Quixotic Reimagining of Standardized Tests (Part 2)

If you remember, Part 1 was here and my goal is to construct a theoretical system of standardized tests that I would be satisfied by. Here’s what I’ve got. As usual, because of the daily posting streak I have openly committed to, standard disclaimers apply.

  • We’d have a first-tier test like the SAT, except this will be explicitly designed not to distinguish among the high performers.

    The goal of the test is to assess basic proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics. Nothing else. Most good students, those who have a shot at “good colleges” and know it, will be able to ace this test with minimal effort and can spend their time studying for other things or engaging in other pursuits. Students who don’t will still have to study and it will probably be boring, but the hope is that, especially if you’re motivated to get into a good college, there won’t be much of that studying.

    For colleges, the intention of this test is to allow them to require this test score from everybody without having to put up disclaimers that go like,

    there is really not a difference in our process between someone who scores, say, a 740 on the SAT math, and someone who scores an 800 on the SAT math. So why, as the commentor asks, is there such a difference in the admit rate? Aha! Clearly we DO prefer higher SAT scores!

    Well no, we don’t. What we prefer are things which may coincide with higher SAT scores…

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Quixotic Reimagining of Standardized Tests (Part 1)

Life update: I got my driver’s license from the place where I learned to drive. Then I drove home from there with my mom, and it was zarking terrifying.

Also, WordPress says it has protected my blog from 38 spam comments.

Early in the morning tomorrow, I have a small surgical operation, so I can’t sleep too late. (Well, it ended up being pretty late anyway. Darn.) Therefore I think I’m going to do something unprecedented on this blog for the daily posting streak: I’m going to post an incomplete non-expository post.

Yes, the only purpose of the title is to get initials that are four consecutive letters of the alphabet..


One of the more argumentative post sequences on my blog involved ranting against standardized tests.

My very first stab was probably the silly satire directed at the test everybody has to take that takes up two hours per day of an entire week. Once college became a thing in my life, I wrote a humblebrag rant after I took the SAT and then a summary post after I snagged this subject for an English class research paper and finished said paper.

It should be plenty clear that I am not ranting against this part of the system because it’s disadvantageous to me.

But it should also be said that I’ve read some convincing arguments for using standardized tests more in college admissions (Pinker, then Aaronson). Despite the imperfections of tests, they argue, the alternatives are likely to be less fair and more easily gamed. The fear that selecting only high test-scorers will yield a class of one-dimensional boring thinkers is unfounded. And the idea that standardized tests “reduce a human being to a number” may be uncomfortable for some, but it makes no sense to prioritize avoiding a vague feeling of discomfort over trusting reliable social science studies. Neither article, you will note, advocates selecting all of one’s college admits based on highest score. Just a certain unspecified proportion, one that’s probably a lot larger than it is today.

And although I wish the first article linked its studies, I mostly agree with their arguments. So this puts me in a tricky position. These positions I’ve expressed seem hard to reconcile! So, after arguing about all this with a friend who told me things like

I think you fail to understand how anti-intellectual american society is

(comments on this statement are also welcome) I think some clarifications and updates on how I feel are in order.

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Re-Re-Revisiting the SAT

First, I got worked up about the test. Then I got a score and ranted about it on this blog. (I’m still uncertainly hoping that didn’t come off as arrogant. Let me add, I did not get a perfect PSAT.) Then a friend pitched to me the idea that I write an article about it for my school newspaper, which I did. It was far too long. As if that weren’t enough, I then decided to examine whether the SAT was an accurate prediction of “academic ability and success” for my English research paper. Now I’ve come full circle to this blog, where I’m going to try to synthesize and conclude everything, free of the shackles of the research paper format, to allow me to move on with my life. This post contains bits lifted from all three essays and lots of new stuff; I’ve been editing it for so long that I feel like I have it memorized. Its word count is around that of the newspaper article plus the research paper, i.e. far far far too long.

But whatever, nobody reads this blog anyway and I have to get this out of my system. When I said I wanted to “move on with my life”, I really meant my winter homework. Oops!

Disclaimer: I am not an admissions officer. I have not yet even been accepted to a prestigious university (despite rumors to the contrary…), for whatever definition of “prestigious”, unlike some of the bloggers I’m referencing. So some of this is pure speculation. On the other hand, some of it is researched and referenced, and I think the pure speculation still makes sense. That’s why I’m posting it.

Okay, here we go…

Let’s start with the question of accurate prediction. The SAT is a useful predictor, but not as useful as one might assume. Intuitively, it ought to be more accurate than other metrics because it’s a standardized test, whereas GPAs other awards vary by habits of teacher and region and are hard to compare objectively. But as a study from the College Board itself (PDF) found:

the correlation of HSGPA [high-school GPA] and FYGPA [first-year GPA in college] is 0.36 (Adj. r = 0.54), which is slightly higher than the multiple correlation of the SAT (critical reading, math, and writing combined) with FYGPA (r = 0.35, Adj. r = 0.53).

Of course, that doesn’t mean the SAT is worthless, because combining the SAT score and high school GPA results in a more accurate metric than either one alone. But by “more accurate” I refer to a marginal improvement of 0.08 correlation.

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Okay, I got a 2400. Happy now?

I have to admit, I got unhealthily worked up about getting this score.

For the purposes of college, I only ever wanted a score that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker — anything above 2300 would be enough. Any other time I had left would be better spent in other endeavors. Such endeavors might help on the college app, but more importantly, I’d also get to enjoy them.

So why am I here? Partly it’s because my classmates got worked up about it. Somebody specifically requested me to post my score somewhere. And partly it’s because there couldn’t be a better way at the moment to establish my authority to (yet again) rant against standardized tests here.

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The Beginning of the End

One sentence from my new guidance counselor was all it took.

“Oh, you’ll need a 2350 on the SAT and a 4.3 GPA to get into Caltech.”

I even instinctively knew that those were grossly inflated numbers, a guess that was borne out by investigation — a quick check at Caltech’s website verifies that 2350 would be in the top quartile.

(Just in case you’re wondering, that particular college was chosen under duress for a research project, and I consciously stayed away from colleges that I knew students of in order to get a more balanced view of everything. Don’t read too much into it.)

Doesn’t matter. I still immediately had to prove myself to a person who I barely knew yet.

I thought I was above this.

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25 more

Okay, I’m doing this again. Submit at 7:32. Jeez, my brain froze while mentally looking for the Dvorak colon key. I will no longer pretend that this has any direct relevance to SAT prep beyond the general idea of practicing timed writing; the time limit is just a convenient constant that I can’t talk my way out of at the last minute.

Why do we do timed writing, anyway?

The most obvious reason is also the strongest one: logistics. Specifically, maintaining a balance between fairness and feasibility. It’s meant to be a test of one’s writing ability, in general, because writing is useful. It allows you to communicate your thoughts to others. Then, the prompt on the SAT tests for your general thoughtfulness as well, by being vague and flowery and universally understandable, as well as how well-informed you are, by encouraging you to use examples from your past readings, studies, and experience. The “timed” constraint is simply for feasibility. It would probably be much more reflective of one’s real-life writing output if one received a dictionary and a month in constrained solitude, but that’s immensely impractical. If, instead, we gave students an SAT prompt in advance and simply let them write essays freely at home, there would be no way to prevent them from asking outside sources, resulting in a plethora of essays which instead reflect the quality of the student’s literary connections.

Oh wait, we already do that. They’re called college apps.

Besides, the SAT already is a perfect indicator of the student’s economic conditions, so what’s the problem?

Okay, snark aside, it’s unfortunate but inevitable that any sort of high-stakes test will encourage teaching to the test, and equally inevitable that tests cannot be 100% reflective of whatever skill they’re trying to assess. So as long as these two conditions hold (i.e. always), training and one’s access to it will skew the test results. The question is simply how much that training applies to the real thing.

I remember v_Enhance once mentioning the IMO in a thread about teaching to the test, where he suggested that it was an example where teaching to the test was rather helpful. (I am completely prepared to accept that this is a misrepresentation or misattribution or both, but hey, I won’t get points deducted for factual inaccuracies on the SAT!) Is it? Sure, mathematics is really about solving problems, and the problems are interesting and occasionally show connections to “higher math”, mainly in number theory. And while there are people who can bash absolutely any geometric problem that ever existed using complex numbers, the IMO will never become completely routine. But SAT writing is writing too. You can use metaphors and hyperbole and sesquipedalian words to sound cool all the same.

I suspect that the main reason we like competitions like the IMO more than the SAT is that the former isn’t so completely geared towards assessing people. It also helps just expose students to mathematics outside the classroom, and to each other.

Do I? I realize that the whole timed writing thing really doesn’t reflect normal writing for me well because every time I have a thought, I try to argue against it, and usually end up with a much more moderate stance. Whatever, that was something I thought five minutes ago.

Two (now three) minutes over limit. Ouch.

25m

In twenty-five minutes (7:40) I will hit the “Publish” button.

That restriction comes from the SAT, of course, although nothing else is similar. I don’t have a prompt, I don’t get graded, I’m typing and can add and delete things freely. It doesn’t matter. I don’t know if this is a reasonable thing to do in the slightest.

I do know that I need to practice writing in some form.

I still have maybe eight prompts in the SAT prep book that I haven’t looked at yet. I’m just lazy, and writing like this is more interesting. Besides, the stakes are higher, since some people I know are actually going to read this. Probably. So that compensates for the lack of test conditions.

I haven’t been writing enough on my own, anyway — I’m always debilitatingly perfectionist when doing that, which is the obvious issue I must train myself to get around on the SAT. Because if I come up with a perfect thesis using twenty-four minutes during the test, it would still be worthless. For this blog, I have maybe half a dozen drafts, still slowly growing asides and revisions, that may see the light of day some day… in 2017, say. This is infuriating and counterintuitive because I am confident that I am improving every day on mechanics and flow and all those technical tactics. But they don’t help when I don’t know what to write about. That’s the scary hurdle.

I remember one prompt I saw on the website, which asked you whether memories helped or hindered progress. I practiced hunting for examples — literary, historical, current events. I thought I could write about how memories destroyed Jay Gatsby’s life and dreams, or extrapolate something about Elie Wiesel. “His memories, as painful as they were to bear, allowed him to publish this book that has benefited countless consciousnesses by galvanizing them to notice and correct injustices and by allowing them to cite him on the SAT essay.” I could probably get away with a vague mention of the U.S.’s decision about invading Syria and how we should remember the misinformation about the Iraq WMDs before jumping to conclusions. But I have no idea how I know if anybody in history dealt with something because of their memories.

I should probably insert a non-meta example from history or literature now, except all I can remember at the moment is this article I read about famous authors who had weird fetishes.

… Hemingway wrote maybe a hundred drafts of the ending to A Farewell to Arms. I was surprised at first because Catherine died in all of them; the only thing he was varying was how Lt. Henry responded. In some of them he went bewilderingly philosophical on the reader, in some he started describing physical details of his surroundings randomly, in some he said nothing. I’m not confident about this, but I won’t get deductions for factual inaccuracies on the SAT essay, so that’s fine.

This is pretty bad, isn’t it? But a promise is a promise and 25 minutes is 25 minutes.