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To the Editor:

I am replying to John G. Weiss's letter concerning the Harvard University study on the effects of coaching for the Scholastic Aptitude Test ("Harvard Study of Courses on S.A.T. Said 'Suspect','' March 16, 1988).

The Harvard study shows that coaching does not pay, at least for Harvard students.

These results confirm findings of a number of earlier studies, which provide validity far beyond this particular study and this particular sample.

I still believe that if students were taught reading comprehension, vocabulary, and problem-solving skills rather than item styles and guessing strategies, their scores would increase.

We at Harvard are continually evaluating the S.A.T. As a normal part of this process, I asked our students after they had enrolled as freshmen (not, as Mr. Weiss suggests, when they were candidates for admission) to report their experience with coaching schools.

I found that 25 percent of those students who indicated that they had attended coaching schools reported gains--on the average, of 94 points. This is close to the 100-point gain that many coaching schools advertise. (I am using the coaching-school convention of combining the increases in the verbal and mathematics scores.)

The schools fail to inform candidates, however, that even without coaching, their scores may increase by an average of some 67 points simply by taking the test again. At least this was the gain reported by Harvard students who were not coached.

The 27-point difference in gain for coached versus uncoached students was far less than the standard error of measurement for the test, which is some 65 to 70 points.

From an admissions viewpoint, the apparent increase resulting from coaching of 11 points on the verbal section and 16 on the math section is not significant. If the statistical concept of regression--the tendency of a random variable to approach the mean of its set--is introduced, the apparent coaching gains are only 3 points on the verbal score and 11 points on the math score.

The study was criticized by some because the scores of Harvard students were thought to be so high that the ceiling effect limited their coaching gain.

Some also made the case that students who scored 300 to 400 points would gain as much as 100 points through coaching.

While the Harvard experience provides no data on these cases, students with modest scores often have sizable gains when they take the test a second time. But few studies have suggested that coaching is the reason.

The regression effect helps those with scores below the mean. When this is added to the effects of practice and normal growth, the gain can total 100 points.

Mr. Weiss suggests that there was a conflict of interest in my undertaking this study because I also serve as a trustee of the College Board. In my view, there is no conflict at all.

Every college that uses the S.A.T. is a member of the College Board, an organization of some 2,600 institutions. There is virtually no one who has regular access to the scores who is not a member of the College Board committee.

All board members have a responsibility as well as an interest in better understanding the test and its effects. The S.A.T. has been studied for years at Harvard, one of the founding universities of the College Board.

While the S.A.T. is an excellent test as it stands, we are always looking for ways to make it better. Understanding the effects of coaching is simply one of these.

This study was not sponsored by the College Board. In fact, no member of the board staff was even aware that it was being conducted; the results were presented at a College Board meeting where research is regularly reported.

On the occasions when I have criticized the S.A.T., the College Board has never claimed that I have had a conflict of interest because I know John Weiss.

His comparison of my role to that of Lee Iacocca judging which car to buy was inappropriate, for Mr. Iacocca profits handsomely from the sale of Chrysler cars. People are not compensated for service on College Board committees, which leaves them free to support or criticize the S.A.T. as the evidence merits.

I would, however, paraphrase one of Mr. Iacocca's statements: If you can find a better test, buy it.

I was very careful in the conduct of this study not to let even subliminal influences play a part in the outcome: While I designed the study, I did not participate directly in the data collection or its processing.

Mr. Weiss also observed that the College Board reports national gains of a few points as important, yet ignores individual gains of as many as 27 points, as found in the Harvard study. Small score gains do mean something for the country, but not for an individual--and it is the individual who is hoping to improve his chances of admission by improving scores.

The measurement errors decrease as a function of the square root of the number of people involved. For a national sample, then, even very small gains are statistically significant.

The Harvard study will be published in the next issue of the College Board Review.

Dean K. Whitla
Director, Office of Instructional Research and Evaluation
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

As one who in 1967 pioneered the first vocational education for the handicapped in New Jersey, I am continually amazed at the American Vocational Association's quest for absolute control in this area ("Voc.-Ed. Group Primes for Perkins Act Debate,'' March 16, 1988).

What has that group done to educate its leadership throughout the nation to provide the required training for the handicapped? What has it done to train vocational-education teachers to accept and then teach the learning-disabled student?

Very little, I would say, from what I have seen in New Jersey and Florida.

And once these teachers learn to reach the L.D. student, what about the more severely and multiply handicapped? Most vocational-education teachers can furnish hundreds of reasons for not working with the handicapped child.

Where, then, are all these funds from the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act going?

How many classified students reach a vocational-training class by the time they arrive at high-school entrance age?

Most important, how many graduate and obtain work based on the training provided through the Perkins Act?

Even in Bergen County, N.J., where all this started, vocational training of the severely handicapped will start this year only because a special-services school district there will initiate a program.

Vocational districts appear to be more interested in the gifted and talented student.

Norman A. Bleshman
Boynton Beach, Fla.

The writer is a former trustee of the Bergen County Special-Services School District.

To the Editor:

Morris Freedman's Commentary, "Slowing the Decline of Poetry'' (March 30, 1988), interested me greatly.

The continuing neglect of poetry in schools--particularly of more complex, traditional forms--is part of the so-called crisis in literacy and decline of "culture.''

Despite the alarming statistics about current illiteracy in the United States, this problem has irrefutably been more widespread in the past.

It is the concern over illiteracy--not the problem itself--that is new.

Simultaneously, more demanding standards for what constitutes functional literacy have gained acceptance. "Literate'' people are expected to be able not simply to sign their names and read familiar passages in the Bible but to comprehend unfamiliar texts after one reading.

The truly educated, we assume, can comment on the content of what they have just read and draw complex associations from previous readings.

These facts imply that our nation may be on the verge of a new age of high literacy.

I should not be surprised if writing love poetry--sonnets or some new "rap'' style--becomes fashionable again.

Keshav Kamath
Malibu, Calif.

To the Editor:

Altering school texts to eliminate the teaching of evolution is called censorship, but altering them to prevent the study of creationism is called a Supreme Court decision ("Omni Spurs Protests Against Censorship,'' Publishing, March 16, 1988).

What happened to freedom of research into all theories of the origin of the earth?

Leonard F. Dalton
Superintendent
Delano Joint Union High School District
Delano, Calif.

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