Tag Archives: grade

How Group Learning Invites Cheating

The most shocking thing about the Harvard cheating scandal was not that 125 students out of a class of 279 were found to have “committed acts of academic dishonesty” on an exam last spring, or even that the exam was for a course that was supposed to be an easy mark. It was that it happened at Harvard, the elite of the elite, where it is understood that only the smartest kids are accepted. Why would they have to cheat?

As the details became clear (at first, significantly enough, in the sports magazines), it developed that the course, Government 1310: Introduction to Congress, had the reputation of being a cinch to pass. But last spring the exam was harder.  It was a take-home open-book and open- Internet assignment over a weekend, but this time students were expected to write essay answers, not just select answers from multiple choices. And when the papers were graded, more than half were found to have given answers that were the same as another student’s, word for word.

When the facts became public, there was no joy in Cambridge. The stars of Harvard’s outstanding basketball team were among the large proportion of athletes taking the course. It remained unclear what punishment awaited the guilty as it could not be determined whether students had been collaborating on answers or plagiarizing outright from the Internet or each other.

Generosity Was the Excuse

One indignant Harvard student maintained that collaboration was “encouraged, expected.” That attitude also seemed to apply at Stuyvesant High School, New York City’s outstanding school, where a similar scandal was revealed. This time 140 students were involved, all receiving help from a classmate using his cell phone to send answers to his friends and those he wanted to become his friends.  The tests (the system was applied to several of them) were the prestigious Regents exams, important factors in college acceptances.  Ironically, the admitted aim of most Stuyvesant students, who face stiff competition getting into Stuyvesant and maintaining high grades once they get there, is to be admitted to Harvard.

Continue reading How Group Learning Invites Cheating

Common Core Standards Can Save Us

reading anderson.gif


It’s no secret that
most high school graduates are unprepared for college. Every year, 1.7 million first-year
college students are enrolled in remedial classes at a cost of about $3 billion
annually, the Associated
recently reported. Scores on the 2011 ACT
college entrance exam
showed that only 1 in 4 high school graduates
was ready for the first year of college.

Continue reading Common Core Standards Can Save Us

Rankings and Grades–Two Inflated Currencies

Although high school students applying to colleges invariably rely on college ranking guides as a primary source of information, these guides are often misleading and, in most cases, counterproductive. Frederick Hess and Faryn Hochleitner at the American Enterprise Institute (College Rankings Inflation: Are You Overpaying for Prestige) AEI, 5/24/12 contend “the ranks of the top tier schools are growing without any evidence that these schools’ instructional quality is increasing.”

Continue reading Rankings and Grades–Two Inflated Currencies

Yes, Professors Work Hard, But…

Do college professors work harder than other upper-middle-class Americans, or less hard? Former college president David C. Levy’s March 23 op-ed in the Washington Post, arguing that faculty members ought to increase their classroom time by up to 67 percent, ignited a fierce debate in academe. Levy’s op-ed alone generated 1,352 comments online, mostly from professors insisting that they work very hard, what with preparing for classes, grading papers, meeting with students, sitting on committees, and doing the scholarly research that enabled them to win tenure and thus keep their jobs.

Continue reading Yes, Professors Work Hard, But…

What Should Kids Be Reading?

Books above a sixth-grade reading level, for sure. According to Renaissance Learning’s 2012 report on the books read by almost 400,000 students in grades 9-12 in 2010-2011, the average reading level of the top 40 books is a little above fifth grade (5.3 to be exact). While 27 of the 40 books are UG (upper grade in interest level), a fifth-grade reading level is obviously not high enough for college-level reading. Nor is it high enough for high school-level reading, either, or for informed citizenship.

Continue reading What Should Kids Be Reading?

A Test Where ‘Good” Means ‘Terrible’

As a dean at a rural community college in Illinois, I
recently served as a judge for a history fair for seventh and eighth graders at
a local school–an assignment that involved a real surprise. When the Social
Studies teacher gave me the grading rubric, I saw only three categories: Superior,
Excellent, and Good.

I asked the teacher what I was supposed to do if a
presentation was bad or poor. She looked at me and said, with a straight face,
“Good means poor.” “How so?” I asked. “What kind of semantic gymnastics is
that? Does that mean that superior is above average, and excellent is average?”
She didn’t answer the question, but said that the students worked really hard
on their projects and the school didn’t want any of them to feel discouraged.
If they scored in the 70s, then their presentation was considered bad. “But
you’re telling them that it is good,” I said.

Continue reading A Test Where ‘Good” Means ‘Terrible’

It’s Not the Test’s Fault

Cross-posted from National Association of Scholars.

test taking.jpg

Cross-posted from National Association of Scholars.

Fall 2011 has seen some major milestones for the SAT/ACT optional movement. DePaul University, for instance, initiated its first admission cycle sans test requirement. Clark University announced last month that it will offer test-optional admissions for the incoming class of 2013.

In his new book released this fall titled SAT Wars, sociologist Joseph A. Soares of Wake Forest University hails the success of test-optional admission policies. Wake Forest was the first of the top 30 U.S. News schools to go test-optional and is one of the most vocal cheerleaders of the movement through its blog Rethinking Admissions.  According to Soares, adopting policies that allow applicants to opt out of reporting their scores has successfully resulted in diversifying these campuses by race, gender, ethnicity, and class (groups he claims are excluded unfairly for underperforming on standardized tests) without compromising overall academic quality.

By all appearances, requirements for standardized testing in higher ed admissions is on the long and ragged road out the door.  To date nearly 850 colleges and universities (40% of all accredited, bachelor-degree granting schools in the country) have already bidden farewell to the test requirement in some form or another. 53 of these institutions are currently listed in the top tier on the “Best Liberal Arts Colleges” list published by U.S. News and World Report including Bowdoin, Smith, Bates, Holy Cross, and Mount Holyoke Colleges. Even some of U.S. News’ high ranking national universities, such as Wake Forest University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and American University, are categorized as test-optional.  It now seems likely that this trend will only gain in popularity and momentum in the coming years.

So is the SAT-optional movement a good thing?I have always loathed standardized tests myself, once conferring with my second grade teacher because I was certain that my scores were insufficient and that I was falling behind my peers.  It turned out that to be in the 94th percentile really was a good thing even if it was less than 100 – my eight-year-old mind just couldn’t comprehend this at the time.

Yet even after my elementary school pep talk on the nature of scaled grading, I always had this lingering feeling that standardized test scores were somehow an unfair representation of what I could do.  Perhaps I simply fell into the category of being a “poor” test taker, getting easily muddled by my own bubble filling perfectionism and the time constraints required by these acronymic tests.  Or maybe it was because I could never wrangle up enough motivation to spend my free time studying methods for optimizing my score.  And most of all, like any “free-thinking” member of my generation educated by the New Jersey public school curriculum of the 90s, it may have been because I was contentedly assured of being so much more than a number.

One would think given these facts that I would be all for the enforced disappearance of the SAT in favor of the new “holistic” entrance requirements offered by test optional schools. But like a wised-up adult now grateful that her mom made her eat vegetables as a child, I find myself in the curious position of lending support to this once bemoaned exam.

My reason for this change of heart is simple.  We need basic universal testing methods to separate out the prepared prospective students from the unprepared.

In his 2011 work, Uneducated Guesses: Using Evidence to Uncover Misguided Education Policies, Howard Wainer uses the available statistical data to conclude that institutions considering SAT-optional policies should proceed with caution.

Making the SAT optional seems to guarantee that it will be the lower scoring students who withhold scores.  And these lower scoring students will also perform more poorly, on average, in their first-year college courses, even though the admissions office has found other evidence on which to offer them a spot.

For example, Wainer found that at Bowdoin College, a school at the forefront of test-optional admissions, students in the entering class of 1999 who chose not to report their SAT scores tested 120 points lower, on average, than those students who submitted scores with their application.  This gap does sound large at first glance, but when considering students who typically have combined scores of 1250 and above in the traditional math and verbal categories, does that 100-120 point spread really matter when deciding whether a student is college-ready?

Clearly, admissions administrators at schools like Bowdoin and Wake Forest don’t consider it to be a problem.  And they might be somewhat justified in this assessment, even if – as Wainer found – the non test reporting students tend to have lower college GPAs then their test reporting peers.  Not everyone should be getting As in college and there are plenty of middling students in solid programs who can still benefit from a college education.

But would these higher ranked institutions really want to admit students who score 200 or 300 points below the institutions’ averages?  Likely not, as the continued penchant for test-optional schools to purchase the names of high-test scorers indicates.  The test-optional philosophy of admissions might sound warm and fuzzy on the surface, but for many of these schools this still appears to be a numbers game; one that perpetuates the value of high scorers and high rankings, now precariously balanced with a goal of attaining the oh-so-necessary badges of inclusion and diversity (yet more statistics to tout).

Most of the students profiled by these SAT-optional schools to prove the success of their new admissions policies are ones who were already at the top of their high school classes and who would have been accepted to any number of decent schools, even with their horrifyingly “low” test scores.  Often colleges are willing to overlook mediocre scores if an applicant is salutatorian, captain of the volleyball team, or editor of the newspaper–achievements indicative of a certain level of discipline and focus.  And if what these test-optional schools claim is true–that there are students out there who are great fits for their campuses and who have everything in their applications except for a specific score range–the schools should have had the courage to admit (and maybe even recruit) them anyway, bad scores included.

It takes courage to admit low scoring applicants because doing so all but guarantees lowering the SAT averages of these institutions and thereby risks knocking them down a few pegs on many of the popular college ranking lists that use test scores of incoming freshman as a major factor in their rank calculations.  Now, with these new non-reporting admissions options, some schools do not consider themselves obligated to factor in the scores of their test-optional applicants, thus allowing their middle 50% SAT range to represent only test reporting students (presumably the best of their enrollment pool).  Just look at what the oft reoccurring footnote No. 9 on the U.S. News “Best Colleges List” has to say:

SAT and/or ACT may not be required by school for some or all applicants, and in some cases, data may not have been submitted in form requested by U.S. News. SAT and/or ACT information displayed is for fewer than 67 percent of enrolled freshmen.

If these schools truly believe that the tests are biased or inaccurate representations of student preparedness, then why should they care how their test medians rank or if they recruit the highest scorers for their incoming classes?

Apparent hypocrisy aside, my suspicion is that the schools profiled most frequently on this issue, and the debates surrounding their choice to step away from standardized tests, cover up the true harm the test-optional movement has on academe as a whole.  For it seems to pose the most danger not to its leaders, many of whom still selectively accept students over the 80th percentile, but to the large number of other schools who are realistically following suit to lower their admissions standards and raise enrollment to make ends meet.  A 100-point spread might not mean all that much to students with scores of 1250+, but it can definitely make a world of difference in schools whose means are already well below that threshold.  The hard truth is that at some point being a well-rounded person ceases to compensate for not possessing quantifiably provable verbal and math skills.

And unlike what Soares and his cohort claim, I think most would agree that high school GPA does not ensure the same universality of assessment offered by tests such as the SAT because high school curricula are not created equal.  Although I grew up in a school district where we started learning how to write research papers in the third grade, some of my college classmates never had to write more than a single double spaced page at a time, and some were never required to read a book cover to cover in the course of their entire K-12 educations.

On the larger trend, we are not talking about straight A students at challenging high schools who happened to have the flu on test day, or who can’t afford to take test prep classes, or who don’t work well under pressure, as much as the test-optional proponents want us to believe this to be the case.  For the majority of those nearly 850 accredited institutions, this movement is about admitting students who are not prepared and quite possibly not capable of benefiting from a college level education.

Accepting students to college when they are not ready for college level course work is irresponsible and inexcusable.  It is time to get beyond the top schools in this discussion and consider the havoc test optional policies may wreak on the vast majority of higher ed institutions.  What seems like only a minor performance disparity outweighed by the benefits of “diversity” at schools like Wake Forest could spell the end to professional academic standards at lower ranking but still respectable institutions.

It also might be time for the proponents of test-optional admissions to stop and consider that maybe it really isn’t the test’s fault after all.  Low-scoring but worthy students ready to tackle college coursework are probably the exception rather than the rule. Admissions officers should use individual discernment and admit such students, when deserved, with full knowledge of how they scored. This is exactly why we have people, not mathematic algorithms, make admissions decisions in the first place.

More broadly, if certain groups are genuinely disadvantaged by these tests and underperform as researchers such as Soares and organizations like The National Center for Fair and Open Testing claim, we should continue to place emphasis on innovative solutions for K-12 reform instead of dispensing with standardized testing altogether.  The chances are that the most notable demographic gaps in the test results reflect a deficiency in education quality or testing support, both areas we can improve over time through reform, more than any inherent flaw with the objective test itself.  Not to mention that one of the primary methods used, including by the test skeptics listed above, to identify policy weaknesses and demographic disparities is the analysis of standardized test scores.  Without any form of universal achievement testing we risk missing demographic weaknesses altogether and could neglect the urgency to find solutions where legitimate problems exist.

The tests will never be perfect or comprehensive, but they continue to offer the most assured universal assessment of college preparedness, especially when considered alongside the many other factors traditionally used in admissions decisions.  To say that it is the test’s fault is both a juvenile and a nearsighted excuse. We do need to rethink college admissions, but implementing policies that let in more, not fewer, unprepared students is heading in the wrong direction – one that has no future in mind.

Strange Grading and the Hazards of Transparency

If you go this web site,
you can search the course roster at the University of Wisconsin and find out
what grades were given each semester for the last several years.  In
Spring 2011, the average grade for 792 students in Intermediate Organic
Chemistry was 2.8, a B-, while in Introduction to Education, 50 students
averaged 3.9, an A.  The Evolving Universe (in the Astronomy Department)
had 359 students, and they averaged 2.9, a B, while 722 students in Freshman
Composition hit 3.7, an A-.

The variation in grades across classes raises some uncomfortable questions of
grade inflation, instructional effectiveness, and selectivity, but that’s the
price of accountability.  More and more public institutions are being

Continue reading Strange Grading and the Hazards of Transparency

Cheating is the New Normal

A well-publicized cheating scandal at Great Neck High School featured a criminal entrepreneur taking SAT tests for college-bound high school students. My colleagues in the Academy tell me cheating is endemic with papers written by “service” organizations and plagiarism a national contagion. Teachers are routinely engaged in “scrubbing” various tests in an effort to increase the ratio of passing grades. The Atlanta school system was recently indicted for changing, student grades in an effort to improve the schools’ performance profile.

These stories invite the obvious question: Are conditions worse now than earlier?

Continue reading Cheating is the New Normal

Why Do Multiple-Choice Tests Lie All the Time?

On Inside Higher Ed today “MathProf,” an anonymous poster, raised an original objection to multiple-choice tests: they are packed with lies. He said one student “pointed out to me that multiple-choice tests are inherently deceptive, featuring wrong answers deliberately designed to appear plausible. Is this really the skill we want to teach and reward: not knowledge, not reasoning, but the ability to choose the most acceptable answer in a forest of deliberately plausible lies?” Point taken. We here at Minding the Campus are opposed to lies, forests of plausible lies in particular, but the way out seems clear: let’s just make sure that all possible choices on these tests are correct. Every student will therefore get the same perfect score, a decisive boost for equality as well as truth in testing.

Advanced Placement Economics: Where Markets Fail and Government Is Perfect

High school students taking advanced placement courses in economics are being shortchanged. In 2010 the College Board and Educational Testing Service (ETS) administered 134,747 Advanced Placement (AP) microeconomics and macroeconomics exams to high school students. A new study systematically reviews the content of AP Economics. AP Economics gives ample attention to market failure, but no attention to government failure. It gives ample attention to Keynesian economics and to the mechanical manipulation of diagrams, but practically no attention to entrepreneurship, innovation, economic freedom, and property rights. In general, AP Economics gives little attention to the economic way of thinking. The study appears in the January 2011 issue of Econ Journal Watch and is authored by Tawni H. Ferrari, James D. Gwartney, and John S. Morton. The authors suggest ways to improve the AP Economics materials. The article is accompanied by a podcast.

Applying ”Freakonomics” to Final Exams

One of my colleagues here at the University of Texas–Austin, the economist Daniel Hamermesh, recently complained in his New York Times “Freakonomics” blog about the common practice in many departments of assigning no final exams. I wish he had applied his own craft to this situation. The lack of final exams is merely one symptom of a general collapse of expectations. The average number of hours spent studying has fallen to twelve hours a week, according to a recent book. Why are college teachers expecting so little effort from their students? They are responding (in an economically rational way) to the incentives created by the modern research university. Teaching is a distraction from highly rewarded activities (research and administration). Insofar as teaching is rewarded at all, the measure of ‘good’ teaching consists solely of student evaluations, which (to put it mildly) are not improved by increasing students’ workload (including the assignment of final exams).
Some teachers continue to care about teaching and put high expectations on their students, from a sense of professional duty and the intrinsic enjoyment of being catalysts for learning. However, the system does its best to de-select such dinosaurs, favoring instead those who can bring in funds and raise institutional prestige through publication. Until we change the incentive structure, final exams (and other accoutrements of serious learning) will continue to be an endangered species.

The Rankings Will Always be Gamed

Trying to rank hundreds, if not thousands of colleges is obviously foolish, but this foolishness has consequences beyond supplying iffy advice to clueless shoppers. To the extent that potential enrollees take ratings seriously, institutions may be tempted to game the system and these tricks may well undermine education. To use Malcolm Gladwell’s illustration from Car and Driver, a car manufacturer can probably figure out the little gimmicks that magazine critics over-value and then accommodate these preferences even if they add zero to the car’s value.
Manipulating a rating will not push a third-rank school into the Ivy League, but in the mushy middle a few points can separate, say, 35 from 57. The temptation is to scam the system, regardless of the educational value. And what school can resist a little tinkering to leapfrog over rivals? So, if the rating formula stresses graduation rates, a few obscure bureaucratic adjustments—regular credit for what were once remedial courses, creating easy no-fail majors, allowing “Fs” to be expunged among similar ploys—can work wonders. Reed College refuses to participate in the U.S. News ranking, a wise choice given its low retention rate—hundreds of youngsters enroll in the mistaken belief that Reed is a sex and drug paradise, but most of these would-be hedonists flee almost immediately after encountering a hard-nosed take-no-prisoners freshman curriculum. Yet, this overly-generous admission generosity may benefit some high-potential under-achievers who might eventually flourish in a school of Reed’s intellectual caliber. If ratings were paramount and included retention, however, Reed would just play it safe and slip into staid conventionality.
And if average faculty compensation is the yardstick, any clever administrator can diddle the numbers. Just recruit expensive “star” talent who barely teach while “non-faculty” graduate students handle classroom instruction. Better yet, hire only those whose hefty salaries are paid by outside grants—get all the benefits of high salary compensation without any of the cost. Need more library holdings to impress the raters? No problem—buy cheaper paperbacks instead of expensive scholarly monographs. Need a reputation for “good teaching”? Since some raters use the internet to establish instructional “quality,” keep tough graders away from large required courses and watch ratings soar on ratemyprofessor.com.
My own favorite tactic for juicing “scholarly reputation” (at least in the social sciences) is to hire faculty who specialize in mathematical analysis and its variants like rational choice. These professors are amazingly productive and can quickly build a department’s disciplinary reputation where, as often the case, only publication volume counts. No matter that these professors teach gobbledygook to undergraduates who prefer history-rich accounts of WW II versus, say, a lecture on why country A attacked country B using the Prisoner’s Dilemma format. But don’t even think of hiring more substantively oriented adjuncts to compensate for these content-free courses—having too many part-timers, regardless of their backgrounds, especially if they lack doctorates, typically kills a school’s reputation among raters regardless of how much students learn.
This is a tail-wagging-the-dog problem—journalist outsiders, many of whom barely understand university life, shaping university policy by deciding what is academically important and even then, only using readily available crude information. That so many administrators happily defer to these ill-informed outsiders so as to up their rank a few notches is perhaps the most depressing feature of this foolishness.

Malcolm Gladwell and Those Shaky Rankings

As the author of a college guide that tries to help college-going students identify schools that would be a good “match” for them as individuals, I’ve always had three main gripes with the U.S. News & World Report rankings. First, you can’t quantify the really important factors that go into selecting the right college, such as the quality of student-faculty relations. Second, colleges manipulate the numbers to their own advantage. And finally, the rankings are premised on asking the wrong question. The issue is not what’s the “best” college in the abstract but what’s the best college for you?
At a time when it would seem that every conceivable argument to be made against the U.S. News rankings has been put forward, Malcolm Gladwell has now come along and, in his New Yorker riff on the topic, added some savory spice to the debate. Gladwell makes some conventional arguments. He rightly ridicules the proxies that the magazine uses for academic quality (“Do professors who get paid more money really take their teaching roles more seriously?”), and he joins the familiar chorus of complaints about the use of reputational surveys. College presidents are the last people I would ever consult in order to get a handle on the quality of a competing institution.

Continue reading Malcolm Gladwell and Those Shaky Rankings

Rituals Performed for the Elite

The U.S. News & World Report rankings of America’s “best” colleges and universities amount to nothing more than an annual ritual, a predictable coronation of entrenched wealth and power.
Even more importantly, for aspiring students and parents who hope to transcend their present class status, the yearly “guide” serves as the handmaiden to the elite. U.S. News rankings are like a public relations agency, a public persona standing at gates of admission to our “best” colleges, conveniently reminding aspiring Americans of the well-guarded paths to wealth and power.
Does anyone really believe that the students, parents and counselors at elite, mostly private, high schools pay any serious attention to the U.S. News rankings? Of course not. These schools and these families understand deeply how the system works and, especially, how to make the system work for them. They do not need U.S News to tell them which schools matter, and they follow the rankings with bemused disinterest.
That is not to say that the rankings are unimportant to elites. The annual ritual is a vital source of propaganda disguised by a pseudo-scientific calculation reminding our aspiring classes to “get in line and follow the rule” if they want a lottery chance at passing the gates. While the rankings purport to demonstrate to the public what separates good colleges form ordinary ones, the rankings are also the equivalent of the strict school marm, wagging her proverbial index finger at the strivers, the unwashed students and families who seek admission to the elite.
While the aspiring classes slavishly believe in its informative power, the rankings tell us little besides an institution’s wealth and prestige and position in the higher education hierarchy. According to U.S. News’s world view, a college or university is to be judged, not by what they actually do for students during their years on campus, such as how much chemistry, math, sociology and economics students actually learned while there.
Rather, in this upside-down world, colleges are judged by the “quality” of students they enroll. Quality, in essence, is measured by institutional selectivity – the percent of applicants who are accepted for admission. For the bulk of institutions in this universe, the direct correlate of selectivity is the average SAT score of entering freshman. The direct and powerful correlate of individual SAT scores is the cultural, educational and social capital which students acquire from their families. Families pass this human capital from generation to generation, and the so-called meritocracy is more than happy to oblige these privileges.
And so it goes, like a cascading river of wealth and power that obliterates all other considerations that bear on what higher education should mean in a democratic society. If one appreciates the status of inherited privilege, then let’s congratulate U.S. News on a job well done.

Cut the Sniping—It’s a Great Book

The sniping has begun about Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s great new book Academically Adrift. Predictably, people are saying the test instruments used (especially the Collegiate Learning Assessment or CLA but also the National Survey of Student Engagement or NSSE) are imperfect, they look at only a small number of relatively anonymous schools, etc. These complaints on the survey have some validity, but the reality is the higher education community has not collected the data or developed the test instruments that could allow for a broader wider test. Why, for example, don’t we have a test of general knowledge, something of an extension of the Adult Civic Literacy Test developed by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, that is administered widely at the beginning and end of the college careers of students at any institutions receiving (or whose students receive) federal grant or loan money? Why aren’t the NSSE results published for the hundreds of schools using it? Or, why not at least administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam given to 17 year olds again to 21 or 22 year olds near the end of their college career? Higher education has fought transparency and accountability, so researchers have to use the limited information available.

Basically, Arum and Roksa argue that students work little in college and consequently learn little. Most of us who have been in higher education for decades know that this is true, even when we don’t want to admit it. But why? You don’t have to read very far in Academically Adrift to find the answers. Below are a series of quotes either from the authors or from sources they cite, one from each of the first 10 pages of the book:

Continue reading Cut the Sniping—It’s a Great Book

The Trouble With Rigor

The big news in higher education last week was the issuance of findings from Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a scientific study of how much college students progress intellectually during their four years on campus. Two researchers, Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University and director of the Education Research Program of the Social Science Research Council, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, charted scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment to determine changes from the time of their arrival to senior year. The CLA isn’t subject-based, so the study couldn’t gauge changes in domain knowledge, but it does aim to calculate abstract thinking and analytical “competencies.” The results were abysmal. (An excerpt is here)
For nearly half of the students (45 percent), no significant improvement took place during the first two years of college.
For more than one-third (36 percent), no significant improvement took place over four years’ time. They are, in the authors’ words, “academically adrift.”
Why the poor showing? Several reasons, the authors say.
One, more and more students “report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying.” For all too many of them, the classroom is a part-time thing.
Two, more students “enroll in classes that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments.”
Three, they “interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever.”
And four, “they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development.”
The response to Academically Adrift has been voluminous and mixed. One common negative reply is to challenge the methodology (the CLA is limited, etc.), while a common positive reply is to agree and denounce higher ed corruptions. (See here and here and here and a video of one of the authors here.
But colleges are in a bind either way. They are under pressure to open access and keep retention rates high. But the obvious solution to the low-learning problem—raise standards, assign more reading and writing, increase rigor—might improve test scores, but the other rates will fall. That is, if homework goes up and assignments get more rigorous, dropouts and flunk-outs will rise as well. At the very least, grades will plummet. Reaction will follow. Colleges are under intense pressure to get kids in the door and keep them there. If the retention rate falls, they have a lot of explaining to do in public.
So keep that dilemma in mind. The more you make students work, the fewer students will cross the finish line.

Students Who Learn Little or Nothing

I can’t recall a book on higher education that arrived with so much buzz, and drew so much commentary in the first two days after publication. The book is Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum, and Josipa Roksa (University of Chicago Press). Arum is a professor of sociology and education at New York University and Roksa is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.
Inside Higher Ed reported on the work yesterday, hailing it, if that’s the right word, as “a damning new book… asserting that many college students graduate without actually learning anything.”
After looking at data from student surveys and transcript analysis of 2300 students around the country, the authors concluded that 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” in their first two years of college, and 36 percent showed the same lack of significant progress over four years. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years and 0.47 over four years. “What this means,” Inside Higher Ed reported, “is that A student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later—but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.”
Since our copy of the book arrived only today, we haven’t finished reading it, but we assume that its huge welcome in educational circles has a lot to do with the many books and articles deploring the lack of study on our campuses, the large number of college grads working at low-level jobs, books arguing that partying is the main activity of a great many collegians, and articles such as Peter Sacks’ here reporting on the all too common disengaged and academically tone deaf college students of today. We will have more to say later about Academically Adrift.

The Attack on Legacies

In every Marx Bros. movie, there occurs a moment when Harpo works himself up to a frenzy, hyperventilating, jumping up and down and crossing his eyes. These interludes never fail to beguile the viewer, even though they have nothing to do with the plot.
I was reminded of these Harpovian shenanigans when I came across Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admission (Richard D. Kahlenberg, Editor, Century Foundation , 304 pps). This a collection of essays expressing outrage at a practice, common to many first-, second- and third-tier colleges. These institutions have for decades (centuries in some cases) allowed underperforming high school students to be admitted to the freshman class because one of their parents was a graduate.
Manifestly this was unfair. Students with higher grades had been turned away because they didn’t have the advantage of a father or mother with an Ivy or Big Ten sheepskin. Yet the institutions of higher learning offered no apology for their autocratic ways; instead they presented a rationale. It was called Follow the Money. A prosperous parent was likely to make a generous donation to the place that allowed Junior to enter the hallowed halls, even though he failed geometry and had English SAT scores that placed him in the bottom third of his class. And since every school is always bemoaning its increasing debt, rising professorial salaries and benefits, and other fiscal responsibilities, what was wrong with welcoming a few “legacies” in order to pad the bottom line?

Continue reading The Attack on Legacies

The Underperformance Problem

On average black students do much worse on the SAT and many other standardized tests than whites. While encouraging progress was made in the 1970s and early 1980s in improving black SAT scores and reducing the black/white test score gap, progress in this direction came to a halt by the early 1990s, and today the gap stands pretty much where it was twenty years ago. Whereas whites and Asians today average a little over 500 on the math and reading portions of the SAT, blacks score only a little over 400 — in statistical metric a gap of a full standard deviation. Only about one in six blacks does as well on the SAT as the average white or Asian.
This state of affairs is well known uncomfortable though it may be to bring up in public. Less well known is what in the scholarly literature is called “the underperformance problem.” Once in college blacks with the same entering SAT scores as whites and Asians earn substantially lower grades over their college careers and wind up with substantially lower class rankings. This gap in grade performance, moreover, is not reduced by adding high school grades or socio-economic status to the criteria for matching students. Blacks equally matched with whites or Asians in terms of their entering scholastic credentials and socio-economic backgrounds simply do not perform as well as their Asian and white counterparts in college. And the degree of underperformance is often very substantial.
This is contrary to what many people have been led to believe. Standardized tests are “culturally biased,” it is said, and do not fairly indicate the abilities or promise of racial minorities growing up outside the dominant white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon culture. Often this claim is bolstered by reciting items on long outdated verbal tests asking for the meaning of words like “regatta” or “cotillion” that only upper-class whites are likely to know. The implication is usually that those from minority cultures will do better in college in terms of grades than their test scores would predict. The “cultural bias” argument, however, is not only questionable on its face — since the clearly non-Anglo Saxon Asians do better than whites on most standardized tests of mathematical abilities including the SAT, while the equally non-Anglo Saxon Ashkenazic Jews outperform everyone else on tests of English verbal ability — but fails to account for the fact that in terms of grade performance blacks in college consistently do worse, not better, than their standardized test scores would predict. Standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT overpredict, not underpredict, how well blacks will do in college, and in this sense the tests are predictively biased in favor of blacks, not against them.

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Make-Believe Grades for Real Law Students

Almost every morning, after taking a shower, I get on the scale to see if I have lost some of the extra weight that I do not want or need. I have tried many ways of shedding the pounds, with diet and exercise at the top of the list. The pounds refuse to disappear. After reading Catherine Rampell’s piece, “In Law Schools, Grades Go Up, Just Like That,” in the New York Times, I realized that there is a simpler way. A slight adjustment to the scale, so that the measuring starts at minus 15 pounds rather than zero, could bring instant relief. I could truthfully — if not honestly — say that according to the scale, I was now less than 175 pounds.
This droll reverie faded to disappointment as I pondered the implications of adjusting law school grades in the fashion recounted in the Times. Grades entered on students’ transcripts at law school were adjusted upward several semesters later. The article told of law schools abandoning traditional grading standards to give their students an edge in the tough job market. Thus, each school’s scale was adjusted to give the appearance that students did better than they actually did. The schools named were Loyola, Georgetown, NYU, Tulane and Golden State Universty. When I thought further about these modifications, I was reminded of other instances where expected objectivity gave way to subjective judgments. The New York State Board of Regents, for instance, has begun the practice of determining acceptable grades by assigning a passing grade to a raw score. The raw score required for passage is only arrived at after the tests are rated. Such a system allows the Board of Regents to crow about an 80% passage rate, notwithstanding the fact that the classification was entirely contrived. It has the feel of issuing traffic citations on the basis of a quota and claiming there is an epidemic of bad drivers.
The fact that this practice of grade adjustment has developed in law schools is, I believe, a much more serious matter. The rule of law, when properly applied, embodies honesty, fairness and impartial justice. The behavior of adjusting grades to conceal the truth does damage to our expectation of the rule of law. That the law itself is made to yield to the dollar is particularly troublesome. As a professor quoted in the Times article put it, “if somebody’s paying $150,000 for a law school degree, you don’t want to call them a loser in the end. So you artificially call every student a success.” The result is a perverse version of the golden rule: “he who has the gold rules.”

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Faking Your Way Through Harvard–Almost

Here’s how easy it is to find out whether Adam Wheeler, the 23-year-old who allegedly faked his way into Harvard, was the preternaturally accomplished young scholar he said he was: Google. That’s how I spent a productive half-hour after I found Wheeler’s resume posted on the New Republic‘s website. Wheeler had submitted the resume when he applied for a literary internship at the magazine last fall (he did not get the job). That was either just before or just after he abruptly left Harvard during his senior year to avoid a disciplinary proceeding for allegedly getting himself admitted as a transfer student in 2007 (from MIT, he said) on the basis of forged transcripts, forged SAT scores, and forged letters of recommendation–and also for bilking Harvard out of $45,000 in financial aid, research money, and cash prizes for plagiarized student essays. He is now facing criminal prosecution on 20 counts of fraud, larceny, and identity theft.
So I typed into Google’s search box the title of one of the three lectures that Wheeler, who claimed to know classical Armenian, said on his resume that he had delivered to a meeting of the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research in 2009: “From Parthia to Robin Hood: The Armenian Version of the Epic of the Blind Man’s Son (Koroghlu)” The lecture was real enough, except that it had actually been delivered by James R. Russell, a professor of Armenian studies at Harvard. Russell had also delivered another of the esoterically titled Armenian-themed lectures that Wheeler attributed to himself: “The Rime of the Book of the Dove: Zoroastrian Cosmology, Armenian Heresiology, and the Russian Novel.”
Moving on, I Googled the titles of the four books that Wheeler said he had co-authored with Marc Shell, a professor in Harvard’s English department (Wheeler was an English major). Again, the books are real—Shell lists them on his own Harvard website–but they’re the sole work of Shell, with no credit given to co-authors. Shell had evidently captured Wheeler’s imagination, because Wheeler also stated on his resume that he had delivered three lectures at Shell’s Seven Days Work Educational Foundation on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick in 2009 (a busy lecture year for Wheeler!). I admit that my Google search didn’t unearth any sources for those lectures—which deal with famous authors of the English Renaissance including Thomas More, Shakespeare, and Andrew Marvell—but a visit to the Seven Days Work Foundation’s website (which took less than five minutes to find) led me to wonder how Renaissance poets and playwrights could have fit into the 2009 conference, which was devoted to the ecology and economy of Grand Manan, where Shell has a residence and an interest in the local culture.

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The Achilles Heel of the U.S. News Rankings

In 1983 U.S. News & World Report came up with what Ben Wildavsky, a former education editor at the magazine, described as “a journalistic parlor game.” The magazine had just conducted a successful survey of U.S. leaders to identify the most influential Americans. Why not, the editors asked, use a similar approach to identify the country’s top colleges and universities?

So U.S. News sent surveys to college presidents around the country asking them to pick ten colleges that provided the best undergraduate education in their particular academic niche. The magazine published the results in 1983 and again in 1985, and by 1987 the project had morphed into a free-standing guidebook entitled America’s Best Colleges. “No one imagined that the rankings would become what some consider the 800-pound gorilla of American higher education,” recalled the late Alvin Sanoff, the longtime managing editor of the rankings project.

The gorilla continues to stalk U.S. higher education. Last week Daniel de Vise of the Washington Post reported that “a small but determined” group of college presidents in the Washington-Baltimore area is now boycotting the “peer assessments” questionnaire that U.S. News & World Report sends them every year as part of its process of updating its college rankings. Their protest follows a report last year that another group of college presidents across the country had pledged to do likewise.

It’s easy to understand why college presidents don’t like U.S. News butting into their affairs in the first place and might be inclined not to cooperate at all (as Reed College has done). John Burness, the former communications chief at Duke University, probably spoke for most of higher education when he observed in 2008 that the precision that U.S. News ascribes to its rankings “is, on the face of it, rather silly.”

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When Campuses Became Dysfunctional

In recent years the stakes for entrance to the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities have risen to absurd heights, with students (or, their families) not only now paying significant sums for private school tuitions (or the entry cost into good school districts, namely expensive housing), SAT training, and coaching for application writing, but increasingly specialized services such as student “branding” – in which students (or, their families) hire “branding” professionals to develop a marketing strategy for “selling” a student to the top universities – and even such morally damnable practices as anonymously informing schools about the reprehensible qualities of competitors who apply to the same university. Clearly things have gotten out of control, but there are very few people – whether inside or outside the university system – who are willing or even desire to rock the boat by pointing out the absurdity of the current state of affairs.
The reason for this conspiracy of silence is that the current system benefits those who are best positioned to take advantage of the root causes for these absurdities: namely, families with the background, wherewithal and education to know how to “game” the system, and the elite colleges and universities whose denizens benefit in all sorts of financial and professional ways from their placement at these exceedingly small number of desirable schools. A confluence of interest bonds these financial and cultural elites in their ambition to maintain the current arrangement, namely a desperation on the parts of the families to put their children in a position to succeed, and the desperation on the parts of these elite institutions to be the exclusive grantors of the imprimatur for such success. In our profoundly competitive world order, in which increasingly few people can hope to emerge as the “winners” in a system that ruthlessly winnows out those who will not join the small club of the international elite – financial, political and cultural – all stops must be removed, all measures pursued, all efforts expended.
In compensation for their success, students are privileged to join an elite group of similarly-situated peers who harbor the same ambitions of worldly success and achievement. They are simultaneously thrown together as colleagues and competitors, a condition that will continue to define their relationships throughout their college years and beyond. The elite institutions are populated by star professors and a steady stream of noteworthy dignitaries, intellectuals, artists, public intellectuals, and so on: exposure to this class – as well as to the future incarnation of these winners in the form of their classmates – constitutes a considerable share of the education that takes place on today’s campuses, namely a socialization in success, the learned capacity to emulate their predecessors who have successfully navigated the shoals of hyper-competitive globalization and emerged as its leaders and beneficiaries.

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Does The SAT Predict College Success?

One of the hottest debates roiling American campuses today is whether the SAT and other standardized tests should continue to play a dominant role as a college admissions criterion. The main point of contention in this debate is whether the SAT or equivalent scores accurately gauge college preparedness, and whether they are valid predictors of college success, most particularly in comparison with high school grades. Behind this ostensible concern is the expressed fear that over-reliance on collegiate admissions tests will reduce “access” to college on the part of low-scoring applicants, many of them from poor or minority families and, thus, risk making American colleges and universities less demographically diverse.
First, let me address “access” and diversity: According to the most recent (2007) data, 45 percent of all colleges or universities, and 66 percent of public ones, have no admissions criteria at all. In the public sector – which accounts for three-quarters of all higher education slots – among the 34 percent of schools with some kind of admissions screen, 69 percent accept more than half of their applicants. Even among the remaining somewhat selective institutions, the majority either do not require admissions test scores or they accept most low-scoring applicants, with the result that the average verbal SAT for all college applicants is 532, and that for the math SAT is 537 (both out of a potential score of 800).
Second, regarding the sincerity of the most vociferous admissions test opponents: Virtually all of the schools calling for abandonment or down-grading of SATs and comparable admissions test have always been highly selective – and intend to remain so. There should be absolutely no confusion on this score. These places have no intention of becoming academically more diverse, meaning they are not planning to admit academically inferior poor or minority students. As predominantly rich institutions, they have an army of admissions officers able to pore over every applicant’s high school transcript and other evidence of academic ability to keep recruiting the best and brightest students, even absent admissions tests. Actually, even with their “test-optional” policies, they will have access to most applicants’ SAT scores anyway, because academically strong applicants will continue to take the tests to keep all their collegiate options open. If one were inclined to take a conspiratorial view of these institutions’ motives, one might suspect that they were mounting this concerted campaign to assure that America’s public colleges and universities remain unselective, derailing the rising admissions aspirations of those ambitious public institutions that threaten to cut into their current monopoly of gifted high school graduates.

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