Saturday, December 04, 2010

For the Boys' Sake, Don't Kill the SAT

Three years ago, before any of my kids had reached the age to take the SATs, I noticed an interesting piece by Charles Murray on the tests. Murray is always interesting, of course, but I was curious about his take on the SAT because his views on IQ are well known.

Murray argued that the SAT should be scrapped. His case was not (no surprise) the usual indictment of the tests as culturally biased. Instead, he argued that the SAT is unnecessary and, in some ways, counterproductive.

The SAT began as a way for colleges to identify bright students from less than stellar high schools and give them an opportunity. Admission committees might discount excellent grades from inferior schools, but scores on an "aptitude" test (they later changed the word to "assessment" to avoid the accusation that the SAT was measuring IQ) could be revealing. Murray suggests that he used to think his own performance on the test was what got him into Harvard.

But a study by Saul Geiser and Roger Studley from the University of California seemed to show that the SATs contributed little to predicting a student's success in college, whereas achievement tests and high school grades were more reliable. "Those of us who thought that the SAT was our salvation were probably wrong ... our scores on achievement tests would have conveyed about the same picture to college admissions committees as our scores on the SAT conveyed."

The reality, Murray wrote, is that smart kids tend to do well on tests, whether a pop quiz or the AP exams. But whereas the SAT was originally designed to flag kids who might otherwise have been missed by college admissions committees, it has today become a "corrosive symbol of privilege." Everybody now believes, according to Murray, that wealthier parents can purchase higher scores for their kids through expensive coaching. And while Murray points out that this is not so (coaching adds, at most, a couple of dozen points, according to three studies), it is the case that children of college-educated (and graduate degreed) parents walk away with the best scores. Everyone else is found wanting. "All who enter an SAT testing hall feel judged by their scores," Murray writes.

While the idea of junking those stressful, laborious three-hour tests has its appeal, there are reasons to resist.

If achievement tests were substituted for the SAT, all of the cultural and psychological baggage of the high-stakes test would simply switch over. All would continue to "feel judged by their scores" -- just on a different test. (And Murray may overestimate the importance people attach to scores.)

Additionally, Murray doesn't account for the important male/female difference in test performance, particularly on aptitude tests. (Cards on the table: I write as a parent of three boys.) For whatever reason, during the past 30 years, our society has seen girls outperforming boys at every level of education. The average high school GPA for girls is 3.09. For boys, the average is 2.86. About one quarter more boys than girls drop out of high school, and boys are three times as likely to be expelled. Girls do significantly better at reading proficiency in all grades. And in math, traditionally a male preserve, the two sexes are tied. Women now earn 58 percent of bachelor's degrees and 60 percent of master's degrees in the U.S.

Something is going on. It may be the significant attention the educational establishment has lavished on girls, the lure of video games, the lack of fathers in so many homes, the fact that boys mature more slowly than girls, or maybe none of those. But we do know that whatever may be inhibiting them from excelling in high school as much as girls, boys do score proportionately better on the SATs.

In 2010, a total of 382 students scored a perfect 2400. Of these, 206 were boys, and 176 were girls. (If the writing test is omitted, 1,305 students got a 1600 -- 820 boys and 485 girls.) Among those who scored a 2350, 341 were boys, and 266 were girls. The same rough ratios hold (with one exception) for all of the scores in the top 10 percentiles. At the 90th percentile and below, some of the girls' scores are higher than the boys'. And in the middle range, it's a mixed bag.

So long as college requires mental ability, the SATs will remain a signal that boys with less than perfect high school records may be late bloomers or perhaps were ill served by their schools. But scrapping one of the few remaining avenues for talented boys to show, yes, their aptitude, seems unwise.


Students should be judged on 'potential', says Oxford admissions chief

If he really did want to do that, he would be using IQ tests. They are the best predictor of educational success -- and they are almost totally unaffected by home background

Universities should consider giving priority to pupils with good grades from poor performing schools, according to Oxford’s head of admissions. Students gaining a string of good grades at sink schools “may have more potential” than those with similar scores from elite schools and colleges, it was claimed.

Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford, said universities should have “no hesitation” about taking students’ backgrounds into consideration during the applications process.

The comments are likely to fuel controversy over “social engineering” in university admissions. Headmasters have warned that the use of “contextual data” – including students’ school, family background and social class – risks penalising pupils with good results from top-performing independent schools.

It comes amid rising competition for university places. Demand for degree courses is expected to reach record levels next year as students scramble to get in to higher education before a sharp rise in tuition fees in 2012.

But the Sutton Trust – a charity campaigning to improve levels of social mobility – insisted universities still had a duty to “take into account the educational context of students when deciding whom to admit”.

It came as a report from the charity suggested that teenagers admitted on to degree courses with relatively low GCSE and A-level performed just as well as those with better grades. The study said a comprehensive school pupil with three Bs at A-level was just as likely to get a good degree as those admitted from private school with two As and a B.

Comprehensive students with average A-levels and GCSEs actually did better at university compared with privately-educated pupils with the same grades, the report added.

The Sutton Trust said this proved that universities were justified in making lower offers to pupils from poor-performing comprehensives. “The use of data about the educational context in which students have obtained their qualifications, particularly the type of school attended, should be encouraged when comparing the attainment of [higher education] candidates,” the study said.

Many top universities currently use contextual data during the applications process.

Addressing a conference in central London on Thursday, Mr Nicholson told how Oxford’s medical school looked into the number of A* grades applicants scored at GCSE – then compared scores with the overall performance of their school. “A student who gets five A*s from a school where nobody gets A*s may have more potential than a student who gets five A*s where the average student gets seven or eight A*s,” he said.

Speaking at the Westminster Education Forum, he said contextual data gave admissions tutors “an indication, if used rightly, of [students’] potential” to do well in a degree course. He said he had "no hestitation" in employing "evidence-based use of contextual information" during applications.

Meanwhile, the Sutton Trust study was condemned by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents 250 top independent schools.

“This is just one of a number of studies of university outcomes which come to contradictory conclusions about the influence of different types of school education,” said a spokesman.

“Independent schools share universities’ enthusiasm to identify academic promise as well as prior attainment but this latest study does beg the question of why some comprehensive school students are evidently so less well prepared for A levels than those in independent schools.”


Australia: A private education has its awards

Non-disruptive classrooms give teachers time to teach

ONE of Melbourne's bastions of male privilege - Scotch College - has educated more of Australia's most honoured and influential citizens than any other school in the nation.

An analysis of the 435 people who have received the nation's top Order of Australia honours since they were first awarded in 1975, shows they disproportionately attended a handful of elite Victorian secondary schools.

Scotch College alumni blitzed the field, with 19 former students receiving Australia's highest honour, including former governor-general Sir Zelman Cowen, historian Hugh Stretton, High Court judge Kenneth Hayne, indigenous eye health pioneer Professor Hugh Taylor and former Tasmanian premier Jim Bacon.

The only school that comes close is Geelong Grammar, with former students, including Prince Charles and Rupert Murdoch, receiving 17 honours.

Alumni from the two schools have received more than 8 per cent of all the knight, dame or Companion of the Order of Australia honours - more than all the schools in each of Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, ACT and Northern Territory.

The analysis provides a fascinating insight into the transfer of social advantage through the school system, with independent schools dominating rankings in Victoria.

The only government school in Victoria to be ranked in the top 30 was the selective-entry Melbourne High School, whose alumni - including Nobel prizewinning neurophysiologist John Eccles and former Reserve Bank governor Ian Macfarlane - received six honours. However, study author Rohan Reid said outside of Victoria the dominant schools were not always private, with former students from the selective state schools Sydney Boys' High and Fort Street High receiving the third and equal fourth highest number of awards.

Professor Jack Keating from the University of Melbourne said that unlike Melbourne, Sydney had about 20 selective-entry high schools. "Sydney Boys and Fort Street are long-established, so the economic and social elite will be more inclined to send their kids there," Professor Keating said.

"The selective-entry high schools have been favoured by a certain middle class on the Labor side of politics. A lot of the lawyers' class and the professional class comes through these schools, whereas in Melbourne, the law and medical classes tend to come through the private schools."

He said the study mirrored the findings of Melbourne University researchers Mark Peel and Janet McCalman, who analysed the educational backgrounds of the people listed in the 1988 Who's Who. Again, Scotch College outranked all other schools.

Professor David Penington, an Old Scotch Collegian who was made a companion of the Order of Australia in 1988 for his service to medicine and the community, believes the school's Scottish Presbyterian background meant it has always placed a strong emphasis on community contribution.

It's a sentiment shared by former premier and old Scotch boy Jeff Kennett, AC, who still recalls the words of former headmaster Richard Selby Smith. "He used to say to us that we had an obligation to the college when we left school - it wasn't all about money, it was actually about service. It was something that stuck in my mind as a young boy."

Mr Kennett believes Order of Australia honours should reward what people do outside their jobs.

"I think there are so many people who consistently give to the community, who don't get the recognition they deserve," he said. Author Shane Maloney infamously described Scotch College as a "machine for the transmission of inherited privilege" during a creative writing seminar at the school nine years ago.

Asked whether the analysis of Order of Australia honours reinforced his view that Scotch was a factory of privilege, Mr Maloney said: "You could draw that conclusion. Alternatively, the argument could be put that it simply reinforces the value parents get for their money."


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