Some students may not comprehend the Post!


Part 3—We can’t comprehend the Times: Last Sunday, in an irate editorial, the Washington Post denounced the impending changes to the SAT.

The College Board “appears to be...making the SAT easier,” the editors railed, presuming a fact the Post had not reported. On the facing page, a supposition-rich opinion column was built on the same presumption.

Ditto for an opinion column the Post published one day before.

For a test like the SAT, it isn’t entirely clear what it means to say that the test is getting easier—getting “dumbed down.” The SAT isn’t a pass-fail test, in which passing rates can be jacked up in various ways, making everyone happier.

Over the past twenty years, those kinds of tests actually were routinely dumbed down by various states as editorial boards failed to notice. But the SAT is designed to sort the student population into one hundred percentiles (and more).

If everyone suddenly gets 800s, its utility to the nation’s colleges would end. Soon, so would the test itself.

What does it even mean when we imagine a test like the SAT being made “easier?” We doubt that the editors, or the Post’s opinion columnists, would be able to say.

That said, the editors were in high dudgeon about the dumbing down process they pictured. At one point, they offered a comical vision:
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (3/9/14): Integrating the SAT with what’s taught in class is a fine idea, particularly since the exam’s writers gave up on their claim to measure raw aptitude years ago. But making the exam easier in order to chase the ACT isn’t. It sounds as though students could conceivably get a perfect score on the new exam and yet struggle to fully comprehend some of the articles in this newspaper.
Might some students “struggle to fully comprehend some of the articles” in the Post?

We certainly hope so! We’ve been “struggling to fully comprehend” such work for decades now! Indeed, as the Post’s dystopian warning appeared, we had been struggling to comprehend articles in the New York Times concerning the SAT changes.

Forget about the high school students who will take the SAT. We marveled at the lack of basic skills possessed by our nation’s top journalists!

For one example, consider the “News Analysis” piece in last Friday’s Times. Early on, Richard Perez-Pena posited a difference between the current head of the College Board and the Harvard president who popularized the SAT:
PEREZ-PENA (3/7/14): David Coleman, president of the College Board, says he wants to democratize higher education—lowering barriers to admission and helping more people go to college. That would not have sat well with the person most responsible for popularizing the SAT, James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953.
Does David Coleman want to “lower barriers to admission and help more people go to college?” Everything is possible, but we’re not real sure what that means.

Coleman doesn’t decide who gets admitted into our many colleges, or what the “barriers to admission” will be. Those decisions are made by admission committees.

Meanwhile, what does it mean to say that Coleman wants to “help more people go to college?” Does that mean that he wants to see a larger number of people attending college? Or does it mean that he wants to broaden the demographic of those who get the existing seats?

So far, we didn’t know. After reading the following passage, we didn’t understand the distinction being drawn between Coleman and Conant:
PEREZ-PENA (continuing directly): Conant saw the test as a tool for identifying the most talented people outside Harvard’s usual pool of privileged applicants. He disliked previous assessments tied to the teaching of exclusive New England prep schools, said Nicholas Lemann, author of “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.”

“He specifically didn’t want a test of mastery of the high school curriculum—he wanted a test to tell you how smart the person was,” Mr. Lemann said. “He was haunted by the idea of a brilliant student ending up walking behind a mule and a plow because nobody knew how to find him.”

But the goal was not democratic. Conant’s aim was to identify a new elite based on brains rather than heredity, not to expand access to higher education.

In tune with the times, Mr. Coleman does want to improve access, in part by making a more level playing field. To counter test preparation courses taken by more affluent students, he announced a partnership with the online Khan Academy to make preparation videos available free. And he will make it easier for low-income students to take the test and apply to colleges without charge.
Do you understand the alleged distinction between these two figures? According to Perez-Pena, Conant wanted to reach beyond a narrow, elite demographic in his search for students. Coleman wants to make a more level playing field, in part by countering test prep courses available to more affluent students.

It sounds to us like the two men were pursuing a similar goal. Five days later, we still don’t know what Perez-Pena meant when he tried to establish a contrast between the outlooks of these two figures.

To borrow some language from the Post, we’re still “struggling to fully comprehend one of the articles” in the New York Times! It still sounds to us like Coleman and Conant were trying to do the same thing!

We thought the analytical skills in this piece were perhaps a bit weak. That said, this news analysis piece was straight outta Einstein compared to the opinion column the Times was running that day.

Creating a wonderful irony, the opinion column in question was written by a college professor—one of the people who will be forced to deal with the dumbed-dumb students the Post is so afraid of.

The columnist was Jennifer Finley Boylan, a professor at Maine’s (elite) Colby College. In the competent world the Post imagines, her essay would rate a failing grade at any serious college.

The fiery professor started like this. So far, nothing she writes is “wrong:”
BOYLAN (3/7/14): I was in trouble. The first few analogies were pretty straightforward—along the lines of “leopard is to spotted as zebra is to striped”—but now I was in the tall weeds of nuance. Kangaroo is to marsupial as the giant squid is to—I don’t know, maybe D) cephalopod? I looked up for a second at the back of the head of the girl in front of me. She had done this amazing thing with her hair, sort of like a French braid. I wondered if I could do that with my hair.

I daydreamed for a while, thinking about the architecture of braids. When I remembered that I was wasting precious time deep in the heart of the SAT, I swore quietly to myself. French braids weren’t going to get me into Wesleyan. Although, in the years since I took the test in the mid-’70s, I’ve sometimes wondered if knowing how to braid hair was actually of more practical use to me as an English major than the quadratic equation. But enough of that. Back to the analogies. Loquacious is to mordant as lachrymose is to ... uh ...
Displaying detailed memory, Boylan recalled what happened when she took the SAT about forty years ago. Her column was built upon this structure. In best melodramatic fashion, the girl with the braids breaks down in tears as the column ends.

Let’s assume that Boylan’s recollections are accurate. Sometimes, people recall striking events with a great deal of clarity.

That said, Boylan was focusing on the SAT’s famous analogies, the stereotypical emblem of the famous test. But according to the Washington Post, “the SAT shed [its original name] years ago along with the devilish antonym and analogy questions that were a staple of what was once called the ‘verbal’ section.”

Almost surely, most readers of Boylan’s column didn’t know that.

Nothing Boylan said here was technically wrong. But as she started her column, she created a picture of a test which hasn’t existed for some time—and things went downhill from there.

Boylan offered 870 words this day. Roughly half were burned by her recollection of the crying girl with the braid.

In the small number of words which remained, has anyone ever invented more facts or offered more leaps of logic? With apologies for the punishment, here’s the part of the column which wasn’t devoted to recollection, obvious groaners in bold:
BOYLAN: I remembered this sequence, like something from a Hitchcock film, when the College Board announced this week that it was rolling out a complete do-over of the SAT. Starting in 2016, gone will be the tristful effect of arcane vocabulary words such as “tristful” and “arcane”; gone will be the penalty for guessing wrong instead of leaving the answer blank; and gone will be the short-lived mandatory essay section, a test that reportedly places a higher value on loquaciousness than logic.

All in all, the changes are intended to make SAT scores more accurately mirror the grades a student gets in school.

The thing is, though, there already is something that accurately mirrors the grades a student gets in school. Namely: the grades a student gets in school. A better way of revising the SAT, from what I can see, would be to do away with it once and for all.

The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture. The College Board can change the test all it likes, but no single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone’s fate. The fact that we have been using this test to perform exactly this function for generations now is a national scandal.

The problems with the test are well known. It measures memorization, not intelligence. It favors the rich, who can afford preparatory crash courses. It freaks students out so completely that they cannot even think.

As the mother of two former SAT takers (one a sophomore in college, the other a senior in high school awaiting the result of his applications), I can also point out another problem with the test: It usually starts around 8:30 in the morning. I don’t know if the members of the College Board have ever met a 17-year-old at that hour, but I can tell you this is not the time of day I would choose to test their ability to do anything, except perhaps make orangutan sounds.

I sympathize with college-admissions deans who want a simple, accurate measurement of student potential. But no such measurement exists, as I can attest from 25 years as an English professor. Students flower or diminish unexpectedly, in ways unpredictable and strange. One of the great joys of teaching is that moment when a student makes a leap and creates something new. The possibility of that leap is unlikely to be measured by a test involving bubble sheets.

The only way to measure students’ potential is to look at the complex portrait of their lives: what their schools are like; how they’ve done in their courses; what they’ve chosen to study; what progress they’ve made over time; how they’ve reacted to adversity. Of course colleges try to take these nuanced portraits into account, but too often they’re overshadowed by the SAT. Our children, precious, brilliant, frustrating, confused souls that they are, are more than a set of scores.
Does this professor/journalist have any idea what she’s talking about? Beyond that, what kinds of basic skills are on display in this piece?


Did the College Board really announce “a complete do-over of the SAT?” Please. The professor’s preference for overstatement and silly simplification has now been introduced.

Had anyone said that the changes to the SAT are “intended to make SAT scores more accurately mirror the grades a student gets in school?” Please.

Needless to say, no such statement by the College Board was quoted. But this silly misstatement led to the snarky pseudo-logic found in the next paragraph. (“There already is something that accurately mirrors the grades a student gets in school. Namely: the grades a student gets in school.”)

Snark bomb delivered, Boylan returned to fatuous implied overstatement:

Does any real person actually think that some “single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone’s fate?” Is that really the way the SAT is used?

Boylan offer no reason to think so. She proceeds to say that the SAT is known to “measure memorization, not intelligence.”

At this point, does the SAT even claim to measure “intelligence?” We don’t know the answer to that, nor do we get the sense that Boylan does.

At this point, the pundit’s objections to the SAT descend into farce. The professor/journalist complains about the hour at which the SAT is given.

The SAT starts at 8:30 AM, roughly the start of the typical school or work day. (Question: Do college interviews sometimes occur at that hour?) The fact that Boylan can name the hour at which the SAT is given speaks to its standardization, an attribute which can’t be found in other measures used in the admission process.

From here, we attack another straw man. Boylan pictures admission deans “who want a simple, accurate measurement of student potential.” As she proceeds, she tells these deans that “the only way to measure students’ potential is to look at the complex portrait of their lives.”

Are we supposed to think that these deans don’t already know that? How dumb does a person have to be to swallow a column like this?

Please understand: Boylan’s performance isn’t saved by the fact that she is writing an opinion column.

Journalists are free to state opinions in such columns. In theory, though, they aren’t allowed to make up facts or imagine straw men, a process which suffuses every part of this column except its anecdotal recollection.

What kinds of academic skills are put on display by our press corps? We were baffled by Perez-Pena’s logic, amazed by the manifest dumbness of the Boylan column.

Two days later, the Washington Post assumed a fact not in evidence. The Post would advance a dystopian vision; it would imagine a world in which some college students were so dumb that they would “struggle to fully comprehend some of the articles in” the Washington Post.

Alas! For quite some time, the problem has lay with those who don’t struggle to comprehend such work, and with the unskilled scriveners who shepherd our national discourse.

Tomorrow: Sunday, pitiful Sunday

Pepperidge Farm recalls: Sometimes, people can recall striking past events.

For ourselves, we remember the day when we got the standing ovation from 500 souls as we left Professor Brinton’s makeup hour exam after about two minutes.

We shook hands with classmates in the first few rows as we made our way to the door, then turned and gave a generous wave to applauding students in the balcony.

A roar of approval followed us out the door, then down the stairs of the packed lecture hall. “It’s about time,” we thoughtfully said, as we headed to lunch.

For the record, we got a B-plus in the class, helped by skillful revisions to our two-year-old Nietzsche paper. In this way, we became one of the last students saved by Brinton’s famously easy course.

We never set eyes on Professor Brinton himself. For better or worse, we had transferred into his class after the lectures were over. For background on Brinton, a highly regarded scholar on whatever the course was about, you can just click here.

Did we say that these events occurred in the street-fighting late 1960s? That same semester, we failed Kant. Or did Kant fail us?


  1. Mensa stopped accepting SAT scores for admission about 35 years ago, when it changed from being an aptitude test to an achievement test. (Cue negative jibe at Mensa.) As a grad student, I taught test prep and found that memorizing lists of vocabulary words didn't work because they weren't learning the meanings in any context and couldn't recognize the meanings in analogies because they didn't resemble the memorized short definitions. Only reading such words and using them in context increases understanding to the point that test questions can be answered correctly. Test prep was only successful in budging scores about 50 pts, largely due to familiarization with test format.

    The point of changing the SAT is not to enable students to get 800's but to move them up a little, increasing their chances of being admitted to a school of their choice. If students can get slightly higher scores on the ACT, then the SAT will lose customers. So a small loosening is sufficient to make the test more commercially competitive, and the change in correction for guessing is enough to accomplish that.

    Most professors are familiar with the phenomenon of hard-working college students with high grades who cannot get high scores on the GRE and thus are passed over by top graduate programs. It is puzzling to the students, who have done a lot right in their undergrad work, and to professors who write strong letters to support them. But I find myself wondering whether such students haven't succeeded at the easier work of writing papers and doing experiments, without doing well at the conceptual understanding of theory, the formulation of creative new ideas that will advance a field, the grasping of fine distinctions or even methodological technicality. Are grades not finding competent students but not brilliant ones? At the graduate level, brilliance is needed because competence is too common to earn even a tenure track job these days. So, encouraging students to believe that earning A's is enough without selecting for curiosity, reading for pleasure, broad-based understanding and flexibility of mind, is flooding the queue with students who will not succeed later on and will not understand why they are being passed over. An emphasis on grades and hard work are fine preparation for most jobs, but not for high level performance in any field. SAT used to be about finding top students but now it seems to be about earning more money for test corporations and performing a rite of passage for the majority of students who now believe that a college degree is needed for employment and entry into the middle class. This revised test will not be able to find a diamond in the rough, as Conant hoped, because it is not looking for them but rather for marbles. That is not the same task.

  2. Bob, my attempts to email you have failed, so I would like to clue you in here on the Pistorius case before you go wrong like you did with Zimmerman.

    There was a big fight over Pistorius' fooling around. The victim slipped into the toilet with his phone to check on his contacts. OP realizes that and, on his "stumps" goes to the locked door demanding she come out with the phone. She refuses. He gets cricket bat and attacks the door with loud (gunshot sounding) bangs. She screams to high heaven and can be heard hundreds of yards away. The enraged OP races to get gun to shut her up. He shoots through door until she's quiet. Then...He's oh-so-very sorry.

    1. You just made an 800 on the new, improved, optional 2016 SAT essay exam. Congratulations.

  3. OMB (Filling in Bubbles on the Steely Strands of Imagined Emotion)

    "The College Board “appears to be...making the SAT easier,” the editors railed, presuming a fact the Post had not reported." BOB

    Reading the editorial it appears BOB injected a level of emotion not stated in the editorial. Coming from someone who uses "appears" "suggests" and "implied" regularly to "infer" things
    are said or written which are in fact not stated, we are surprised BOB "railed" at the Post instead of applauding them for proving "your Howler gets results."


    1. Yours is the kind of comment someone writes when they want to write a comment but have nothing much to say.

    2. Yours suggests you don't read Somerby very often. Don't worry. If you missed what he said yesterday, he'll cover it again tomorrow. And next week. And sixteen years from now. Infer what you will from that.

    3. Life must bore you silly. The sun comes up, goes down, yada yada yada.

  4. Splendid essay, Bob. I just loved this.

  5. The problem has lain....not "the problem has lay", Bob. Aargh!

    Aside from that flub, I enjoyed and agreed with your takedown of the professor's horrible opinion piece.

    I suppose you can argue that the SAT rewards some degree of memorization...but is that a bad thing? Memorization gets a bad rap. If I hadn't memorized the multiplication tables, I wouldn't know them today. Some knowledge enters the brain through lovely organic processes like reading or sitting in a lecture class, or problem solving in a math class, but other knowledge enters the brain through the hard, painful process of looking at information and memorizing it. As a piano student, I had to memorize all my pieces. Was that a bad thing? No, it's a skill that I worked hard at and was glad to acquire. Actors memorize their lines. Is that bad?