reason whatsoever to take the SAT in October. I tried to talk the mom out of that, but she was determined to keep the date. Ideally, I wouldn’t send a student to try out this method on a live test, but that was the only option.

Will it work, this refusal to tolerate brown M&Ms and uninviting questions? Typically, yes, although since I’ve cut back on tutoring I haven’t run into the prima donna tester in several years. The cases I remember always saw an instant boost of 100-150 points the first time they took the test in rock star mode. In every case, they were also mentally exhausted afterwards. They’d never worked the entire test before, having mentally checked out. Prima donnas are fixable. The ones who go into a fugue state, not so much. Fortunately, that’s even rarer.

I started to make a larger point, but it’s too complicated and, since returning this August I’ve vowed to post more. I had too many ideas piling up that just weren’t…perfect, and so I kept putting them off, even though each idea had more than enough for a post. Time for me to limit scope and bite off achievable chunks. Otherwise I’ll think I’m bored and don’t care when really I’m stressed out….hey. Good thing I don’t get like this for tests.

So don’t read too much into this beyond an interesting behavior that I’ve learned to treat. Don’t apply it to policy. Do I think some people underperform their abilities on tests? Yes, I do. Do I think that tests can be gamed by people whose essential intelligence is high on mimicry and memory, giving the impression of skills they don’t actually have? Yes, I do. Do I think tests are mostly accurate? Yes, for most people. It’s a big ol’ world out there. Many cases exist simultaneously.

Meanwhile, I hope all you testers out there did well yesterday. And if you know any fragile testing temperaments, give this strategy a try.

1 While writing this piece, I googled and learned that researchers call it stress, too.

Evaluating the New PSAT: Math

Well, after the high drama of writing, the math section is pretty tame. Except the whole oh, my god, are they serious? part. Caveat: I’m assuming that the SAT is still a harder version of the PSAT, and that this is a representative test.

Metric Old SAT Old PSAT ACT New PSAT
44 MC, 10 grid
28 MC, 10 grid
60 MC 
40 MC, 8 grid

1: 20 q, 25 m 
2: 18 q, 25 m 
3: 16 q, 20 m
1: 20 q, 25 m 
2: 18 q, 25 m
1: 60 q, 60 m 
NC: 17 q, 25 m 
Calc: 31 q, 45 m
1: 1.25 mpq 
2: 1.38 mpq
3: 1.25 mpq
1: 1.25 mpq 
2: 1.38 mpq
1 mpq 
NC: 1.47 mpq 
Calc: 1.45 mpq

Number Operations 
Algebra & Functions
Geometry & Measurement
Data & Statistics


elem & intermed.
coord & plane
1) Heart of Algebra 
2) Passport to
Advanced Math
3) Probability &
4) Data Analysis
Additional Topics
in math

It’s going to take me a while to fully process the math section. For my first go-round, I thought I’d point out the instant takeaways, and then discuss the math questions that are going to make any SAT expert sit up and take notice.

The SAT and PSAT always gave an average of 1.25 minutes for multiple choice question sections. On the 18 question section that has 10 grid-ins, giving 1.25 minutes for the 8 multiple choice questions leaves 1.5 minutes for each grid in.

That same conversion doesn’t work on the new PSAT. However, both sections have exactly 4 grid-ins, which makes a nifty linear system. Here you go, boys and girls, check my work.

The math section that doesn’t allow a calculator has 13 multiple choice questions and 4 grid-ins, and a time limit of 25 minutes. The calculator math section has 27 multiple choice questions and 4 grid-ins, and a time limit of 45 minutes.

13x + 4y = 1500
27x + 4y = 2700

Flip them around and subtract for
14x = 1200
x = 85.714 seconds, or 1.42857 minutes. Let’s round it up to 14.3
y = 96.428 seconds, or 1.607 minutes, which I shall round down to 1.6 minutes.

If–and this is a big if–the test is using a fixed average time for multiple choice and another for grid-ins, then each multiple choice question is getting a 14.4% boost in time, and each grid-in a 7% boost. But the test may be using an entirely different parameter.

Question Organization

In the old SAT and ACT, the questions move from easier to more difficult. The SAT and PSAT difficulty level resets for the grid-in questions. The new PSAT does not organize the problems by difficulty. Easy problems (there are only 4) are more likely to be at the beginning, but they are interlaced with medium difficulty problems. I saw only two Hard problems in the non-calculator section, both near but not at the end. The Hard problems in the calculator section are tossed throughout the second half, with the first one showing up at 15. However, the coding is inexplicable, as I’ll discuss later.

As nearly everyone has mentioned, any evaluation of the questions in the new test doesn’t lead to an easy distinction between “no calc” and “calc”. I didn’t use a calculator more than two or three times at any point in the test. However, the College Board may have knowledge about what questions kids can game with a good calculator. I know that the SAT Math 2c test is a fifteen minute endeavor if you get a series of TI-84 programs. (Note: Not a 15 minute endeavor to get the programs, but a 15 minute endeavor to take the test. And get an 800. Which is my theory as to why the results are so skewed towards 800.) So there may be a good organizing principle behind this breakdown.

That said, I’m doubtful. The only trig question on the test is categorized as “hard”. But the question is simplicity itself if the student knows any right triangle trigonometry, which is taught in geometry. But for students who don’t know any trigonometry, will a calculator help? If the answer is “no”, then why is it in this section? Worse, what if the answer is “yes”? Do not underestimate the ability of people who turned the Math 2c into a 15 minute plug and play to come up with programs to automate checks for this sort of thing.


Geometry has disappeared. Not just from the categories, either. The geometry formula box has been expanded considerably.

There are only three plane geometry questions on the test. One was actually an algebra question using the perimeter formula Another is a variation question using a trapezoid’s area. Interestingly, neither rectangle perimeter nor trapezoid formula were provided. (To reinforce an earlier point, both of these questions were in the calculator section. I don’t know why; they’re both pure algebra.)

The last geometry question really involves ratios; I simply picked the multiple choice answer that had 7 as a factor.

I could only find one coordinate geometry question, barely. Most of the other xy plane questions were analytic geometry, rather than the basic skills that you usually see regarding midpoint and distance–both of which were completely absent. Nothing on the Pythagorean Theorem, either. Freaky deaky weird.

When I wrote about the Common Core math standards, I mentioned that most of geometry had been pushed down into seventh and eighth grade. In theory, anyway. Apparently the College Board thinks that testing geometry will be too basic for a test on college-level math? Don’t know.

Don’t you love the categories? You can see which ones the makers cared about. Heart of Algebra. Passport to Advanced Math! Meanwhile, geometry and the one trig question are stuck under “Additional Topic in Math”. As opposed to the “Additional Topic in History”, I guess.

Degree of Difficulty;

I worked the new PSAT test while sitting at a Starbucks. Missed three on the no-calculator section, but two of them were careless errors due to clatter and haste. In one case I flipped a negative in a problem I didn’t even bother to write down, in the other I missed a unit conversion (have I mentioned before how measurement issues are the obsessions of petty little minds?)

The one I actually missed was a function notation problem. I’m not fully versed in function algebra and I hadn’t really thought this one through. I think I’ve seen it before on the SAT Math 2c test, which I haven’t looked at in years. Takeaway— if I’m weak on that, so are a lot of kids. I didn’t miss any on the calculator section, and I rarely used a calculator.

But oh, my lord, the problems. They aren’t just difficult. The original, pre-2005 SAT had a lot of tough questions. But those questions relied on logic and intelligence—that is, they sought out aptitude. So a classic “diamond in the rough” who hadn’t had access to advanced math could still score quite well. Meanwhile, on both the pre and post 2005 tests, kids who weren’t terribly advanced in either ability or transcript faced a test that had plenty of familiar material, with or without coaching, because the bulk of the test is arithmetic, algebra I, and geometry.

The new PSAT and, presumably, the SAT, is impossible to do unless the student has taken and understood two years of algebra. Some will push back and say oh, don’t be silly, all the linear systems work is covered in algebra I. Yeah, but kids don’t really get it then. Not even many of the top students. You need two years of algebra even as a strong student, to be able to work these problems with the speed and confidence needed to get most of these answers in the time required.

And this is the PSAT, a test that students take at the beginning of their junior year (or sophomore, in many schools), so the College Board has created a test with material that most students won’t have covered by the time they are expected to take the test. As I mentioned earlier, California alone has nearly a quarter of a million sophomores and juniors in algebra and geometry. Will the new PSAT or the SAT be able to accurately assess their actual math knowledge?

Key point: The SAT and the ACT’s ability to reflect a full range of abilities is an unacknowledged attribute of these tests. Many colleges use these tests as placement proxies, including many, if not most or all, of the public university systems.

The difficulty level I see in this new PSAT makes me wonder what the hell the organization is up to. How can the test will reveal anything meaningful about kids who a) haven’t yet taken algebra 2 or b) have taken algebra 2 but didn’t really understand it? And if David Coleman’s answer is “Those testers aren’t ready for college so they shouldn’t be taking the test” then I have deep doubts that David Coleman understands the market for college admissions tests.

Of course, it’s also possible that the SAT will yield the same range of scores and abilities despite being considerably harder. I don’t do psychometrics.



Here’s the function question I missed. I think I get it now. I don’t generally cover this degree of complexity in Precalc, much less algebra 2. I suspect this type of question will be the sort covered in new SAT test prep courses.


These two are fairly complicated quadratic questions. The question on the left reveals that the SAT is moving into new territory; previously, SAT never expected testers to factor a quadratic unless a=1. Notice too how it uses the term “divisible by x” rather than the more common term, “x is a factor”. While all students know that “2 is a factor of 6” is the same as “6 is divisible by 2”, it’s not a completely intuitive leap to think of variable factors in the same way. That’s why we cover the concept–usually in late algebra 2, but much more likely in pre-calc. That’s when synthetic division/substitution is covered–as I write in that piece, I’m considered unusual for introducing “division” of this form so early in the math cycle.

The question on the right is a harder version of an SAT classic misdirection. The test question doesn’t appear to give enough information, until you realize it’s not asking you to identify the equation and solve for a, b, and c–just plug in the point and yield a new relationship between the variables. But these questions always used to show up in linear equations, not quadratics.

That’s the big news: the new PSAT is pushing quadratic fluency in a big way.

Here, the student is expected to find the factors of 1890:


This is a quadratic system. I don’t usually teach these until Pre-Calc, but then my algebra 2 classes are basically algebra one on steroids. I’m not alone in this.

No doubt there’s a way to game this problem with the answer choices that I’m missing, but to solve this in the forward fashion you either have to use the quadratic formula or, as I said, find all the factors of 1890, which is exactly what the answer document suggests. I know of no standardized test that requires knowledge of the quadratic formula. The old school GRE never did; the new one might (I don’t coach it anymore). The GMAT does not require knowledge of the quadratic formula. It’s possible that the CATs push a quadratic formula question to differentiate at the 800 level, but I’ve never heard of it. The ACT has not ever required knowledge of the quadratic formula. I’ve taught for Kaplan and other test prep companies, and the quadratic formula is not covered in most test prep curricula.

Here’s one of the inexplicable difficulty codings I mentioned–this is coded as of Medium difficulty.

As big a deal as that is, this one’s even more of a shock: a quadratic and linear system.


The answer document suggests putting the quadratic into vertex form, then plugging in the point and solving for a. I solved it with a linear system. Either way, after solving the quadratic you find the equation of the line and set them equal to each other to solve. I am….stunned. Notice it’s not a multiple choice question, so no plug and play.

Then, a negative 16 problem–except it uses meters, not feet. That’s just plain mean.

Notice that the problem gives three complicated equations. However, those who know the basic algorithm (h(t)=-4.9t2 + v0 + s0) can completely ignore the equations and solve a fairly easy problem. Those who don’t know the basic algorithm will have to figure out how to coordinate the equations to solve the problem, which is much more difficult. So this problem represents dramatically different levels of difficulty based on whether or not the student has been taught the algorithm. And in that case, the problem is quite straightforward, so should be coded as of Medium difficulty. But no, it’s tagged as Hard. As is this extremely simple graph interpretation problem. I’m confused.

Recall: if the College Board keeps the traditional practice, the SAT will be more difficult.

So this piece is long enough. I have some thoughts–rather, questions–on what on earth the College Board’s intentions are, but that’s for another test.

tl;dr Testers will get a little more time to work much harder problems. Geometry has disappeared almost entirely. Quadratics beefed up to the point of requiring a steroids test. Inexplicable “calc/no calc” categorization. College Board didn’t rip off the ACT math section. If the new PSAT is any indication, I do not see how the SAT can be used by the same population for the same purpose unless the CB does very clever things with the grading scale.

Evaluating the New PSAT: Reading and Writing

The College Board has released a new practice PSAT, which gives us a lot of info on the new SAT. This essay focuses on the reading and writing sections.

As I predicted in my essay on the SAT’s competitive advantage, the College Board has released a test that has much in common with the ACT. I did not predict that the homage would go so far as test plagiarism.

This is a pretty technical piece, but not in the psychometric sense. I’m writing this as a long-time coach of the SAT and, more importantly, the ACT, trying to convey the changes as I see them from that viewpoint.

For comparison, I used these two sample ACT, this practice SAT (old version), and this old PSAT.


The old SAT had a reading word count of about 2800 words, broken up into eight passages. Four passages were very short, just 100 words each. The longest was 800 words. The PSAT reading count was around 2000 words in six passages. This word count is reading passages only; the SAT has 19 sentence completions to the PSAT’s 13.

So SAT testers had 70 minutes to complete 19 sentence completions and 47 questions over eight passages of 2800 words total. PSAT testers had 50 minutes to complete 13 sentence and 27 questions over six passages of 2000 words total.

The ACT has always had 4 passages averaging 750 words, giving the tester 35 minutes to complete 40 questions (ten for each passage). No sentence completions.

Comparisons are difficult, but if you figure about 45 seconds per sentence completion, you can deduct that from the total time and come up with two rough metrics comparing reading passages only: minutes per question and words per question (on average, how many words is the tester reading to answer the questions).

Metric Old SAT Old PSAT ACT New PSAT
Word Count 2800 2000 3000 3200
Passage Count 8 6 4 5
Passage Length 100-850 100-850 750 500-800
MPQ 1.18 1.49 1.14 1.27
WPQ 59.57 74.07 75 69.21

I’ve read a lot of assertions that the new SAT reading text is more complex, but my brief Lexile analysis on random passages in the same category (humanities, science) showed the same range of difficulty and sentence lengths for old SAT, current ACT, and old and new PSAT. Someone with more time and tools than I have should do an indepth analysis.

Question types are much the same as the old format: inference, function, vocabulary in context, main idea. The new PSAT requires the occasional figure analysis, which the College Board will undoubtedly flaunt as unprecedented. However, the College Board doesn’t have an entire Science section, which is where the ACT assesses a reader’s ability to evaluate data and text.

Sentence completions are gone, completely. In passage length and overall reading demands, the new PSAT is remarkably similar in structure and word length to the ACT. This suggests that the SAT is going to be even longer? I don’t see how, given the time constraints.

tl;dr: The new PSAT reading section looks very similar to the current ACT reading test in structure and reading demands. The paired passage and the questions types are the only holdover from the old SAT/PSAT structure. The only new feature is actually a cobbled up homage to the ACT science test in the form of occasional table or graph analysis.


I am so flummoxed by the overt plagiarism in this section that I seriously wonder if the test I have isn’t a fake, designed to flush out leaks within the College Board. This can’t be serious.

The old PSAT/SAT format consisted of three question types: Sentence Improvements, Identifying Sentence Error, and Paragraph Improvements. The first two question types presented a single sentence. In the first case, the student would identify a correct (or improved) version or say that the given version was best (option A). In the ISEs, the student had to read the sentence cold with no alternatives and indicate which if any underlined word or phrase was erroneous (much, much more difficult, option E was no change). In Paragraph Improvements, the reader had to answer grammar or rhetoric questions about a given passage. All questions had five options.

The ACT English section is five passages running down the left hand side of the page, with underlined words or phrases. As the tester goes along, he or she stops at each underlined section and looks to the right for a question. Some questions are simple grammar checks. Others ask about logic or writing choices—is the right transition used, is the passage redundant, what would provide the most relevant detail. Each passage has 15 questions, for a total of 75 questions in 45 minutes (9 minutes per passage, or 36 seconds per question). The tester has four choices and the “No Change” option is always A.

The new PSAT/SAT Writing/Language section is four passages running down the left hand side of the page, with underlined words or phrases. As the tester goes along, he or she stops at each underlined section and looks to the right for a question. Some questions are simple grammar checks. Others ask about logic or writing choices—is the right transition used, is the passage redundant, what would provide the most relevant detail. Each passage has 11 questions, for a total of 44 questions in 35 minutes (about 8.75 minutes per passage or 47 seconds a question). The tester has four choices and the “No Change” option is always A.

Oh, did I forget? Sometimes the tester has to analyze a graph.

The College Board appears to have simply stolen not only the structure, but various common question types that the ACT has used for years—as long as I’ve been coaching the test, which is coming on for twelve years this May.

I’ll give some samples, but this isn’t a random thing. The entire look and feel of the ACT English test has been copied wholesale—I’ll add “in my opinion” but don’t know how anyone could see this differently.

Writing Objective:

Style and Logic:


tl;dr: The College Board ripped off the ACT English test. I don’t really understand copyright law, much less plagiarism. But if the American College Test company is not considering legal action, I’d love to know why.

The PSAT reading and writing sections don’t ramp up dramatically in difficulty. Timing, yes. But the vocabulary load appears to be similar.

The College Board and the poorly informed reporters will make much of the data analysis questions, but I hope to see any such claims addressed in the context of the ACT’s considerably more challenging data analysis section. The ACT should change the name; the “Science” section only uses science contexts to test data analysis. All the College Board has done is add a few questions and figures. Weak tea compared to the ACT.

As I predicted, The College Board has definitely chosen to make the test more difficult for gaming. I’ve been slowly untangling the process by which someone who can barely speak English is able to get a high SAT verbal and writing score, and what little I know suggests that all the current methods will have to be tossed. Moving to longer passages with less time will reward strong readers, not people who are deciphering every word and comparing it to a memory bank. And the sentence completions, which I quite liked, were likely being gamed by non-English speakers.

In writing, leaving the plagiarism issue aside for more knowledgeable folk, the move to passage-based writing tests will reward English speakers with lower ability levels and should hurt anyone with no English skills trying to game the test. That can only be a good thing.

Of course, that brings up my larger business question that I addressed in the competitive advantage piece: given that Asians show a strong preference for the SAT over the ACT, why would Coleman decide to kill the golden goose? But I’ll put big picture considerations aside for now.

Here’s my evaluation of the math section.

The SAT is Corrupt. No One Wants to Know.

“We got a recycled test, BTW. US March 2014.”.

This was posted on the College Confidential site, very early in the morning on December 6, the test date for the international SAT.

Did you get it?

Get what?

I mean how do you know it was a recycled Marhc test? Do you have the March Us test?

Oh, no. I just typed in one of the math questions from today’s test and the March US 2014 forum popped right up.

And of course, the March 2014 test thread has all the answers spelled out. The kids (assuming it’s kids) build a Google doc in which they compile all the questions and answers.

This is a pattern that goes on for every SAT, both domestic and international. The kids clearly are using technology during the test. They acknowledge storing answers on their calculators, but don’t explain what allows them to remember all the sentence completions, reading questions and even whole passages verbatim, much less post their entire essay online. Presumably, they are using their phones to capture the images?

They create a google doc, in which they recreate as many of the questions as can be remembered (in many cases, all) and then they chew over the answers. By the end of the collaboration, they have largely recreated the test. They used to post links to openly with any request. But recently the College Confidential moderators, aware that their site is being exposed as a cheating venue, have cracked down on requests for the link, while banning anyone who links to the document.

So floating out there somewhere in the Internet are copies of the actual test, which many hagwons put out (and pull them down because hey, no sense letting people have them for free), as well as the results of concentrated braindumping by hundreds of testers.

For international students, “studying for the SAT” doesn’t mean increasing math and vocabulary skills, but rather memorizing the answers of as many tests as possible.

And those are just the kids that aren’t paying for the answers.

The wealthy but not super-rich parents who want a more structured approach pay cram schools–be they hagwons, jukus or buxiban–to provide kids with all the recycled tests and memorize every question. No, not learn the subject. Memorize. As described here, cram schools provide a “key king”, a compilation of all the answer sequences for sections, using all the potential international tests. They know which ones will be recycled because the CB “withholds” these tests.

Of course, the super-rich parents don’t want to fuss their kids with all that memorizing. Cram schools have obtained copies of all the potential international tests by paying testers to photograph them. Then they pay someone to take the SAT in the earliest time zone for the International, and disseminate the news via text to all the testers. They just copy the answers from the pictures. Using phones. Which they have told the proctors they don’t have, of course.

I don’t know exactly how all this works—for example, are the cram schools offering tiered pricing for key kings vs. phoned in answers? Do different cram schools have different offerings? I’ve read through the documented process provided by Bob Schaeffer of FairTest (a guy I don’t often agree with), and it seems very credible. He’s also provided a transcript of an offer to provide answers to the test. Valerie Strauss got on the record accounts of this process from two international administrators, Ffiona Rees and Joachim Ekstrom.

Every so often Alexander Russo complains that Valerie Strauss shouldn’t do straight education reporting, given her open advocacy against reform.

Great. So where’s all the other hard reporting on this topic? The New York Times, whose public editor Margaret Sullivan just encouraged to “to enlighten citizens, hold powerful people and institutions accountable and maybe even make the world a better place”, bleeds for the poor Korean and Chinese testers anxious for their scores and concerned they’ll be tarred with the same brush. Everyone else just spits out the College Board press release–if they mention it at all. While most news outlets reported the October cancellation, few other than Strauss reported that the November and December international tests scores were delayed as well.

At the same time Strauss reported the College Board is stonewalling any inquiries as to how many kids were cheating, how many scores were cancelled, or what it was doing to prevent further corruption, an actual Post “reporter”, Anna Fifield, regurgitates a promotional ad for a Korean SAT equivalent coach.*

Well, you can understand why. The millionaire Korean test prep coach-called-a-teacher story is one of the woefully underreported stories of the 21st century. I mean, we only had one promo put out by the Wall Street Journal the year before, and another glowing testimonial CBS a few months later (even mentioning the tops in performance, bottom in happiness poll). But really, only one or two a year of these stories have been coming out since 2005.

So you can see why the Post felt another story on a Korean test prep instructor making millions required immediate exposure, if not anything approaching investigation or reporting.

These stories are catnip to reporters who get all their education facts from The Big Book Of Middlebrow Education Shibboleths. First, unlike our cookie cutter teacher tenure system, Korean teachers work in a real meritocracy where kids and their parents reward excellence with cash. Take that, teachers!

Then, unlike American moms and dads, Korean parents care about their kids and put billions into their education. Take that, parents!

And oy, the faith Anna shows in her subjects. Cha is a “top-ranked math teacher” who “says” he earns a “cool $8 million last year.” Cha says he’s been teaching for 20 years, but refuses to give his age and there’s no mention of the topic or school he attended for his PhD, or if he ever got one. But he’s got a really popular video, so he must be great!

Some outlets are less adulatory. The Financial Times points out that the Korean government is cracking down on hagwon fees and operating hours, and preventing them from pre-teaching topics. Megastudy, the company in the 2005 story linked in above, just went up for sale because of those government changes. Michael Horn of the Christiansen Institute is doing no small part to alert people to the madness of the Korean system. The New York Times, despite its tears for the Korean and Chinese testers, has done its fair share to report on the endemic cheating in Chinese college applications.

But when it comes to the College Board and the SAT, everyone seems to be hands off the international market. At what point will it occur to reporters to seriously investigate whether a large chunk of the money spent on cram schools is not for instruction, but for “prior knowledge” cheating? When will they ask the Korean cram school instructors if they are fronts for an organized criminal conspiracy, if the money they get is not for tutoring, but for efficient delivery of test answers on test day? And how many of those test days are run by the College Board?

People think “well, sure, there’s some cheating, but so what? Some kids cheat.” Yeah, like I’d be writing this if it were a few dozen, or even a few hundred kids. Asian immigrants cheating on major tests in this country is in the high hundreds a year. Maybe more. In China and Korea? I suspect it’s beyond our comprehension, us ethical ‘murricans.

One of the depressing things about the past three years is that I start looking into things more closely. I never really trusted the media, mind you, but I did assume that journalists skewed stories because of bias. I fondly imagined, silly me, that journalists wanted to investigate real wrongdoing. Yes. Laugh at my foolish innocence.

Consider what would be disrupted if public American pressure forced the College Board to end endemic international student cheating. First, the CB would lose millions but weep no tears, it’s a non-profit company. hahahahah! Yeah, that makes me laugh, too.

But public universities increasingly rely on international student fees and the pretense that they are qualified to do college work. After all, the thinking goes, we accept a lot of Americans who aren’t prepared for college work—may as well take in some kids who pay full freight. Private schools, too, appreciate the well-heeled Chinese students who don’t expect tuition discounts.

So suppose public pressure forces the College Board to use brand new tests for the overseas market, require all international testing to be done at US international schools, use different tests at different locations. The College Board might decide that the international market profits weren’t worth the hassle for other than US students living abroad (as indeed, the ACT seems to have done for years). Either way, a crackdown on testing security would seriously compromise Chinese and Korean students’ ability to lie about their college readiness and English skills.

A wide swath of public universities would either have to forego those delightful international fees or simply waive the SAT requirement, but without those inflated test scores it will be tough to justify letting in these kids over the huge chunk of white and Asian Americans who are actually qualified. No foreign students, more begging for money from state legislatures. Private universities would have a difficult time bragging about their elite international students without the SAT scores to back thing up.

Plus, hell, we changed the source country for zombies because we didn’t want to piss off China. Three years ago, the College Board wanted to open up mainland China as a market. 95% of the SAT testers in Hong Kong are Chinese. Stop all that money flowing around? People are going to be annoyed.

At this point, I start to feel too conspiratorial, and go back to figuring that reporters just don’t care. I’ve got a lot of respect for education policy reporters—the Edweek reporters are excellent on most topics—and most reporters do a good job some of the time.

But the SAT is basically corrupt in the international market. I’ve already written about test and grade corruption among recent Asian immigrants over here, particularly in regards to the Advanced Placement tests and grades.

Yet no one seems to really care. Sure, people disapprove of the SAT, but for all the wrong reasons: it’s racist, it’s nothing more than an income test, it reinforces privilege, it has no relationship to actual ability. None of these proffered reasons for hating the SAT have any relationship to reality. But that the SAT is this huge money funnel, taking money from states and parents and shoveling it directly or indirectly into the College Board, universities, and the companies who have essentially broken the test? Eh. Whatever.

The people who are hurt by this: middle and lower middle class whites and Asian Americans. So naturally, who gives a damn?

enlighten citizens, hold powerful people and institutions accountable and maybe even make the world a better place

Sigh. Happy New Year.

*In the comments, an actual SAT prep coach making millions–no, really, he assures us, millions!–simply by being a fabulous coach with stupendous methods is insulted that I insinuated that the Washington Post story was on an SAT prep coach, rather than the Korean equivalent of the SAT. I knew that, but at one point referred to the guy as a SAT prep coach. I fixed the text.

College Confidential and Brain Dumping the SAT

SAT Scores Delayed for Asian International Students

The above is the official story put out by the Washington Post, which is far more informative than any other outlet I could find. However, Valerie Strauss put some other information in two blog entries:

On Oct. 8, 2014 — days before the Oct. 11 administration of the SAT — the National Center for Fair & Open Testing received an anonymous tip about cheating that included what the sender claimed to be a copy of the December 2013 SAT that was supposedly going to be administered at international sites Oct. 11. This was reported by Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the center, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the abuse of standardized tests commonly known as FairTest. He said FairTest tried to confirm the claims but could not.

According to Schaeffer, SAT tests given at international sites are “almost always” repeats of exams administered previously in the United States but not publicly released.

Students began to think that the October 2014 international version of the SAT was identical to the December 2013 U.S. version by Googling some vocabulary words and passage topics and finding that the 2013 test was the one that came up in discussions threads on “,” according to Schaeffer. It is not yet clear, however, whether the two tests are identical.

I’ll have more to say about the media coverage, but I got distracted by reading up on College Confidential. I’ve always been skeeved by the forum, but that’s because I’m usually researching the test threads which are almost certainly populated by Asians and Asian Americans. No doubt the forums have other purposes; I hear parents frequent them. Little has been written about the forum;the NY Times wrote a feature about it that seems out of date. Quantcast shows that Asians represent 13% of the users, considerably above average. 18-24 is the largest age group, 45-54 is second. So it’s clearly not just used for college tests.

Anyway, I read the college confidential thread, which was opened back in early November for the December test, but from page 4 to page 70 is nothing but brain dumps. The posters make reference to Tiny Chat, a conferencing chat room, and google docs, where they are clearly compiling a list of all the answers. Many posters are putting down all the answers they can remember, in specific detail. One poster lists all the math answers by section (page 57, 58, page 59):




A few weeks later, a new thread is opened for the December international test, held on December 7th—and posted so early that the thread date was December 6th (the forums on US time, I assume). In response to the creator’s query, another poster announces that the December international test was a reissue of the June 2012 test, and for good measure gives a table:

JAN 2013- MARCH 2010
MAY 2013- JUNE 2009
JUNE 2013- MARCH 2012
OCTOBER 2013- MARCH 2013
NOVEMBER 2013- JUNE 2011

One thread asked about the December 7 international test

The poster is then sent to the June 12th thread, where again, all the answers are put down. One person (poster name largeblackman. I am deeply skeptical) posts reading section answers.

These are the only two months I checked.

Someone reading this going to say “I did this back when I took the SAT. Chewed over everything I remembered with my friends, worried if we didn’t get the same answers.” Well, no. You didn’t do this. Some of the posters are going into shocking detail. They have question numbers, letter answers. A good chunk of the posters were clearly coordinating the creation of a complete document with all the questions and answers.

They were braindumping, an activity that Microsoft spends a lot of time and energy preventing, but the College Board seems to actively encourage by reusing old tests for international students.

No wonder Asians have such a strong preference for the SAT. The credulous press tends to believe in the super tutors of Asia, but they’re much more likely to be New Oriental “prep” methods revisited. Steal the test, then memorize everything on it. GMAT had similar issues.

Valerie Strauss quotes the head of an international school who caught a cheater: This is certainly organized crime.

I suppose it’s possible that all these posts at College Confidential are just 17-year-olds pranking each other. I find that unlikely. More probably, the posters in question aren’t all 17, but adults who are paid to go in and take the tests while photographing or at least memorizing as much of the test as is possible. Or at the very least, the posters are actual high school students coordinating information illegally. Certainly, someone should at least investigate: ask the owners to provide the IP addresses, actually read the threads, ask the posters to produce the google docs they mention, find the actual names of people who participated.

But universities want the Chinese money, and College Board wants the test fees, and the FBI has to keep watch on Ferguson so that Holder can admonish the grand jury when Darren Wilson isn’t indicted. Who has the time or inclination to investigate a possible organized criminal enterprise that’s corrupting our educational institutions?

Timothy Lance Lai: Reading Between the Lines

I know this article was the first I read on the Corona del Mar cheating scandal, because it didn’t mention the private tutor’s name and I was absolutely certain that the name would be Asian.

I wasn’t distracted by the description of the school and local environment. Sure, the school is “located in an extremely wealthy coastal area of Orange County “ and yeah, Corona del Mar is a “seaside enclave of quaint old homes and cliff-top mansions” but all the talk about pressure, plus the coordinated nature of the cheating screamed “Asian” (which, for blog newcomers, is a shortcut to describe first or second generation Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants).

So I looked up the school demographics: 9% Asian. Definitely not an “Asian school”. Heavens. I don’t like error.

Then I noticed that Corona del Mar is right next to Irvine. Ah. Irvine’s Asian population has increased 25% in the past decade, and much of that is from new growth. Many recent immigrants, mostly Chinese and Korean (although this article mentions something I’ve noticed as well–in booming Asian towns, the first ones into politics tend to be Vietnamese. No clue why). So the Asians in Newport Beach could be spillover, and if so, were less likely to be long-established families. Not certain, just possible.

Then I found the tutor’s name: Timothy Lance Lai. And his picture:

So I went back to thinking I’m right, because this is a schlub. Rich white people don’t often hire schlubs, of any race. Yes, I am making use of egregious stereotypes, but they can be quite useful when playing percentages. And remember, I tutor (or did, I’ve mostly dropped tutoring this year) rich white kids, so have a fair bit of anecdotal behavior with which to construct my discriminatory profiles.

But perhaps the schlub had compensating factors, something that would compensate for the horrible haircut. I googled around for Timothy Lance Lai and discovered that the guy simply doesn’t exist in the Internet prior to the first cheating reports.


If Lai really was a high-end tutor of rich whites, schlub or not, I wouldn’t necessary expect an online footprint about his tutoring services. Rich white kids don’t talk about their tutors almost ever, certainly not online. But I would expect lots of information that told me his background, education, his lamentable preference for Taco Bell, a facebook page, whatever. Google me, for example, and you’ll find plenty of information that reassures and even intrigues your average rich white parent, even though none of it would be about my tutoring services for mostly rich white kids.

If he were a tutor of mostly Asian kids of the cocoon, the ones going to 80% Asian schools, the ones who don’t know white kids can be smart, the ones whose friends also have parents that scream in horror at a B+, then I would expect a website, glowing testimonials, and all sorts of recommendations or naysayers on yelp and College Confidential, because kids yap endlessly online about their tutors, their hagwons, the books they use and so on. Yes, again, egregious stereotyping.

But this guy doesn’t have any online footprint, which means he doesn’t fit the profile of a tutor of either white or Asian kids.

About the only thing reporters could discover was his many traffic violations.

And then he disappeared. Completely. They’ve been looking for the guy since December.

The kids were recommended for “stipulated expulsion”, a form of plea bargain that allows kids to attend other district schools and seals the record. Full expulsion restricts access to all district schools. (PSA: if your kid, god forbid, ever gets in the kind of mess that has administrators mentioning that E word, get a lawyer. District expulsions are routinely overruled by the county or other oversight committee, but only if the student and his parents fight, which isn’t allowed in stipulated expulsions—which is why districts push them. Make them blink. Stare them down. No, I’m not against school expulsions. I’m just pro due process. Change the rules if they’re stupid–and they are.)

Jane Garland, a district official, resigned in protest. The reasons appear fuzzy. Garland, who was in charge of a new “restorative justice” program, seemed to have goofed by brokering an expulsion deal with the parents, then making public statements about the use of restorative justice, which may as well been a neon sign saying “kids got off light”. This led to a small explosion of fury and the district officials immediately canceled aspects of the deal, reassuring the community that no, the kids wouldn’t be allowed to skate, they’d be expelled.

When all the kids were expelled, Garland quit, saying the school was engaged in a coverup, that the kids were all expelled for very different crimes, that the school had known about this for much longer and not done anything. am not sure how true Garland’s charges are, and anyone who works in favor of restorative justice is most likely a flake. But this interests me, given that the reporters are carefully avoiding the mention of race:

In her email, Garland questioned why Scott had removed one student from the list of those being recommended for expulsion. She wrote that the student “was given special treatment.”

When Garland asked Superintendent Frederick Navarro about the student’s removal from the list, he told her that officials “didn’t feel they had enough on him,” Garland wrote.

If all the expelled kids are Asian, and the kid who wasn’t expelled was either white or rich (or both), perhaps Garland was just galled by the willingness to boot the outsiders.

Am I making up the part about race? Just imagining it? When I first found the story, I had stereotypes. Rich whites don’t hire young Asian schlubs, Irvine is a town filled to the gills with recent Chinese, Indian, and Korean immigrants who, as a group, cheat mightily and shamelessly. Very little to go on. I’m happy to speculate, but I wanted more teeny tiny facts to interpret. So I waited.

In mid-March, I found two stories written in mid-February that gave me all sorts of data between the lines. (Incidentally, the LA Times has been less than useless on this story. Score big points for the local papers, The Daily Pilot, Newport Beach Indy, and the Orange County Register.)

“One of the most important lessons he’ll learn”–a piece dripping with sympathy for the students, told via Jane Garland and the mother, name withheld, of an expelled student. The description and conversation with the mother provides more speculation fodder.

First, dead giveaway: “When [the mother] arrived, she was questioned about Timothy Lance Lai. She knew him. He had tutored her son. In fact, he had been to her house the week before. There they had exchanged a few words and she had offered him tea.”

Dingdingding. As a tutor, I go to lots of houses, predominantly white, often Asian (occasionally both). White parents say “Hey, can I offer you something to drink?” and I ask if they have diet coke. Asian parents say, “Would you like some tea?” If they’ve been in the US for a long time, or were born here, they say, “Would you like tea, or water, or a soft drink?” But they do that because I’m white. Asian parent to Asian tutor would almost certainly say “Would you like some tea?””

Second: “She remembered that he would often come home from tutoring sessions with Lai, bragging about the tutor’s intelligence and supposedly well-financed lifestyle.”

She just said he was at her house. Now her son goes elsewhere for sessions? That’s unusual. Tutors either have their own office, meet at the library or, most likely for high school students, meet at their houses. When I say unusual, I mean dishonest. I think the mother is just talking, saying words she thinks will evoke sympathy. Also, notice the kid is bragging about how smart and rich Lai is. Whether the mother is telling the truth or lying, the family in question is not rich and probably not white. White kids of any income level would not be impressed by a tutor’s wealth. Rich white kids, definitely not.

Third: “Still, she paid Lai $45 per hour to tutor her son in Advanced Placement Calculus.”

What? That’s insanely cheap. Rich people would be very skeptical.

Yet in a sympathy piece about the impact of the cold, cruel district on this kid’s life, no mention is made of the mom’s marital status. If she were single or divorced, surely the reporter would point out the triumph of a single mom going it alone, able to afford tutors for her high achieving kid. Even more remarkable, she did all this without working for a living. She’s home when the tutor comes by. She’s apparently home when the school calls.

Yeah. Unlikely. So on second thought, she’s probably not unmarried, not divorced, not a struggling single mom. She’s probably married. But if she’s married, surely the reporter would mention what her husband, the dad, thought of all this.

So whether the mom is married or single, the reporter’s left a huge hole in the story. Which doesn’t make sense, does it?

Takeaways: I’m getting closer and closer to right. At least one of the kids is Asian. The mom’s probably lying. And the reporter is sculpting around something.

The other piece, Missing tutor leaves questions blank at Corona del Mar High, tiptoes close to actually stating reality, rather than just hinting at it.

First hint that many of the parents involved are Asian: “Interviews with families and administrators paint a picture of Lai as someone who learned how to profit from well-intentioned parents who were eager to send their children to the best colleges and had the money to see that happen.”

Notice the parents aren’t mentioned as being connected, as being powerful, as being “rich”, just that they “have money”? Not the same thing. Chinese families have money because the grandparents have only one grandchild. Koreans don’t always have money, but they’ll spend themselves into serious debt. Indians are usually rich, I grant you.

Second, just to prove a point, you know how I said that tutors have footprints? Here are google searches for the tutors mentioned in the article: Clifford Lau, Tutor Genius, Laura Rickhoff, Amanda Rubenstein, Jeffrey Haig

Then: “While Lai taught high-level math and science to dozens of students striving for the Ivy League, he didn’t get his own bachelor’s degree until recently, at age 26, from University of California Irvine. His major: psychology.”

How, exactly, do the authors know that Lai graduated from Irvine? Did they get that from an interview? Did they visit his condo and see a diploma on the wall? Did they confirm it with UCI? I ask because, as mentioned, I exercised my mad Googling skillz to their utmost extent and could find nada damn thing on the guy. Without supporting data, I’d start with the presumption he didn’t graduate from anywhere.

Next, given the story so far, why would they say that Lai “taught” students anything at all?

So the reporters assume that he has a bachelor’s in psych (or verified it without mentioning source), and then hint that such a person wouldn’t be qualified to tutor kids in high level math.

To me, the big neon light isn’t whether or not he’s qualified, but why the parents would hire him without any other signals. You’re thinking yo, Ed, aren’t you an English major who teaches higher level math and history and whatever the hell else kids ask for? Why, yes, as it happens, I bear no small resemblance to Timothy Lance Lai in this respect. (I’m probably a schlub, too.) But when I began tutoring, I was attending a name-brand university getting a master’s degree in a technical subject. I’d been self-employed in technology. I was a parent of a teenaged white boy. I was working for Kaplan as well, which is one of the few companies that can require a high score on an IQ test. Then I went to a really top-tier education school. All sorts of signals. In my experience, the parents check. They don’t do anything as formal as a vetting, but they google me, they ask casual questions, they check with their kids.

I am unfamiliar with parents who let their kids arrange tutors, even though my clients are often the people who go out of town for a weekend and return to find their kids arranged a party, and now one of the girls or her parents have arranged a lawsuit.

So the fact that Lai had a psych degree from a mid-tier UC, coupled with the red flags in the first article, further suggests that the mother’s story is, er, invented.

Oddly, given the circumstances, I could find only one source that mentioned Lai as an “alleged tutor”–Corona Del Mar officials pointedly refer to him as such in their public statements. Reporters, on the other hand, unhesitatingly call him a tutor whilst describing his cheating assistance as “alleged”, whilst oh, my goodness, the poor parents just “welcomed [Lai] into their homes to work with their children without knowing much about him, other than his ability to raise grades. He had become so successful that he had as many as 150 clients.”

I want to be clear that I’m not asserting any of my thinking as fact. More likelihoods and probabilities.

But reading between the lines, I figured the most likely scenario as follows: This guy was not a tutor. He provided a service to the Irvine community of Asian parents (it must be parents, if true), fixing kids grades through a variety of means, but most likely with the er, innovative tech tools. He may or may not have offered the same service to the rich white kids in the community, but if he did so with the knowledge of their parents, I’d be surprised. Timothy Lance Lai is probably living in Hong Kong, paid off by one of the parent clients.

I’ve written before about cheating and Asian immigrants before, but this is new. First, as many news reports have suggested, hacking into a school system is very Matthew Broderick in War Games, an underachieving, over-privileged white boy trick. So hey, cultural crossover!

This certainly isn’t the first hacking scandal a school has faced, and Corona del Mar isn’t the first sign that hacking has expanded beyond its original demographic, although there’s no pattern to the incidents I’ve found. The Winston Churchill High hacking incident was two white kids, but Tesoro High was Asians. This story on Haddonfield Memorial High School doesn’t mention race but does mention one of the kids came back from vacation “deeply tanned”, so I’m going with stereotype and calling it white–they’re also a couple years younger than the juniors and second semester seniors in the other stories, who would be changing their grades for college applications.

The other concerning aspect, whether this habit of stays restricted to Asians or crosses over to ambitious white kids, is the intent of the grade changes. Matthew Broderick changed his grade to a C; he changed Ally Sheedy’s to an A, to impress her. But your average underachieving white teenage boy hacker is trying to get his parents off his back, not create a resume to fool Harvard. I don’t know how prevalent this will get, but I find it worrying that kids have now moved from faking the underlying abilities to just faking the grades.

And can I just say how tedious it is to try and read between the lines? Perhaps I’m imagining all this. But I have to balance my analysis and subject matter knowledge against the likelihood that the media will do its best to obscure race if it doesn’t involve whites. It’s not a close call.

Finding the Bad Old Days

Michael Petrilli wrote an extremely aggravating article suggesting we tell unqualified kids they aren’t ready for college and go to CTE and then a much improved follow up that acknowledges the racial reality of his idea.

In his first piece, Petrilli only mentions race once:


This is a common trope in articles on tracking, a nod to “the bad old days” right after the end of segregation, that time immediately after Brown and ending sometime in the late 70s, or when Jeannie Oakes excoriated the practice in Keeping Track.

In the bad old days, the story goes, evil school districts, eager to keep angry racist white parents from fleeing, sought a means of maintaining segregation despite the Supreme Court decision and the Civil Rights Act. So they pretended to institute ability grouping and curriculum tracks, but in reality, they used race. That way the district could minimize white flight and still pretend to educate the poor and the brown. That’s why so many brown kids were in the low ability classes, and that’s why so many lawsuits happened, because of the evil racist/classist methods of rich whites keeping the little brown people down.

The bad old days are a touchstone for anyone proposing an educational sorting mechanism. So you have Petrilli advocating a return to tracking, who tell us the bad old days are a thing of the past: yeah, we used to track by race and income, pretending to use ability, but we’ve progressed. Districts pretended to use IQ, but they were really using culturally biased tests to commit second-order segregation. Today, we understand that all races and all incomes can achieve. Districts don’t have to distort reality. The bad old days are behind us, and we can group by ability secure that we aren’t discriminating by race.

Before ed school, I accepted the existence of the bad old days, but then I noticed that every reading asserted discrimination but didn’t back it up with data. Since ed school, I’d occasionally randomly google on the point, looking for research that established discriminatory tracking back in the 60s and 70s. And so the Petrilli article got me googling and thinking again. (What, buy books? Pay for research? Cmon, I’m a teacher on a budget. If it’s damning, the web has it.)

I first reviewed Jeannie Oakes, reaffirming that Oakes holds tracking itself, properly applied, as the operative sin. Discriminatory tracking isn’t a main element of Oakes’ argument, although she points out that “some research” suggests it occurred. Oakes’ third assumption, that tracking is largely made on valid decisions (page 4) is accepted at face value. So the grande dame of the anti-tracking movement has completely neglected to mention the bad old days—which, at that time, would have been contemporary.

On I move to Roslyn Mickelson, who does charge Charlotte Mecklenburg schools with discriminatory tracking.


In Capacchione v Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Judge Richard Potter eviscerates her expert testimony, finding faults with her credibility, her accuracy, and her logic.

Bottom line, however, Mickelson’s research shows that high achieving scorers in year one are not consistently placed in high achieving classes six years later. While both whites and blacks with high scores end up in low tracks and vice versa, more whites get high placement than blacks. But generally, her data shows something I’ve documented before, that achievement falls off each year because school gets harder.

Both whites and blacks experience the falloff, even though Mickelson seems to think that the pattern should be linear. The achievement scale simply gets larger as kids move up in grade levels, and fewer blacks make the top tier. This is consistent with cognitive realities.

There might be a smoking gun in research. But I couldn’t find it.

Then I suddenly realized duh, what about case law? If districts were tracking by race, there’d be a lawsuit.

I started with three legal articles that discussed tracking case law: 1, 2 and 3. They were all useful, but all failed to mention a significant case in which the district routinely used different standards or sorted directly by race or zip code.

From these articles, I determined that Hobson vs. Hanson was the original tracking case, and that the McNeal standard was for many years (and may still be) the test for ability grouping.

So I created a reading list of cases from the late 60s to the early 90s:

Only two of these cases involved schools directly accused of using race to sort students. In Johnson v. Jackson, the schools were forced to integrate in the middle of a school year. The black kids were ported over to white schools and the classes kept intact. The court ordered them to fix this. From first integration order to the fix order: 4 months.

The second case, Rockford, was decided in the early 90s, and the judge directly accuses the district of intentionally using race to ability group. However, Jeannie Oakes was the expert witness, and the judge drank every bit of Koolaid she had to offer and licked the glass. Oakes is presented as an expert witness, with no mention that she’s an anti-tracking advocate. Her testimony appears to be little more than readings from her book and some data analysis.

The proof of “intentional racism” was pretty weak and largely identical to Mickelson’s described above. Major difference: the judge accepted it.

Leaving aside these two cases, I couldn’t find any case in which the district was found to misuse the results of the test, either by using different racial standards or ignoring the tests entirely. The tests themselves were the issue.

In the south, school systems that weren’t “unitary” (that is, were previously segregated districts) couldn’t use ability testing. Since blacks would have lower scores based on past racial discrimination, the use of tests was discriminatory, an intent to segregate.

For school systems that were found to be unitary, ability testing isn’t in and of itself invalid and racial imbalance isn’t a problem (see Starkville case for example).

In all these cases, I couldn’t find a district that was tracking by race. They were guilty of tracking by test. Everyone knew the tests would reveal that blacks would have lower ability on average, and therefore ability grouping was by definition invalid in previously segregated schools. This was an era in which judges said “The court also finds that a Negro student in a predominantly Negro school gets a formal education inferior to the academic education he would receive, and which white students receive, in a school which is integrated or predominantly white.” (Hobson)

Once the system is declared unitary, or that was never an issue, the record is mixed. When judges did accept the results as valid, they ruled in favor of the school districts (Starkville, Hannon). In Pase v Hannon, the judge actually reviewed the test questions himself and determined they were unbiased with few exceptions, all of which were far above the IQ level in question.

In California, on the other hand, where de jure segregation wasn’t an issue*, the mere existence of racial imbalance was still a problem (Pasadena, Riles). In Riles, Judge Robert Peckham banned all IQ testing of blacks in California for educational purposes. He later extended the ruling even if black parents requested testing, but later withdrew that order. Peckham’s reasoning is much like the other judges who believed in cultural bias:

Even if it is assumed that black children have a 15 percent higher incidence of mild mental retardation than white children, there is still less than a one in a million chance that a color-blind system would have produced this disproportionate enrollment. If it is assumed that black children have a 50 percent greater incidence of this type of mental retardation, there is still less than a one in 100,000 chance that the enrollment could be so skewed towards black children.

Notice the reasoning: of course it’s not possible that blacks have a 50% greater incidence of an IQ below 75. Except it’s worse than that.

This image is from The Bell Curve (borrowed from here) reflecting the frequency of black/white IQ distribution:


As many blacks as whites populate the sub 75 IQ space, but the population distribution being what it is, blacks are far more likely to have low IQs.

When Charles Murray researched this for The Bell Curve:

In the NLSY-79 cohort, 16.8 percent of the black sample scored below 75, using the conversion of AFQT scores reported in the appendix of TBC and applying sample weights. The comparable figure for non-Latino whites was 2.2 percent. In the NLSY-97 cohort, the comparable figures were 13.8 percent for blacks and 2.7 percent for non-Latino whites.

(Charles Murray, personal communication)

So at the time of Peckham’s decision, blacks didn’t have a 50% higher chance of an IQ below 75, but rather a several hundred percent higher chance, a chance that is still in the triple digits today.1 Peckham couldn’t even begin to envision such a possibility, and so no IQ testing for blacks in California.

(As for the lower frequency of blacks in the “trainable” mentally retarded division, as it was called then, an interesting but rarely discussed fact: Low IQ blacks are often higher functioning that low IQ whites. They are less likely to be organically retarded, and more likely to be capable of independent living. This despite the fact that their IQ tests and academic outcomes are identical. Arthur Jensen discovered this phenomenon, and I highly recommend that article; it’s fascinating. I wonder if the difference is somehow related to crystallized vs. fluid intelligence, but haven’t read up enough on it.)

So there it is. Obviously, if I missed a key case in which a major district was found to have deliberately tracked kids by race, please let me know.

But despite extensive efforts, I couldn’t find the bad old days of discriminatory sorting. What I found, instead, was a judicial rejection of IQ and other ability tests, coupled with an inability to conceive of the actual distribution patterns of cognitive ability.

Please understand my limited objective. Many Southern districts did everything they could to avoid integration. See, for example, US v Tunica, where the school tried to assign students based on test scores, but were denied because of the achievement testing ban and required to reassign students and teachers to achieve integration. The teachers refused assignment to integrated schools and resigned, white parents withdrew their kids, then the white schools set up shop at local churches, classes largely intact. Money? Not an issue. They used taxpayer dollars, since the district paid the teachers who resigned and the kids took all their school books with them.

But believe it or not, there’s no mention that the district was only pretending to use test scores, actually assigning students by race. And this is a place where I’d expect to find it. Opposition to integration, absolutely. Achievement testing used as a way to minimize racially mixed classes? Sure.

In many other cases, schools or districts instituted tracking as a genuine attempt to educate a much wider range of abilities, or even had a tracking system in place before integration.

The inconvenient realities of cognitive ability distribution being what they are, the test scores would be depressingly indifferent to intent.

Then there’s the messy middle, the one that Mickelson probably found in Charlotte and Oakes found in Rockford and any one looking at my classrooms would find as well. All tracked classrooms are going to have inconsistencies, whether the schools use tests, teacher recommendations, or student choice. The honors classes fill up or a teacher suddenly dies or all sorts of other unforeseen situations mean some kids get moved around and it’s a safe bet high income parents bitch more about wrong assignments than poor parents. Go through each high score in a “regular” class and each low score in a tracked, and each one of those test scores will have a story—a story usually doesn’t involve race or malign intent. The story occasionally does involve bad teachers or district bureaucracy, but not as often as you might think.

Teacher recommendations are supposed to mitigate the testing achievement gap but teachers are moralists, particularly in math, as I’ve written before. It doesn’t surprise me that new study shows that controlling for performance, blacks are less likely to be assigned to algebra as 8th graders by teacher recommendation. I can’t tell you the number of bright Hispanic and black kids I’ve run into (as well as huge number of white boys, including my son) who don’t bother with homework and have great test scores. So their GPA is 2.7, but their test scores are higher than the kids who got As–and the teacher recommendations.

Parents: some parents insist that their kids need to be in the top group to be challenged. Others feel that their kids do better when they feel secure, able to manage the challenge. Then there are the parents who don’t give a damn about their kids’ abilities but don’t want them in a noisy classroom with kids who don’t give a damn about education. White and Asian parents are disproportionately represented in the first group, black and Hispanic parents take up more than their share in the second, and all parents of all races worry about the last.

So let’s stop using teacher recommendation, stop allowing parents or students to ask for different placement. Test scores are destiny.

But test scores today still reflect the same reality that the judges assumed, back then, could only be caused by racism or bias.

The tests haven’t changed. The kids haven’t changed much.

The judges are another story.

Richard Posner, in a much-quoted 1997 decision on an appeal to the People Who Care v Rockford did what he has done before–made my point with much greater efficiency:

Tracking is a controversial educational policy, although just grouping students by age, something no one questions, is a form of “tracking.” Lawyers and judges are not competent to resolve the controversy. The conceit that they are belongs to a myth of the legal profession’s omnicompetence that was exploded long ago. To abolish tracking is to say to bright kids, whether white or black, that they have to go at a slower pace than they’re capable of; it is to say to the parents of the brighter kids that their children don’t really belong in the public school system; and it is to say to the slower kids, of whatever race, that they may have difficulty keeping up, because the brighter kids may force the pace of the class. …

Tracking might be adopted in order to segregate the races. The well-known correlation between race and academic performance makes tracking, even when implemented in accordance with strictly objective criteria, a pretty effective segregator. If tracking were adopted for this purpose, then enjoining tracking would be a proper as well as the natural remedy for this form of intentional discrimination, at least if there were no compelling evidence that it improves the academic performance of minority children and if the possible benefits to the better students and the social interest in retaining them in the public schools were given little weight. The general view is that tracking does not benefit minority students…although there is evidence that some of them do benefit… All this is neither here nor there. The plaintiffs’ argument is not that the school district adopted tracking way back when in order to segregate the schools. It is that it misused tracking, twisting the criteria to achieve greater segregation than objective tracking alone would have done. The school district should be enjoined from doing this not, on this record, enjoined from tracking.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg case mentioned above cited Posner’s reasoning. The third of my case law articles discusses Holton v Thomasville II, which doesn’t mention Posner but does say that racial imbalance in ability grouping isn’t of itself evidence of discrimination, and points out that the time for judicial interference in educational decisions is probably over:


Most districts ended tracking out of fear of lawsuits. It may be time for parents to demand more honors classes, test the limits.

So what does this have to do with Petrilli? Well, less than it once did, now that Petrilli has acknowledged the profound racial implications of his suggestion.

But if the bad old days of racial tracking never really existed, then Petrilli can’t pretend things will be better. Yes, we must stop devaluing college degrees, stop fooling kids who have interest but no ability in taking on massive loans that they can never pay off. And with luck even Petrilli will eventually realize as well that we have to stop forcing kids with neither interest nor ability to sit in four years of “college preparation” courses feeling useless.

So what comes next? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

*Commenter Mark Roulo points out that California did commit de jure segregation against Hispanics and was ordered to stop in Mendez v. Westminster. See comments for my response.

1See Steve Sailer’s comment for why black IQs might have been biased against lower IQ blacks and the 97 data more representative.

SAT’s Competitive Advantage

Asians taking the SAT: 196,030 out of 1,640,047, or about 11.9%.
(No response: 62,603)

Asians taking the ACT: 71,677 out of 1,799,243, or about 3.9%
(No response: 110, 305)

I can’t tell if these numbers are US-based only, or including overseas testers. The ACT has a small international market. The SAT dominates, particularly in the Asian countries. 50,000 Chinese visit a Hong Kong testing site in just one year. While I couldn’t find totals for Korea, 900 students got their scores cancelled in 2007, clearly just a fraction of the total testers. In India, the College Board has 32 test centers (up from 20 just four years ago), the ACT has 60 testers.

So if the ratio above, in the tests’ national reports, are indeed just for the US, then the overall Asian preference is even greater than the 2.75:1 brand preference for Asian American testing. Since I can’t find any verification of this, let’s assume the ratio is overall preference.

In either case, the numbers are stark. The SAT is already losing out to the ACT. Why would it make changes that, if accurately described, would make the test less attractive to Asians, who have largely rejected the ACT?

Before I get to that: outside of the knowledgeable education reporters, the coverage has been nonsense. Contrast this relatively solid piece by NYTimes reporter Tamar Lewin, (whose twitter tagline should be “not half as ignorant and less than a quarter as irritating as Motoko Rich”) with this obsequious David Coleman profile by author Todd Balf. Discussing his work, Balf described the “checks” that restrain the College Board from using its power, :

Either Coleman does something about [the dissatisfaction with the SAT], or at the college level more and more schools will go test optional. Coleman wouldn’t say that the reforms are in response to places like Wake Forest, but it is hard to ignore.

Sigh. A few thousand colleges or university systems use the SAT as a first round placement test: University of Georgia, University of California, University of Michigan, University of Nevada, University of Wisconsin, a whole bunch of community college systems, and oh, yeah, the largest university system in the country. Any number of private universities do, as well, including Baylor, Columbia, and Duke.

So the SAT and ACT allow many schools to avoid the hassle and expense of placing hundreds of thousands of students each year.

But yeah, the College Board is all worked up about Wake Forest going exam optional.

People who try to prognosticate the changes are mostly being silly. I like Peter Wood, but his rant here doesn’t add up. Like most non-experts, Wood completely ignores the existence of the ACT, which has the same “biases” that Wood thinks the SAT is trying to fix. The College Board can’t “dumb down” the test. If blacks suddenly started scoring at the 80th percentile on the SAT, but were still scoring at the 35th on the ACT, people would notice.

So leaving aside what people who don’t really understand things think, and leaving my random thoughts about certain changes for another day, and then pointing out that I liked this analysis by Eduwonk, not usually a favorite of mine, my big question is still why would the College Board deliberately screw over Asians, the customer base with the strongest preference for its product?

The Chinese test prep companies are less than thrilled about the changes, which they believe will prevent them from teaching students to game the test . I am asserting this as fact: many Chinese international students openly acknowledge they don’t have the underlying ability their SAT scores denote.

Not much outrage from the Koreans, but then they just buy early versions of the test and distribute it to paying customers. Obviously, this method works regardless of underlying test modifications. Cheating is so rampant in South Korea that again, I am asserting as fact that many of these testers lack the underlying knowledge that their SAT scores supposedly indicate.

I doubt either country is exclusive in its approach. Presumably, the Chinese cheat and the Koreans game.

Indians seem cautiously optimistic—hey, they mostly do speak English, right?

I consider the SAT changes completely irrelevant. The interesting question to me is, assuming no one changes their behavior, how will this all play out?

The one thing I feel pretty confident of: faith in Coleman is wholly unjustified. Leaving aside the value of his Common Core work, note the lack of follow-through. Typical consultant, he jumped in long enough to tell people what to do, then left before all the errors in his ideas are revealed through disastrous implementation results.

In the same way, Coleman’s never run a major business, and has no idea about the political realities of helming the most visible, if not the most popular, college admissions and placement test. He has a story, but no plan. Meanwhile, boy, he’s happy to diss the test his predecessors pushed—and he makes free with insulting his competitor, too.

But for all Coleman trashes his predecessor, Gaspard Caperton, the ex-Appalachian governor has big shoes that I very much doubt Coleman can fill. Complain all you like about the writing section, it was pure genius as a business decision. On Caperton’s watch, the College Board dumbed down an existing test that a couple hundred thousand kids took, made it cheaper to grade, and forced a million kids to pay a higher price to take it as part of the “new” SAT, even though lots of colleges don’t use the section score—and let everyone think that the UC forced the change. The company made millions in a single year. At his behest, the College Board abandoned the claim that test prep doesn’t work, and sold its own product, which had to be taken off the Amazon bestseller list because everyone found it too upsetting. And that’s just the SAT’s profit center. Caperton also presided over the Advanced Placement’s stunning growth, achieved by taxpayers shoveling money into the CB’s coffers for entirely unqualified kids to take tests in order that Jay Mathews put their school on his Index.

In contrast, Coleman has just made the essay optional and harder to grade, ordered a complete redesign of the test with a stable competitor ready and willing to pick up the doubters, and pissed off his most dedicated customer segment. I wouldn’t be surprised if he declared that his purer company won’t profit from the filthy lucre of test prep, having turned that function over to Khan Academy (which long before its College Board arrangement has neglected to provide free services for the ACT). God knows what Coleman has planned for the AP suite.

Coleman could have some grand plan that I can’t anticipate (other than, as Steve Sailer puts it, all students should Be Like Me.) But reasonable people can and should wonder if he is wholly ignorant of the SAT’s market position, or if he actually believes that his Common Core curriculum is going to increase student ability and end the achievement gap. From there, it’s easy to postulate a scenario in which the College Board spends a fortune redesigning the test in a vacuum, not discovering until field tests that the changes either widen or narrow the achievement gap unforgiveably. Worse still, what if they make the test too hard? All of these possible outcomes wouldsend testers and their parents running into the arms of the Midwestern Mama, all safety and security.

In such an event, I trust the remainder of the College Board regroups before rollout. That’s been done before: the 2005 essay was originally supposed to be 50% of the writing score, but worrisome field tests led to the essay getting just a third of the section weight. A complete backout, cancel, reset is not impossible. The ETS cancelled its first set of GRE changes, despite a significant investment. Like the ETS, the College Board has a known quantity of a test to fall back on—just fire Coleman and move on.

I find that outcome very possible. But suppose that the SAT redesign works as promised. The achievement gap remains intact, the test is as described, the scores among American students are roughly compatible with the old SAT and the current ACT.

So then back to the big question: why, exactly, are Asians favoring the current SAT so strongly, and what will they do in the face of an altered test? The usual reason offered for their brand loyalty is the Asians aren’t aware of the ACT.

They figure out to game the SAT, they buy advanced copies of the SAT so their kids can cheat, they’re aware of and concerned about SAT changes, but somehow they’ve never heard of the SAT’s competition. Yeah. Not buying.

That leaves a few possibilities. First, the Asian test prep companies just don’t see the point in spending the money and time cracking a second test given their certainty on the first. Second, they haven’t actually cracked the test, aren’t really gaming it, but in fact are all using the Korean method of buying the test. All the coverage on the gaming is just sham. So they either can’t or haven’t yet paid to achieve the same penetration of the ACT’s secrets.

Third, and this is the fun one, they’ve tried cracking the ACT and can’t.

Eighteen months ago, I thought the possibility that Asians were artificially inflating their scores was theoretically possible, but unlikely. Over the next year, my experiences and additional research has changed my view. I now think it likely that both here and overseas, a decent percentage of Asian testers are either cheating or gaming the SAT and AP tests—-or both. I’ve written up some of this but not all, and I’m not expecting anyone to just take my word for it.

But when I start from that premise, and look at the SAT as a test that can be gamed, I see loads of potential.

Naturally, a purchased test is still the best guarantee—certainty being so much more reliable—but Big Data could identify many patterns. A few years back, you could see open discussion of an LA based test prep company with a largely Asian clientele that promised a reduced (300 or fewer words) vocabulary list, that was supposedly built by on analyzing previous tests and predicting a rotation cycle for the words. Or maybe they just had an in at the College Board, as the comment suggests.

Maybe they’ve analyzed each type of reading comprehension question and noticed a pattern beyond “pick C”, but rather a particular type of wording that is associated with a correct answer. This is something all bright people can do, of course, but it’s hard to teach as a system without mountains of data. The SAT’s grammar questions have all sorts of patterns that could likewise be broken down and systematized. Obviously, they’ve collected the essay prompts and found certain theme patterns that they use to teach kids to memorize essays verbatim. It goes without saying that the students didn’t write the essays. Or maybe they just had prior knowledge.

But assume, for the moment, that it was gaming, not cheating. I’m not an expert on Big Data or psychometrics, but I’m knowledgeable about both the SAT and the ACT, and the latter doesn’t lend itself to that sort of patterning. English, Reading, and Science test on passages with aggressive time requirements. While their questions do have patterns, the patterns are heavily reliant on context. You have to understand the text at least slightly in order to find the correct answer for the particular type of question. At least, that’s how it seems to me. (But then, I looked at the memorization necessary to game the SAT and thought it unlikely, so what do I know?)

Imagine that College Board successfully screws over the barely-English-speaking Asian market with their new test. Suppose also that both companies are ethical and no one is selling advance data on the test (which, in fact, I do assume). Suppose, in other words, that Asians with extremely limited English skills, here and abroad, are no longer able to misrepresent their abilities with SAT tests.

Is that really what colleges want?

Balf’s right about one thing–the colleges are the ultimate test customer. Public universities have dramatically increased their foreign admits, most of them Chinese, because they can charge them out of state fees for all four years.

They admit these students already knowing that the Chinese applications are largely fraudulent, and are well aware of the gaming and cheating, since they end up with students who can’t speak English and cheat here, too.

All this knowledge hasn’t slowed down their Asian international student admission.

Does this sound like a customer base that really wants to lock out non-English speaking Asians?

No matter which of these scenarios play out, I don’t see how the ACT doesn’t benefit. Why would any student opt for a complete unknown when they can prepare for the ACT using test prep materials and experts who’ve been working with the same test for years? I expect test prep companies to step up their offerings. If they don’t, then I throw up my hands and declare confusion.

This all strikes me as considerably more relevant than pipe dreams about the end of test prep, much less the achievement gap. And much more interesting.

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.


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