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Asians, Aptitude, And Achievement: A Positive Sum Reform
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September 20, 2011, 04:02 AM
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The traditional concept of college admissions was that the goal was to predict applicants` future achievement (which could be measured in terms of first year in college grades or money donated 50 years later or whatever). The most obvious way to predict future achievement was past achievement: e.g., high school grades. Presumably, past achievement had two main components: hard work and aptitude.

But there were some obvious problems with relying solely on high school grades, such as different levels  of grade inflation at high schools. If you were getting most of your applicants from St. Paul`s and Dalton, well, you could keep in mind the differences, augmented with letters of recommendation from headmasters you had known for years. 

But once the Ivy Leagues started trying to find the most promising non-upper class kids from the rest of the country, they needed something more objective about individuals than just grades. Another issue is that high school grades have certain inherent shortcomings. The future Nobelist in physics might not care about his social studies class and thus wind up with a lower overall GPA than the well-adjusted grind. Plus, grades have a ceiling. Even an A+ in physics doesn`t really tell you that much. Moreover, lots of future successes are alienated in high school. Some people who get all As in high school might not have the upside to continue to do so in college. Incentives toward grade inflation at the high school are built in. And so forth ... Top colleges kept asking for recommendation letters, but their value (and, thus, importance) dropped as they increasingly came in from random teachers in random places like Burbank, CA.

So, for various reasons like this, the Scholastic Aptitude Test was created and spread. The idea was to have an objective, national test of academic intelligence. Overall, the SAT would appear to have been a huge success. American colleges are the most fashionable and richest in the world today. 

However, there have long been complaints about the SAT. The most fashionable involved The Gap. Whites averaged higher scores than blacks. This posed a major PR problem for the academic establishment. The SAT (and ACT) is essential for their continued thriving, but saying that blacks are less intelligent than whites on average is The Worst Thing in the Whole World. But that`s what the SAT says. And the SAT is the cornerstone of academic elitism, which has made American academia globally the envy of the academic world.

Thus, over the last half century or so, there have been anguished discussions between the front men for the academic world and the psychometricians at ETS about how to Close the Gap, without throwing the baby of predictive power out with the bathwater.

One change was purely PR: the SAT doesn`t stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test anymore. It just stands for SAT these days. Under the hood, there have been a host of tweaks intended to narrow the gap without trashing the predictive powers of the SAT too much.

For example, the upper range of the Verbal (now Critical Reading) test has been capped. Before 1995, it was very, very hard to get an 800 on the Verbal test. I came fairly close the first time I took the test in 1975, so I gave it another try, got a little closer, but gave up and didn`t take it a third time because the two scores seemed quite accurate: I`m very good at verbal logic, and have a certain gift for insights that other people wouldn`t come up with, but I`m not a meticulous thinker. I make lots of mistakes. I`m more of a let`s run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes thinker. In contrast, say, Charles Murray`s brain works like a BMW V-12: powerful and precise. Mine`s a jalopy that might surprise you and win the race or might break down on the starting line and go nowhere. So, there didn`t seem like much point in me doing a lot of test prep to try to score 800 on the verbal — I`d still make a mistake or two or they throw a really hard question at me.

But now, an 800 is well within reach of a lot of well-drilled students.

So, before scores were inflated in 1995, the SAT-V was an excellent test of high end verbal brainpower. In contrast, the SAT-M was widely recognized to need more headroom. It wasn`t uncommon at Rice in the 1970s to hear good but not great Sci-Eng majors say, "Well, sure, I got an 800, but I`m not a real 800 like Joe is."

An obvious reform would have been to make scoring of SAT-M more like scoring of SAT-V. Instead, College Board - ETS did the opposite in 1995. One reason was that all that headroom on the Verbal modestly increased The Gap. The V test was made much easier to score 800 upon in 1995. A 730 old style became an 800 new style.

Lots of other tweaks were made, but as far as we can tell, anything that raises black average scores just encourages harder scraping of the bottom of the barrel by society, so the white-black The Gap remains remarkably stable over the generations. For example, The Gap on SAT-Critical Reading dropped about a half decade ago, perhaps because of the changes on the test, such as deep-sixing analogies. But that apparently just encouraged the College Board to troll for more black test-takers with free tests, so The Gap is now even bigger. (I may be overinterpreting this.)

But white parents still tend to assume that SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test. It`s not an achievement test in their heads. The College Board says there is no point in studying extra hard for the SAT, and why would a prestigious not-for-profit institution spin the truth? If you can`t trust the College Board, who can you trust? And signing your child up for intensive test prepping would be unfair to poor blacks who can`t afford all that tutoring and drilling. Plus, prepping for years would be a lot of work for little Taylor, so just let him have his fun.

Meanwhile, lots of people from Fujian are showing up in America whose merchant ancestors ascended to mandarin status by spending their mercantile profits at Confucian literature cram schools for their sons. The assumptions about the SAT flitting around in white people`s heads would never occur to them. "Test prep is unfair to poor blacks? Huh? You crack me up! I like you! You are very funny!"

Not surprisingly, we see vast amounts of white upper middle class rage directed at Amy Chua. 

Now, is devoting hundreds of hours to prepping for the SAT a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? Well, let me try to reframe that question more productively and think about SAT test prep`s opportunity cost.

It could be that SAT test prep has long term benefits other than getting into a fancier college. Could be ... I dunno. I haven`t seen any evidence one way or another. But, it seems more like a zero sum game. SAT test prep seems kind of a sterile form of studying compared to studying an actual subject like Physics or French or Music Theory or World History or Microeconomics.

It seems to me that it would be better for everybody if more test prepping energy was invested instead into positive sum games, such as studying for achievement tests rather than for aptitude tests. Fortunately, we currently have a quite good set of national achievement tests: the College Board`s Advanced Placement tests. They are not subject to the incentives for high schools to inflate their grades: the AP tests provide objective national grades that do a good job of predicting what the high school student would score on a 101-102 level course as a freshman in college.

Unfortunately, the current college admissions system gives little weight to AP test scores. Instead, perversely, it gives too much weight to taking AP classes in high school, even if you then do bad on the AP test. The University of California, for example, in calculating high school GPA adds a full point to classes designated Advanced Placement. Thus the average high school GPA of UC Berkeley freshmen is a wacky 4.39. An internal study by UC showed that cutting the bonus for an AP course down to 0.5 would better predict freshmen grades. I don`t believe the UC system counts AP test scores  in the admission`s process, or doesn`t count them much.

As Mitch has pointed out, this system is doubly rigged in favor of the more goody-two-shoes high school students. Typically, you need high grades in earlier classes to get into high school AP classes, where you are then given a full extra point for your GPA — even if your AP score shows you didn`t actually learn much.

So, the ideal system would be for college admissions to be retooled from mostly a two legged stool of grades and SAT scores to a three legged stool of grades, AP Test scores, and SAT scores. The SAT could then be redesigned to be more purely an aptitude test that would be less easy to game. Moreover, test takers would have less incentive to devote hundreds of hours to gaming the SAT because they were being encouraged to spend hundreds of hours mastering AP Chemistry or AP European History. 

The AP tests should be reformed to make them better for college admissions. They are currently scored on a 1 to 5 scale with a 5 equating to an A in the average college`s freshman year introductory course in that subject, a 4 equal to a B, and so forth. A weird aspect of this is that all 5s are not created equal. For example, to get a 5 on the AP Chemistry test, you have to get a little over 60% right. So, people getting 98% right don`t get a higher score than people getting 68% right. Test scoring should be kept the same at the lower levels — a 3 would still be a C — but the maximum score extended from 5 out to 7, which would be like an A at Caltech. Meanwhile, the GPA boost from taking an AP course would be eliminated, at least before senior year.

The initial winners from this changeover would, of course, tend to be Asians, who currently take a lot of AP tests. But good for them. Whites in heavily Asian areas, who have already started to adapt to the Asian challenge, would do okay. Whites in flyover regions would be challenged to get on the ball with AP. My guess is that it would be good for them and that they would eventually respond well to the challenge.

Overall, my plan looks like it would be better overall for society.

Yes, sure, obviously it`s a win-win, but, does it solve America`s most overwhelming problem: Closing The Gap? Will blacks come closer to whites in scores under my system?

I dunno. I haven`t thought about it. In fact, not worrying about Closing The Gap has allowed me to put forward a novel reform suggestion that might be better overall, which is not something you see too often these days.

In America today, 98% of the thinking devoted to college admissions goes to figuring out how your own kid can claw his way to the top, and the other 2% goes to airy handwaving theorizing about Closing The Gap. That leaves 0% devoted to thinking about improving the system overall.

Now, if I were truly, fanatically public-spirited, I would devote a lot of energy to dreaming up some bogus but persuasive-sounding theory about how my reform would Close The Gap, which would make it a lot more likely to be adapted. But, I`m not saintly enough to make up an elaborate lie.