Education Opinion


May 23, 2001 6 min read
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SAT Study Asked Wrong Question

To the Editor:

The headline over the story on the recent SAT meta-analysis is most curious (“SAT Said To Be Reliable Predictor of College Success,” May 9, 2001). The more appropriate headline would have been “Grades Predict College Success Better Than the SAT.”

Yes, the study found that those messy grades from those subjective teachers who use different grading standards in different parts of the country still predict college success better than the SAT. The very best predictor of all was a subset of grades: those garnered in “academic” courses. This finding accords with earlier work by Clifford Adelman at the U.S. Department of Education, who found that the best predictor was something he called the quality and intensity of the high school curriculum—an index of how many tough courses, Advanced Placement courses, and so forth the student had taken.

Officials at the College Board have expressed dismay at how academics have impugned the honesty of the research. The board funded the study, which is of no consequence. However, one of the authors is a College Board vice president, and the study used unpublished data from studies conducted by a company spun off from the board in 1947, the Educational Testing Service. Given all that, plus the way the authors have presented the study’s findings (as validating the use of the SAT), it is little wonder that people are questioning its integrity.

Of course, the study, to date, has asked the wrong question. That the SAT predicts college grades has never been in dispute. What has been in dispute is whether or not the SAT adds sufficient additional power to the predictions made by other (free) indicators, such as grades and class rank, to justify its use and attendant costs.

The principal developer of the SAT, Carl Campbell Brigham, referred to his tool in 1926 as a “mere supplement” and warned against overreliance on test scores. A number of people think that the operative word in Mr. Brigham’s characterization is “mere"—that the SAT is not worth what it costs, much less the anxiety it induces. The arguments that the SAT adds nothing to predictions, doesn’t help students select the right colleges, and works to the detriment of blacks and low-income students were put forth by James Crouse and Dale Trusheim in 1988 in The Case Against the SAT.

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

Exposing the Folly of ‘Nation at Risk’

To the Editor:

Finally, Finally, Finally! And Right, Right, Right! At last Education Week has the journalistic professionalism and courage to print the truth about the disgraceful 18-year assault on American public education that began with the infamous A Nation at Risk report in 1983 (“Wrong, Wrong, Wrong,” May 9, 2001).

As Rona Wilensky so rightly points out, the economic history of this country over the past 18 years conclusively demonstrates that our system of public education has not been responsible for any of the failures of our economic system. If anything, our public schools have been responsible for the economy’s notable success.

If the economic situation is not at the moment as rosy as it was during the Clinton years, that is clearly the fault not of the schools, but of the utterly irrational exuberance of our wildly overpaid corporate CEOs, our ivy-walled academic economists, our madcap Wall Street brokers, and our technologically blinded venture capitalists and dot-com entrepreneurs. And oddly enough, it is precisely these people most responsible for the present economic debacle who are the greatest critics of our public schools.

Perhaps the lesson here for our young people—indeed, for all of us—is not to worry about education reform, high academic standards, and high-stakes test scores. Just make sure you have the right kind of mother (well-educated), grow up in a white, middle-class family, and go to a private school. Then you, too, can become a wildly overpaid CEO, an ivy-walled academic economist, a madcap Wall Street broker, or a technologically blinded venture capitalist or dot-com entrepreneur. And you then can join the chorus of critics castigating the public schools for your own failures.

Evans Clinchy
Senior Consultant
Institute for Responsive Education
Northeastern University
Boston, Mass.

Testing To Gauge Individual Growth

To the Editor:

Regarding your article “Bush Test Plan Fuels Debate Over Uniformity,”(May 9, 2001): A system that includes pre- and post-testing remains the only viable way to measure individual growth. Tests that set a “bar” of proficiency can only indicate who made it over that bar, without taking into account the tremendous growth that some students may have demonstrated, even if they fell short of the bar.

Bob Balwinski
Michigan Department of Education
Lansing, Mich.

Countering Hirsch on Reading Gap

To the Editor:

E.D. Hirsch Jr. (“The Latest Dismal NAEP Scores,” May 2, 2001) proposes two solutions to reduce the gap between rich and poor students in reading ability. The first is to de-emphasize or even eliminate the study of literature (“a fragmented hodge-podge of mainly fictional stories,” he calls the language arts curriculum). The second is to utilize a “systematic, analytic, and explicit approach” to learning, with an emphasis on vocabulary. Mr. Hirsch argues that implicit acquisition is fine if one has time, but that “if you want to learn fast, be explicit.”

The research does not support either of these suggestions. Literature, in addition to its other virtues, stimulates interest in independent reading. William Nagy and others have shown that implicitly acquiring vocabulary from reading is much more effective than explicit vocabulary teaching, and a number of studies have confirmed that those who read more read better, write better, and have better control of complex grammatical structures. Keith Stanovich’s research has demonstrated that those who read more know more in general.

Studies done by Keith Curry Lance, Jeff McQuillan, myself, and others have confirmed that school library quality and staffing are related to performance on tests of reading. A recently published study in the Reading Research Quarterly, co-authored by the newly appointed assistant U.S. secretary of education for research, Susan Neuman, concluded that middle-class children are likely to be “deluged with a wide variety of reading materials.” Poor children interested in finding books to read, however, would, in her words, “have to aggressively and persistently seek them out.”

Before we take the radical steps of eliminating fiction and requiring massive drill on vocabulary, a more reasonable and conservative path might be to provide poor children with more access to books, as well as quality literature instruction that encourages and promotes independent reading.

Stephen Krashen
Professor of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

A Middle Ground? Paternalism Disguised as Caution

To the Editor:

The recent Commentary by Thomas J. Lasley II and William L. Bainbridge (“Unintended Consequences,” May 2, 2001) attempts to reach a middle ground between reformers who argue for market-based solutions and those who argue for the status quo. In their attempt to do so, however, Messrs. Lasley and Bainbridge continue the condescending, paternalistic attitude that permeates the current school structure. Individuals attempting to influence public policy generally fall into one of two camps. The first camp sees its role as purely advisory, giving information to citizens that they can use to improve their lives. Those in the second camp see their role as “experts” to lead the benighted masses to utopia, whether they want to go there or not. In stating that "[e]nhanced parental satisfaction is not a sufficient condition for a major policy shift,” the authors clearly place themselves in the latter camp.

Unlike teachers, bureaucrats, and policymakers, who may deal with or study large numbers of children for short periods of time, most parents are linked to their children by nature and a long-term custodial relationship. To argue for the invalidation of parental control over a child’s educational welfare merely because the “experts” don’t have enough information represents paternalism at its worst.

Joshua Hall
Director of Education Policy
Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions
Columbus, Ohio

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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