Lies, Damn Lies and Testing

There’s an “article” on test optional colleges on the College Board web site:  The Facts About Test-Optional Policies

It really has the Trump-esque-ian quality of selecting dubious (bordering on “alternative”) “facts” to support a self-serving viewpoint.  They have a space for comments.  I took them up their offer:

This is a REALLY poorly written article.  It is generous calling it an article, because that denotes some minimal degree of scholarship or journalistic integrity.  In reality, this is a propaganda piece, with carefully selected examples to push the idea that being test optional is not a benefit to students.  The selected colleges discussed are truly the outliers and there is NO discussion of the potential benefits for students or institutions.  It does not mention the many studies that show that the students who do not submit scores graduate at similar rates and with similar performance as those students who submit scores.  It, (wink, wink), uses an example of a beauty school with 17 students but does not mention that half of the “top” national liberal arts colleges (in US NEWS) are test optional, including Bard, Bates, Bowdoin, Brandeis, Bryn Mawr, and I haven’t even gotten to the C’s yet.  

Okay, to be fair, let’s not let ACT off the hook in the disingenuous category.  They conclude (http://www.act.org/content/act/en/newsroom/act-report-college-test-optional-policies-fail-to-benefit-stud.html) that test optional policies do not have desirable effects such as increasing diversity.  But they do so by quoting a paper written by a researcher from ACT along with Krista Mattern, described only as a “Director of Statistical and Applied Research”.  They don’t mention where she works, but, you astute people, you probably guessed it; she works for the College Board.  This paper http://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/MS487_More-Information-More-Informed-Decisions_Web.pdf is, I’ll put this as gently as possible, crap.  It self selects facts, over and over again quoting A. Belasco from, you guessed it, the University of Georgia, who wrote the articles quoted in the College Board article.  Let me just take a few of the ditties from this propaganda, uh, I meant research article:

“Perhaps more disconcerting is that students rely on reported institutional test score information to decide which schools to apply to and which schools to attend.  If this information is faulty, we do a disservice to students by directing them toward college that may not be the best fit.”

What’s the problem with this?  It has no basis in fact.  These are impressions presented as data, like that “millions of voters who voted illegally in the last presidential election”.  They do nothing to back up any of these claims.  How much do students rely on test information to decide where to apply?  That is nowhere to be found.  How about that test optional schools cause misrepresentation of overall testing scores?  Nothing to support this either. They mention “patterns” suggesting this, but again, no data.  And that test optional policies result in a bad fit for students?  There is much evidence that the opposite is true, but they fail to take that into account.

And how about this one:  “First year GPA is “substantially lower” for student who don’t submit scores, “as would have been predicted by their lower SAT scores.”  How substantial?  .2.  Yes, they actually are saying that a difference of .2 in a GPA is “substantial”.  Really!  And these are professional statisticians!  Time to go back to school!

It just gets worse the further you get into this 28-page diatribe of selected Truthiness and propaganda. I don’t really understand the purpose of having institutional employees of ACT and College Board pretend to do a “study” of this issue, as if there is any possible objectivity there.

I will leave this with some quotes about the correlation of income and test scores in the report.  It states that scores were “noticeably higher” in families with higher incomes and concludes:  “..rather than blaming the test…students would be better served if we focused on understanding the social and academic factors that are leaving less affluent students ill-prepared for college and the work force.”

Without going into the myriad of issues with this statement, I would leave this with a suggestion that the authors read The Shape of the River.

About testing in general, I don’t have any problem with it, per se.  It really is just testing how smart you are and how good you are at taking tests, and I guess colleges feel that’s important.  Check this out (by Jon Boeckenstedt, a real genius):

http://highereddatastories.blogspot.com/2017/01/ny-city-public-schools-and-what-they.html

His conclusion:  The correlation between 8th grade scores and 12th grade scores for an individual student, controlling for all variables, is almost perfect (.9 r-squared correlation, or as Jon puts it, “Scientists would use the term “winner, winner, chicken dinner” when getting results like this.”)

So why even have testing senior year since the relative place of almost EVERY student remains almost exactly the same as it was in 8th grade; and the same with judging teachers or schools by scores.  Everyone progresses at a rate individual to him or her, not to the school’s.

My bigger problem with the SAT and ACT is that they promote something not really worth promoting in everyone:  advanced math skills.  They are USELESS for 95% of the population.  Why the hell are we working so hard to get EVERYONE able to do things that only 5% or less will ever need?

And the emphasis is really on computational math, not math understanding.  We had this great program at Montclair called Chicago Math, AKA Interactive Math.  It really taught kids how to think mathematically about the world around them.  The kids understood how to assess the validity of data, to recognize trends in information and to use skills and methods to solve problems they might encounter in the real world.  But the program was dropped because, here’s the crux, the kids in the program weren’t doing as well on the SAT as kids in more traditional, kill-and-drill math classes, despite that the students had a deeper understanding of how they can practically use math reasoning (as well as applications) in their lives.

It is this kind of rote instruction that allows our students to take on huge credit card or student debt, to be taken in by fake news and to be unable to make sense of data when they see it.  They can solve equations with multiple variables, but can’t see when they’re being handed a pile of statistical BS.

Its time to get off the Sputnik train and, except for students pursuing engineering or similar careers, start putting a greater emphasis on math which furthers ones understanding of the world and ones ability to assess the validity of information that is presented, particularly data and statistics.  Math should be tied to civics (which should also be put back in every curriculum) and be something that really leads toward a more aware, discerning and thoughtful citizenry and electorate.

Something has gone terribly wrong with our educational system with decisions we, the citizens of this country, have made.

We have created a citizenry, just like the tests promote, that can demonstrate skills, but that is unable to understand, assess or thoughtfully act on information that affects their lives.  The cynic in me says that those in power politically and economically don’t want a questioning and thoughtful citizenry, just a highly “skilled” one to contribute to the work force.

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Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as swcollegeconsulting@gmail.com or 973-919-6798.

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