Part 4—The Post denounces these kids: Early today, we were awakened by mordant chuckles from the analysts’ reading room.
The youngsters were reading the New York Times’ description of the Malaysian leadership. According to the Times, the group is now being attacked as a “coddled elite,” the incompetent product of a “paternalistic culture.”
“Careful, Timesmen,” one analyst cried. “Discerning readers are going to say that you’re describing yourselves!”
How weak are the basic skills of our upper-end press corps? To what extent is the mainstream press corps simply a slacker elite?
Such questions were raised by the Washington Post’s reaction to last week’s extremely big news, in which the College Board said it will be making changes to the SAT.
For Gene Lyons' assessment, click this.
In our view, the Washington Post and the New York Times did a rather poor job describing and assessing these forthcoming changes. But good God!
When the weekend came, so did the Washington Post’s standardized statements of opinion. How good are the Washington Post’s basic skills?
The quality of the newspaper’s work was extremely poor.
An editorial and two opinion columns emerged from the Post’s inner circle. But before we consider what those pieces said, consider the “5 Myths about the SAT” piece which appeared in Sunday’s Outlook section.
Oof! The piece was written by Anthony Carnevale, a highly credentialed Georgetown professor who surely knows a lot about testing.
In fairness to Carnevale, he was trying to jam his thinking into a gimmicky every-Sunday Post format. That said, here’s the way he attacked the first of his alleged myths:
CARNEVALE (3/9/14): 1. The SAT is the best measure we have for assessing if a student is ready for—and can succeed in—college.Carnevale starts by alleging a myth without explaining who holds it. Things go downhill from there.
The College Board maintains that the SAT “has a proven track record as a fair and valid predictor of first-year college success.”
But the most reliable studies don’t bear that out. Jesse Rothstein at Stanford University calculates that on its own, the SAT explains a mere 24 percent of the variation in college freshman grade-point averages. By contrast, high school GPA alone explains 34 percent...
He quotes the College Board making a claim which differs from the alleged myth. From there, he proceeds to refute a different, third proposition.
It’s a bit like watching Meet the Press. In a mere three paragraphs, we’ve experienced two bait-and-switches!
Before he’s done with this first section, Carnevale produces some information. (We can’t judge the accuracy of his statements, although we also don’t doubt them.) But by the time he’s done with this section, he is saying this:
“Certainly, the version of the test now offered isn’t an indispensable predictor of college success. And it doesn’t look like the redesigned test, to be offered starting in 2016, will justify its outsize role in selective college admissions, either.”
Fine! But who ever said that the SAT was an “indispensable” predictor? In this first part of his five-part piece, Carnevale has wandered the countryside in search of a myth to reject.
The logic of Carnevale’s second section was considerably worse. It included a fuzzy, remarkably sweeping claim—“In fact, the SAT does not recognize merit”—as it attempted to refute an extremely fuzzy myth.
In his third section, this happened:
CARNEVALE: 3. Test-prep courses substantially improve scores.Personally, we’d take that “marginal” 30 points, which is only an average. Presumably, this means that many students gain more than 30 points from their test prep courses.
Organizations that provide test-preparation courses are happy to perpetuate this myth. Kaplan, for example, proclaims: “Test prep is the most effective and efficient way to take your score higher.” Anxious parents and students have bought into the myth, making test prep an $840 million industry.
But test-prep courses are not the best use of parents’ money or students’ time. Independent studies show that the effect of test preparation on SAT performance is marginal, boosting scores by 30 points, on average.
Such score gains may start to seem “substantial.” But by the way:
Does the average student gain 30 points per 800-point subtest? Or does she gain those 30 points on the combined 1600-point scale?
Carnevale didn’t explain that point. At the Post, no one made him. (We’re assuming the editor didn’t edit that out.)
We have no doubt that Carnevale knows a lot about testing, and about the SAT. We were struck by the low caliber of his journalistic exposition.
Just a guess: Carnevale could have done a more useful job is he hadn’t agreed to shoehorn his thoughts into the Post’s “5 Myths” format. (No “4 Myths” need apply!) But good grief!
When the Post spoke with its own voice, the roof came crashing in.
How odd! In three separate presentations, the Post spoke uniformly. The basic themes of the Post’s reaction appeared at the start of Alexandra Petri’s column in Saturday’s paper.
Petri is Harvard, class of 2010. [We misstated the year in our initial post.] But alas! When they work within the guild, the kids get old real fast:
PETRI (3/8/14): By now you've probably heard the news.We don’t know where she got that “emit a low chuckle” hook, but she should probably send it back. That said:
The SAT is reverting to a 1600-point scale and making the essay portion of the test optional. The vocabulary words and math sections are changing and the guessing penalty (where you were penalized for getting a question wrong instead of not answering it) has been eliminated.
"What?" you may well say. "But the SAT just changed to include that essay." Ah, but then its rival, the ACT, started to take over the SAT's market share. The College Board, which administers the SAT, insists that the changes will make the test do a better job of reflecting what students learn.
In my experience, "more reflective of what students learn in high school" always is a nicer way of saying "easier." How could it not be? Look at what people are actually learning. Less and less, every day. Employers, when asked if college students strike them as at all ready for the workforce, have stopped responding and just emit a low chuckle, gazing off into the distance.
Instantly, Petri stated the themes which were expressed in all three homegrown Post pieces. The SAT is being made easier—and these kids today are sooo dumb.
More on each claim tomorrow. (In its news reporting, the Post did not say that the SAT is being made easier.) For now, here’s a look at Petri, who generally writes in a humorous vein and seems like a very nice person:
Petri is the daughter of a 17-term congressman. She went to the National Cathedral School before trudging on to Faire Harvard.
(There’s nothing “wrong” with any of that.)
Petri had every advantage. In this piece, she repays the debt by adopting the familiar claims which thrill her owners.
She mocks the manifest dumbness of these students today, who aren’t as brilliant as she was. As she does, she displays the lack of basic skills which marked the Post’s reactions and the overall work of her guild.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the Post’s editorial about the changes to the SAT. We’ll also look at Kathleen Parker’s column on the subject.
At the Post, everybody seems to know that today’s students are dumb. But alas! The Post published low-skill work all weekend long. That includes the worst piece of them all, the opinion column which (once again) misstated those D.C. test scores.
American students lack basic skills? So said a coddled elite.
Tomorrow: Look who’s talking! The work of a slacker elite