Tag Archives: college admissions

GPA and the Ironies of Integration

Grade inflation, score stagnation reports USA Today.  47% of students are graduating with an A- or higher average (A- undefined, but presumably 3.7 or higher). Back in 1998, just 37% were graduating with similar marks. Meanwhile SAT scores have dropped. Inside Higher Education’s take was more skeptical of the SAT connection but covers a lot of the same bases.

Moreover, the SAT scores are stagnant, so these higher grades aren’t evidence of greater learning!  OK, yeah, the SAT isn’t the only college admissions test and it’s changed twice in 20 years. What’s happened to the other college admissions test, which has a larger test base and which has changed very little? Well, one of the researchers works for the College Board, see.


Yes, GPAs are going up. I suspect this is caused by several states banning affirmative action.

Pause. I’ll wait.

[Reader: wait, what What do high school grades have to do with affirmative action?  Affirmative action usually involves college admissions, not high school…oh, well, high school grades are used for college admissions. In fact, now that I think about it,  high school grades don’t really have any purpose save their use in  college applications. ]

Good, you’re caught up.

It appears that voters have given up banning affirmative action not because they approve of it, but because universities have made it clear they have no intention of abandoning their “pursuit of diversity” and the courts have said yeah, okay, we’ll let you And as this how-to guide for avoiding lawsuits makes clear, top of the “diversity strategies” that allow colleges to ignore the will of the voters is the “percent plan”, or taking in students based on their class ranking. Class ranking is set by GPA.

Texas, California, and Florida all created programs to guarantee admission to public colleges for top graduates from each high school in the state. At their most basic level, these programs generate geographic diversity. But since high schools are frequently segregated by class and racepercent plans also create socioeconomic and racial diversity by opening the door to graduates from under-resourced high schools. These are students who may never before have considered attending a major research university. (emphasis mine)

I don’t have any proof that AA is one reason why GPAs are increasing, and I got a bit distracted because frankly, I don’t care about GPA. No, that’s a lie. I care a lot about GPAs. I think they’re fricking evil, and I get a bit nauseous when someone bleats about how they reflect the virtue of hard work. Look, GPAs are worthless information. Grades aren’t even consistent from teacher to teacher, much less school to school, much less aggregated into one big nationwide chunk. Many teachers grade participation and homework on the same basis as tests–some are even required to boost or reduce demonstrated ability with effort or citizenship grades.  Tests are usually the teachers’ own creations. Some are terribly unfair, some are just terrible. And some are very good–so good, in fact, that the teachers reuse those tests year after year, and the students sell images of them to “tutoring services” and each other, thus rendering their goodness inert.

But I don’t really care why GPAs are rising. The italicized part of the paragraph–since high schools are frequently segregated by class and race–operated like a bright shiny object to distract me from an unpleasant subject.

Yes. Since most blacks and Hispanics go to majority black and Hispanic schools, the students with the highest GPAs will be black and Hispanic. Left unmentioned:  the standards will be lower than they are at majority white or majority Asian schools. Unmentioned but not unnoticed, obviously. If blacks and Hispanics were achieving at the same level, then no one would bother with affirmative action, much less banning it.

Evidence of the lower standards are a time-honored journalism time-killer; I wrote about the  Kashawn Campbell saga a few years ago as an example. But sob stories usually involve kids in the deepest of high poverty cases. Often the top 10% of an all URM low-performing high school will go on to decent colleges and do adequately. They might be the ones we read about who abandon STEM and go into an identity major, but a decent chunk of them are getting through the system that was rigged for them just as anticipated.

Still, these kids represent a  chilling inequity. The  de facto segregation that enable this faux meritocracy mean that the B and even C kids at almost any other type of school is more accomplished, on average.

Just recently I looked at African American participation in AP classes over the past 20 years. Mean scores dropped in almost every test, and scores of 1 saw the most growth.  Hispanics have similar stats. Beware any time someone brags about Hispanic AP pass rates–they have the Spanish Literature and Language tests boosting their scores. Whites and Asians…don’t.

Many black and Hispanic students are prepared and can pass the tests.  An open question, though, is whether the qualified kids are going to the schools that offer up the top 10%. I have my doubts.

But urban schools aren’t really playing GPA games–not consciously, anyway. They don’t have time. Other schools are a different story.

Majority URM charters, for example, have the same incentives as urban public schools–more, even, since what’s the point of charters if there’s no bragging to be done? Charters can be very subjective about grades. Other, more diverse (at least at first)  charters are progressive, designed for suburban parents in racially diverse school districts who aren’t quite wealthy enough for private school or houses in less racially diverse districts.

These suburban charters have another advantage. Remember Emily in Waiting for Superman? Emily’s public high school is in Woodside, California, one of the richest communities in the country. Woodside is considered a very strong school for those in the top track, offering a number of high performance classes that aren’t just open to anyone. Emily wasn’t considered strong enough for these classes, so she went to Summit, a school that’s very grateful for any donations. Think Emily got better grades at Summit?

I’ve written much about “Asian” schools (more than 50% Asian), as well as their selection of Advanced Placement class preferences, as well as the fact that their grades and test scores often seem acquired with no retention (and perhaps not acquired). Most of the students take 11 or 12 AP courses in a high school career, valedictorians have GPAs above 4.4, and they’re ten-way ties. Taking geometry freshman year is considered remedial.

But as both Toppo and Jaschik report, it’s predominantly wealthy and white schools, public and private, that have seen the most inflation.  I suspect that these schools have increased GPAs the most because grades were lower to begin with. These kids were once considered in an entirely different context from affirmative action admits. They had better course offerings, better teachers, stricter grades, but of course much higher test scores. Twenty years ago, affirmative action bans kicked in and Asian immigration skyrocketed. These parents began to realize the competitive disadvantage their children faced and I suspect started demanding more. Class rankings probably disappeared for similar reasons–their 40th percentile student achieves far more than the best students from urban schools. Don’t feel too bad for the students–remember, given a choice between a casually high-achieving rich white and an endlessly studying, grade-obsessed Bangladeshi immigrant who has been attending test prep since second grade, the white kid wins every time. Their parents write checks. Plus, legacy.

I know next to nothing about poor white rural schools. Reporters and colleges don’t care about them, and I don’t have any nearby to study.

So that’s all the “racially isolated” cases, be they URM, white, or Asian. What’s left? The Woodside Highs that Emily wanted to escape, at the high end, and schools like mine at the low end. The integrated schools.

Integrated high performing schools, in rich areas that can’t quite shut out the low income and middle class kids, are tracked without fear of lawsuits. Usually three tracks: high (mostly whites and Asians), medium (white boys and  strong URMs, but a mix of everything), low (almost entirely URM).  The rich parents will take their kids, and their money, elsewhere if they can’t be assured of high standards. There will be no talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, but nor will there be complaints  if the students are qualified.

Integrated low performing schools, like mine, can’t track and can’t assure high standards. There will be talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, and wholly unqualified kids are often plunked in despite loud protests from both teacher and students.

In lower performing integrated schools–stop, for a minute. I don’t mean these schools are terrible or that kids graduate incompetent. But these are schools that can’t really push high achievers hard, because of the racial imbalances that result and get them into  trouble. Asians dominate the top track. Their parents demand that their kids be put into advanced classes early, often look for ways they can test out of requirements. White parents in these schools are usually middle or lower class. While they’re often concerned about school, they aren’t planning on stressing the next four years. They’ve realized that their kids are probably going to spend two years at community college and hey, why fight about it? They know competing with the Asians is out–white kids rarely want academic achievement that badly, and their parents don’t blame them. White parents’ biggest fear is the contagion of low grades. Not only are there many other kids around failing classes, making summer school or repeating classes seem normal, but the teachers are used to giving Fs–in fact, sometimes they get in trouble if their Fs aren’t racially balanced. My guess:  white kids at integrated schools have seen relatively little GPA boost in the last 20 years.

Demographic footprints being what they are, Asians and white kids will still fill the top ten percent plans, leaving room only for really bright, accomplished black and Hispanic kids. Average black and Hispanic kids, who would shine at a majority URM school, are often getting Bs and Cs despite far better skills. This is a point I can speak to personally, having seen it often in test prep.  Black or Hispanic kids with low test scores and 3.9 GPAs from weak progressive charters, while those going to the local public schools have 2.5 or lower GPAs and much higher test scores.

So grades at integrated schools, whether high oer low performing, are a drag. At high performing schools, grades are intensely competitive. At lower performing schools ( these integrated low performing schools are a drag for everyone except Asian immigrant kids.  If Asian parents would stop cocooning, they could probably get much better results by spreading out around the country, ten to twenty a school. Enough to tie for valedictorian. But most of them appear to be doing their best to force racial isolation. Asian immigrants, at least, have little interest in attending integrated schools.

Of course, not all Asian kids fit this profile, just as many blacks and Hispanics pass AP tests in Calculus, US History, and Biology.

If I had to rank my personal preference, the rich white kid schools do some fine educating. All Asian schools and high performing integrated schools are joyless places, although the latter have some stupendous sports.

What the integration advocates want, I think, are what they see in progressive charters. Children of all abilities, working and playing together, learning at the same pace, earnest, hardworking, and virtuous. But charters are artificial environments. True integration would probably look something like my school. Poor black and Hispanic kids would get better educations, but worse grades. Colleges wouldn’t be able to get around affirmative action bans. High standards would be impossible unless we were allowed to track.

I do believe they call this a collective action problem.

Anyway. Grades are increasing because colleges are de-emphasizing test scores. Yes, this means they should be required to return to testing, but perhaps in such a way that Asians couldn’t game it? And as Saul Geiser suggests, perhaps criterion referenced tests would be better.

See why I loathe grades?

This is a bit disjointed; I’ve been having trouble focusing lately. I may rewrite it later.



Fake Grades and Big Money: The KIPP “Pledges”

So I wrote about an alternative college admissions plan and apparently all anyone thinks I did was diss Asians. I mean, come on, that’s not all I did. Besides, I am not looking to dramatically reduce the Asian population at elite universities; whites and Asians (and some blacks and Hispanics) more interested in mastery than performance (that is, interested in content, not grades) will benefit equally. Eliminating grades from admissions decisions doesn’t hurt Asians much, but it goes a long way to discontinuing a tacit conspiracy between majority URM high schools (charters and comprehensives both) and universities to commit and accept grade fraud.

As an example: In the last year, the KIPP charter network inked partnerships with a number of public and private universities, committing the latter to “recruiting” a certain number of “KIPP graduates”, including scholarships .

I put “KIPP graduates” in quotes because neither of the articles linked makes it clear what graduates are to be recruited. Remember, to the extent that KIPP has been deemed successful (my own caveats here), the road stops at middle school. KIPP does have high schools, but they aren’t anything to get worked up about, and are rarely mentioned in the raves.

So who are the universities promising to recruit—KIPP high school graduates, or KIPP middle school graduates, when they finish high school some four years later? This seems a non-trivial point, but neither of the two stories makes the distinction. This memo of understanding between KIPP and Syracuse provides the necessary information:

So KIPP middle school graduates go to a comprehensive public high school, or another charter high school, and will be recruited by universities bound by the pledge.

How would those logistics work, exactly? Would these universities otherwise not go to these (non-KIPP) high schools to recruit and are only recruiting the KIPP alumni through KIPP networks, ignoring the other students at the same schools? Or would they otherwise recruit from these schools schools but are now committed to make a certain percentage of the recruits KIPP alumni, thus decreasing the chances for strong students that didn’t ever attend KIPP? Does either one of those options sound particularly fair to the other kids at those schools unlucky enough to be chosen by KIPP alumni? And shouldn’t the reporters find out which of those unappealing alternatives the universities have committed to?

Of course, KIPP high schools are exactly the sort of majority URM schools that commit grade fraud.

Take a look at KIPP’s report card, in which they publish some of their high schools’ average SAT scores:

School Average SAT Score/ACT Composite AP Test Rate AP Pass Rate % Matriculating
KIPP Houston 1426 80%* 68% 97%
KIPP Pride (NC) 1399 56% 18% 94%
KIPP Delta (Ark) 18 89% 7% 89%
KIPP Newark 19 42% 2% 96%

Houston’s almost 1500 average is relatively impressive, but only considering the demographic. (That is, the “No Excuses” school of thought will have to accept an excuse.) The rest are exceptionally low. Of course, that’s an average. My guess is that the range of scores for any one school is narrow, because otherwise KIPP high schools are turning out blacks and Hispanics who have excellent SAT scores and not mentioning it. Yeah, unlikely. And of course, in that scenario, they are also turning out far below average candidates, even for blacks and Hispanics, and those students would likely have been “counseled out” of KIPP long ago. So it’s likely the students’ SAT scores are all clustered fairly tightly.

So here is exactly what I mean when I talk about grade fraud. I suppose it’s possible that these schools are handing out only Cs, Ds, and Fs to go along with those mediocre SAT/ACT scores. But more likely, many students are getting As and Bs in AP classes when in fact they can barely break 470 on any section of the SAT and are only passing AP tests *if they are Hispanics taking the AP Spanish test. If they’d been going to a suburban school would have been flunking most classes and never been allowed near AP classes unless the school had swallowed the Jay Mathews Koolaid. But on paper, they look impressive, and have all sorts of classes on their transcripts that give them cover for admission, particularly for public universities. Of course, they’ll end up in remediation, but so what? KIPP gets bragging rights.

I don’t know if KIPP alumni who went to other, non-KIPP high schools are doing better. KIPP did release the college graduation data as part of their College Completion Report, but not the average SAT score. As I’ve said before, call me cynical, but I think they would have released the average SAT scores if they’d been well above average for blacks and Hispanics.

In their high schools, at least, KIPP schools are not turning out stellar candidates, and whatever they are managing to teach them isn’t translating to college admissions test scores normally worthy of entry to Duke, Brown, Georgtown and other elite universities who signed a pledge. But because KIPP is the rock star of the charter movement and many of their donors are connected alumni to these prestigious universities, doors open to KIPP alumni not because they are academically superior, but because of KIPP’s connections.

Is that how it’s supposed to work? A few low income black and Hispanic kids benefit not because they got a better education, not because they are, in fact, better educated than kids who attend comprehensive schools, but because KIPP’s cachet gives them pull with the right people?

SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else

Whenever I read about SAT tutors charging in the hundreds of dollars, I’m curious. I know they exist, but I also know that I’m pretty damn good, and I’m not charging three figures per hour (close, though!). So I always read them closely to see if, in fact, these test prep tutors are super fab in a way that I’m not.

At the heart of all test prep stories lies the reporter’s implicit rebuke: See what rich people are doing for their kids? See the disadvantage that the regular folks operate under? You can’t afford those rates! You’re stuck with Kaplan or cheaper, cut-rate tutors! And that’s if you’re white. Blacks and Hispanics can’t even get that much. Privilege. It sucks.

And so the emphasis on the cost of the tutors, rather than any clear-eyed assessment of what, exactly, these tutors are doing that justifies an hourly rate usually reserved for low-end lawyers, never mind the fact that these stories are always about the SAT, when in fact the ACT is taken by as many kids as the SAT. The stories serve up propaganda more than they provide an accurate picture of test prep.

I’ve written before about the persistence of test prep delusions. Reality, summarized: blacks and Hispanics use test prep more than whites, Asians use it more than anyone. Rich parents are better off buying their kids’ way into college than obsessing about the last few points. Test prep doesn’t artificially inflate ability.

So what, in fact, is the difference between Lisa Rattray, test prep coach charging $300/hour; me, charging just short of 3 figures; and a class at Kaplan/Princeton/other SAT test prep schools?

Nothing much. Test prep coaches can work for a company or on their own. The only difference is their own preferences for customer acquisition. Tutors and instructors with a low risk tolerance just sign on with a company. Independent operators, comfortable with generating their own business, then pick their markets based on their own tolerance. My customers sit comfortably in the high income bracket, say $500K to $5 million yearly income, although I’ve worked with a couple Fortune 500 families. Lisa Rattray and Joshua Brown, the featured tutors, clearly work with families a couple notches up the income ladder from mine.

None of this has anything to do with quality of instruction. Test prep is a sales and marketing game. The research is clear: most kids improve at least a little, quite a few kids improve a lot, a very few kids stay put or, heaven forfend, get worse.

Obviously, instructor quality influences results a bit, but only rarely change a kid from one category (mild improvement) to another (major improvement). Remember, all test prep instructors have high test scores, and they’re all excellent at understanding how the test works. So they make career decisions based on their tolerance for sales and marketing, not the quality of their services. I know of some amazingly god-awful tutors who charge more than I do, having learned of them from their furious ex-clients who assumed a relationship between price and quality. These tutors have websites, business cards, offered their own prepared test materials, saw students in their rented space, and often accepted credit card deposits. I have none of these accoutrements, show up at my clients’ houses, usually but not always on time, and take checks. Every so often I get a client who whips out a wad of bills and pays me $500 in cash, which I find a tad unnerving.

I’m just as good now as I was at Kaplan (in fact, I privately tutored my own students while at Kaplan, tutoring theirs), but I only got paid $24/hour for Kaplan work, which charged about $125/hour for my services. Kaplan will (at least, when I worked there) boost a teacher’s hourly rate to $50/hour if they get 80% or more “perfect” customer ratings. Instructors who convinced their students that to respond to the online survey and give them excellent ratings got more money. This is independent of actual improvement. A customer who doesn’t improve at all but felt reassured and valued by her instructor could give straight 5s (or 1s, whatever the highest rating is). A customer who sees a 300 point improvement might not fill in the survey at all. Their research showed that customers who give their instructors perfect ratings gave awesome word of mouth and that was worth rewarding. Nothing else was. Asian cram schools pay instructors based on the students who sign up, with a premium for those who sign up specifically for that instructor. See? Sales and marketing.

Test prep companies, long castigated as the luxury option of the wealthy, have been the first choice of the middle class for a decade or more. For the reasons I’ve outlined, any parent can find excellent instructors in all the test prep companies: Kaplan, Princeton Review, Asian cram schools. They won’t brag about it, though, because these companies are about the brand. Kaplan doesn’t want word getting out that Joe Dokes is a great Kaplan instructor; it wants everyone to be happy with Kaplan. No one is “Princeton Review’s star tutor” for very long, because Princeton doesn’t like it and at that point, the most risk-averse instructor probably has enough word of mouth fame to go independent.

I’ve often advised my students to consider a class. The structure helps. Some of my kids don’t do any work unless I’m there, so what I end up doing is sitting there playing Spider on my android on my client’s dime while the kid works problems, rather than reviewing a bunch of work to move forward. I’m pretty sure Lisa and Joshua would celebrate this, going to the parent and pointing out how much they are helping. I have better things to do and other clients to see. So I tell the parents to fork out an extra thousand for a class, make sure the kid goes, and then we review the completed work. The student gets more hours, more focus and, usually, higher scores, regardless of the quality of the second instructor.

I’m not saying Lisa and Joshua are wrong, mercenary, or irresponsible. They just play to a different clientele, and a huge chunk of their ability to do so rests on their desire to sell an image. That’s fine. That’s just not me. Besides, Josh forks out $15K of his profit for a rental each summer. Lisa gets constant text messages from anxious parents. Also not me.

So you’re a white, middle class or higher parent with a teenager, worried about SAT scores. What do you do? Here are some guidelines. Recognize that GPA or parental income smacks down test scores without breaking a sweat. If Johnny doesn’t have a GPA of 3.8 or higher, elite universities are out of the question unless his parents are alumni or rich/connected enough to make it worth the school’s while.

If Sally qualifies on GPA, has a top-tier transcript (5 or more AP classes) and wants to go to a top 10 school, test scores should be 700 or higher per section. If they’re at that point, don’t waste your time or money or stress. At that point, the deciding factors aren’t scores but other intangibles, including the possibility that the admissions directors toss a pile of applications in the air and see which ones travel the farthest.

If Jesse is looking for a top 20 or 30 school, the GPA/transcript requirements are the same, but looking at the CDS of these schools, realistically a 650 or higher per section will do the trick. It might be worth boosting the test scores to low 700s, but if Jesse is a terrible tester, then don’t break the bank. One of the schools will probably come through.

If Sammy has a lower GPA (3.3 to 3.8) but excellent test scores (high 600s or higher per section) , then look to the schools in the middle–say, from 40 to 60. It’s actually worth spending money to maximize Sammy’s scores, because these mid-tier schools often get a lot of high effort hard workers with mediocre test scores. Not only will Sammy look good, but he might get some money. (By the way, if you’ve got a Sammy whose grades are much lower than his abilities, you should still push him into the hardest classes, even if he and the counsellors cavil. If your Sammy is like most of them, he’s going to get Bs and Cs regardless, so he may as well get them in AP classes and get some college credit from the AP tests. And the transcript will signal better, as well.)

The biggest bang for the test prep buck lies not in making kids competitive for admissions, but to help them test out of remediation at local universities. So if Austin has a 3.0 GPA, works hard but tests poorly, then find out the SAT cut score at his university. If he’s not above that point, then spend the money to get him there, and emphasize the importance of this effort to his college goals.

If your kid is already testing at 650 or higher, either send her to an Asian cram school (they will be the only white kid there, for the most part, but the instruction will be excellent) or invest in a tutor. The average white kid class at Kaplan or Princeton might have an instructor who can finetune for their issues, but probably won’t.

Otherwise, start with a class and supplement with a tutor if you can afford it. Ask around for good instructors, or ask the test prep company how long the instructor has been teaching. Turnover in test prep instructors is something like 75%; the 25% who stay long term do so because they’re good. As for the tutor, I hope I’ve convinced everyone that price isn’t an issue in determining quality. I would ask around for someone like me, because our ability to get a high rate without the sales and marketing suggests we must be, in fact, pretty good. And there’s always someone like me around. Otherwise, I’d go with the private tutoring options at a test prep company, with interviews.

As I said, these rules are for middle class or higher white kids. Only 6% of blacks and Hispanics get above 600 on any section of the SAT–in fact, the emphasis on GPA came about in large part to bypass the unpleasant reality of the score gap. There are only around 300 black students that get higher than 700 on two sections of the SAT. That’s barely enough blacks for one top ten school. Rules are very different. The main reason for blacks and Hispanics to take test prep is to get their scores above the remediation number. Middle class or higher Asians face much higher standards because universities know their (or their parents’) dedication to getting good grades and good test scores is more than a tad unnatural and probably overstates their value to the campus. Athletes and artists of note play by different rules. Poor whites and poor Asians have it really, really tough.

What this means, of course, is that the kids in the Hamptons are probably already scoring 700 or higher per section and are, consequently, wasting their time. But what the hell, they’re doing the economy some good. Or maybe some of them are Asian.

Note: I wrote this focusing on the SAT but it all applies to the ACT as well, and the ACT is a much better test. I wrote about the ACT here.

What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

I couldn’t find anything terribly wrong with this Ed Week article. But it didn’t offer anything terribly useful, either,so I thought I’d offer up some facts that might do some good.

Historically, the ACT was the test for the Midwest and South, and the SAT was the test for the coasts, but after the 2005 SAT changes, the ACT’s test population caught up. Both tests are given to around 1.6 million students.

Test Content

The ACT tests the same fact base as the SAT. It’s about 20 minutes shorter than the SAT, although it has far more questions and four sections:”

  • English: 45 minutes, 5 passages of 15 questions.
  • Math: 60 minutes, 60 questions.
  • Reading: 35 minutes, 4 passages of 10 questions.
  • Science: 35 minutes, 7 passages of 4-8 questions (40 total).

The ACT section times are brutal, which is why the ACT benchmarks purporting to report on college readiness should be taken with a healthy dose of salt. In my view, they dramatically underreport the reading, science, and (to a lesser extent) math ability of the lower to mid-range “college” students (keeping in mind that these kids shouldn’t be in college anyway, but that’s a different story).

Each section is scored on a scale of 1-36. The sections are then averaged for a Composite score, which is every bit as useless, really, as the SAT total. Colleges use the section scores far more than is generally known for placement in or out of remediation.

How do you convert ACT scores to SAT?

The University of California used to offer a direct conversion. One sign of the ACT’s growing popularity is that both tests are now converted to a “UC score”.
Roughly, a 21 on any section is the ability equivalent of a 500 on the SAT, a 26 is a 600, and a 31 a 700. However, a one to one combination isn’t possible, with 4 ACT sections and 3 SAT sections.

The UC conversion adds two-thirds of the math/reading/science total to the English/writing combined score. This weights the converted score towards English–rather unfairly, in my view, but not enough to do serious damage.

Which is more closely aligned to school curriculum

Both test knowledge and abilities that students should have mastered in school; the ACT doesn’t directly test science, but content knowledge will make the questions more familiar. The ACT also tests slightly more math: trigonometry, analytic geometry (circle and ellipse equations), and the occasional matrix question. Neither tests specific content knowledge in history, science, or English; for some reason, people say the ACT does. They are wrong.

Which test should students take?

Most students will score in roughly the same percentile on each test. However, some students have strong preferences for the ACT.

Low to mid-tier students are almost always better off with the ACT, something that I wish more do-gooder organizations understood. Much of the SAT’s difficulty is front-loaded–a big challenge in many questions is simply figuring out what the question is. The ACT actually tests more material but its questions are more straightforward. Any student who prefers the concrete to the abstract should consider the ACT, and most low to mid ability students will have a preference for the concrete. However, see the caveat below regarding reading abilities.

Students with SAT section scores in the high 600s/low 700s should always check out the ACT. The 2005 SAT changes reduced the number of questions in each section by 10%, and the cuts were primarily from the higher-difficulty questions. Many students in the mentioned range are every bit as bright as those getting 760+ scores, but are less detail-oriented, and usually make a few unforced errors. They used to make up the difference with their performance on the really difficult problems. Fewer difficult problems, slightly lower scores. (I am nearly certain that the reduced number of questions caused the decline noted when the SAT was changed in 2005.)

The ACT has far more questions than the SAT–215 to 171–and has no “guessing penalty”, which gives high ability students who make the occasional unforced error a significant advantage. To give an example: my son took the old SAT as an early junior and got 690 M, 660 V. I expected him to get high 600s, low 700s on the new one, which he took in March 2005. He received 630s across the board. After working on his accuracy, he took it again and received a 690,690, 670, or 2050.

His ACT scores were English 34, Math 34, Reading 36 (a perfect score), Science 29, which in SAT terms is high 700s across the board, or a 2250 using the UC conversion. At his performance level, that’s a huge boost. I have other anecdotal evidence, but they aren’t my kids so I can’t discuss specifics. Without question, all high ability kids should take both to see if they have a preference.

If taking both, which prep class should I take?

High ability students: take the SAT prep course. First, there are exponentially more SAT classes than ACT, even now. Asians, the primary consumers of test prep courses, don’t seem to take the ACT much (at least around here). Another major consumer, schools offering classes for their own students, also seem ignorant of the ACT.

Moreover, moving from the SAT to the ACT is far more organic than the other way round; the SAT has far more tricks and tidbits that a good test prep teacher can help with. Practicing for the ACT is little more than learning how to work fifty times faster on everything or, if that’s not possible, devising a strategy for getting as much done as possible. Did I mention the brutal timing requirements of the ACT? Oh, well, it bears repeating.

Low to mid-ability students: anyone planning a class aimed to low income, low ability students should select the ACT. Students with weaker abilities will receive more useful instruction, as it has fewer test-specific tricks and the test prep instructor will spend more time on content.

Who Shouldn’t Take the ACT?

The ACT is reading intensive–three of the four tests involve reading comprehension and two of those sections have (here it is for the third time) brutal time requirements. Students whose reading skills are significantly out of alignment with their other abilities (e.g., dyslexia, reading LDs), may want to stick with the SAT.

Why Chris Hayes Fails

Chris Hayes has a book to sell and guilt to expunge. The poor lad feels guilty that he benefited from the Evil Mostly White Meritocracy:

But the problem with my alma mater is that over time, the mechanisms of meritocracy have broken down. In 1995, when I was a student at Hunter, the student body was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Not coincidentally, there was no test-prep industry for the Hunter entrance exam. That’s no longer the case. Now, so-called cram schools like Elite Academy in Queens can charge thousands of dollars for after-school and weekend courses where sixth graders memorize vocabulary words and learn advanced math. Meanwhile, in the wealthier precincts of Manhattan, parents can hire $90-an-hour private tutors for one-on-one sessions with their children.

By 2009, Hunter’s demographics were radically different—just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the New York Times. With the rise of a sophisticated and expensive test-preparation industry, the means of selecting entrants to Hunter has grown less independent of the social and economic hierarchies in New York at large. The pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and cultural capital.

Here, Hayes is relying on the cheapest and most meretricious of the education myths: the rich have the ability to improve their test scores, SAT or otherwise, through expensive test prep, while the low income blacks and Hispanics do not. The higher scores are not genuine, and thus the acceptance is not truly meritocratic.

There’s just one tiny glitch in this mythology:

Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to use test prep than whites. Cite, cite, and oh look, this cite has a table:

Use of Test-Prep Courses and Gains, by Race and Ethnicity

Group % Taking Test-Prep Course Post-Course Gain in Points on SAT
East Asian American 30% 68.8
Other Asian 15% 23.8
White 10% 12.3
Black 16% 14.9
Hispanic 11% 24.6

The idea that blacks and Hispanics don’t have access to test prep is some sort of delusion that all the reality in the universe can’t shake out of progressives.

Within a ten mile radius of my home, at least 10 organizations are dedicated to providing free test prep, college admissions advice, and academic support to low income, first generation college blacks and Hispanics. Double the radius and the count will be in the dozens, if not hundreds–as it probably is anywhere in America. Any low-income black or Hispanic who wants SAT/ACT test prep and thinks he or she can’t afford it is the victim of criminally ignorant high school advisors–and the facts suggest that this isn’t a big problem.

Low income whites are a different story; few charitable organizations are dedicated to improving their test scores. Of course, given that low income whites trounce high income blacks on the SAT (Cite, cite, and
cite), I guess maybe organizations figure there’s no point making the gap worse? But of course, the very fact that poor whites outscore wealthy blacks pretty much kills whatever remained of Hayes’ theory about the test score advantage of the rich and powerful.

Furthermore, as Steve Sailer and commenters to Hayes’ article point out, Hayes complete ignores another reality: the huge shift in Hunter College High School demographics isn’t so much from low income to high income, but from whites to Asians.

If you read of a school that’s suddenly moved to elite status or seen a dramatic rise in test scores (e.g., AIPCS), or heard that a test prep process has gotten out of control, it’s a sure thing that it’s become “an Asian school”, as we call them in my area. Once a school “goes Asian”, hitting a tipping point of about 40%, it’s a short step to 60-80%. Check out the top-scoring comprehensive high schools by SAT average, and the highest ones will be “asian schools”. They end up Asian because of white flight. It’s not that whites don’t like Asians, but their kids will lose access to AP/honors courses and get lower GPAs—not because they have lower abilities, but because the white parents haven’t managed to convince their kids that the world will end of they don’t get straight As. Donations, as a rule, decline with this demographic change, which is why wealthy school districts get more than a little annoyed when their schools are at risk of “going Asian”, and come up with all sorts of odd rules to discourage it (giving up class ranking or limiting AP grade bumps).

Hayes engages in yet another fiction (and that’s just in this excerpt!): that through test prep, the rich are distorting their abilities. The poor and the rich have similar abilities in a purely meritocratic world but thanks to test prep, the rich are making themselves look smarter, even though it’s a mirage.

Clearly, that can’t be true, or rich blacks would have higher test scores.

But here I will bring in personal experience in test prep. For the past nine years, I’ve been preparing students for the SAT, the ACT, the Subject tests (Math, Histories, English Lit), the high school admissions tests (HSPT, ISEE, SSAT), and all grad school tests except the MCAT (although this last not as much as I used to). I do this both through private instruction institutions (Kaplan in the past, an SAT academy now) and private tutoring (with rates in line with those in tony Manhattan, apparently). I work with Asians of all income levels, wealthy and upper income whites (as well as middle income whites in my Kaplan days), low income Hispanics, and low income African Americans.

In other words, unlike many people who yammer on about test prep, I actually have some experience preparing people of all races and all demographics for all sorts of tests, and will draw upon that experience to assert this as fact: test prep primarily helps people use their existing abilities more effectively. With some people, the bump is huge, with others it’s minimal, with still others, non-existent. In only a very few cases are students actually distorting their abilities by improving their test scores, but rather showing their abilities in the best possible light.

Is it possible to game the test, to prep so much that the score is a blatant misrepresentation? Yes, but it’s rare. The people who are most likely to do this are not the rich of any color, who can buy their way into whatever school they want. And it’s not low income blacks or Hispanics, who I’ve coached and seen huge increases that still only bring the majority of the kids to just below national averages. It’s certainly not middle-class or low income whites, who are clearly the least likely to even use test prep.

No, the students who might be actually distorting their abilities through test prep would most likely be Asian. (Please note that this statement is only assuming such distortion is possible.) I work at an Asian SAT “cram school”, teaching book clubs and math enrichment. Their parents call it “SAT school”, even though the kids are rising freshmen and sophomores for book club, and rising seventh and eighth graders for geometry, because as far as the parents are concerned, the kids are doing this as part of a five year program to improve their SAT scores. Junior summer, they are in SAT boot camp: 20 hours a week (plus a test) for 10 weeks in the summer, and then Saturday school until the test.

The kids I’m working with, dozens of hours per year, aren’t distorting their abilities, but going through all that work for the last 10 or 20 points possible of their score range. That’s leaving aside the Korean cram schools, which somehow enable kids with limited English skills to score an 800 on the SAT reading section. Now that, I would argue, is distortion.

Unfortunately for Hayes, though, these Asians aren’t rich. Wrong again.

Hayes is correct about one thing, though: the elites are locking out the hoi polloi from highest-level institutions. But it takes a real ignorance to pretend that the rich are doing this because of over-reliance on test scores or test prep, as opposed to buying their way in, using their powerful networks to only hire from the “right” schools, and the fuzzy math of the “holistic” evaluation process. Give me test scores any day.

The problem with fraudulent grades

A while back I wrote a rant about homework and grades and the impact that the former has on the latter. In that case, I was primarily referring to the many students who fail or get low grades despite reasonable demonstrated ability.

But the flip side of that, particularly in urban schools and majority-minority charters, are the students who get As for little more than working hard. Some of them find out in college, like Darryl Robinson, who got a full ride to Georgetown despite weak academic skills. Some of them find out when they sign up for SAT test prep, like Angela Lopez.

For the past 8 years, I’ve taught a spring ACT prep class to underprivileged kids. Certain clear patterns emerge. Assume that the students in these next paragraphs are Hispanic.

On average, the best-prepared pool of students in my class, year after year, come from the comprehensive high schools, whose demographics are usually 65-35 Hispanic to white. These students are usually in Calculus or Pre-Calc, and in AP or IB programs. Their skills are in line with their transcripts. The weaker comprehensive high school students in my class have transcripts with GPAs below 2.0, and are in Geometry or even Algebra. Their skills are usually stronger than their transcripts.

The students from two charter schools fill out the middle and bottom tiers of my classes—with the occasional rock star as an exception. One charter is a well-regarded chain. The kids’ transcripts aren’t outright lies; most of them are in Geometry or Algebra II as juniors. They’re on the low end of the achievement spectrum, and have abilities equivalent with the low-end students from the comprehensive schools, but with better GPAs.

The other charter, sponsored by the local Super Prestigious University, routinely provides the least-prepared, weakest students in the class, with a shocking disconnect between abilities, transcripts and grades. As a rule, the strongest kids from this school are barely average in my class, while the weakest kids are clearly outclassed by the low-performing comprehensive school students, even though on paper, the charter school students are 2-3 years ahead in math and science.

Yet the kids from the university charter school are just as likely to be accepted to the top universities as the top kids from the comprehensive schools, despite huge gaps in demonstrated ability. Needless to say, they are far more likely to gain access to good schools than the kids from the corporate charter or the lower-ability kids from the comprehensive schools, even though the latter have equivalent or better abilities.

Lying gets the job done. Majority minority schools, either charter or comprehensive, frequently deliver watered-down courses and grade more on effort and “social justice” than ability*. Their students, armed with fraudulent transcripts, get into decent or excellent schools and then are shocked to learn how little they know. That’s what happened to both Darryl and Angela; Angela’s adviser, Pablo, might have made his students feel better, but that reassurance isn’t helping her reading scores.

Some of the students I run into from these schools are like Angela—at worst, mildly discombobulated by the realization that, far from being top students, they’re distressingly close to the bottom. A few minutes with a cheerleader like Pablo is enough to banish all fears. They don’t improve much, but are convinced it won’t matter. They embrace the lie. I worry they are mostly doomed at college.

A few students have known they’ve been lied to, but are willing to accept the lie to improve their prospects. Aware that their transcripts and grades are a scam, they’re secretly terrified at what they will learn when taking the ACT or the SAT, since those tests won’t lie about their abilities. And yet they step up to reality, grit their teeth at the early practice scores and work through their fear to get the best score they can. These kids, I would slit a vein for. Happily, they almost always improve modestly, and their delight at these relatively small bumps is one of the great rewards of the job. While not one of them has ever been a super-star, they were all accepted into state schools with realistic goals and a realistic shot of making it through remedial classes.

But every so often I get a student who didn’t know it was a lie and can’t accept the rationalizations that worked for Angela. These are the ones that give me nightmares. I’d rather Angela’s smug acceptance of her inferior abilities than the despair of a kid who suddenly has to face the fact that his entire self-image as a star student has been a lie. The three students I’ve seen in this category all gave up on trying to improve their scores. All of them went on to college, one of them probably graduated. But emotionally, the discovery of their true abilities just wrecked them and it was painful to watch.

Some people read this story and think that, with a proper education, these kids could have really been ready for college. I disagree. The Super Prestigious University charter has, on one notable occasion, turned out a genuinely high-achiever—an illegal immigrant who had been in this country only 4 years when I met him, who got a 1900 on the SAT and a 27 composite on the ACT. Now, he came to the school with strong record of real achievement, but the school taught him advanced math and improved his reading and writing skills. Why? Because he was a bright kid who could take advantage of the education.

When you read of the Darryls and Angelas, it’s best to assume that their weak skills are a product of cognitive abilities that just aren’t up to more. The problem isn’t that they were capable of more, but that their teachers and schools lied to them. That may not always be the case—If Darryl isn’t exaggerating, then he’s managing calculus and biology at the college level. I’d want to know his SAT scores to be sure. But most of the kids in these cases are of below average intellect, hard workers who were fed a fraud.

But of course, it’s much easier to blame the teachers.

One more thing to chew on: The Angelas and Darryls will often be pulled through school by virtue of a huge, expensive support system, similar to the one that is helping Dasmine Cathay, a mediocre, illiterate football player who will quite possibly graduate from his Tennessee state college. This support system just perpetuates the fraud through college, further devaluing the high school degree.

But if you think the support system that hauls low-level kids to a college degree is the right idea, remember this: the kids from comprehensive high schools that I described above, the ones with stronger skills and better test scores but a terrible GPA, (thanks to teachers who, like the charters, grade on homework but have far less compliance) will probably end up in community college if they’re lucky. They will see little in the way of a support system and few people will call them to make sure they get to class.

I am not convinced that we should be doling out support so unevenly, and I am certain that students should not benefit from greater support simply because their schools were willing and able to lie about their abilities.

*While I’m picking on majority-minority schools here, a similar problem is found in suburban progressive charters, which mouth platitudes about diversity and social justice but are primarily interested in boosting white middle-achiever college prospects by inflated transcripts and grades. The parents of these students are a big part of their donation base.