Category Archives: College Admissions

Dropping Admissions Tests: CalTech

Note: This is an expansion of my tweet storm.

It’s one thing when Janet Napolitano grabs the first opportunity to dump the SAT. The UC system has been desperately trying to rid itself of the restrictions imposed by California’s 1997 affirmative action ban for two decades: declaring a ban on the SAT unless the College Board redesigned it and made everyone else pay, focusing more on the subject tests, then banning them, requiring the essay then banning it. So naturally a pandemic that prevented large gatherings would be seized upon to get rid of it entirely.

(By the way, I put the odds of the UC developing its own test at exactly zero. Any legitimate test would have the same racial imbalances as the existing tests–without the ability to blame the failings on the College Board. They can’t use the state test, known as the SBAC, because it, too, has the same achievement gaps as the SAT. Moreover, if they used the state test, out of state applicants would have to take another test, probably the SAT/ACT. A test they could take multiple times, while California applicants can only take the SBAC once–a disparity that won’t survive a lawsuit. A UC-only test would increase the burden for all California students who wanted to apply elsewhere, and any out of state students applying to UC–how likely is that? No, they’re hoping they can maintain standards without the test, or they will reinstate it in a couple years regretfully, giving a bullshit reason. End digression.)

But then I learned that back in January, California Institute of Technology ended its Subject test requirement and a few days ago went SAT/ACT test blind.


Caltech has long been celebrated by affirmative action opponents for its refusal to bow down to diversity admissions policies–evidenced by the growth of its admitted Asian undergraduates.

But that is, in part, because Caltech isn’t harassed by lawsuits or hauled up by the media as an example of the evils of using meritocracy. The university has always been deemed too small for diversity shills to bother with.

So whatever reason Caltech had for dumping tests, I don’t think it came about because of public pressure. The most recent announcement didn’t make even a ripple: no media gloating, no aforementioned diversity shills gloating about the change.  I follow this sort of news closely and only heard about it by accident a couple days ago.

Not knowing anything about Caltech’s internal politics, I began with the two most obvious candidates: a change in leadership or a decline in rankings. Leadership has been unchanged since 2013, and Rosenbaum was no apologist for his school’s admissions policy.

Change in rankings, on the other hand, was plausible. I remember it being ranked #1 in 1999, when a change in the USNWR team made the rankings less concerned about reflecting public opinion. Now it’s at 12. But does Caltech seem like a school that would care? This analysis argues that perhaps the change was made to attract more international students. Maybe. Again, I don’t know all the internal politics.

But what the hell, I didn’t become Ed Realist to hem and haw about significant college admissions decisions. Let’s go straight to the demographics, which offer a real surprise or, as I said on Twitter “holy shit.  Loak at Asian, white, and Hispanic changes over the past two years.”

These two graphs show the same data, just in different forms. The first shows the percentages of Asians, whites, Hispanics, blacks, and International students.

Note: I don’t do regressions or….p values or whatever the hell they’re called. (kind of kidding, I usually can dredge up what they’re called and what they do.). This is just a very simple graphic representation of first year admissions data, skippibng Native Americans and 2 races.


The second shows the same data but in linear form and raw numbers instead of percentages. I thought both of them were useful, pick the one you like best.


I only included the bottom two lines, black and international, because otherwise people would wonder why I’d left them off. The big news is in the top three.

I found 1996 data in a Caltech newspaper article; it matches 2000 data pretty well.

My first thought, before collecting the data,  was that Caltech was using the pandemic to maybe get fewer Asians. But it turns out they’ve cracked that nut in many ways. Asians, whites, and Hispanics are at close to parity. (38, 22 and 29 percent).

The graph below uses 2002 as a benchmark, showing increase and decrease Using tests, supposedly with pure meritocracy, they’ve cut white admissions in half from 2002, and returned Asians back to their 2002 numbers. Before now, I’d have bet that reducing Asian percentages was a near impossibility. But Caltech has done more than that.


I have no point other than wow, take a look at this. A top ranked university chopped its Asian admissions in half without really increasing the international student population. Is that normal?  Since the school managed this without ending the SAT or Subject test requirement, why end them now? What explains this? I’ve rummaged around looking for CalTech specific explanations, but haven’t found anything. I’m wondering now if I’ve missed a trend in college admissions demographics.

Of course, go back up a chart or two and look at the yellow. African Americans are practically  non-existent at CalTech. I suspect the most common explanation provided is correct: blacks who have the chops to go to CalTech are offered massive sums to go to higher-ranked schools.

Still, looking at the flat line for African Americans, it’s hard not to wonder, for the umpteenth time why Black Lives Matter isn’t pulling down the Statue of Liberty for its pro-immigration propaganda.

International Students in America: Fewer, Please. A Lot Fewer.

I just noticed Noah Smith’s recent thread on importing students. He’s quite wrong (which wouldn’t be the first time).

Noah is upset that international students are choosing Canada rather than America.

I couldn’t be more pleased.

The best argument for reducing the flow of international students: America should not be draining the brains of the world.  If indeed we are taking China and India’s brightest people, then we are robbing those countries of the intellects needed to lead and educate their next generations–all so that they can drive down labor costs for Facebook and Google.

Noah doesn’t care about other countries, though–well, that’s probably not true. But in this case, he thinks more international students is good for America.

His case: we shouldn’t worry about foreign STEM students, because the US is graduating more STEM students than any country but India or China.


But as anyone following education trends in the US can tell you, a substantial number of those US STEM graduates are from China and India. Many STEM graduate programs are overwhelmingly dominated by international students.

and at least

33,000 of Science and Engineering undergraduate degrees go to international students. This is six year old Pew data, but it’s a good look at how big a slice of our undergraduate STEM degrees are taken up by international students.

While Smith is correct that educational attainment has consistently risen in US, I’ve written before that much of this is driven by a relentless push for US colleges to lower standards and give college credit and diplomas to students with limited reading skills and middle school math ability.  We can debate the value of this increase, but it’s certainly not evidence that international students aren’t hurting American college education.

We can import international students AND lower standards. Neither is related to the other, and neither is anything to brag about.

Smith then proceeds to argue that 1)  foreign students aren’t taking slots from citizens and 2) rather, they are PAYING for the education of American students!

The first is simply false. From 2008 to today, the undergraduate student population at Stanford has increased by 8.5%. The undergraduate international student population increased over that same time by nearly 47%.  At the University of Michigan Ann Arbor over the same time period, campus population grew by 14%, while the international students increased by half.  In this long-form article on University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, the university admits that admission of out of state American students had dropped since the massive increase in international students–and the number of African American students has fallen hard from an already low rate.  And none of these schools mentioned are among the campuses, most of them top 50 schools, with the most international students.

International students are taking spots from Americans at selective college campuses.  Full stop. Noah is wrong.

The second part is more complex. Unquestionably, public research universities with limited domestic-out-of-state enrollment began turning to  international students when states cut funding.  Moreover, some schools, like  Ohio State , seem perfectly willing to keep students in Intensive English hell for eternity, or as long as they’re willing to pay tuition, whichever comes first. So some of the appeal of unqualified foreign students does seem to be their money.

But is that all? I see several reasons to wonder.

First, the choice to turn to international students is, by definition, a choice against instate students.  The universities could choose to charge more tuition and focus on providing services for the in-state students who can pay. They choose otherwise.  Why? Next, it appears that international students get about 8%  of their funding from US sources (7.9% from state, a bit from US government, according to link above).

While their additional tuition is attractive, it’s also obvious that international students cost a great deal to support. Despite the protestations of many a university admissions officer, many if not most international students are completely incapable of functioning in an American university. Some schools have started charging more for those services, but, as the story acknowledges, before that point the international students were costing a great deal more. And if international students are valuable for their out of state tuition, why are some universities abandoning the international student premium, or giving it back in scholarships? .

So the argument that international students are increasing purely to subsidize in-state low income recipients  at public universities is….shaky.  Besides, a quick look again at all these private schools with the most international students. State funding wasn’t behind those increases.

Having watched this most recent push for international students going on for a decade now, I’m deeply skeptical that public universities are increasing their take of international students for the sake of their in-state applicants. These aren’t short-term moves. Prestige and money for niceties seem to be much more the focus than the in-state students.

Pish tosh, sez Noah, the advantage of international students  is not about educating local undergrads”.  We are thus instructed to ignore all his arguments in favor of American students that I carefully spent half a page deconstructing and rebutting.

It’s about RESEARCH. Research is what boosts the local economy, by drawing in talent and capital and money. The goal should be to UPGRADE scattered second-tier universities into good research universities.

And, from a different tweet thread:

International students are an important part of the university-centered regional development strategy that is pulling towns and regions all across America out of the hole dug by the Rust Belt and the Great Recession…But that’s not all that international students do for America. Their presence improves and increases research labs at American universities. That generates business activity in small cities across America. Want to revive the Midwest? You’re going to need second-tier universities to become first-tier universities, and create local innovation. International students are very important to that strategy.

He develops his thoughts on the value of a university to a community in an op-ed:


I’m sorry, I can’t resist: You boys know what makes this bird go up? 

So, mid-tier universities should import international students to fuel a Midwestern Enlightenment, create intellectual capital that will draw in others to benefit from the bounty. A western Renaissance of smart educated people wading through the rich flow of generated ideas.

Of course if the ideas were generated by international students, the ideas are probably copied. Or maybe the research was just faked.

Take look at the names on his list of top international countries turning out STEM students, or just the countries sending the most students.  China, India, Russia, Iran, Indonesia, and Japan.  Toss in Saudi Arabia.

These are all countries that excuse and encourage tremendous educational and academic fraud.

The students who have the means and desire to come to America to study come from fantastically corrupt countries. They generally show up for college  woefully unprepared, which is unsurprising, given that their test scores and transcripts are generally a work of fiction created by the very companies the colleges hire to find, er, “qualified” students.

Before and during their college experience,  many international students cheat every way they can–from lying on their applications, to  paying ringers to take college admissions or TOEFL tests, to cheating in class, to not even being students at all and just getting work visas–and when they are caught, they routinely wail that their cheating is totally okay in their own cultures, so how could they possible know?

Numerous reporters will hunt down academics to bleat reassuringly that oh, dear, it’s terrible, but not all international students cheat, but far fewer will mention the numerous studies demonstrating that it’s quite a lot of them, and always in greater percentages than domestic students.  The research that exists is far less interested in quantifying the impact of the cheaters on the rest of the university, and far more interested in explaining why they cheat and how they can be educated and encouraged to stop.

These often unqualified students with no understanding of American academic standards are just the seeds of Noah Smith’s grand plan to revitalize the Midwest. He wants many, many more of the same.  He wants American colleges to import millions more rich students from countries with a strong culture of student cheating and academic fraud. We’ll get them to plagiarize grant applications and produce a stream of federal funding that will run Potemkin research labs from Pocatello to Wheeling, the better to pull in start up companies to lie to venture capitalists about the great new product that some kid lied about to get an A in a senior seminar.

I’m not entirely kidding, either.  The degree to which universities are actively encouraging fraud in admissions and overlooking dishonesty and plagiarism to avoid upsetting international communities is shocking. Increasing the population would make a bad situation far worse.

Colleges have brought in far too many international students as it is. We should bring in less. I’m pleased the wave appears to be receding, although it has receded–and come back–before. I might not agree with Stephen Miller’s reasons for ending Chinese student visas, but bring it on. Ending Saudi Arabian student visas would be an inadequate, but painful, penalty for Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

One thing is certain: the mid-western townsfolk wouldn’t object to fewer middle-easterners. Or easterners, for that matter.

What should public universities do if states reduce their funding? They should reduce the number of students or reduce the number of services. Perhaps they could consider accepting only college ready students, insisting on students who could read at a tenth grade level and demonstrate mastery of second year algebra.  They might limit first year curriculum to a sequence of humanities and advanced math–put everyone in the same courses, leave variety to the following years. I feel sure there are ways to teach capable students more cost-effectively.

That approach may not revive moribund towns. But it wouldn’t flood them with international students who view the locals with contempt, either. Or turn them into mini-Vancouvers.

Rather than flooding the zone with federal dollars for research projects staffed by rich Chinese kids, we could use those same dollars to start vocational training centers. Maybe give grants to unemployed or unemployable to relocate and spend some money being trained in construction, in digital technology, auto mechanics and body work, and other skilled labor. That would stimulate the local economy. And if those trained left the area, well, there’d be more coming. Just like with college.

America has to start making do with its own people. It might not be easy.  It might not be better, at first. But it will certainly be fairer.








Homework: The Rules that Matter

While reading another carefully worded propaganda blast on the value of  homework, I thought of Pirates of the Caribbean, a splendid film that I’d remembered recently for my ELL class.

Research on homework, and debates about research on homework can’t really be taken seriously. It’s all more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. But the fundamentals of homework are very much a cascading series of Jack Sparrow’s “two rules that matter“. For high school, anyway–and if it’s not high school or beyond, it doesn’t matter.

So as long as we’re just hanging here, pay attention. The only rules that really matter are these:



“Homework” is practice, work that is assigned with the intent to improve fluency and understanding. Math homework is the most common sort, but there are also science lab notes, reading textbook notes, those idiotic shoebox assignments, collages, or any other sort of out-of-school activity that isn’t formal written expression or assessment.

“Corrupted” is a strong word for grading that is very much standard procedure in most high schools nationwide, but appropriately dramatic given the degree to which grades are used as a proxy for ability. Many teachers would be upset at this description of their usual practice; in this conversation of mostly college-level instructors, most of the participants acknowledge that many students do well on tests, but flunk or get a much lower grade because they don’t do the homework.  Others point out how absurd this is. At the high school level, far fewer are found in the second group.

Teachers have a wide, legally enforced latitude in grading, but districts and schools can institute policies that reduce options. Overwhelmingly, these policies take place in low income schools, where the students shrug off the Fs and the failure rates affect the graduation rates. District and school efforts to protect students from low grades due to homework take the shape of  forced incompletes,  banning zeros and sometimes banning graded homework altogether.  And the public always scoffs. Lazy kids these days.

District or school-imposed restrictions are not to be confused with parent-initiated drama fests about homework overload.

The research on homework almost all focuses on two questions: does homework improves academic performance? How much homework are students doing? (The latter issue, in particular, has been annoying American parents for decades.)

I’m not…terribly interested in either of those questions. The first, which most consider quite important, is specifically in conflict with a teacher’s responsibility to grade accurately. No one would ever assume that homework improvement is anything other than relative to student ability.

But grades aren’t relative. Teachers can’t grade homework without impacting students’ performance grade. They can’t.

And so  they shouldn’t.


I don’t do homework, and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about the primary damage done by homework’s corrupting impact on grades.

Grades, really, are the main issue. Grades in America are simply junk. I can’t stress this enough.  Research–never mention a moment’s reflection–reveals that in  Title I schools like mine, an A denotes a much lower performance than at a high-income high school.

No one’s interested in adequately assessing student merit across classrooms, much less school districts, much less cities, states, or countries, so laugh at anyone who declares passionately that Harvard and other private universities are discriminating against more worthy claimants, Asian or otherwise.  No one knows who the worthy claimants are, and no one’s interested in finding out.

But that’s a topic for another day.




The Case Against The Case Against Education: Toe Fungus Prevention

Part Three of my Caplan thoughts.


–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.


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.




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.


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.


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,


Braindumping the PSAT: A Few Questions for David Coleman

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


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


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

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

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

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

You really have to chuckle, don’t you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prima Donna Rock Star Tester Treatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a target SAT score?”

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

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

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

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

She got very still. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, hey now.

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

“How did you know?”

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

” I’m not nervous at all.”

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

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

So why the high error count, I asked.

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

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

“A prima donna?”

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


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

“That’s not even an hour.”

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

“Um. What?”

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

She giggled. “Really? What about reading?”

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


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

“How do you know this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if I get bored anyway?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluating the New PSAT: Math

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






44 MC, 10 grid

28 MC, 10 grid

60 MC 

40 MC, 8 grid


1: 20 q, 25 m 
2: 18 q, 25 m 
3: 16 q, 20 m

1: 20 q, 25 m 
2: 18 q, 25 m

1: 60 q, 60 m 

NC: 17 q, 25 m 
Calc: 31 q, 45 m

1: 1.25 mpq 
2: 1.38 mpq
3: 1.25 mpq

1: 1.25 mpq 
2: 1.38 mpq

1 mpq 

NC: 1.47 mpq 
Calc: 1.45 mpq

Number Operations 
Algebra & Functions
Geometry & Measurement
Data & Statistics


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question Organization

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Degree of Difficulty;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluating the New PSAT: Reading and Writing

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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





Word Count




Passage Count




Passage Length













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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Objective:

Style and Logic:


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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my evaluation of the math section.