The Post and the Times both flooded the zone!


Part 2—The SAT’s a big deal: A wonderful moment occurred at the end of Tamar Lewin’s front-page report about the SAT.

In Thursday’s New York Times, Lewin was reporting the ways the test will change in 2016. At the end of her report, she described some changes in the essay section, which will become optional.

Note the wonderfully comical claim we highlight:
LEWIN (3/6/14): Mr. Coleman emphasized that the three-hour exam—three hours and 50 minutes with the essay—had been redesigned with an eye toward reinforcing the skills and evidence-based thinking that students should be learning in high school, and moving away from a need for test-taking tricks and strategies…

The revised essay, in particular, will shift in that direction. Students now write about their experiences and opinions, with no penalty for incorrect assertions, even egregiously wrong ones. In the future, though, students will receive a source document and be asked to analyze it for its use of evidence, reasoning and persuasive or stylistic technique.

The text will be different on each exam, but the essay task will remain constant. The required essay never entirely caught on with college admissions officers. Many never figured the score into the admission decision and looked at the actual essays only rarely, as a raw writing sample to help detect how much parents, consultants and counselors had edited and polished the essay submitted with the application.
That was the end of Lewin’s report.

Is that highlighted claim really true? According to Lewin, many admission officers have been using the SAT essay section—it was introduced in 2005—for one purpose only:

It was used to spot students whose application essays were written by Mom and Dad!

(Well actually, that isn’t quite what Lewin said. She said that many admission officers have engaged in this practice only rarely. So it goes when we fight our way through front-page prose.)

Problems of parsing to the side, is that claim by Lewin true? Have some admission officers really put the essay section to that use?

If so, how many have used the essay that way? And how does Lewin know that?

Lewin doesn’t say. The claim let her end on a comical note, as part of what may be her most detailed account of the way the SAT will change.

In the passage we’ve posted, Lewin offers specific information about the way the essay will change. This is, of course, the part of the test many students will no longer take.

Elsewhere in her front-page report, Lewin wrote in murky ways about the changes to the test, and about the reasoning behind them. She made no attempt to sift a conclusion to which many of her colleagues would jump—the belief that the SAT is being “dumbed down.”

Beyond that, we were left with little sense of how sweeping these changes will be, or who the changes will likely affect. First-day reporting can be a tough gig. but we thought Lewin’s work was quite hazy.

Judged as an essay, we’d say Lewin’s work was poor. Still, these changes were being made to the SAT, a matter of obsessive interest to many of the upper middle class people who form a key part of the New York Times’ world. Perhaps for the reason, the New York Times and the Washington Post were soon flooding the zone concerning this topic.

They provided extensive coverage of a set of changes which never got explained especially well.

Let’s start with the Times. In its hard-copy editions, the paper offered these treatments of the earth-shattering changes:
Thursday, March 6: Front-page report by Tamar Lewin, 1325 words
Friday, March 7: Analysis piece by Richard Perez-Pena, 809 words
Friday, March 7: Opinion column by Jennifer Finney Boylan, 870 words
Friday, March 7: Five letters to the editor, 741 words
Sunday, March 9: Magazine cover story by Todd Balf, 7050 words
The Times was flooding the zone! By Sunday, the Washington Post had perhaps surpassed its rival:
Thursday, March 6: Front-page report by Nick Anderson, 1653 words
Thursday, March 6: News report by Jia Lynn Yan, 727 words
Friday, March 7: News report by Anderson, 904 words
Saturday, March 8: Opinion column by Alexandra Petri, 730 words
Sunday, March 9: Editorial, 552 words
Sunday, March 9: Opinion column by Kathleen Parker, 747 words
Sunday, March 9: “5 Myths about the SAT,” Anthony Carnevale, 1187 words
For our money, Anderson’s front-page report in the Post was better than Lewin’s. In part, that’s because he made fewer claims about how “extensive” or “fundamental” the coming changes are.

That said, the Post’s three Sunday opinion pieces could best be described as egregious. The same is true of the one column published by the Times.

We’ll start reviewing the opinion columns tomorrow. For today, it’s worth marveling at the amount of coverage devoted to this topic.

The Post and the Times were reporting changes which will be made, two years hence, to a college admission test. How important will these changes actually be? This is the way the front-page reports in the two newspapers started:
LEWIN (3/6/14): Saying its college admission exams do not focus enough on the important academic skills, the College Board announced on Wednesday a fundamental rethinking of the SAT, ending the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong, cutting obscure vocabulary words and making the essay optional.

ANDERSON (3/6/14): The SAT college admission test will no longer require a timed essay, will dwell less on fancy vocabulary and will return to the familiar 1600-point scoring scale in a major overhaul intended to open doors to higher education for students who are now shut out.
Essentially, Anderson was repeating himself by the end of his opening paragraph. (The return to the 1600-point scale reflects the change in the status of the essay.) He said the changes were “intended to open doors to higher education for students who are now shut out.” Something like that may be true, but in the rest of his report, he quoted no one from the College Board making any such statement.

In her own opening paragraph, Lewin listed three specific changes to the test; this included the elimination of a “guessing penalty” she never tried to explain. We never saw her support the claim that the changes will be “fundamental” or “extensive,” although of course they may be.

In what ways is the test being changed? We’d have to say the news reports were unclear, especially in the Times.

Still, the sweep of the coverage in both papers suggested that this topic is seen as a big major deal. It’s worth comparing the sweep of the coverage to the egregious work which was soon being offered by journalists at both papers.

In the papers’ opinion pieces, speculation ran wild. Suppositions were hotly asserted in the absence of anything dimly resembling evidence.

In the Post, writers moaned about the way the SAT was being dumbed down. Will these changes make the test “easier” in some way?

Simply put, Lewin and Anderson did no reporting on that question. There was no sign that the opinion writers had even the slightest idea.

Are high school kids ready for college? In theory, the SAT is used to help answer that question.

As we tried to decipher the work in these papers, we found ourselves asking the very same question about an exalted guild.

Tomorrow: Egregious, horrible work


  1. If there were no other changes to the content of the test being made, the elimination of the guessing correction would inflate scores. As it stands now, 1/4 of incorrect answers are subtracted from the correct answers to produce a corrected score. Students are coached not to guess unless they have eliminated distractors and have it down to a 50/50 chance. I assume they think those without coaching engage in more guessing and thus hurt their scores when they guess more often than those attending test prep courses. Eliminating the guessing penalty will thus make the test "fairer" for those who haven't had test prep coaching.

    They have tried to deal with disparities like that via the test instructions. I think there is no way to create an entirely strategy-free test and knowing such strategies is an important part of college success that perhaps should be tested for. Widening access by inflating SAT scores may get more kids into school, but being clueless about such things may decrease the likelihood a student will finish college because there are many such meta-strategies for dealing with classes, financial aid and other challenges.

    It used to amaze me how many high school students attend drinking parties and take the SAT hungover, how many worry and are sleep-deprived on test day. These things hurt their scores more than guessing penalties.

  2. Test scores are important. Some would rather jump off the world's tallest structures with their own babies in their arms and/or commit suicide than cover them. Others are excessive in their dotage on this matter. We plan to probe this plethora of concern for the upper middle class, comparing and contrasting it with the piddle purported to be more important than pondering the fate of the lower income among us.

    1. Test scores are one of the easier forms of measurement in our society. If someone would rather jump off a building than cover them, they will also be unable to cover any of the variety of quantitative indicators important in stories affecting us all, ranging from gas prices to unemployment rates to health care costs to measures of climate change. Numbers are important and they tell us important information about our world. Innumeracy is a worse problem than the motivated avoidance of details in other spheres because it systematically keeps people out of both the middle class and the working class.

      You no doubt think this is hilarious because your life has narrowed to mocking a person who cares about what becomes of people in our society. As the graders of the AP say, "Too bad, so sad, move on to score the next exam."

    2. Yes. I have always said it is importatnt to test for the
      suicide propensity in journalists when confronted with quantitative indicators before entrusting them with the critical task of numeracy reporting.

    3. There is an irony that the new SAT is supposed to be testing for more of the same skills these journalists seem to lack.

  3. Once again the all important issue of educational testing loses out to Zimmerman/Martin as a draw for commentator interest.

    1. There are popularity contests for blog posts?