The unfairness of education

Today (or, rather, within the next half-hour) I am going to take up the idea that education is at least somewhat unfair at the core. In the many discussions I have heard about “education for all,” those who say “education is never for all” end up playing the role of lone heretics. So my purpose here will be to take examine this claim and follow it where it might lead.

Let us define fairness as the principle of giving to each according to his or her deserts. Let us also assume that each student deserves a good education as much as the next. (Each of these assumptions could be contested, but let’s leave them for now.) Thus, fairness in education would consist of offering each student a good education.

Already, there is a complication: education is not only an offering; the student must also participate in it. More about that shortly.

Consider this basic truth (forgetting for the moment about qualifications): Any given lesson, no matter what it contains and how it’s taught, will be more helpful, appropriate, interesting, or accessible (physically or intellectually) for some than for others.

You can mitigate this unfairness by “differentiating” instruction or by dividing students into homogeneous groupings. Each of these solutions brings its own drawbacks, its own kind of unfairness. Differentiating can fragment instruction; tracking can result in limited opportunities for those in the lower tracks.

As a student, you can mitigate the situation by altering your own situation. For instance, if your class isn’t challenging enough, you can seek out additional challenge. If it’s too difficult, you can seek assistance.

None of these adjustments takes away the basic unfairness of the setup. This unfairness has a hidden good: although not all students receive the same thing from a lesson, it remains an offering; in other words, there is something to be received from it. In addition, quality and “reach” are not always at odds with each other; a course can begin by reaching only a few students and end by reaching the majority, simply because of the influence of the instruction.

So I will posit that the unfairness of education should not be eradicated across the board; to the contrary, educators should consider which aspects of the unfairness to preserve, and which to discard or mitigate.

Let us take the controversy over the “specialized” high schools (that is, elite public high schools such as Stuyvesant) in New York City. There is currently great pressure on these schools to increase their racial and ethnic diversity. This brings up a dilemma.

On the one hand, there’s good reason for them to retain their admissions standards. The entrance exam does test math and reading proficiency and mental stamina–prerequisites for the academic work that the schools require. Granted, any single test is an imperfect measure, for a variety of reasons–but once you get into “multiple measures,” you risk lowering the standards for admission. On the other hand, there are plenty of highly intelligent, competent, and focused African American and Hispanic students. It’s worth asking what could be done to admit more of them to the specialized schools.

(For instance, Brooklyn Latin had a practice–and maybe still does–of working with students who just barely fell short of the cut on the test. Another option would be to adopt a double measure: the test and a piece of academic work, for instance.)

In other words, there are several kinds of unfairness at work here. Some kinds are essential to the nature of the specialized schools; other kinds could be eradicated.

In short, certain kinds of unfairness in education are inevitable, even good, while other kinds are not. Making education completely fair will destroy its essence; complacency with all unfairness will make it brittle and cruel. One must sort out the different kinds of unfairness and decide which ones should stay and which should go.

Achievement gaps narrowed — till 2010

Achievement gaps narrowed under No Child Left Behind — until the Obama administration started handing out waivers, writes Brookings’ Mark Dynarski.

NCLB requires schools to analyze the achievement and progress of subgroups of low-income, black, Hispanic, special education and English Learner students.

. . .  if any subgroup failed to meet its targets for advancing, a school was designated “in need of improvement,” which triggered a set of increasing draconian consequences depending on how long the school remained in that category, e.g., mandatory school restructuring.

Since 2011, 43 states and the District of Columbia have received waivers from NCLB’s provisions. Many have combined subgroup data into a “super subgroup.”

The gap for all subgroups declined steadily throughout the early 2000s, with the largest improvements seen between 2000 and 2002. This progress seemed to slow by 2010, with gaps remaining unchanged or even ticking up slightly for some subgroups since then.

“It is possible waivers may impair equity,” Dynarski concludes.

SAT (and IQ) scores predict success

The SAT should be “abandoned and replaced,” argues Leon Botstein, former president of Bard, in Time.

Look at “the complex portrait” of college applicants’ lives rather than their test scores, writes Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times.

The test measures only SAT-taking skills, adds Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker.

Actually, the SAT predicts success in college “relatively well,” write David Z. Hambrick and Christopher Chabris, both psychology professors, in  Slate. It takes a few hours to administer and, unlike complex portraits, it can be scored in an objective way. 

SAT scores correlate very highly with IQ scores, they write. Harvard’s Howard Gardner, known for his theory of multiple intelligences, called the SAT and other measures “thinly disguised” intelligence tests.

A popular anti-SAT argument is that the test measures socioeconomic status rather than cognitive skill.

Boylan argued in her Times article that the SAT “favors the rich, who can afford preparatory crash courses” like those offered by Kaplan and the Princeton Review. Leon Botstein claimed in his Time article that “the only persistent statistical result from the SAT is the correlation between high income and high test scores.” And according to a Washington Post Wonkblog infographic (which is really more of a disinfographic) “your SAT score says more about your parents than about you.”

Test prep doesn’t make a big difference, write Hambrick and Chabris. And research shows a significant but “not huge” correlation between socioeconomic status and test scores. Plenty of low-income kids score well.

. .  .as it was originally designed to do, the SAT in fact goes a long way toward leveling the playing field, giving students an opportunity to distinguish themselves regardless of their background. Scoring well on the SAT may in fact be the only such opportunity for students who graduate from public high schools that are regarded by college admissions offices as academically weak.

“One person’s obstacle is another person’s springboard,” Dawn Harris Sherling wrote in response to Kolbert.

I am the daughter of a single, immigrant father who never attended college, and a good SAT score was one of the achievements that catapulted me into my state’s flagship university and, from there, on to medical school. Flawed though it is, the SAT afforded me, as it has thousands of others, a way to prove that a poor, public-school kid who never had any test prep can do just as well as, if not better than, her better-off peers.

Botstein advocates adjusting high school GPA “to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates” and abandoning the SAT, note Hambrick and Chabris. “A given high school GPA would be adjusted down for a poor, public-school kid, and adjusted up for a rich, private-school kid.”

A commenter responds: “The idea that standardized tests and ‘general intelligence’ are meaningless is wishful thinking.  People find it cruel that something essentially beyond your control—intrinsic intelligence—could matter so much.  But it does.”

Another commenter writes: “It’s like trying to argue that looks are meaningless.  Yeah, it sucks for most of us, but doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

ACT: 10% of blacks are ready for college

Most black high school graduates aren’t prepared to succeed in college, according to an ACT study.

Only 10 percent of African-Americans met at least three of the ACT’s four College Readiness Benchmarks in 2013, compared to 39 percent of all graduates who took the test.

Sixty-two percent of African-Americans who started college in 2011 made it to their second year, compared to 73 percent of all  ACT-tested 2011 graduates.

Blacks were somewhat less likely to take a college-prep core curriculum in high school. “While 81 percent of Asian-American students and 71 percent of white students had access to a full range of math and sciences courses, only 57 percent of African American students had full access,” observes Ed Week‘s CollegeBound.

Flash: Charters aren’t a silver bullet

Applying to Washington D.C. charter schools taught Conor Williams that school choice relies on chance. Lots of parents want to get their kids into the good charters. A lottery decides who makes it.

There are Hebrew, Chinese, and Spanish language schools. One promises Spanish immersion, discovery-based learning, and an emphasis on ecological sustainability. There are multiple Montessori charters in our area . . .

D.C. has some “great” district-run schools, but they’re open only to people who can afford million-dollar homes, Williams writes. So parents have turned to charter schools. “In 2012, there were more than 35,000 students on charter schools’ waitlists (though some were duplicates). There were only 77,000 students in the city that year.”

Charters’ lotteries are neutral, he writes. His “son, with his two highly educated, almost-middle-class, white parents” has no advantage “over his friend whose mother dropped out of high school and is raising her child alone.”

It’s not perfect. Savvy parents can “get around town” and apply to multiple lotteries, he complains. However, D.C. has unified its district and charter lotteries.  While “a handful of high-performing charters stayed outside the system,” parents can apply to most schools with one application.

The D.C. Council has considered letting charter schools give admissions preference to students who live nearby. As the city gentrifies, that could lock low-income families out of high-performing charters, Williams writes. What about weighted lotteries to give a preference to disadvantaged students?

He doesn’t mention helping good charters expand, so they can serve more students.

The headline says Williams “learned about inequality” but his conclusion is that charters are a “mild corrective to inequity” though not a “solution.” Not a silver bullet? Really! 

New SAT won’t kill test prep

However the SAT is changed, test prep isn’t going anywhere, writes James S. Murphy, an SAT tutor, in The Atlantic.

David Coleman, the president of College Board, thinks companies that offer SAT prep services are “predators who prey on the anxieties of parents and children and provide no real educational benefit.”

It’s not the test prep companies that make students anxious, writes Murphy. It’s the test.

Although more schools than ever are making SAT scores optional for application, good test prep will remain important as long as high-stakes, time-constrained, multiple-choice exams are being used to determine who gets admitted to the most selective colleges and universities. Since most of the metrics these colleges use to determine who to accept are based on indelible aspects of a person’s identity or long-term accomplishments like GPA and extracurricular activities, it would be foolish for a student not to try to improve the one thing that can be improved in a relatively short amount of time.

Tricks don’t make much difference, he argues.

Test prep raises scores by reviewing only the content students need to know for the exam, teaching them techniques they have not learned in school, and assigning students hundreds if not thousands of practice questions. It is this work, and not tricks, that overcome test anxiety. As Ed Carroll, a former colleague of mine, puts it, “Competence breeds confidence.”

College Board is partnering with Khan Academy, which will offer free SAT test prep online. That validates the test prep companies’ contention that test prep is helpful.

SAT correlates with family income because more-educated and affluent parents  develop their children’s vocabularies and general knowledge, pay for homes near good public schools or pay for private school tuition, hire tutors if their kids need help in elementary, middle and high school, etc. The advantage is huge long before the student thinks about how to prep for the SAT.

If you don’t have a clue, guess. The new SAT eliminates the penalty for wrong answers, observes Walt Hickey on FiveThirtyEight. That adds “noise” to the results.

College ‘diversity’ event excludes whites

A ”diversity happy hour” was canceled at a Washington state community college, when the emailed invitation said white people were not welcome. “White folks” were urged to meet separately to “work on racism, white supremacy and white privilege.”

The program coordinator at South Puget Sound Community College’s Diversity & Equity Center, Karama Blackhorn, who helped write the email, said the center “is not for white people. That space is for people of color.”

Blackhorn, who’s part Native American, was studying for a degree in Queer Studies and Social Justice at Evergreen State College when she won a 2009 scholarship, reports Jim Miller. Now we know what kind of job a person can get with a degree in Queer Studies and Social Justice.

New SAT will be ‘totally awesome’

The New SAT will be “like totally awesome,” dude, predicts Jay P. Greene. No more “bogus vocab words that only brainiacs use in literature, poetry, and other useless stuff.

“The SAT will focus on words that students will use consistently in college and beyond,”  says College Board.

Yeah, like “bong” and “extended unemployment benefits.”

And the new SAT will be all equal and stuff.  It’s no fair when people get an edge cuz they know more things.  We can’t have that.  So the new math test won’t have no pre-calculus stuff that nobody but some foreign kids know how to do anymore.  Don’t we have computers for that stuff?  The new test will just cover “linear equations, functions, and proportions,” man.  Maybe I can get extra points for writing a little note on the math problems about how they make me feel.

And there’s no penalty for guessing anymore.

Here are some new SAT questions, via Cora Frazier in the New Yorker.

1. Reading comprehension. Consider the following passage by a nineteenth-century female writer:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed that, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

How would you title the above passage to generate the most “likes”?

(a) haters make you stronger, God forgives

(b) Hey, friends, I’ve written about some stuff that’s been going on with me lately, which is why I’ve been out of touch and not on social media so much or too responsive to your posts, and it would be really great to get some feedback from you intelligent people on this. A lot on my mind & greatly appreciated (etc.)

(c) 10 Reasons You Are Never Getting Married

(d) Cats Dressed Up Fancy

7. You have one remaining pair of clean underwear, besides the pair you are currently wearing. You have an additional pair of underwear that doesn’t cover your entire butt and says “Thursday.” How many days can you go without doing laundry?

Satire? Yes.

Common Core-ification of the SAT

In The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul, College Board president David Coleman tells the New York Times what the exam will look like in a few years.

Coleman gave me what he said was a simplistic example of the kind of question that might be on this part of the exam. Students would read an excerpt from a 1974 speech by Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas, in which she said the impeachment of Nixon would divide people into two parties. Students would then answer a question like: “What does Jordan mean by the word ‘party’?” and would select from several possible choices. This sort of vocabulary question would replace the more esoteric version on the current SAT. . . . The Barbara Jordan vocabulary question would have a follow-up — “How do you know your answer is correct?” — to which students would respond by identifying lines in the passage that supported their answer.

All this sounds a lot like the emphasis in Common Core standards, which Coleman helped write.

The math section will focus on problem solving and data analysis, linear equations and the “passport to advanced math,” which will test “the student’s familiarity with complex equations and their applications in science and social science.”

The SAT revisions are a  big mistake, writes Peter Wood on Minding the Campus.

David Coleman, head of the College Board, is also the chief architect of the Common Core K-12 State Standards, which are now mired in controversy across the country.  Coleman’s initiative in revising the SAT should be seen first of all as a rescue mission.  As the Common Core flounders, he is throwing it an SAT life preserver.

The exam will be “dumbed down” to serve a “social justice” agenda, writes Susan Berry on Breitbart.

Rick Hess is “unwowed.” It’s supposed to be a more rigorous test, but the vocabulary expectations will be “dumbed down,” Hess writes. 

The College Board announced the new test would put an end to the “tricks” that had made test prep so effective, advantaging students whose families could afford it. . . .  I’d bet that within twelve months, the prep folks will have devised strategies to help coach “close reading” and otherwise adjusted to the new test.

Eliminating the mandatory essay is supposed to promote fairness and test validity, writes Hess. Not so long ago,  the essay was introduced to promote fairness and test validity.

Finally, he worries about “the Common Core’ification of the SAT.”  By revising the SAT to match Common Core standards, College Board risks politicizing the exam  and disadvantages students in non-Core states.

Brooklyn school picks diversity over gifted program

A Brooklyn elementary school is dropping its popular gifted program because not enough black and Latino students test into gifted classes, reports the New York Daily News. More than two-thirds of students are black or Latino, while Asian-Americans make up 18 percent and whites 10 percent.