Tag Archives: testing

The Challenge of Black Students and AP Courses

When the bell rings at Wheaton North High School, a river of white students flows into Advanced Placement classrooms. A trickle of brown and black students joins them. —The Challenge of Creating Schools That Work for Everybody, Catherine Gewertz

Gewertz’s piece is one of a million or so outlining the earnest efforts of suburban schools to increase their  black and Hispanic student representation in AP classes. And indeed, these efforts are real and neverending. I have been in two separate schools that have been mandated in no uncertain terms to get numbers up.

But the data does not suggest overrepresentation. I’m going to focus on African American representation for a few reasons. Until recently, the College Board split up Hispanic scores into three categories, none of them useful, and it’s a real hassle to combine them. Moreover, the Hispanic category has an ace in the hole known as the Spanish Language test. Whenever you see someone boasting of great Hispanic AP scores, ask how well they did in non-language courses. (Foreign language study has largely disappeared as a competitive endeavor in the US. It’s just a way for Hispanic students to get one good test score, and Chinese students to add one to their arsenal.)

College Board data goes back twenty years, so I built a simple table:


I eliminated foreign language tests and those that didn’t exist back in 1997. It’s pretty obvious from the table that the mean scores for each test have declined in almost every case:


Enter a caption

While the population for each test has increased, it’s been lopsided.


It’s not hard to see the pattern behind the increases. The high-growth courses are one-offs with no prerequisites. It’s hard to convince kids to take these courses year after year–even harder to convince suburban teachers to lower their standards for that long. So put the kids in US History, Government–hey, it’s short, too!– and Statistics, which technically requires Algebra II, but not really.

The next three show data that isn’t often compiled for witnesses. I’m not good at presenting data, so there might be better means of presenting this. But the message is clear enough.

First,  here’s the breakdown behind the test growth. I took the growth in each score category (5 high, 1 low) and determined its percentage of the overall growth.


See all that blue? Most of the growth has been taken up by students getting the lowest possible score. Across the academic test spectrum, black student growth in 5s and 4s is anemic compared to the robust explosion of  failing 1s and 2s. Unsurprisingly, the tests that require a two to three year commitment have the best performace. Calc AB has real growth in high scores–but, alas, even bigger growth in low scores. Calc BC is the strongest performance. English Lang & Comp has something approaching a normal distribution of scores, even.

Here you can see the total scores by test and category. Calc BC and European History, two of the tests with the smallest growth, have the best distributions. Only four tests have the most scores in the 1 category; most have 2 as their modal score.


The same chart in 2016 is pretty brutally slanted. Eight tests now fail most students with a one, just four have a two. Worst is the dramatic drop in threes. In 1997, test percentages with 3 scores ranged from 10-38%. In 2016, they range from 10-20%. Meanwhile, the 4s and 5s are all well below 10%, with the cheery exception of Calculus BC.


Jay Mathews’ relentless and generally harmful push of Advanced Placement has been going strong since the 80s, even if the  Challenge Index only began in 1998. So 1997’s result include a decade of “AP push”. But the last 20 years have been even worse, as Jay, Newsweek, and the Washington Post all hawked the Index as a quality signifier: America’s Best High Schools! Suddenly, low-achieving, high-minority students had a way to bring some pride to their schools–just put their kids in AP classes.

As I wrote a couple years ago, this effort wasn’t evenly distributed. High achieving, diverse suburban high schools couldn’t just dump uninterested, low-achieving students (of any race) into a class filled with actually qualified students (of any race). Low achieving schools, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. Just dub a class “Advanced Placement” and put some kids in it. Most states cover AP costs, often using federal Title I dollars, so it’s a cheap way to get some air time.

African American AP test scores don’t represent a homogeneous population, and you can see that in the numbers.  Black students genuinely committed to academic achievement in a school with equally committed peers and qualified teachers are probably best reflected in the Calculus BC scores, as BC requires about four years of successful math. Black students dumped in APUSH and AP Government  are the recourse of diverse suburban schools not rich enough to ignore bureaucratic pressure to up their AP diversity.  They are taking promising students with low motivation and putting them in AP classes. This annoys the hell out of the parents and kids who genuinely want the rigorous course, and quite often angers the “promising” students, who are known to fail the class and refuse to take the test. The explosion of 1s across the board comes from the low-achieving urban schools who want to make the Challenge Index and don’t have any need to keep the standards high.

Remember each test costs $85 and test fees are waived by taxpayers for students who can’t afford them.  Consider all the students being forced, in many cases, to take classes they have no interest in.  Those smaller increases in passing scores are purchased with considerable wasted time and taxpayer expense.

But none of this should be news. Let’s talk about the real challenge of black students and AP scores and methods to fix the abuses.

First, schools and students should be actively restricted from using the AP grade “boost” for fraudulent purposes. The grades should be linked to the test scores without exception. Students who receive 4s and 5s get an A, even if the teacher wants to give a B1. Students who get a 3 receive a B, even if the teacher wants to give an A2 . Students who get a 2 receive a C. Students who get a 1 or who don’t take the test get a D–which, remember, will be bumped to a C for GPA purposes. This sort of grade link, first suggested by Saul Geiser (although I’ve extended it to the actual high school grade) would dramatically reduce abuse not only by predominantly minority schools, but also by all students  gaming the AP system to get inflated GPAs. That should reduce a lot of the blue in this picture:


Then we should ask a simple question: how can we bump those yellows to greys? That is, how can we get the students who demonstrated enough competence to score a 2 on the AP test to get enough motivation and learning to score a 3?

I’ve worked in test prep for years with underachieving blacks and Hispanics, and now teaching a lot of the kids not strong enough or not motivated enough to take AP classes. My school is under a great deal of pressure to get more low income, under-represented minorities in these classes as well (and my school administration is entirely non-white, as a data point). A couple years ago, I taught a US History course that resulted in four kids being “tagged” for an advanced placement class the next year–that is, they did so well in my class, having previously shown no talent or motivation, that they were put in AP Government the next year. I kept in touch with one, who  got an A in the class and passed the test.

My advice to my own principal, which I would repeat to the principal in Gewertz’s piece, is to create a class full of the promising but unmotivated students, separate from the motivated students. Give them a teacher who will be rigorous but low key, who won’t give much homework, who will focus on skill improvement in class. (ahem. I’m raising my hand.) Focus on getting the kids to pass the test. If they pass, they will get a guaranteed B in the class, which will count as an A for GPA purposes. (Even if the College Board doesn’t change the rules, schools can guarantee this policy.)

This strategy would work for advanced placement classes in English, history, government, probably economics.  It could work for statistics. Getting unmotivated kids to pass AP Calculus may be more difficult, as it would involve using the strategy consistently for 3 years with no test to guarantee a grade.

The challenge of increasing the abilities and college-readiness of promising but not strongly motivated students (of any race) lies in understanding their motives. Teachers need to give their first loyalty to the students, not the content. Traditional AP teachers are reluctant to do this, and I don’t think they should be required to change. But traditional AP teachers are, perhaps, not the best teachers for this endeavor.

In order for this proposal to get any serious attention, however, reporters would have to stop pretending that talented black students aren’t taking AP courses. The data simply doesn’t support that charge. We are putting too many black students into AP courses. Too many of them are completely unfit, have remedial level skills that high schools aren’t allowed to address. Much of the growth of Advanced Placement has relied on this fraud–and again, not just for black students.

It’s what we do with the kids in the middle, the skeptics, the uncertain ones, the ones who dearly want to be proven wrong about their own skills, that will help us improve these dismal statistics.

1I can’t even begin to tell you how many teachers in suburban districts do this.
2The same teachers who give students with 4s and 5s Bs are also prone to giving As to kids who got 3s. But of course, this is also the habit of teachers in low achieving urban districts. Consider this 2006 story celebrating the first two kids ever to pass the AP English test, and wonder how many of the students got As notwithstanding.

The false god of elementary school test scores

Rocketship Academy wants to go national. Rocket Academy is a hybrid charter school chain that focuses solely on getting low income Hispanic elementary school students to proficiency. (Note: Larry Cuban has some excellent observations from his visit to a Rocketship Academy.)

First things first: I’ve checked the numbers every way I can think of, and Rocketship’s numbers are solid. They don’t have huge attrition problems that I can see. They are, in fact, getting 60% or higher proficiency in most test categories, and the bulk of their students are Hispanic, many of them not proficient in English. Of course, that brings up an interesting question–if they are proficient on the ELA tests, why aren’t they considered proficient in English? But I digress.

The larger point is this: getting high test scores on California’s elementary school math tests ain’t all that much to get worked up about. Here’s some data from the 2011 California Standards test in math:

I used two standards, because the NCLB obsession with “Proficient and higher” is, to me, moronic. I prefer Basic or higher. The blue line is the percentage of all California in grades 2-9 scoring Basic or higher in General Math, the red is the percentage of same scoring Proficient or higher.

So it gets a bit tricky here, because after 6th grade, the entry to algebra varies. In order to simplify it slightly, I’m ignoring the seventh grade algebra track (call it “accelerated advanced” path), which is about 40,000 students this year, fewer in previous years.

I combined 8th and 9th grade students in General Math and attached that result to the red and blue lines.

Then I separated two groups–the ones who took algebra in 8th grade, and the ones who took algebra later than that. The first group are those who entered algebra in 8th grade, passed it, and continued on the “average advanced” course path, culminating with Calculus senior year. The second group are those who took algebra for the first, second, or third time in high school and then continued on. For each group, I calculated percentages for Basic + and Proficient +.


  1. Through grade 6, the scores represent all students. In grade 7 and 8/9, general math scores reflect only those students who haven’t moved onto algebra. That’s probably why the proficiency levels drop to 50% and lower for the last two groups.In other words, the green and purple lines represent the advanced track students–most, but not all of the the strong algebra and higher math students. The turquoise and orange lines represent the weaker students taking algebra and higher.
  2. Roughly 80% of all students test at Basic or higher from second through sixth grade.
  3. Over 70% of the strong studentws test at Basic or higher from algebra through “summative math” (taken for all subjects after Algebra 2).
  4. The percentage of students testing proficient from second through sixth grade starts at 65%, rises slightly, and then drops steadily.
  5. In no course do more than 50% of the strong students in algebra and higher achieve a score of Proficient or higher.
  6. In no course do more than 50% of the weaker students in algebra or higher achieve a score of Basic or higher.

So the chart reveals that all California second through sixth graders, high and low ability, averaged higher scores on their tested subject than the strongest high school students did.

I used 2011 scores, and I may have made a minor error here or there, but the fall off has been in the scores for several years now, and it’s easy enough to check.

What could cause this? Why are California’s elementary school students doing so phenomenally well, and then fall apart when they get to high school? Let’s go through the usual culprits.

California’s high school math teachers suck.–Well, in that case, there’s not much point in demanding higher standards for math teachers, because California’s high school math teachers have had to pass a rigorous content knowledge test for over 20 years. California’s elementary school teachers have to pass a much easier test–which is much harder than anything they had to pass before 2001. In other words, try again.

The teachers aren’t covering the fundamentals! So when the students get to algebra, they aren’t prepared.–But hang on. Elementary school kids, the ones being taught the fundamentals, are getting good test scores. What evidence do you have that they aren’t being taught properly?

Well, they’re only getting good test scores because the tests are too easy!—dingdingding! This is a distinct possibility. Perhaps the elementary tests aren’t challenging enough. Having looked at the tests, I’m a big believer in this one. I think California’s elementary math tests, through seventh grade, are far less challenging to the tested elementary school population than are the general math and specific subject tests are to the older kids. (On the other hand, the NAEP scores show this same dropoff.)

However, while that might explain the disparity between the slower track math student achievement and elementary school, it doesn’t adequately address why the students in the “average advanced” track aren’t achieving more than 50% proficiency, does it?

Trigonometry is harder than memorizing math facts–We should take to heart the Wise Words of Barbie. Math achievement will fall off as the courses get more challenging. Students who excelled at their times tables and easily grasped fractions might still struggle with complex numbers or combinatorics.

So if you ask me—and no one does. Hell, no one has even really noticed the fall-off—it’s a combination of test design and subject difficulty.

Whatever the reason, the test score falloff has enormous implications for those who are banking on Rocketship Academy, KIPP, and all those other “proven” charters that focus exclusively on elementary school children.

Elementary school test scores are false gods. We have no evidence that kids who had to work longer school days simply to achieve proficiency in fifth grade reading and math will be, er, “shovel ready” for algebra and Hamlet. KIPP’s College Completion Report made no mention of its college students SAT scores, or indeed made any mention of demonstrated ability (e.g., AP tests), and color me a cynic, but I’m thinking they’d have mentioned both if the numbers were anything other than dismal.

So let’s assume that those Rocketship scores are solid (and I do). So what? How will they do in high school? Where’s the follow through? Everyone is banking on the belief that we can “catch them early”. Get kids competent and engaged while they are young, and it all falls into place.

Fine. Just let me know when the test scores back up that lovely vision.

Added in January 2014: Well, hey now. Growing Pains for Rocketship’s Blended-Learning Juggernaut.

Alas, it seems that Rocketship’s scores are declining, their model doesn’t scale, they are making decisions based on cost rather than learning outcomes and, my FAVORITE part:

Lynn Liao, Rocketship’s chief programs officer, said the organization has also received troubling feedback on how students educated under the original blended learning model fare in middle school.

“Anecdotal reports were coming in that our students were strongly proficient, knew the basics, and they were good rule-followers,” Ms. Liao said. “But getting more independence and discretion over time, they struggled with that a lot more.”

That graven image gets you every time, doesn’t it?

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 Gap in the GRE

(For those who have better things to do than ponder GRE scores, this post will make more sense if you know that around four percent of all GRE testers achieve the highest score of 800 on the quant (math) section, while just 2-3% of all testers get over 700 on the verbal section.)

Razib Khan, building on his previous work, correlates GRE verbal and math scores by intended major into a stunningly cool graphic. Many commenters, both at Khan’s and Steve Sailer’s site observed the sizable gap between quant and verbal averages, repeated the amateur’s conventional wisdom that foreign testers, particularly Asians, are the cause.

This may be a small point, but could everyone please take note so they don’t irritate me with gormless speculation: verbal scores on standardized tests have been lower than math scores for forty years or more. High verbal scores are extremely rare; high math scores are, in comparison, common.

First up, Sex, Race, Ethnicity, and Performance on the GRE General Test provides GRE scores broken down by nationality for the year 2001-2002 (first year of the last change):

About 3% of US born testers get anywhere close to 700 on the verbal section. And just to forestall the next objection, no, it’s not URM scores that are dragging the average down, either:

(This is US citizens only).

In this year, at least, white women are 50% of the tested population; white men another 27%. This makes sense; most of the high volume, low academic barrier grad school specialities are white women jobs (teachers, social workers, nurses). That also explains the rather sizable gap between the genders; men who take the GRE are at least as likely to be testing into a hard sciences speciality as they are into teaching. But again, it’s clear that about 10-12% of whites or US testers are getting over 600 on the verbal.

This isn’t a recent development, as the score history from 1965 on shows:

(Source: NCES, and you can see all the scores through 2007 there).

From 1965-69, verbal and math scores had roughly the same average, although math had the greater standard deviation, which should mean that there were more 800s in math than in verbal. In the lax 70s, both verbal and math scores declined, although verbal scores dropped far more. In the “A Nation at Risk” 80s, math scores rebounded and exceeded the good old days (some of that growth, no doubt, attributable to the increased Asian presence). Verbal scores never did.

The GRE was originally a knockoff of the SAT, and the same decline in verbal scores can be seen through these years. Math scores didn’t take much of a dive during this time, interestingly enough.

None of this decline is news; Murray and Herrnstein’s Bell Curve first made the data available, I think. But it shows that long before Asians became overrepresented in college tests, verbal GRE scores have been low, and high verbal scores have always been rarer than math. You can see the same gap between verbal and math in the GMAT, and MCAT science scores are far higher than the verbal section. The LSAT doesn’t test math and I couldn’t find a breakdown of section scores. I coached the LSAT, though, and distinctly remember reading in the company manual (which I’ve since tossed) that, while most testers think the logic games was the most difficult, the reading section had the lowest average score. Can’t find any data confirming or denying that memory, unfortunately.

Why do we appear to have fewer high verbal achievers than math achievers? I think Murray and Herrnstein were correct when they wrote that “a politically compromised curriculum is less likely to sharpen the verbal skills of students than one that hews to standards of intellectual rigor and quality” annd that “when parents demanded higher standards, their schools introduced higher standards in the math curriculum that really were higher, and higher standards in the humanities and social sciences that really were not”. (Bell Curve, page 432-433) Without question, we have lost a couple generations of cognitively able students who weren’t given the opportunity to really achieve to their fullest capability, and we stand to lose a few more.

But I also wonder if verbal intelligence is less understood and consequently less valued. If one is “good at math”, there’s a logical progression of courses to take, problems to solve (or spend a lifetime trying to), and increasingly difficult subjects to tackle–and plenty of careers that want them. But if one has a high verbal intelligence without good spatial aptitude (which seems to be necessary for higher math) it is often described as “good at reading”, a woefully inaccurate characterization of high verbal intelligence—and then what? Apart from law, there aren’t nearly as many clearly defined career paths with a wide range of opportunities for all temperaments and interests. Most of the ones I can think of involve luck and driving ambition just to get started (journalism, tenured academia, political consultant).

For a good twenty years or so, people with high verbal skills who were indifferent at high-level math went into technology. It’s hard to remember now in the age of Google and after the heyday of corporate computing, but IBM and mainframe shops were filled with bright people who had degrees in history and English and humanities who just “didn’t like math” but were excellent programmers. I routinely worked in shops where all the expert techies making six figures came from non-STEM majors. But that time appears to be over.

Of course, doing anything about this lack of clearly defined career paths for smart folks with less spatial aptitude would involve acknowledging it’s a problem, and I might be the only one who thinks it’s a problem.

Why higher standards are impossible

Rigorous academic standards are impossible. Full stop. Sorry, Checker (barriers #3 and #4).

Oklahoma’s recent fold is instructive. In 2005, the legislature voted in Achieving Classroom Excellence, a three-part implementation of tougher high school standards. High school graduates, beginning in 2012, would have to pass end-of-course tests in algebra, geometry, English, history, and science.

The math tests didn’t seem like cakewalks ( Algebra, Geometry) although the English test seems rudimentary.

But then, the state provided exemptions, which are an entirely different story. According to the exemption requirements, students could score an 18 on the ACT Math subtest (460 or thereabouts on the SAT) and a 15/17 on the English and Reading tests (430 ditto) in order to graduate. Any student who couldn’t pass the state tests faced a far friendlier standard–and a much lower one.

And yet, even with that low bye, Oklahoma is looking to end the requirement, because at least 6,000 students a year are at risk of not graduating.

Given that thousands of Oklahoma ACT testers can’t meet the exemption standard, which is above the mean for African Americans, and just at the mean for Hispanics and Native Americans, that’s not much of a shock.

I can never tell which side does more damage. Progressive educators set standards embarrassingly low while pretending to teach a challenging “idea-rich” curriculum. They think it’s demeaning to teach low ability kids what they need to know, so instead they “scaffold” advanced concepts and lead the kids through a mock-version of the real thing. So the kids “read” Hamlet, but in fact, all they do is watch a movie and talk about how they felt when their moms let them down. They are given difficult math problems to solve, in no particular sequence of instruction, but they don’t really have to solve them. It’s not the answer that’s important, it’s the process of thinking about the problem, didn’t you know?

And as frustrating and fraudulent as this behavior is, eduformers top progressives with their purely delusional insistence that all students can learn the same advanced curriculum.

Simple question: what is the algebra mastery rate for students with sub-100 IQs? What’s that? You don’t know? Well, it doesn’t have to be IQ. Pick the cognitive metric of your choice and take the bottom half. How are they doing in algebra?

You still don’t know?

Then kindly shut up about higher standards for all.