Friday, May 30, 2014

Changing the SAT, part 2

By Professor Doom

     Last time around I looked at changes to the SAT, and noted a disturbing trend, where students will no longer have an “unfair” advantage if they happen to know things, or happen to study.

     The last few changes continue the trend, and manage to get more disturbing:

Analysis in Science and in History/Social Studies

When students take the redesigned SAT, they will be asked to apply their reading, writing, language, and math skills to answer questions in science, history, and social studies contexts. They will use these skills — in college, in their jobs, and in their lives — to make sense of recent discoveries, political developments, global events, and health and environmental issues.

Students will encounter challenging texts and informational graphics that pertain to issues and topics like these in the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section…

Again, this is a “knowledge out, come to the conclusions we want you to make in” change. I’m not opposed to this, but I honestly think students that know things should have some benefit to having that knowledge, but there will be no benefit to it on the SAT.

It’s really a little scary, since it’s easy to--by limiting the information provided--lead a person to wildly incorrect conclusions. Consider the “global warming” disaster, where people were swearing the polar ice caps would melt by 2012…it didn’t happen, and part of the problem is so many were unwilling to do their own independent study of the facts, instead relying upon facts provided by “reliable” sources like governments.

Founding Documents and Great Global Conversation

The U.S. founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Federalist Papers, have helped inspire a conversation that continues to this day about the nature of civic life. While the founding documents originated in the early American context, over time authors, speakers, and thinkers from the United States and around the world, including Edmund Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mohandas Gandhi, have broadened and deepened the conversation around such vital matters as freedom, justice, and human dignity. Every time students take the redesigned SAT, they will encounter a passage from one of the founding documents or from a text from the global conversation…

Now this is a change I can get behind, but only because it might, maybe, motivate the schools to put some of those founding documents on the curriculum (I sure never was made to study any of them in high school, or even college). That said, I fear this is a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing, because it starts with “U.S. founding documents…” and sounds good, but ends with “or from a text from the global conversation.” I very much fear that the end of that passage will be closer to reality, indoctrinating students not into the core concepts of inalienable rights and limited government, but instead into loopy theories that have led to the deaths of many millions of human beings (and these theories will be presented with limited information, so that the student has no opportunity to make an informed decision…).

No Penalty for Wrong Answers

The redesigned SAT will remove the penalty for wrong answers. Students will earn points for the questions they answer correctly. This move to rights-only scoring…

This is stunningly ignorant move. See, multiple choice tests have inherent “partial credit for guessing” in them. A student that knows nothing at all can guess, and mathematically, he’ll come out ahead because sometimes he’ll guess correctly. The SAT used to penalize guessing by deducting points for wrong answers, so that a guesser can at best break even—the losses from guessing wrong will cancel out the times he guesses right. 

The penalty, however, is based on guessing randomly over all answers…a student with enough knowledge to eliminate some of the answers will still come out ahead if he guesses among the answers that could be correct.

Again, this is a change that will eliminate any advantage a student with knowledge will have.

Any why the changes?

"We must certainly ask ourselves if we are, together or as a group, doing all we can to advance equity and excellence," College Board President David Coleman said while announcing the changes at the South by Southwest Education conference in Austin, Texas

The College Board also will partner with Khan Academy to offer free SAT test preparation materials to every student. College admissions tests, including the SAT and the ACT, have been heavily criticized by those who say they unintentionally favor students from wealthier families with the means to pay for preparation that gives students access to what Coleman called the "secrets" of the tests. 

"It is time for the College Board to say in a clear voice that the culture and practice of test preparation that now surrounds admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country,.." 

And there you have it…they’re making the changes so that the folks with money (or are willing to study from books freely available in the library) don’t have an advantage.

I’m all for equity, mind you, but “money” is always going to confer some sort of advantage, and willingness to go the library is a heck of a thing to discourage in a student. Either way, life isn’t fair. These changes are doomed to fail, because, I promise you, parents with money WILL spend that money to help their children. On the other hand, the poor student will no longer have a chance to help himself by going to the library.

I honestly don’t know where the educationists at the SAT come from, not to know this about human beings.

Am I the only one that thinks it is stupid to make a higher education aptitude test so that students that study and have knowledge will have no advantage, and that this test will be a good indicator of success in higher education? What has higher education turned into, that studying and knowledge are no longer obviously considered important in the SAT?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Why Change the SAT? Part 1

By Professor Doom

     In times past, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the SAT, was key to getting into higher education. Nowadays, anyone can get into college, regardless of aptitude (or interest), and so the test now is only of use for those wanting to get into a real school (there still are a few!), as opposed to the many bogus for-profit and community colleges that infest the US landscape like cancerous sores.

     Now, I totally understand these things can evolve, but institutions of higher education have a hard time adapting. If the test is changed from the year before, then the cutoff score from the year before no longer applies. If there’s a new cutoff score for the new test, and it’s equivalent to the old test, then changing the test is completely irrelevant and only adds confusion. That’s why it’s tough to justify changing the SAT.

     So I don’t really understand why the SAT gets an overhaul every few years, or at least I suspect the motives of such overhauls. There are 8 new changes planned for the SAT. Let’s take a look at them, and see if I can’t read between the lines here.

Relevant Words in Context

Instead of actual vocabulary, the new SAT will have students try to figure out words from their context in a sentence. A common accusation of changes to tests is “watering down”, which means “make it easier.” What does “easier” mean? Well, if you could do the test the before it was changed, and the changes don’t make it harder for you, then either it’s change for the sake of change, or it’s watering down.

Now, a student with vocabulary won’t need the “context” hint, but he will be getting a context hint now. So, yes, this is watering down.

This is what I see in schools that water down their material. The “A” students still get A’s, but instead of a few A’s in a class, there are a dozen or more.

The SAT will also use less obscure words—students that studied to learn obscure words will no longer have an unfair advantage! Oh brother. Yes, this change is straight up watering down of the SAT, since now there’s less of an advantage for studying (isn’t the ability to learn through study part of aptitude?).

Command of Evidence

When students take the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Essay sections of the redesigned SAT, they’ll be asked to demonstrate their ability to interpret, synthesize, and use evidence
That “interpret, synthesize, and use” phrase is straight out of Bloom’s Taxonomy, a bizarre educationist theory that has less physical evidence going for it than Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster…which is to say, “no physical evidence whatsoever.” That said, I concede this isn’t as blatantly a watering down as the vocabulary change…on the other hand, it does mean that once again actual knowledge will be less useful on the SAT.
I suspect the reason for these changes is because the schools no longer give students much knowledge, and so it doesn’t make much sense to test on knowledge anymore.

Essay Analyzing a Source

The focus of the Essay section on the redesigned SAT will be very different from the essay on the current SAT. Students will read a passage and explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience. 

The old essay portion of the SAT is gone, but students can still write an essay for this part. Again, it won’t be requiring the student have any knowledge going in…and this section will be considered optional.

Removal of essay is rather scary for me; there are so many “we’ll write essays for you” sites available that basically no online degree is worth the paper it’s not even printed on, and even “brick and mortar” schools have no way to deal with students that simply buy their papers.  A high school student can just as easily hire a writer as a college student.

The end result is there’s no longer any reason to suspect a high school graduate can write, unless you put that student in a controlled situation. Unfortunately, the SAT doesn’t want that responsibility. That’s a shame.

Focus on Math that Matters Most

Time and again, administration forces me to remove content from my courses because “students don’t need it.” The SAT is clearly influenced by these same administrators, because they’re taking out all that obscure math stuff. I should point out admin has taken “areas of squares and rectangles” out of courses as “unnecessary content,” to give some idea of how little there will be.

“Hi. We’re selling a plot of land that’s 100 feet on one side, and 120 feet on the other. How many square feet is that?”

--a top high school graduate asked me, his “math professor friend” for help with a mathematical concept not addressed in school. Smart guy, good grades…but that sort of mathematical material is no longer necessary for graduating high school.

This is watering down—any student that can handle obscure math topics will have no trouble with “math that matters most,” with what matters most determined by administrators. That’s a shame, because the end result will be that it’ll be that much harder to determine if the top scorers on the SAT are really good students, or just mediocre students that are good at the watered down standards.

Problems Grounded in Real-World Contexts

Throughout the redesigned SAT, students will engage with questions grounded in the real world, questions directly related to the work performed in college and career.
In the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section, reading questions will include literature and literary nonfiction, but also feature charts, graphs, and passages like the ones students are likely to encounter in science, social science…

Again, this is a “removal of knowledge” change. Not necessarily watered down, mind you, but I definitely see a trend here, which I hope the reader can determine as well.

There are more changes, but I’ll investigate those next time.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Jail for Grade-Fixing!

By Professor Doom

     Mainstream news sure is a funny thing; questions don’t get asked, and you’re very lucky to get even the facts. Despite being a typical mainstream news piece, the following is well worth consideration:

    The highlights are simple enough. A college administrator was changing the grades of students, turning F students into A- students (this goes a long way to explaining why A- is now the median grade in college), allowing them to get those all-important degrees. He would forge faculty signatures to facilitate the grade changes.

     I’ve mentioned before that going to admin is the thing to do when failing (it’s good, albeit corrupt, advice that could have come from Machiavelli himself, I admit), but this is a little over the top.

     The article makes it clear the administrator wasn’t taking bribes to make the changes (one might conjecture the salary these guys get is pretty much an “advance bribe” to make sure students do well). The article does a poor, poor job asking the question why he did it.
      He’d been at the institution well over a decade, so it’s a safe bet that this sort of thing had been going on for quite some time. The administrator has little to say in his own defense:

“They did not like the way I was doing my job, and we mutually agreed I should leave,”

     His job, apparently, was to make sure students got their degrees no matter what. He says there was no pressure from above, but I find that claim preposterous. I’ve worked for over 20 years in higher education, and at most institutions the pressure from above to pass students no matter what is, simply, relentless.

     Incidentally, he wasn’t fired right away; he stayed on the payroll long enough to cash in his sick and vacation days. That’s amazing; even if not convicted of job-related fraud, faculty lose that sort of stuff immediately when they’re fired, and they’re fired immediately. 

     Letting him stay employed long enough to for that shenanigans is a clear message that the administration of the school approved his actions.

     It is, of course, completely impossible for this level of fraud to only have a single person involved; I suspect the administrator’s unwillingness to implicate others or claim he was pressured into committing fraud is merely assisting the cover-up, with vacation and sick leave as a reward. His immediate supervisor also left the school:

     In my research, it’s jaw-dropping how often an administrator involved with fraud, even if fired, has no trouble landing another plum position somewhere else. As I mentioned before, the only other fields where fraud and incompetence doesn’t disqualify you from future work in the same field are banking and politics.

     For his fraud, the administrator will get 6 months in jail, and 5 years’ probation. I figure a better than 99% chance that when he gets out, he’ll get another plum position in higher education, since nobody will ask the questions that need to be asked here.
Me, at graduation: “ I have no idea who that person is. Did you pass that student?”

Faculty: “Nope.”

Me: “Is there someone else besides you and me teaching the courses it says she passed, to graduate?”

Faculty: “Nope, but I know better than to ask questions.”

--I grant my memory for faces and names is far from perfect, but I really started to hate going to graduations at one school, which was just too small for so many students to have slipped through the cracks. Asking questions got me in some trouble there, I concede.

    Only 15 students were specifically mentioned in this case (I repeat, this admin was there for over a decade, so I bet there were quite a few more students involved). Despite the fraud, none of the students will lose their degree. Lucky them, though I honestly believe this sort of thing cheapens the value of the degrees the legitimate students, if any, receive.

     Let’s talk about the money involved here. The article helpfully says that the program the students were in could cost nearly $75,000 per student. Hmm. Times 15, that’s well past a million bucks. Much like in banking, just a few forged signatures are necessary to procure that kind of money.

     But no, the administrator says he wasn’t paid extra to help those (and other) students, and the article doesn’t dare suggest that there was some financial benefit to the administrator for passing those students.

     Despite the fraud, the school remains fully accredited. In fact, it will not even get a second look from accreditation. Of course. Accreditation has no means to even discover fraud like this, so can’t be expected to penalize a school engaging in such fraud. This is why, time and again, I stress that the way to at least start fixing higher education is to make accreditation something besides a fraud and a joke.

     I wish this case would set a real precedent in higher education. Churning out worthless degrees for bogus and/or non-existent coursework is actually quite common in higher education today, and the administrators involved should probably be the ones looking over their shoulder, instead of the minimally paid adjuncts who are under constant pressure to pass everyone, lest they be fired and have the grades changed by administration anyway.

     A man can dream, right?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

My book...

Many of the essays posted here are from a book I wrote, Why Johnny Can't Read, Write, or Do 'Rithmetic Even With A College Degree. Publishers won't touch this book: the big ones just aren't in the business of revealing what's really going on in higher education. I'm no great self-promoter; the book is the result of my investigation into higher education after starting to suspect that most of what goes on is fraud.

It's not expensive, and if you find it tedious to look through my blog (which has essentially everything in the book), plunk down $8 and get it while it's still in print: