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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Empty

I feel a little empty right now, for several reasons.

One is that I haven’t blogged about anything here for one month, almost two. There is absolutely no possible way to apply an excuse about not having anything to blog about. No zarking way, self. What happened? My dozens of drafts have all gotten stuck in draft limbo, occasionally getting pulled out to have a few words added or deleted but otherwise completely idle. There are a lot of posts in that box that will probably never be posted. I cannot deceive myself that they haven’t been posted because they’re not worth posting. Of course I didn’t feel as strongly about them as I did about the SAT post, but there’s still a lot of me in them.

Why? I don’t know; perfectionist tendencies, procrastination, and a constantly looming sense of I-should-be-doing-something-else-because-I-want-to-make-the-IOI-team-and-get-into-a-good-college are among the suspects. The usual ones.

Two is that I’m beginning to feel a general deterioration of my writing skills under AP English Langugage & Composition. There’s more time for each essay in the test than the essay in the you-know-which-standardized-test, but it’s still vomit-inducingly formulaic. Writing should be about free thought and deep introspection. Writing should not be a blitz game of whack-the-mole built on adrenaline-soaked reflexes. My last two practice forty-minute essays included rambling about Galileo and Emerson and Allie Brosh and other people who came to mind after free-associating with the topic. They are all terrible, boring, clichéd-as-cake examples, but there is no time for anything else. There is no time for actual thinking.

I feel that I can survive with my writing style and skills unscathed if I write enough on my own, but as evidenced by point one, I’m not doing that. Plus, I may still have one more year of similar English testing to grind through.

Which brings us to point three, a recent guidance (euphemism for “college-counseling”, which is euphemism for “game the system with all your heart”) class all about college selectivity and senior AP courseloads during which I was confronted with a lot of unanticipated claims and revelations.

AP courseload! I should take the next AP English (Literature & Composition), right? I’ve been on the honor track with high enough grades for long enough that it would be folly to expect anything else, right? What a no-brainer; why is this even up for debate?

It’s funny, I like English, and I enjoy literature to some degree (especially if the word is defined generally enough to include fantasy and sci-fi (but exclude Game of Thrones (hashtag #unpopularopinion))). But after being led into the college mindset and system, just the “AP” thing by itself makes me suspicious.

AP means “college-level”. Big deal; calling the course that doesn’t magically make it so. The number of AP courses at our school that are actually taught and taken at college-level standards is probably countable on one hand. There’s this… human component to things. This cuts both ways.

AP means “we expect to take a complete assessment of your skill and learning in three to four hours”. This is due to the physical limitations of time, people, the real world. It’s logistics. That’s, at the very least, understandable.

AP implies “you will be pushed to learn how to provide evidence of your skill and learning in three to four hours”, which is a big problem.

This is exactly the same argument I finally used against the SAT — it’s just that now the courses where students are taught how to game the test is given much more legitimacy. Our teacher is good and there are lots of actual real-world English lessons and exposure in addition to mock tests. Nevertheless, the test format is still imposed rigorously enough on us that I feel my writing and blogging style being stifled. I’m learning, but not what I want to learn. That’s disappointing.

Now, I think this is really only a problem for subjective and artistic subjects like English. For a subject such as, say, AP Biology, the topics you learn to write essays and answer multiple-choice questions are just biology topics. There are some strategies to keep in mind, like blatantly mentioning the “hot-button terms” or whatever, but you’re still studying the same underlying set of biology facts and theories.

Writing is not like this. Writing cannot be made like this. I think English is worth knowing, Language and Literature and Composition and everything they entail are worth knowing, but I cannot appreciate them after the AP test format has been applied. To this day I have not written anything I’m proud of while under a time limit measured in minutes or hours. It’s just words strung together into a first draft. Anybody can write a first draft. It takes a strong writer to throw it away because it’s utter rubbish;t takes a stronger writer to persevere and polish that utter rubbish into a gem.

And that’s only really doable if you can feel for the subject. I’m worked up enough over all the real-life controversies happening around me — the Sunflower Movement right next door, Twitter fighting over Mozilla’s CEO, the last day of the MH370’s black box — and these are just the recent incidents projected onto a backscreen perpetually filled with climate change denial and backhanded pharmaceutical business practices and wars over water sources and the entire godforsaken PRISM business.

How do you expect me to get behind an essay about locavores, to feel or express the slightest modicum of emotion or strength? Who am I supposed to be convincing?

(But… do I expect the regular English course to be better?)

There are also other course choices and considerations for next year to be concerned about, such as this one-year fine arts requirement that (quoth the counselor) “lots of colleges” have, notably the UC system. I have not yet found evidence that the colleges I’m considering have such a requirement or recommendation. I thought my classes and extracurriculars would already make me well-rounded enough. Now I’m just confused.

If I had to fulfill such a requirement, it would likely make for a painfully empty senior year. There simply aren’t any art electives left that I want to take, except in the sense that taking them will free up my schedule for other things.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m very good at sustained self-motivating. Not in this environment, I tell myself; not for the limited things that this school can expose me to. Maybe things will be different when I’m surrounded by equally passionate people, but I can’t do that year-round in high school. Alas.

And finally, more test-taking: according to this counselor, everybody is supposed to have taken the AP Chinese test — because free AP credits, duh. I haven’t, because our previous counselor said otherwise (what’s the point? What score do you expect a guy to get, if he’s taken twelve years of courses on an island where 99.99% of people speak the language natively?) and because the cost is still high enough to bother me.

There are no more opportunities before application season now. I’m still mostly skeptical, but this guy is supposed to be good at his job.

I have reasons to doubt that any of these things will be the game-changer, of course. But I’m still loss averse, and when everything is added up there’s enough of it to be emotionally troubling. A much larger commitment is required here if I want to “play it safe”. As I said, the prices of taking the actual tests are significant. But more importantly, these are year-long courses!

Decisions are hard.


Sometimes I feel like going through the college admissions process is like picking a religion.

The average religious person believes in the numbers. They worship test scores and GPAs and the number of APs taken. They work hard to get these numbers and burn them as offerings to please the great admission deities. There’s not much else that can be done with those numbers, anyway.

There are degrees of religiousness, of course. The zealots consecrate their entire lives to getting those numbers: they take daily test prep classes, they pick courses based on how lenient the teacher’s grading standards are, they found a few clubs or serve as officers on the side in the name of HYPSM their Savior. The more liberal people instead posit that the gods use “holistic admissions” and that test scores don’t matter that much; as long as you have a pure, intellectual, inquisitive heart and follow it, you will be rewarded. Of course, usually that intellectual spirit will generate a good test score as a side effect, because intelligence is intelligence, right?

The nonbelievers have decided that it doesn’t matter which college you go to; it’s more important to motivate yourself to get job experience, build stuff, make the most of high-school when it lasts. College admission works in mysterious ways. If decisions day come and you don’t get accepted, well, that just shows the colleges can’t appreciate intellectual integrity and you wouldn’t have wanted to patronize them anyway.

Finally there are the cultists, who primarily brainwash people into paying them lots of money with promises of getting accepted. And sometimes it works.

Whom to trust? What evidence do we have?

The holy books of Ivy League college websites are full of vague messages that can be freely interpreted.

There are prophets who have seen the light and can offer wonderful anecdotal evidence that X route of preparation works or that Y route doesn’t, for wildly varying and usually overlapping values of X and Y. There are entire websites dedicated to such prophets. But the liberals and nonbelievers have mostly long since transcended that, due to selection bias and trolls.

Unlike the average religion, the deities regularly make announcements. Still, the announcements are usually cryptic and indirect towards the issue at hand, which is “How do I get into your school?” Some of them will kindly tell you that test scores don’t matter that much, and then turn around and release a crazy statistic about the average SAT. Do what you love… you don’t have to cure cancer or build a nuclear reactor in your garage… but you also have to take challenging courses, have a complex life story, serve your community, and so on ad nauseam. Besides, they say, college is meant to be a match for you instead of a prize, so you should just be honest and you’ll end up at the college where you belong, however prestigious it is or isn’t. Yes, try telling that to our parents.

That’s the other thing: the admissions deities know a whole lot, but they’re not omniscient, so there can objectively said to be room for second-guessing and gaming the system. Estimates of how much room there is differ wildly, of course.

So, all in all, the evidence is scattered enough that there’s no really good way to debate (“defend, challenge, or qualify”) any of these stances.

I’m so sick of this. Can I label myself an agnostic apatheist, say that I don’t have time to quintuple-check my blog post, and get this over with? I have two big selection tests in around two weeks.

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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Test

Parts of this (a majority of questions, I hope) are intended as satire. Other parts of this are silliness created to blow off steam from being coerced into spending nine unproductive hours. Still other parts exist simply because I wanted to have equally many questions per test. Also, 256th post w00t.

“Verbal Reasoning”

Directions: The questions in this test are multiple-choice. Each question has four possible choices. Read each question and decide which answer is the best answer. Find the row in your answer sheet that matches the number of the question. In that row, fill in the oval corresponding to the answer you selected.

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