The Test Score Gap: Nobody is even trying to make sense anymore

From Friday's NYT, a good example of the current conventional wisdom about The Gap: few African-Americans do well enough in math to get into Stuyvesant High School because their mothers didn't teach them enough English words (unlike, presumably, all those Stuyvesant students whose mothers don't speak English at all).

Before a Test, a Poverty of Words 

By GINIA BELLAFANTE 

... Earlier in the year when I met Steven F. Wilson, founder of a network of charter schools that serve poor and largely black communities in Brooklyn, I asked him what he considered the greatest challenge on the first day of kindergarten each year. He answered, without a second’s hesitation: “Word deficit.” As it happens, in the ’80s, the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley spent years cataloging the number of words spoken to young children in dozens of families from different socioeconomic groups, and what they found was not only a disparity in the complexity of words used, but also astonishing differences in sheer number. Children of professionals were, on average, exposed to approximately 1,500 more words hourly than children growing up in poverty. This resulted in a gap of more than 32 million words by the time the children reached the age of 4. 

This issue, though seemingly crucial, has been obscured in the recently intensified debate over the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, the multiple-choice exam used as the sole metric for entrance into some of New York City’s elite public high schools, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. 

... Two weeks ago, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, along with other organizations, filed a federal civil rights complaint challenging the single-score admissions process as perilously narrow and arguing that it negatively affected black and Hispanic children, who are grossly underrepresented in these schools, so long considered forceful agents of mobility.  ...

As the complaint makes note, of the 967 eighth-grade students offered admission to Stuyvesant for the current school year, only 19 were black and 32 Hispanic. During the previous school year, only 3.5 percent of students at Bronx Science were black and 7.2 percent Hispanic.  


Okay, but Stuyvesant is 72% Asian and Bronx Science 62% Asian. And a large fraction of those are children of immigrants who often struggle with English. 

And the test is 50% math, and the verbal portion is highly oriented toward logic.

How does the Hart-Risley vocabulary theory explain Stuyvesant?

As the education theorist E. D. Hirsch recently wrote in a review of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed,” there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success.


I suspect that there is actually strong evidence that "the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success" but that nobody has come close to proving that "increasing" them matters much, and that even if it does, nobody knows how to reliably accomplish that.

Schools have an enormously hard time pushing through the deficiencies with which many children arrive.


Actually, six year old are extremely good at arriving at school and learning the accents, slang, even the entire new language of the kids on the playground. Smallish children can quickly adapt to speaking a different language from their parents. (Here's my 2000 article, with quotes from Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky, on the facility with which children can learn new languages.) That's why Ron Unz's successful 1998 initiative to reduce bilingual education in California didn't cause all the doom and gloom that people in the bilingual ed racket predicted: once the schools made clear that the kids were supposed to learn English, they learned English. English is cool.

By the way, an article seven years ago in the NYT sort of pointed out that the way the exam for the NYC elite public high schools ranks scores gives Asian immigrants an advantage. Has this system been altered since then?

Admission Test's Scoring Quirk Throws Balance Into Question 

By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN 

Published: November 12, 2005 

For weeks, Joshua N. Feinman had graded practice tests to help his daughter prepare for New York City's specialized high school exam. Then one day, he took a hard look at the scoring chart from her private test-prep class and was stunned by how the verbal and math scores added up. 

''I took a look and said, 'Wow, this thing is really nonlinear,' '' said Mr. Feinman, the chief economist of Deutsche Asset Management. '' 'Wow, it's much better to score high in one and low in the other than to score good in both.' '' 

Mr. Feinman had stumbled on a little-known facet of the test: because of the complex way it is graded, a student scoring extremely high on one part of the exam has a sharp advantage over a student with high but more balanced scores in each subject. 

For Mr. Feinman's daughter, Amanda, and more than 26,000 other eighth graders who will get their results in February, the implications loom large. Last year, for instance, a student with a 99 percentile score in math and 49 percentile in verbal would have been admitted to Stuyvesant High School -- the most coveted specialized school -- but a student with a 97 in math and 92 in verbal would not. ...

City education officials and the company that has prepared the test since 1983, American Guidance Service, said that they were aware of the potential outcomes and that scoring for the exam had to be designed this way to identify the best test takers. They also said their hands were tied by state law, which they said required that admission to the specialized schools be based on a single combined score in math and verbal. ...

''Stuyvesant loves lopsided geniuses,'' said Naomi Bushman, a mathematics education consultant who runs a test-prep course for the exam. ...

Principals said they were aware that a super-high score on one part could substantially lift an applicant's chances, because many recent immigrants with extremely limited English skills had earned admission by posting exceptional math scores.

There just aren't very many "lopsided geniuses" among NAMS. Going to a more balanced scoring system would benefit blacks and Hispanics, but it would also benefit whites, so I guess we can't do that.