Category Archives: College Admissions

The Case Against The Case Against Education: Toe Fungus Prevention

Part Three of my Caplan thoughts.

caplantoefungus

–Caplan, The Case Against Education

In Caplan’s world, toe fungus stands in for the “disease” of no education. The fungus cream is public schools. Caplan believes he’s proved that public school hasn’t worked, and thus we should stop funding public education. Live with the illiteracy and innumeracy that is only slightly mitigated, and then temporarily, by failing public education.

Caplan screws up the analogy. He says the obvious remedy is  “don’t use the cream”  (end all public education) but then explores “use less of the cream” (end subsidies) or “buy a cheaper cream” (curriculum austerity).

But I digress. Caplan uses some extremely old data–the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). The NAAL results are categorized as Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient (the survey had originally wanted to use “Advanced”, but considered it too value-laden. As if “Proficient” isn’t.) Caplan uses this data to argue that Americans are incredibly uneducated and therefore American education is terrible–the toe fungus that can’t be cured.

There’s a lot wrong with his analysis, some of which I’ll hold off until the next chunk, and he misrepresents NAAL’s connection to public education. Besides, static education snapshots are pointless. Change over time and disaggregation, baby, or it’s nothing. So I disaggregated by education category and found change over time, using the same report Caplan cites.

NAAL has three categories of assessment: prose, document, and quantitative. The adults surveyed were captured by their highest level of education: still in high school all the way through graduate degree.  So I broke the scores into two categories. First, on the left, are the scores of those whose highest education was vocational school or lower. On the right, those with some college through graduate degrees. In each case, the graph shows the average score for that category in 1992 and then in 2003. I’m terrible at data display, but I made the axes the same–the actual scores go from 0 to 500, but that was too small.

naal2003prosechgHS naal2003prosechgCO
naal2003docchgHS naal2003docchgCO
naal2003quantchgHS naal2003quantchgCO

She average reading ability of an individual with post-secondary education declined significantly from 1992 to 2003, while the decline in high school educated reading abilities declined less significantly or not at all. Quant scores were unchanged.

Here’s another take on the data, using a graph straight from the report. The percentage of “proficient” readers declined significantly for most college categories, while remaining largely unchanged for the high school only educated groups.

At the low end, the “less than/some high school” reading abilities dropped in the prose category, but the rest remained largely unchanged.

chgbyedcat92to03

Caplan doesn’t look at change over time, and so doesn’t take on the challenge of explaining why the average college graduate living in America became less proficient at reading over a decade.

Caplan’s opponents in the economics field argue that education builds human capital. Human capital is, or should be, reflected in the score gaps between different education categories. Those with some college should have higher scores than those with none, and so on.

So I calculated the change in the gap between “adjacent” education categories from the 1992 NAAL to the 2003 study.

naal2003gapprose

naal3003gapdoc

naal2003gapquant

So in one decade, the human capital improvement of education dropped in all but one college category.

From 1992 to 2003, high schools produced the same caliber of student. Colleges produced lower quality students that had built less human capital with their increased education.

It will come as no surprise that colleges produced more graduates than before.

naal2003edpops.

Caplan goes on about inflated credentials, the perils of increased access. But he doesn’t acknowledge a simple truth: it’s colleges, not high schools, that have significantly deteriorated in their ability to build human capital.

Why?

Because they are increasingly reaching further down into the barrel, accepting everyone. They’re accepting kids who can’t read at an eighth grade level, who can’t do middle school math. They have no standards beyond what’s on the high school transcript (giving high schools tremendous incentives of the wrong sort). For the past several decades, post-secondary education have been accepting transcripts at face value, then testing the students to establish how truthful the transcript was, then putting the students whose abilities didn’t match the transcript into remediation. Every state has its tale of trying to increase access, only to learn how shockingly unprepared and incapable students were, and how their efforts at remediation ended in failure.

All these efforts have only depreciated the value of a college degree. But not content with accepting unqualified students and trying to remediate them before, sadly, flunking them out, colleges kept reaching further down. It’s now quite possible to get accepted to college with Algebra 2 on the transcript, demonstrate that you have only elementary school math, take middle school math classes for credit, and earn a degree. No more remediation. Math was the last holdout; English and grammar requirements have been much easier to ignore.

Caplan argues that most cost benefit analyses for college education fail to account for dropouts. But colleges are reducing the risk of dropping out by lowering standards even further. His own college accepts unqualified students every year; 25% of George Mason’s freshmen enter with SAT scores below the “college ready” standard.  Now that colleges are ending remediation and giving credit for middle school ability, the risk of dropping out will continue to diminish. Those who want to “signal” will have to get graduate degrees–and of course, some academic will come along in a few years and deem “graduate degree” a “path to success”, and then everyone will do that.

“Would you rather have a Princeton degree without the education, or the Princeton education without the degree?”  Caplan asks, and readers go oooooh and aahh.

But that wasn’t always the case. Back when a college degree had meaning, a degree from a decent public university meant an education that would take one further than a Princeton diploma with no knowledge. Unfortunately, colleges have unilaterally obliterated all faith in their ability to educate, leaving  competitive admissions  on test scores–tests not administered by colleges in any way–as the only indicator of potential intelligence.

Caplan’s fix is to deny all educational funding. Applying that solution simply to colleges won’t solve anything. Colleges will still have the incentive to lower standards. The free market won’t fix the signalling problem. Ending public funding of education won’t stop colleges from lowering standards and giving degrees to anyone who can buy them. It will just deny any chance of education to those who can’t afford it. Over time, America under Caplan’s rule would be a country where rich people got educated, not smart people. We spent generations giving opportunity to those who could achieve. Our error was not spending too much money, but forgetting the meaning and the demands of education itself.

In Caplan’s view, “We would be better off if education were less affordable.” He wants to deny education to everyone who can’t afford it.

Why make it about money? Why not about ability?

We could prevent  or minimize toe fungus, the failure to successfully educate,  at the college level by setting a standard for college entry. Those who meet the standard can still qualify for public funding. I suggested a standard, back when I was an optimist who couldn’t even imagine colleges abolishing remediation.

Setting a standard for college entry would reduce the risk of failure as well as increase the human capital earned by even an incomplete education. Going to college wouldn’t just be another educational choice, but a choice only available to those who have the ability to develop and use the education.

Understand that I’m not some purist, calling for the days of Latin and Greek. I’m saying that colleges should accept students who can read, write, and calculate at an agreed-upon level. The levels we used in the 30 years after World War 2 would do nicely.

There are obviously–oh, so very obviously–political problems that go along with restricting access to higher education. But Caplan, man, he’s bold. He’s fearless. “In any other industry, a whistle-blower would be an outcast.”

So why call to eliminate public funding, denying education to qualified people who can’t afford it, while not bothering to fix the obvious standards problem in college admissions?

Maybe Caplan’s political ideology suggests the nail to which libertarianism has the hammer. I dunno.

What I do know is that people have been complaining about “too many kids are going to college” for forty years or more. It’s not new. It’s not bold. The devil is very much in the details. Which Caplan avoids.

 


Corrupted College

I try  to take the long view on education policy.  In the long run, education reformers, education advocates, and policy wonks are wasting their time trying to change the underlying reality.  They’re paying their own bills and wasting taxpayer dollars. Nothing else.

But every so often, I worry.

Check out this Edsource story on the  California State University system’s announcement of its intent to abandon the “strategy” of remedial courses.

At last! I thought. CSU was finally telling low-skilled applicants to attend adult education or community college. Hahahaha.  Five years of education policy writing just isn’t enough time to become properly cynical.

CSU is not ending its practice of accepting students who aren’t capable of college work. CSU has ended its practice of remediating students who aren’t capable of college work. It makes such students feel “unwelcome.” Students who aren’t capable of doing college work are getting the impression that they don’t really belong at college.

And so, CSU is going to give students who can’t do college work college credit for the classes they take trying to become ready for college.

Understand that the CSU system has been accepting these students for over 30 years. CSU used to offer unlimited remediation until 1996. After taxpayers protested, CSU passed regulations reducing remediation efforts to one year and vowed to ultimately eliminate all remediation by 2001. But alas, when 2001 came along,  ending remediation would dramatically reduce black and Hispanic enrollment, so the deadline was extended to 2007. (Cite ) But 2007 came along and things were even worse. After that, well, California ended its high school exit examination  and retroactively awarded diplomas to all the students who hadn’t been able to pass it. Why bother? CSU was accepting students who didn’t have the diploma anyway.

So, CSU decided on a new “strategy”, defining “college readiness” as “student is earning us tuition dollars”. They’re even looking at ending any sort of reliance on California’s version of the Smarter Balanced test, the Early Assessment rating that California has used for years to guide high schools towards getting their students ready for college.

Loren J. Blanchard, CSU executive said  that remedial education represents a deficit model that must be reformed if we really hope to achieve our equity and completion goals.” James T. Minor, a “senior CSU strategist for Academic Success and Inclusive Excellence” says that purely remedial or developmental classes “is not a particularly  good model for retention and degree completion.” Jeff Gold “emphasizes” that all the new program does is offer “extra help and services”, that rest assured, academic quality shall continue undisturbed. The CSU just wants to make sure that students who can only do middle school work “belong here” at CSU. CSU trustee chairwoman Rebecca Eisen is “thrilled” to hear about this change, as more students will “feel this is something they can do” and stay in college for longer.

Reporter Larry Gordon accepts all this at face value. He doesn’t push Blanchard to explain why students who can’t do college level work aren’t, by definition, a deficit model. Or why students who couldn’t pass an 8th grade math test should be retained long enough to complete a degree.

Nor does Gordon  observe that CSU has been offering extra help and services for thirty years.  In the current model, the help and services were not counted towards graduation. In the new model, they will be. That’s the change. Giving college credit for colleges that an advanced eighth-grader could complete is a reduction in academic rigor.

And note that Rebecca Eisen, at least, knows that Jeff Gold is lying. The remedial students were leaving because they couldn’t do the work. The change will make the students stay. Because the classes will be made easier and the students will get credit for them in this reduced academic environment.

Edsource checks in at Cal State Dominguez Hills, which has already been converting its remedial courses to “co-requisite” courses in statistics and algebra and that remedial students taking the co-requisite courses are passing at roughly the same rate as those who aren’t remedial.

Left unmentioned is that Cal State Dominguez Hills’ converted SAT averages has a 75th percentile SAT score of 450.  Everyone at CSUDH is remedial by a “typical” college’s standards–and by CSUDH’s standards, eighty percent were remedial in both math and English, which gives a small hint as to why the college might want to end remediation.

While Gordon reports the news without any context on the student ability level, he hastens to assure readers that ignoring remedial status is a public university trend. “Several other states, such as Tennessee, reported success in putting students in so-called corequisite courses starting in 2015. The City University of New York is taking similar steps by 2018 and also is starting to allow math requirements to be fulfilled by statistics or quantitative reasoning classes, not just by algebra.”

Meanwhile, this  decision “dovetails” (read: is driven by)  the CSU Graduation Initiative, which is a plan to increase the four-year completion rate from 19 to 40 percent.

So in 1996, California wanted to completely end remediation by 2001. Now, in 2017, California wants to give students college credit for remedial courses so that in eight more years two out of every five students will graduate in four years.

I once wrote an essay calling for a ban on college remediation.  But events are just getting way ahead of me. Anticipating that colleges would start giving degrees to people with middle school skills was something I foolishly rejected as implausible.

But as bad as this is, my dismay and disgust is deepened a thousand-fold by this fact: high schools aren’t allowed to teach remedial courses.

We can’t say hey, this kid can only read at the eighth grade level, so let’s give him more vocabulary and leveled reading. Heavens, no. In fact, you see education advocates arguing that giving kids reading above their ability level is going to improve their reading (something unestablished at the high school level). In practice, this means that all but the most severely deficient readers are expected to read and thrive on Shakespeare and Sophocles.

We can’t say hey, this kid can’t do pre-algebra, much less algebra, and at his current knowledge and interest levels, he can’t possibly succeed at the three or four years of math past algebra that high schools require for graduation. No, we have to  teach second year algebra concepts to kids who aren’t entirely sure what 6×8 is because we know they’ll graduate before they end up in pre-calc.  High schools with diverse student populations can’t offer courses for the entire range of abilities encountered. Schools with entirely low-ability students can just lie.

Thanks to the education reforms of both the right and left, high schools are under tremendous pressure to force all their students into advanced courses and not given any options for students who aren’t ready. There is no “ready” but college-ready.

It’s gotten so idiotic that many high schools have started “dual enrollment” programs for their at-risk students. The best students are taking demanding high school courses. But the at-risk kids are going to college to get the remediation their high schools aren’t allowed to give them.  They shade the truth, of course, mouthing nonsense about giving kids a taste of college. But read between the lines and you’ll see that the students are getting remedial courses. So high schools are paying tuition for low-level kids to take middle school courses at their local college.

But why? I’ve asked, time and again. Colleges are allowed to remediate. Why not let high schools provide the remediation, get kids closer to college ready? Any remediation we do will reduce the burden on colleges.

Ah, but that’s where the idiocy gets intense. The same public universities offering (or ending) remediation require that all students take advanced courses in high school.   CSU application requirements include algebra 2. If CSU remedial students were even approaching second year algebra ability, the university system wouldn’t be ending remediation.

But CSU, and all the other colleges with admissions requirements well above the ability of the bottom 30% of their student population, know this. So why?

I’ve thought and thought about this, and can only come to one conclusion. Colleges are desperate to give opportunities to black and Hispanic students in a public atmosphere with no tolerance for affirmative action. They’ve tried every way they can think of. Standards have already been lowered. Course demands have been almost entirely eliminated–top-tier public schools will issue bachelor degrees with no additional math courses (after the remedial course, that is).  This is just the next step.

The public discourse has become almost entirely bifurcated. At one end, we see education reformers hammering on high standards while suggesting, tentatively, that perhaps everyone isn’t really meant for college. We see learned professors opining that of the two proposed methods of improving low-income kids’ academic achievement, “no excuses” is better than integration because at least “no excuses” won’t hurt suburban schools.

Meanwhile, the actual colleges are lowering standards dramatically to the point that we will now routinely see people–primarily but not all black and Hispanic–with bachelors degrees despite reading at the eighth grade level and minimal math abilities. What makes anyone think that actual achievement is going to matter?

I haven’t seen any education reformers discuss the constant push to end or limit remediation, which has been going on for five years or so. They aren’t terribly interested in college policies. Education reformers want to kill teacher unions and/or grab public funds for essentially private charter schools, and this doesn’t help.

So now our public universities will accept anyone with a transcript spelling out the right courses. They’ll just put them in middle school courses and call it college. Education reformers, college professionals, all the middlebrow pundits opining on our failed education system won’t care–they send their kids to more expensive schools, the ones whose diplomas won’t be devalued by this fraud.

I’d put this insanity into the bucket of “Why Trump Won”, but does Betsy DeVos even care? She’s too interested in using federal dollars to push choice to win disapproval  denying federal dollars to colleges who want to “improve access”. She’s the worst of both worlds: a committed voucher advocate who wouldn’t be bothered by the destruction of public universities. But then, a  Democrat EdSec wouldn’t give a damn–in fact, a Clinton or Obama presidency would probably pressure colleges to lower standards even more. No one seems to actively try to change these policies.

But public colleges like CSU and CUNY are what bright kids from less well-connected families, kids whose parents don’t have the social capital to get into the “right” schools, were once able to use to get ahead. These schools have already done themselves a lot of damage, making it harder and harder for anyone, no matter how qualified, to get through in less than six years because of the time, resources, and expense involved educating the near-illiterate–and, of course, paying for  vice-chancellors of gender sensitivity and diversity awareness by accepting loads of Chinese students who prepared for college by committing fraud on the SAT.

If this doesn’t stop, America will have a much more serious problem than failed college students with huge college debts and no diploma. We’ll have thousands of college grads who got their diplomas with no better than eighth grade reading and math skills.

I’m not a high-standards maven.  Nor am I patient with the pseudo-cynical idiots who think they’re in the know, smirking that college degrees have been worthless for years.

No, they haven’t. But they’re going to be.

Meanwhile, people should maybe read more David Labaree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The SAT is Corrupt: Reuters Version

Dear Renee Dudley, Steve Stecklow, Alexandra Harney and Irene Jay Liu,

As someone who has studied and written extensively about the SAT corruption and the fraud delivery system known as Asian test prep , I congratulate you on the thorough job exposing the College Board’s open courting of corruption for profit in the overseas SAT market.

I’m not a reporter, just a teacher who does pretty good research, but for what it’s worth I think you did an outstanding job on many aspects of the story. I offer these suggestions (and one correction) with some disagreement, but little criticism (and lord knows, I can criticize).

The College Board Was Aware Long Before 2013
Your article strongly suggests time and again that the College Board learned that Asian test prep companies had obtained the tests by May 2013. In fact, the College Board knew that the test had been corrupted by January 2007, when it cancelled the scores of all 900 South Korean testers. It was common knowledge at the time that the College Board recycled old tests. The AP story doesn’t mention hagwons, and shows a touching faith in the CB’s assurance that kids couldn’t possibly benefit from seeing the test again. However, the College Confidential forums were very clear that the source of the test was a hagwon, not some “accidental exposure”. I worked for Kaplan and a major US hagwon at the time (only taught SAT at Kaplan) and my hagwon boss told me all about the methods Korean test prep companies used to get the “held back” tests.

So the College Board has known for at least nine years and probably longer that Asian international testers were cheating.

More Context on Cheaters

Your reporting begins with Xingyuan Ding, a Chinese national now attending ULA, who scored an 800 on the SAT Critical Reading section. Ding claims that “about half” of the answers on the reading section were in his “jijing”, or answer key.

That’s highly unlikely. While I understand the need for objectivity, some context would be useful. An 800 on the reading section is a 99th percentile score, meaning 99% of the testers receive a lower score. Even among Asians, it’s a 98th percentile score. So how likely is it that a Chinese national got that score?

Your reporting also mentions Linfeng Liu, another Chinese student who tested in Hong Kong, who says that she was “helped” by recognizing five—just five!—vocabulary questions, which enabled her, she said, to focus more on reading comprehension. Her overall score isn’t mentioned, but again, how likely is it that she cheated “just a little bit”?

Information that would have helped give context. Were these interviews conducted in Chinese or in English? How fluent was Ding, the 800 SAT critical reading guy, in English? How were these students doing in their classes?

Another related issue: In your FAQ, you mention repeatedly that just seeing the questions, not the answers, would still constitute a major advantage. That’s true. However, the story gives the impression that seeing the questions provides the primary, even sole, advantage to the students. This is almost certainly not true, and while that statement may be too strong, I think you tilt too far the other way. These are Chinese and Korean nationals with very weak English. A preview of the reading passages isn’t going to give them a big advantage. The answers do. Whether they’ve memorized long sequences or just have them handily tucked into a cell phone, the Chinese kids you interviewed almost certainly had the answers.

Cheating: It’s Not Just In China Anymore
Your reporting revealed that Asian test prep companies sent employees over here:

Sanli, the Chinese test-prep chain, says it sent 11 teachers to the United States to collect information on the redesigned exam. They debriefed 40 Sanli students studying at U.S. high schools who took the new SAT as they exited test centers, according to Wu, the general manager. Sanli presented its findings at a seminar at a Shanghai hotel.

(emphasis mine)

Heavens, that’s interesting. I did not know this. So are these Sanli students “Asian Americans”–born here, or immigrant children of long-time residents–or are they “Asian nationals” over here on F1 visas? As you probably know, Chinese students are flooding US public high schools whenever they can and US Christian private high schools when they can’t (due to the 1-year restriction), with our Beijing embassy eagerly courting more. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of F1 high school visas grew from 1,700 to 80,000, the vast majority of them Chinese or South Korean.

So when you report that Asian test prep companies are using “their” students to gain SAT knowledge to enable cheating, are they F-1 students on visas? Or are they Asian Americans who enroll with these test prep companies?

Of course, the College Board is not reusing national tests–at least, not often—which raises another question: what advantages do the Asian test prep companies offer Asians living in the US?

Your story hints at possibilities here:

Eight of the 10 existing Mathematics Level II subject tests were compromised – three in their entirety and five in part, including two exams that had never been given anywhere, the PowerPoint shows. Ten of the 13 Biology exams were also compromised in whole or in part, including one totally new test.

I’ve written on this before as well; Asian test prep companies have certainly used corrupt school administrators to gain early access to tests.

So the story probably goes beyond the international cheating–as if that’s not enough. It’s pretty clear that Asian test prep companies are getting early versions of tests. Given the College Board’s lax procedures, the leak may be from within the company.

What About the ACT?

You mention that the SAT dominates in the international market; my own research confirms that the ACT’s international presence is minimal. My understanding is that the SAT only recycles tests for the international sitting.

So what does the ACT do? Does the ACT recycle tests? What is the relative size of the two markets? If the SAT is the only test with a significant international presence, could it possibly be due to the fact that international testers have access to early copies? The overwhelming bulk of international testers are Asian or Middle Eastern, all countries with culture of cheating that Americans can barely comprehend.

Or perhaps there’s another explanation. But getting the ACT’s procedure would be a useful comparison point. Your story acknowledges the fact that ACT is the national leader, but apparently SAT’s touchstone status causes reporters to forget that and ignore the market king’s methods. (OK, that was a tad snarky.)

David Coleman Stonewalls

You know how reporters say [so and so] refused repeated requests to comment? You apparently only asked David Coleman to comment once.

David Coleman is a celebrity in the world of education reform. He is celebrated, rightly or wrongly, for Common Core standards. He took over the helm at the College Board in 2012–that fact alone should be mentioned, should it not? Presumably he was present, along with other “senior College Board staff” at the meeting with the Power Point slides in June 2013.

It’s not really your fault. But it’s over a day since your story came out, and not a peep from the College Board, much less Coleman. Couldn’t you have at least said “repeated requests”? Or did you only ask once?

National Interests

But like all reported stories I’ve seen on Asian cheating of the SAT, there’s no connection to the larger interests involved.

As your story mentions, many public and private universities are recruiting foreign students who are mostly from China and South Korea, even though the students are cheating on applications and tests, lying about their grades and resumes. Keep in mind that universities get tax breaks and other federal funding and public universities were chartered to serve the educational needs of their states.

Meanwhile, the SAT is moving outside its old beat as a college admissions test into a high school graduation test. Several states have committed use the SAT as a graduation requirement. Several states have switched from the ACT, which focuses on American students, to the SAT, which manifestly does not.

This isn’t just an issue for worried parents of college applicants. The College Board encourages and benefits from international criminal racketeering organizations that engage in immigration and mail fraud while enabling colleges to pretend they are accepting qualified applicants when in fact the colleges know full well their applicants lied. It collects money from multiple state contracts for a test product they can’t be bothered to spend money protecting from those organized criminal enterprises. State and private universities knowingly consume a fraudulent information product in order to fatten their coffers, all the while benefiting from tax-exempt status at both the federal and state interest.

Should the College Board be allowed to sell state contracts given its knowing participation in organized crime? Should our tax dollars be spent on universities if they are no longer acting in the public interest? Reasonable people can undoubtedly disagree on these questions. But surely they should at least be raised.

I want to emphasize again how pleased I am at your story and that while I had the above quibbles, overall it really was an excellent, thoroughly reported piece. I hope Reuters pushes it harder; you guys should be on TV, talking about this. Feel free to use my “national interest” take when you’re on the air.

All the best,

ER


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):

psatbdavailcopy

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

psat2015earlycopy

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.”

“How?”

“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?”

“Yes!”

“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
Questions
 

54 
44 MC, 10 grid

38 
28 MC, 10 grid

60 MC 
 

48 
40 MC, 8 grid

Sections
 
 

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
 
MPQ
 
 

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
 
Category 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Number Operations 
Algebra & Functions
Geometry & Measurement
Data & Statistics
 
 
 

Same  
 
 
 
 
 
 

Pre-algebra 
Algebra
elem & intermed.
Geometry
coord & plane
Trigonometry
 
 
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.

Format
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.

Categories

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.

Examples:

newpsatmath10

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.

mathnocalcquads

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:

newpsatperimeter

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.

newpsatsystemlineparabola

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.
newpsatmathneg16

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.

Reading

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.

Writing

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:

Grammar/Punctuation:

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 “collegeconfidential.com,” 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):

ccmathsatanswers

ccmathsatanswers2

ccmathsatanswers3

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
DECEMBER 2013 JUNE 2012

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.

Huh.

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.