Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Shooting the messenger

Education leaders believe the SAT is biased against minority students.

Some colleges have devalued or eliminated the SAT when it comes to their admissions process, saying it discriminates against minority students.

"In some technical sense, it's probably not a biased test," said Fairtest's Monty Neil. Fairtest is dedicated to ensuring fairness in standardized tests.

"The purpose of the SAT, why it got constructed, was to predict college grades, so what happens is that kids of color - black kids, Hispanic kids - are very often left out," Neil said. "They're predicted to not do well when, in fact, they could do well."

Laurence Bunin, from the College Board, the owners of SAT, disagrees. "Fairest is mistaken on this point. The SAT is absolutely predictive of how well students will do in college," Bunin said. "Every single question on the SAT is tested with real students from all races and all walks of life to ensure that every question is fair."

Bunin also believes the test is a fair test that helps mirror what is going on in the country. He also states students and parents should understand that colleges look at a variety of factors, not just the test.


Uneducated guesses: Reforming education by committee rather than evidence

Statistician Howard Wainer doubts the salvation of public education will come from blue-ribbon commissions, a popular strategy in Georgia in which dense reports on how to fix schools stack higher than the Gold Dome. (As we discussed recently, the state is taking another swipe at funding reform, assembling its sixth commission to tackle the challenge.)

“If you try to change a very complicated system — and a school system is very complicated — the worst way is to appoint a blue-ribbon panel with a name like ‘Education 2030’ and ask them to come up with a plan to improve things,” Wainer said. “That is not going to work because we are not that smart.”

In an interview last week and in his new book “Uneducated Guesses” (Princeton, $24.95), Wainer maintains that education ought to look to manufacturing. Using paper-making as an example, Wainer said, “You might vary temperature a bit or you vary acidity by a little bit to see if it improves the quality of the paper. If it does, vary it some more in the same direction. If it makes things worse, retrace your steps and try something else. You should be in a constant state of experimentation all the time, seeing what makes things better. But you must make incremental changes so if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t kill you.”

Too often, schools blunder into change by mistaking anecdote for evidence, Wainer said. Tired of yelling at the TV when he saw news accounts of policy changes based on flawed evidence, Wainer uses his book to present evidence to help assess 11 such trends, including the entrance-exam-optional policies in many colleges and teacher evaluations based on student performance.

Wainer, who holds a doctorate in psychometrics from Princeton and lives near the university in New Jersey, was principal research scientist at the Educational Testing Service for 21 years and is now Distinguished Research Scientist at the National Board of Medical Examiners and an adjunct professor of statistics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

To test the growing assumption that entrance exams are not a quality predictor of student performance, Wainer reviewed the SAT scores of students who opted not to submit their scores when they applied to Bowdoin, a premier liberal arts college in Maine that has made SAT scores optional.

Wainer found that Bowdoin students who took the SAT but chose not to submit scores posted lower scores than their peers who did submit them. The mean score of students who submitted their scores was 1,323 out of 1,600, while nonsubmitters had a mean of 1,201.

Wainer went a step further to see how well these students fared in college. His finding: Students who didn’t submit SAT scores earned grades 0.2 points lower (on a four-point scale) in their first year than classmates who did submit their scores. Their poorer performance at Bowdoin was well-predicted by their SAT scores.

Wainer understands that most people won’t see grave concern, for instance, in a 3.0 grade-point average vs. a 2.8 (although Georgia students know that it’s a critical distinction for the HOPE scholarship).

But he isn’t arguing that an SAT score ought to trump a high school transcript. “What impresses me is that a two-and-a-half-hour test predicts performance in college about as well as four years of high school grades,” he said.

(Because college rankings incorporate the SAT scores of admitted students, Wainer points out that an optional SAT policy can enable a campus to climb in the rankings because lower-scoring students are less apt to submit their scores.)

While he has played a key role in the testing industry, Wainer said he’s not trying to bolster the College Board, which administers the SAT. In fact, he concludes in another chapter of his book that the national push to get more students enrolled in demanding AP math and science courses, also overseen by the College Board, is misbegotten.

“Someone asked me which side am I on,” he said. “I am on the side of data. What I hope people will do, when confronted with policy, is ask what’s the evidence.”

And Wainer said the evidence isn’t there yet on one of the most controversial new policies in education, basing teacher evaluations and pay on how much “value” they add to student learning as reflected in test scores.

Acknowledging that he goes “deep in the weeds” on the defects of value-added models, Wainer said, “It appears, at least at the moment, that the more you know about value-added models, the less faith you have in the value of inferences drawn from them.” He urges caution in adopting such models.

Wainer applies more than statistical evidence to education policy; he also brings common sense to bear. He dismisses attempts to compare U.S. schools with the idealized country du jour, saying, “You can take a Swedish model but anything works for Sweden because Sweden is full of Swedes. There are very few countries that have our diversity, our serious diversity, not skin color or hair curl, but the diversity of opinion, of background, that is in effect here.”

What Americans have to accept is that education, not to be confused with schooling, is neither cheap nor easy. “Schooling is six hours a day, 30 weeks a year. Education takes places in the home, in the church, in the community, all the time,” he said.

When Wainer served on the Princeton school board, parents asked him how they could help their children do better in school. He told them, “Turn off the television and read with them.”


Two-thirds of British schools ignore legal requirement to provide daily act of worship

Most schools ignore the legal requirement to hold a daily act of worship for their pupils, a new study has found.

Almost two-thirds of parents told a survey that their children do not attend a daily act of collective worship at school.

And a majority of people thinks that the law on daily worship on schools should be no longer be enforced.

A Church of England spokesman pointed out that the BBC Local Radio poll did not differentiate between primary and secondary schools, and argued that most primary schools do have collective worship or a daily period of reflection.

'The law states that all maintained schools must provide a daily act of collective worship, with the exception of those withdrawn by their parents,' he said.

'The Church of England strongly supports this - although it is not its job to enforce it - as it provides an important chance for the school to focus on promoting the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of its pupils.

'Collective worship is when pupils of all faiths and none come together to reflect - it should not be confused with corporate worship when everyone is of the same belief.'

However, 60 per cent of the public do not support enforcing the law which prescribes a daily act of worship in all state schools, with older people more favourable towards the law than the young.

A small majority (51 per cent) of those aged 65 or over believe it should be enforced, but only 29 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds agree.

Following the release of these findings, National Secular Society executive Keith Porteous Wood called for the law on collective daily worship to be repealed, saying it infringed pupils' human rights.

'As the BBC survey confirms, the law requiring daily collective worship is being widely flouted, and because the law should not be brought into disrepute in this way, it should be repealed,' he said.

'England is the only country in the western world to enforce participation in daily worship in community schools. 'To do so goes beyond the legitimate function of the state and is an abuse of children’s human rights, especially those who are old enough to make decisions for themselves.'

The survey was carried out by telephone in July and interviewed over 1,700 adults, including 500 parents with children at school in England.


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