Full of bale

Pitzer president Laura Skandera Trombley says the SAT is useless in an LA Times op-ed. If this is the best example of the SAT’s bias, the exam should be out of trouble. Trombley critiques an SAT question:

“Aware of the baleful weather predicted by forecasters, we decided the —- would be the best place for our company picnic.

(A) roof
(B) cafeteria
(C) beach
(D) park
(E) lake

Now, if I had grown up on the East Coast, my immediate choice would be “cafeteria,” as my assumption would be that “baleful weather” would indicate rain or maybe even snow. But in fact, I lived for many years on the western side of the Pacific Coast Highway, so “baleful weather” could indicate high waves „ meaning that my company picnic would be best, and more pleasantly, relocated to a lake.

On the other hand, if I had lived in Iowa (and I did for five years), baleful weather might indicate flooding. Obviously my company picnic would be best held on the roof. What to do? What to choose?

Context: the framework within which we make sense of the world.

Actually, this makes no sense at all, writes Cathy Seipp. “Baleful” means a gloomy expression, and gloomy weather is rainy weather all over the country.

Actually, the SAT question Trombley cites happens to be an example of a perfectly unbiased question, because you don’t need to know the word “baleful” to answer it correctly. (Of course it helps if you aren’t determined, like Trombley apparently is, to think not of horses or even zebras when you hear hoof beats, but unicorns.)

The question’s rather fretful tone, and the information that weather is involved, are all the clues you need to realize that (B) cafeteria is the right answer, because it’s the only choice that’s indoors. You’d realize that even if the question began, “Aware of the zzzyrrk weather prediction by forecasters…”

It’s a logic problem obvious to anyone who’s watched Sesame Street. One of these things is not like the others.

Seipp wonders at Trombley’s trembling in the face of a little weather. Who moves a picnic from the beach to avoid waves? Or picnics on the roof for fear of those Iowa cafeteria floods.

Kimberly Swygert observes that Pitzer’s reliance on high school grades creates winners and losers too.

The problem is not with the measuring system. The problem is that some students who want to go to college are poorly prepared for higher education.

Update: Trombley misstates the SAT gap, notes Eugene Volokh. Whites don’t outscore “non-whites” by 206 points. ÊWhites outscore blacks by that amount. Asian-Americans average 1083, whites 1063, Mexican-Americans 905, Other Hispanics 921 and blacks 857. The white/non-white gap is roughly 113 points, says a Volokh reader.

About Joanne


  1. There’s another point here. This is a national test, so it should be obvious to the students that specific regional factors are not likely to be embedded in the test.

    One of the objectives of education should be for the individual to develop a perspective beyond his own region and subculture. Evidently, many of our “educators” prefer instead to develop a fragmented population without common knowledge.

  2. Surprising, isn’t it, that an academic wouldn’t give a complete citation for her Psychology Today reference?

  3. Walter Wallis says:

    Some people need to learn that education is the reward, not the punishment.

  4. As a teenager, I would have picked “roof” just because it sounds like the most fun. Teenagers are always getting in trouble for being up on the roof.

    What is it with tests and sentences no human would ever utter?

  5. I think j.c.’s comment illustrates the reason why some kids test poorly. Sure, picnicking on the roof sounds fun, and most teenagers might think so, but the question isn’t “what sounds like fun to you”, the question is, “where are we likely to have our party based on baleful weather forecasts.”

    “One of the objectives of education should be for the individual to develop a perspective beyond his own region and subculture.” David’s right, and this is why the “regatta” question belongs on the SAT after all. I’ve never seen a regatta, in real life or on TV, and I’m not aware that anybody I know has seen one. But I know what they are, because I read and I pay attention to things outside my personal experience. If all a test-taker can do is compare questions to his or her day-to-day life, that person probably isn’t ready to get much benefit from higher education. In the same vein, if all a test measures is how well the average teenager understands his or her daily experiences, that test won’t measure anything useful.

  6. “Whites don’t outscore ‘non-whites’ by 206 points. Whites outscore blacks by that amount.”

    “Black” equals “non-white” is a classical example of binary ethnothought.

    Laura’s point applies to education in general as well as the SATs. Otherwise, why learn world history? National history? Science and math? Because, like it or not, the general is relevant to the personal, especially in the age of globalization. The era when one could function with little or no education on the same patch of earth until death is over in America.

  7. There is no law or government agency that requires colleges to use the SAT. So why don’t the admissions people at Harvard, UC Berkeley, etc, who are more liberal than most, do as she has done and simply drop it? Because they know that the SAT works.

  8. PJ/Maryland says:

    TC is right, I think. Although Trombley claims “many of the country’s leading liberal arts colleges” are dropping the SAT, she lists colleges which are at best second rank.

    I think Trombley really has a vocabulary problem. She seems to misuse “leading”, and then there’s this paragraph:

    Under our new rules, students may choose not to provide us with SAT scores. In that case, they must be in the top 10% of their class or have a GPA of at least 3.50, and if they don’t fall into those categories then there are other criteria from which they must select.

    Um, when you say “they must be…” and then go on to say “if they don’t fall into those categories”, you’re contradicting yourself. (I like that use of “fall”: yes, I just happen to fall into the top 10% of my class…). Actually, it’s hard to figure out what Trombley means; who is doing the selecting of the criteria? It sounds like it’s the applicants, but you’d think it would be the admissions people who select criteria.

    Looking around Pitzer’s website, I found a pretty clear description of what they want here (scroll down to Application Process). Basically, you can get out of sending an SAT or ACT score if you’re in the top 10% of your class or have an “unweighted cumulative grade point average of 3.50 or higher in academic subjects”. If you don’t manage either of these, you can still avoid the SAT by providing two SAT II scores (one writing and one math) or two AP scores of 4 or more (one must be English, one a math or science). There’s also a complicated option to submit an graded essay and science exam.

    The page makes a point of saying this is experimental. There seem to be 11 people on the admissions staff; this past year, they waded through 2400 applications to accept 229 people. (Well, actually, 229 decided to come, so maybe 500 were actually accepted.) I think they’ll need to hire more people if they get many non-SAT applications.

    BTW, Pitzer’s tuiton is $26,640, plus another $11-12k for room and board and fees. It ends up costing about the same as actual leading colleges; here’s a comparison page I found on Harvard’s website.

  9. Pitzer is the weak link of all the Claremont Colleges and isn’t very highly thought of besides being regarded as the most liberal.

  10. Except for a school that specializes in delinquents or mentally handicapped, I’d expect someone who was in the top 10% of ANY school to be smarter and harder working than someone from the middle of the pack at a rich suburban school. However, the smart, hardworking kid from the terrible school can still be woefully unprepared. So I might find this policy reasonable, but only if the college is prepared to do as much remedial instruction as is necessary, and to extend their scholarships to cover the extra years that might be needed.

    It might be much better policy to see that bright disadvantaged kids get a full scholarship to a junior college that can do the remedial studies at a lower cost. Of course, it would have been much better policy to give those kids a chance to transfer to schools that would actually teach them long ago…

    Colleges do have one advantage over public schools for some disadvantaged kids – you can insist they live in a dorm, on-campus and with some supervision. It’s a lot more conducive to studying than living with crack-addicted parents and negotiating with gangs for the right to walk through their turf to get to school.