Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Two Myths About the SAT

Since the recent announcement that major changes are coming to the SAT, I've seen about 10,000 articles claiming that (A) the correlation between family income and SAT scores proves that the test is biased against poor kids and (B) the SAT is easy for the rich to "game" through test prep.

There are indeed problems with the SAT, including problems relating to parental income. Here is a persuasive argument by Charles Murray that the SAT should be scrapped entirely and replaced by subject tests like the SAT II. But we shouldn't be shocked by the simple fact that parental income is linked to children's academic achievement, and the effects of "gaming" the SAT have been wildly exaggerated.

The problem with treating the SAT-income correlation as an argument in itself is that richer kids, fairly or unfairly, actually do have higher academic capabilities. As I've written before, and frankly as anyone with eyes in his head ought to know, there are numerous ways that parents can pass advantages on to their kids -- genes, better schools, better neighborhoods, and so on. The simple correlation between income and scores tells us nothing at all about whether the SAT has an income bias, because it's exactly what we would expect from a legitimate measure of academic ability.

Income gaps are evident on basically every academic measure we have. Here is an informative paper bringing together all sorts of achievement-test results in regards to the 90/10 gap -- the gap between kids at the 90th and 10th percentiles of parental income.

It provides two important charts, with Y axes indicating the gap in standard deviations. Here's the gap in reading:

And here's the gap in math:

As you can see, across plenty of different tests, in recent years the 90/10 gap has usually been a full standard deviation or more. Measuring the gap with one test instead of another makes little difference.

[Update: Also, the ACT and SAT show very similar income trends, as I show here.]

And what about "gaming" the SAT? Well, here is a report finding that SAT prep typically raises math scores 10-20 points and reading scores 5-10 points. The standard deviation of each subtest is around 110 points, and the black/white gap is about the same. What's more, free test-prep services are targeted toward poor and minority kids -- surprisingly, black and Hispanic kids are actually more likely to use test prep, and they gain slightly more than whites from doing so (though Asians seem to gain unusually large amounts, as much as 70 points).

I'm glad to see a discussion about the merits of the SAT. But let's drop these two unhelpful talking points.


Student government candidates at California university fined $100 for talking to reporters

Members of the university’s Associated Students, Inc., formerly known as the Elections Committee, met Friday to discuss next steps regarding the alleged violations. ASI spokeswoman Michelle Broom said the fines have since been suspended until staffers consult with legal counsel pertaining to the inconsistencies in the code.

Politicians have always loved to see their names in the newspapers, but at California Polytechnic State University, candidates for student government face fines of $100 just for talking to reporters.

J.J. Jenkins, editor-in-chief of the Mustang News, the school’s student newspaper, told that two of four candidates for president at the public university in San Luis Obispo have been fined $100 after they or their campaign staff spoke to the student-run publication. The students were notified they violated code banning active campaigning including “non-verbal public display” until 10 days before the April 23 election.

“I do think the poorly written code did not and does not allow the media to fully vet the candidates before the election,” Jenkins wrote in an email. “It also restricts information flowing to students, allowing the student government to, in a way, tailor what information the public gets and at what point they get it.”

“I do think the poorly written code did not and does not allow the media to fully vet the candidates before the election."
- J.J. Jenkins, editor-in-chief, Mustang News

Members of the university’s Associated Students, Inc., formerly known as the Elections Committee, met Friday to discuss the next steps regarding the alleged violations. ASI spokeswoman Michelle Broom said the fines have since been suspended until staffers consult with legal counsel pertaining to the inconsistencies in the code.

“Although we don’t know when we will hear back from our legal counsel, he is aware of the urgency of this matter,” Broom wrote in an email obtained by “We will provide more information as it becomes available.”

Reached by phone on Monday, Broom referred to Friday’s statement and said ASI officials were working to provide additional information.

Jenkins, meanwhile, told that junior Connor Paquin and senior Joi Sullivan were both fined $100 prior to the announced suspension. Junior Jake Rogers was not fined, however, because a student who spoke to Mustang News was not officially associated to his campaign. A fourth student, Will Blumhardt, had spoken to the publication but was not directly fined, Jenkins said.

“They told us their [$100] filing fee will not be returned to them,” Jenkins told, referring to Paquin and Sullivan.

Jenkins said the election code was written so broadly that any mention of the candidates’ name in print — or “non-verbal” venues — is technically a violation.

“So basically, it’s so broad that if I write their names down on a sticky note and hand it out, that’s a violation,” he said.

The amount of the fine, Jenkins said, isn't peanuts for a college student either.

"$100 is probably about a week's worth of food or about a month's worth of utilities out here in California," he wrote in an email. "A lot of students work $10-an-hour jobs, so that's 10 hours of work and that might be all they have time for in a week."

It's bad enough to silence candidates in the name of a "level playing field," said Robert Shibley, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. But it is also not fair to expect the student newspaper to cover an election when it can't interview the candidates, he said.

"Students, like all Americans, depend on the press for information," he said. "Instituting rules that guarantee students will have less information about what's happening on campus is a very bad idea and teaches students the wrong lessons about free speech in our democratic society."

Michael Latner, a professor of political science at the school, said it’s not unusual for laws to restrict how long candidates can campaign prior to an election. But the “bizarre” takeaway of the code, he told, is that it limits an independent press, including the school’s student newspaper, from vetting candidates properly.

“It’s pretty clear that it’s had some adverse consequences,” Latner said of the code, adding that it amounts to a regulation on journalists. “The press has an obligation to provide information to voters prior to an election. If we think about this in the most general terms, the Framers recognized the crucial importance of a free press and the media provides the necessary vehicle for that.”

Latner urged ASI officials to reconsider the regulation despite perceived good intentions.

“It would certainly behoove ASI to rethink this regulation,” he said. “It seems clear to me that they didn’t think through the consequences,” he said.


UK: Strict health rules for school dinners scrapped despite warning against more than six spoons of sugar a day

Healthy eating rules which ensured children ate enough vitamins and minerals in school dinners are to be torn up, ministers said today.

The government claims rules setting out detailed nutritional standards for pupils are too complex and costly for school cooks.

However it comes just a day after the World Health Organisation warned children should try for less than six teaspoons and avoid cans of fizzy drink such as Coke altogether.

The changes to school meals are being made ahead of the introduction of free school meals for all infant pupils from this September.

To ensure pupils get a healthy, balanced diet, council-run schools must currently follow strict food and nutritional standards that set down the specific amounts of vitamins and minerals, such as zinc and vitamin A, that should be included in each meal.

However, the Department for Education said the regulations are difficult for schools to understand and have needed computer programmes to analyse the nutritional content of menus to ensure that they comply with the rules.

It follows an independent review of school food, led by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent of the Leon restaurant chain.

It is claimed some councils or catering companies had to pay for meals to be analysed costing around £20 for each recipe.

Now ministers have ditched the rules, and will instead just state the types of food and drink that pupils should be offered, for example fruit and vegetables on a daily basis.

The new standards will apply to all local council-run schools and new academies, although they will not initially be mandatory for existing academies.

Schools minister David Laws said: ‘With six months to go, we want to support and encourage all schools to step up their preparations and these extra measures will support them in doing so.

‘Every child deserves the best possible start in life, and we know from pilots that children in schools that offer universal free school meals are academically months ahead of their peers and also more likely to eat vegetables at lunchtime instead of less healthy food like crisps.’

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg announced last year that from September 2014 all five to seven-year-olds  in England would be given a free school lunch.

But there was criticism that some schools were not prepared and would struggle to provide the meals at a high standard,

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said: ‘All schools support the vision of providing nutritious meals to pupils but we must not underestimate the challenge of delivering it.

‘There are practicalities remaining to be addressed on how every primary will be able to deliver the full service by September - especially for those without existing catering facilities on site and with so many other initiatives hitting schools at the same time.’


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