October 15, 2004

PSAT

Dubbed... declaimed... reflexive... inquisitive... sustenance... enumerated... demeaned...harangue... munificent... straitened... divestment... sinecure... corollary... culmination... manifestation... constellation... amalgam... embodies... sanguine... impudent... reiterating... carapace... antennae...

We are going through the practice PSAT book. The Fourteen-Year-Old is only in ninth grade, but the only way to get good at something is to practice, and the best practice is that which is the most realistic. Hence having him take the PSAT now is the best way for him to practice for standardized tests in the future.

And it's hard to avoid noticing something about the vocabulary that they are testing. It's not, by and large, science or engineering vocabulary. It's not financial or commercial vocabulary. It's not political or quantitative vocabulary. What they are testing is the high humanistic vocabulary of the Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure section, of the New Yorker, of the New York Review of Books.

Now we get all three of these publications. And my children thus get an extra edge through this testing process. But is this really what we want to allocate resources based on--whether people's parents have the NYRoB lying around and whether their children pick it up and read it?

Posted by DeLong at October 15, 2004 07:40 PM | TrackBack
Comments

No wonder American universities have so much liberal bias.


Posted by: Kuas at October 15, 2004 07:58 PM

"reflexive, enumerated, corollary, constellation, amalgam, carapace, antennae."

Are these not scientific/mathematical terms?

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov at October 15, 2004 08:04 PM

I honestly can't tell if you're being sarcastic, or are in an academic bubble. The circulation of the NYROB is 125,000 - so it's in something like 1 in a 1000 households. The US Dept of Ed reports that 61 percent of low-income families have no [that is, ZERO] books for children in their homes. Only 57 percent of adults read any books last year. So what the PSAT is testing is not so much if parents get the NYRoB, but whether the kids read much, which of course is correlated with whether the parents read.

Posted by: Noah Meyerson at October 15, 2004 08:17 PM

Online Masters Degree Programs

Posted by: Online Masters Degree Programs at October 15, 2004 08:28 PM

so, do we really want to allocate resources only to those who read? where does education begin and where does the question of proper allocation of resources for it begin?

Posted by: William S at October 15, 2004 08:44 PM

Nah. What the PSAT, SAT and almost all other standardized tests measure, primarily, is test-taking skill. Secondarily, the SAT and PSAT are tests of vocabulary (verbal section) and basic math (geometry and algebra).

The reason, for the record, that they do not test scientific and engineering vocabulary is that there just aren't enough words. Those vocabularies are tiny compared to the whole language.

Posted by: wcw at October 15, 2004 08:47 PM

I think most kids whose parents don't get the NYRoB or the New Yorker need is a good class on how to pick the right college. My family barely got Parade in the sunday NY Daily News, but I still did well on the stardardized tests. Picking an appropriate college without guidance didn't work out all too well...

Posted by: LarryB at October 15, 2004 08:58 PM

I don't think it makes sense for the PSAT to focus scientific, engineering, financial or commercial terminology. By testing for those you'd essentially be measuring their acquaintance with specialized bodies of knowledge, not their general linguistic competence.

It would be silly to test students on whether they could define "deconstructionism" or "chiasmus" or what-have-you-- because the only way to learn those words is to have knowledge of a specialized field of thought.

And likewise with "quantitative" and "engineering" vocabulary. What testing for those would measure would be students' knowledge of mathematics, and of engineering. That's hardly the goal of the test.

Also-- I'm not sure what you mean by "high humanistic." Do you have words in mind that are different from the examples you've quoted here? The terms you list seem pretty generally applicable, on the whole. They seem to be words that could be found in a wide variety of contexts, unlike the terminology of specific professions and academic disciplines.

If you have examples of useless frou-frou words that only appear in the New Yorker or whatever, you didn't put them in your list.

Posted by: JakeV at October 15, 2004 09:02 PM

Gosh, my twins are reading through the PSAT booklet tonight, too -- right across the bay. They're both 14 as well, but in 10th grade. I showed your post to one & he said to e-mail yours... Good luck!

Posted by: mac at October 15, 2004 09:12 PM


The New York Times Arts and Leisure section?! Which "Sex and the City" article are you referring to?

Posted by: Delicious Pundit at October 15, 2004 09:13 PM

Gosh, my son is 13 and I hope he doesn't see a PSAT for another three or four years.

Posted by: Hugh Gordon at October 15, 2004 09:15 PM

I am not quite sure what to make of this comment; perhaps there is a bit of liberal guilt here.

As to the substance, words are the tools we use to think with. The more words we know and can use, the sharper our ability to deal with the world. So, it not surprising that people who use language professionally, enjoy it, and encourage their kids to use it, wind up with smart, engaged kids. This no different from the way athletes encourage their kids to grow up to enjoy athletic activities, and frequently to excel at them. Or that politicians raise kids who want to be politicians.

Obviously, whether it is goal or not, those kids with wordy parents are the kids who are most likely to excel at academic skills, and we need to encourage them, because they are, as is frequently noted on this site, the most likely to produce serious advances in the future.

Which brings us to the second point. It is indeed regrettable that so many kids grow up impoverished in language skills, and thus effectively barred from using the educational system for their own advancement. The social problem of changing things so that all kids have a chance is separate from the absolute obligation we each have to give our kids everything we can.

We cannot afford liberal guilt. We cannot give our kids money, so we give what we have to equip them to succeed on their own terms.

Posted by: masaccio at October 15, 2004 09:29 PM

I don't believe it is true that you have to practice to score well on the SAT or similar tests.

Posted by: James B. Shearer at October 15, 2004 09:34 PM

How sad it is that these tests are so important that people have to practice to take them! What a waste of our brains. Now if they included essays, it would be subjective and probably biased, but at least it would be testing a useful skill.

Posted by: Abby at October 15, 2004 09:39 PM

1. I read like a fiend. When my parents made me go to bed, I'd sneak a flashlight under there and continue reading.

2. I took only the standard achievement tests all through school, never did any practice or anything.

3. My Verbal score on the PSAT and SAT was in the 99th percentile. (Same deal with the GRE, BTW).

4. Conclusion: It's how much you read, not how much you practice, that detirmines how well you do on the verbal part of the PSAT and SAT (and GRE equivalent).

On the other hand, my math score on all of these was good (75th percentile), but hardly outstanding -- not that it mattered, as the child of ignorant trailer trash in a two-bit Southern state, I wasn't going anywhere but the State U. anyhow, and the fact that I could cipher up to ten was good 'nuff for the State U. Finally got the hell out of there, but it took ten years longer than it took for folks who went to the "right" U.

So it goes in the United States of Delusion, where every day is an illusion, and every day we pretend that we are one nation, Under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all -- while under the covers, we are actually two Americas, one for the haves, and one for the have-nots, one where people worry about getting into the "right" college, and one where people have to work two jobs and take out enormous student loans to attend the local state college and don't even dream of going to the "right" college because it's way out of their reach, financially and socially. (Actually, there was a brief period in my college career where I worked *THREE* jobs -- delivering pizza, working the circulation desk at the local library, and doing some contract computer work for a local oil company -- it was rather embarrassing to have one of the oil company guys come in and see me sitting at the circulation desk). I made it. None of my other childhood friends did. So it goes, in the Other America that the press never mentions.

- Badtux the Southern Penguin

Posted by: Badtux at October 15, 2004 10:28 PM

1. I read like a fiend. When my parents made me go to bed, I'd sneak a flashlight under there and continue reading.

2. I took only the standard achievement tests all through school, never did any practice or anything.

3. My Verbal score on the PSAT and SAT was in the 99th percentile. (Same deal with the GRE, BTW).

4. Conclusion: It's how much you read, not how much you practice, that detirmines how well you do on the verbal part of the PSAT and SAT (and GRE equivalent).

On the other hand, my math score on all of these was good (75th percentile), but hardly outstanding -- not that it mattered, as the child of ignorant trailer trash in a two-bit Southern state, I wasn't going anywhere but the State U. anyhow, and the fact that I could cipher up to ten was good 'nuff for the State U. Finally got the hell out of there, but it took ten years longer than it took for folks who went to the "right" U.

So it goes in the United States of Delusion, where every day is an illusion, and every day we pretend that we are one nation, Under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all -- while under the covers, we are actually two Americas, one for the haves, and one for the have-nots, one where people worry about getting into the "right" college, and one where people have to work two jobs and take out enormous student loans to attend the local state college and don't even dream of going to the "right" college because it's way out of their reach, financially and socially. (Actually, there was a brief period in my college career where I worked *THREE* jobs -- delivering pizza, working the circulation desk at the local library, and doing some contract computer work for a local oil company -- it was rather embarrassing to have one of the oil company guys come in and see me sitting at the circulation desk). I made it. None of my other childhood friends did. So it goes, in the Other America that the press never mentions.

- Badtux the Southern Penguin

Posted by: Badtux at October 15, 2004 10:30 PM

1. I read like a fiend. When my parents made me go to bed, I'd sneak a flashlight under there and continue reading.

2. I took only the standard achievement tests all through school, never did any practice or anything.

3. My Verbal score on the PSAT and SAT was in the 99th percentile. (Same deal with the GRE, BTW).

4. Conclusion: It's how much you read, not how much you practice, that detirmines how well you do on the verbal part of the PSAT and SAT (and GRE equivalent).

On the other hand, my math score on all of these was good (75th percentile), but hardly outstanding -- not that it mattered, as the child of ignorant trailer trash in a two-bit Southern state, I wasn't going anywhere but the State U. anyhow, and the fact that I could cipher up to ten was good 'nuff for the State U. Finally got the hell out of there, but it took ten years longer than it took for folks who went to the "right" U.

So it goes in the United States of Delusion, where every day is an illusion, and every day we pretend that we are one nation, Under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all -- while under the covers, we are actually two Americas, one for the haves, and one for the have-nots, one where people worry about getting into the "right" college, and one where people have to work two jobs and take out enormous student loans to attend the local state college and don't even dream of going to the "right" college because it's way out of their reach, financially and socially. (Actually, there was a brief period in my college career where I worked *THREE* jobs -- delivering pizza, working the circulation desk at the local library, and doing some contract computer work for a local oil company -- it was rather embarrassing to have one of the oil company guys come in and see me sitting at the circulation desk). I made it. None of my other childhood friends did. So it goes, in the Other America that the press never mentions.

- Badtux the Southern Penguin

Posted by: Badtux at October 15, 2004 10:42 PM

wcw: You're exactly right.

Brad: That's why, if possible, I reccommend an SAT prep class for The Fourteen Year-Old. I took one the summer after 10th grade, and I went from a 1250 to a 1550. The math questions in particular are more about how well you read and follow instructions (and how critically you look at trickily-designed graphs and diagrams) than about your math ability.

Posted by: cyclopatra at October 15, 2004 11:00 PM

wcw writes, "What the PSAT, SAT and almost all other standardized tests measure, primarily, is test-taking skill. Secondarily, the SAT and PSAT are tests of vocabulary (verbal section) and basic math (geometry and algebra)."

No. What the PSAT and SAT measure is intelligence. "Test-taking skill" is basically intelligence -- the ability to think quickly, discern patterns, make inferences, deduce general rules from specific instances, and to recognize how general rules will apply to specific instances. The verbal section is especially concerned with such aspects of cognition, and is not primarily a vocabulary test. The vocabulary is such as a child will acquire in proportion to his or her intelligence in any but an extremely deprived environment -- no New York Review of Books required. The math section limits itself to geometry and algebra exactly because it aims to test grasp of concepts rather than rote learning; the most difficult questions challenge the student to apply simple geometry and algebra with true insight.

Posted by: jm at October 15, 2004 11:14 PM

"So, do we really want to allocate resources only to those who read?"

Not educational resources on the elementary level obviously, but it might seem that allocating resources at the university level to those who do not read (or do not have special compensating abilities in mathematics, a science, art, or some other subject) is a bit of waste. I'd admit there are cases of students who bloom for the first time at university, but I'd also imagine this is rather rare - and again not a justification for the enormous resources spent for what often becomes a social rather than an educational event.

Posted by: Andrew Boucher at October 15, 2004 11:18 PM

"So, do we really want to allocate resources only to those who read?"

Not educational resources on the elementary level obviously, but it might seem that allocating resources at the university level to those who do not read (or do not have special compensating abilities in mathematics, a science, art, or some other subject) is a bit of waste. I'd admit there are cases of students who bloom for the first time at university, but I'd also imagine this is rather rare - and again not a justification for the enormous resources spent for what often becomes a social rather than an educational event.

Posted by: Andrew Boucher at October 15, 2004 11:21 PM

Brad, that is entirely the point. The vocabulary is not suppossed to a specialized sort of language, because that would give certain kids an advantage. The vocabulary is suppossed to be what a good read would recognize. I used to teach SAT classes. In the old days, the analogy section would have something like "yacht : regatta" which would be easy for the kids from Greenwich but not so useful for the kids from Brooklyn. Then then tried to do away with specialized or class-based language.

My junior year in high school our teacher taught us the word "pontificate," but said it would never be on the SAT because the origins of the word are from "pontiff" and the Catholics would get upset. That year it was on the test and everyone in my Catholic high school got that one right. We didn't complain.

In my experience the LSAT is the test where you get the most benefit from a prep class. Because the logic section is so wierd on first view, that just practicing it helps immensely.

Posted by: KevinNYC at October 15, 2004 11:59 PM

Brad, that is entirely the point. The vocabulary is not suppossed to a specialized sort of language, because that would give certain kids an advantage. The vocabulary is suppossed to be what a good read would recognize. I used to teach SAT classes. In the old days, the analogy section would have something like "yacht : regatta" which would be easy for the kids from Greenwich but not so useful for the kids from Brooklyn. Then then tried to do away with specialized or class-based language.

My junior year in high school our teacher taught us the word "pontificate," but said it would never be on the SAT because the origins of the word are from "pontiff" and the Catholics would get upset. That year it was on the test and everyone in my Catholic high school got that one right. We didn't complain.

In my experience the LSAT is the test where you get the most benefit from a prep class. Because the logic section is so wierd on first view, that just practicing it helps immensely.

Posted by: KevinNYC at October 15, 2004 11:59 PM

With some small self-consciousness, I'd like to say that I also kicked a reasonable amount of ass on the PSAT and SAT (verbal and math) way back when. While I read a lot, my self-directed reading during that time was heavily dominated by science fiction. (And it was pretty schlocky stuff, a lot of it.) It was not heavy on the NYRoB, the New Yorker, or really anything very humanities-ish...

Posted by: ArC at October 16, 2004 01:06 AM

Nosy question--if the Fourteen-Year-Old is such an overachiever that you forsee him possibly going to Amherst, as I remember from some time ago, should he not perhaps be reviewing for the SAT, so that he might qualify for an academic summer program? In NC, many of my AG (academically gifted) friends went to a Talent Identification Program camp, or TIP, sponsored by Duke.

Posted by: James S. W. at October 16, 2004 01:10 AM

Gosh, Brad, do any of your readers have a sense of humour?

Posted by: Minty at October 16, 2004 02:14 AM

> But is this really what we want to allocate
> resources based on--whether people's parents
> have the NYRoB lying around and whether their
> children pick it up and read it?

Could do worse.

Sean Matthews

Posted by: Sean Matthews at October 16, 2004 04:48 AM

"But is this really what we want to allocate resources based on--whether people's parents have the NYRoB lying around and whether their children pick it up and read it?"

If it'll encourage people to read the _NYRoB_, with its sage coverage of e.g. the Iraq morass, the answer is YES.

Posted by: liberal at October 16, 2004 05:06 AM

James B. Shearer wrote, "I don't believe it is true that you have to practice to score well on the SAT or similar tests."

Of course it's not true. What's true is that practicing might improve your score.

Posted by: liberal at October 16, 2004 05:07 AM

jm wrote, "What the PSAT and SAT measure is intelligence. 'Test-taking skill' is basically intelligence -- the ability to think quickly, discern patterns, make inferences, deduce general rules from specific instances, and to recognize how general rules will apply to specific instances."

That's the *goal* of the tests. Whether it's true is another matter.

As for whether the "general" intellectual faculty you describe actually exists or has been inappropriately reified by psychometricians, see Stephen J. Gould's _The Mismeasure of Man_.

"The verbal section is especially concerned with such aspects of cognition, and is not primarily a vocabulary test."

It's clearly concerned with *both*.

"The vocabulary is such as a child will acquire in proportion to his or her intelligence in any but an extremely deprived environment -- no New York Review of Books required."

Nonsense.

Posted by: liberal at October 16, 2004 05:13 AM

My favorite example of an odd "vocabulary word" is "bootless." Not sure ETS is still using that one; they were in the test prep books in my day. IIRC it only occurs in a Shakespeare play.

Posted by: liberal at October 16, 2004 05:14 AM

I think that the PSAT/SAT divide the world into humanities and science via the math-verbal halves. Within the verbal part there could be more scientific vocabulary, but presumably anyone sharp in sciences would do well in the math part.

At the SAT level the achievement tests zero in on science. The interesting thing I found out was that there are two different math achievements, and that 10% of the people who take the advanced math achievement get prefect scores. The math achievement curve is very steep.

There is such a thing as test-taking ability, including working efficiently, saving difficult questions for last, guessing only if you can eliminate one (or two, depending on scoring) answers, and not arguing with the test (which some smart kids do). Some intelligent people might lack these abilities.

I did very well without any test-taking preparation, based on extensive reading, but I might have added a few points with more practice.


Posted by: Zizka at October 16, 2004 06:49 AM

What the Princeton Review would say is that the college board doesn't really have a choice of which words to use if they wish to create a valid test that produces a bell curve. There are only so many words which some kids know and most don't. And similarly there are only so many words which most kids know which some don't.

Furthermore, in order for the test to be valid, they need to make sure that there is a correlation between who gets a question right and who scores well on the exam overall. So if they picked some word which for some reason is better known in the inner city by students who tend to do poorly on the test overall then the question would be eliminated. In fact, I remember when taking the GRE verbal that there were a couple of questions where a word I knew to be difficult sounded like an easy word that fit in. Sure enough, just as the Princeton Review book taught me, there a couple of questions eliminated for the scoring, because you just can't have questions where the takers with the low scores outperform the takers with the high scores.

According to the College Board site, the SAT is changing starting in 2005-- they're dropping the analogies and increasing the percent of reading comprehension. Maybe it is possible the extra reading comprehension takes a little bit of emphasis off the vocab, but it's still possible to dress up vocabulary as anything--analogies never were about reasoning about (ridiculously simple) relationships as they liked to claim, it was just dressed up vocabulary and you can stick hard words into reading passages too. Learn the few hundred words which separate the best students from the average and you'll score at the top. Similarly, there are only so many tricks they can test in the math section of the SAT, so coaching works there too.

Posted by: snsterling at October 16, 2004 07:15 AM

And when we bring back good education, could we also teach irony, humor and wit?

Posted by: PW at October 16, 2004 07:36 AM


Yes, but. Having been classically (Jesuit) educated 40 years ago, I regret not having a scientific/mathematic vocabulary. But there is no reason (nor was there then) for not having both a "high humanistic" vocabulary and a scientific one. Teach science and its integral, math, and teach them hard. And then value scientists instead of treating them as disposables like line workers at a factory. It's done in other countries, it can be done here. Too expensive? We'll see eventually. But look at the doctoral production of our universities in the sciences over the last 30(?) years. Or the visa programs that allow Silicon Valley to bring in contracted doctoral serfs to keep costs down. What does W have to say in this matter?

Posted by: tmcotter at October 16, 2004 07:37 AM


Yes, but. Having been classically (Jesuit) educated 40 years ago, I regret not having a scientific/mathematic vocabulary. But there is no reason (nor was there then) for not having both a "high humanistic" vocabulary and a scientific one. Teach science and its integral, math, and teach them hard. And then value scientists instead of treating them as disposables like line workers at a factory. It's done in other countries, it can be done here. Too expensive? We'll see eventually. But look at the doctoral production of our universities in the sciences over the last 30(?) years. Or the visa programs that allow Silicon Valley to bring in contracted doctoral serfs to keep costs down. What does W have to say in this matter?

Posted by: tmcotter at October 16, 2004 07:38 AM

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/14/education/14act.html

Study of College Readiness Finds No Progress in Decade
By KAREN W. ARENSON

American high school students are no better prepared for college than they were 10 years ago, according to a new study by ACT, one of the two big organizations that offer college entrance tests.

ACT said that of the 1.2 million students throughout the country who took its tests this year, only 22 percent were ready for college-level work in English, mathematics and science. An additional 19 percent were prepared in two of the three areas, and could succeed in the third area "by doing just a little bit more," the study found.

"We've made virtually no progress in the last 10 years" helping students to become ready for college or jobs, said the report, which is being issued today. "And from everything we've seen, it's not going to get better any time soon."

At a time when education experts and policy makers are trying to gauge what progress has been made and what needs to be done next, the report offers one of the most negative assessments so far.

Another report, "Measuring Up 2004: The National Report Card on Higher Education," released last month by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in California, was more optimistic about college preparation, saying that in many states, more students were taking more college-preparatory courses than a decade earlier.

But ACT, which looked at the college-readiness issue in greater depth, concluded that the increases had not been enough. It found that the proportion of students taking what it deemed a minimum core of college preparatory courses - four years of English and three years each of mathematics, science and social studies - had risen only slightly in 10 years: to 56 percent in 2004, from 54 percent in 1994.

Another problem, the study said, is that even those who took the full core curriculum were not necessarily prepared for college, since some of their courses were not rigorous enough.

Of the students who took no math beyond algebra I and II and geometry, only 13 percent were ready to handle college algebra. Of those who added trigonometry, only 37 percent were prepared. That figure jumped to 74 percent for those who also took calculus. But only 40 percent of students took trigonometry or another advanced mathematics course beyond algebra and geometry.

Posted by: anne at October 16, 2004 07:51 AM

SNSterling

Excellent advice:

"Learn the few hundred words which separate the best students from the average and you'll score at the top. Similarly, there are only so many tricks they can test in the math section of the SAT, so coaching works there too."

Posted by: anne at October 16, 2004 07:58 AM

In the interest of fairness and balance, we ought to start thinking of what words might be included to the current list.

My votes:
Monopsony
Flibbertigibbet
Dipole

Others?

Posted by: JR at October 16, 2004 08:21 AM

Notice this remarkable article, whether it adds to the collective vocabulary or not:

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/14/opinion/14taylor.html?pagewanted=all&position=

What Derrida Really Meant
By MARK C. TAYLOR

Along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, who died last week in Paris at the age of 74, will be remembered as one of the three most important philosophers of the 20th century. No thinker in the last 100 years had a greater impact than he did on people in more fields and different disciplines. Philosophers, theologians, literary and art critics, psychologists, historians, writers, artists, legal scholars and even architects have found in his writings resources for insights that have led to an extraordinary revival of the arts and humanities during the past four decades. And no thinker has been more deeply misunderstood.

To people addicted to sound bites and overnight polls, Mr. Derrida's works seem hopelessly obscure. It is undeniable that they cannot be easily summarized or reduced to one-liners. The obscurity of his writing, however, does not conceal a code that can be cracked, but reflects the density and complexity characteristic of all great works of philosophy, literature and art. Like good French wine, his works age well. The more one lingers with them, the more they reveal about our world and ourselves.

What makes Mr. Derrida's work so significant is the way he brought insights of major philosophers, writers, artists and theologians to bear on problems of urgent contemporary interest. Most of his infamously demanding texts consist of careful interpretations of canonical writers in the Western philosophical, literary and artistic traditions - from Plato to Joyce. By reading familiar works against the grain, he disclosed concealed meanings that created new possibilities for imaginative expression.

Mr. Derrida's name is most closely associated with the often cited but rarely understood term "deconstruction." Initially formulated to define a strategy for interpreting sophisticated written and visual works, deconstruction has entered everyday language. When responsibly understood, the implications of deconstruction are quite different from the misleading clichés often used to describe a process of dismantling or taking things apart. The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure - be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious - that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out....

Posted by: anne at October 16, 2004 08:34 AM

Both my parents were in the sciences, yet all of us read a great deal, not only biochem/chem journals, but history, fiction, etc. So I know what gluconeogenesis (sp?) means-- big deal, anyone who's taken some Latin, Greek or a word etymology course (recommended for science majors at my undergrad school) could make a good guess at what the word means. At the time I took the PSAT, SAT and later, GREs, I didn't even know there were prep tests, and actually enjoyed taking the tests because I didn't have to study for them. I liked the word analogies--I didn't get to play that kind of game except in those tests. I did take a prep course for the LSAT and increased by score by 50 points or so--I think mostly in the logic section so I agree with the previous poster who said practice pays for dealing with the logic section.

Based on my own experience with science courses, I think one of the mistakes made (at the time I was taking course, some years ago) is how chemistry, etc., is taught. There is very little connection made between what you learn and the materials around you. Geology was more interesting to me as we went into the field immediately and started looking at rocks and the world around us. Even in geology though, we did not, for instance, learn how this or that mineral was the source (or used to be the source) of a pigment or whatever--and then, in chemistry, learned how the mineral was separated out, combined with other components to make, say, a yellow oil paint pigment. Or how nylon is made. For the most part, geology and chemistry developed as a result of looking for something considered desireable and (gold, tin, silver . . )someone wanted or figuring out how to make something or refine a given substance.

Posted by: azurite at October 16, 2004 08:40 AM

The interesting thing is that if they added 'street' words and phrases to the test it would help students really prepare for college. These can be just as complex and nuanced as anything from Derrida. My daughter attends Pitzer College ($$$) and the divide in new students is most obvious between sheltered kids from the suburbs and urban(e) kids. Since much of what a student learns is from peers, the ability to communicate effectively with each other is just as important. Buy your kid a posse.

Posted by: biklett at October 16, 2004 09:30 AM

It's not all high humanism; there are street words. My citi-bred daughter did not get that "shoulder is to road" as "margin is to paper". If they had asked her about the third-rail she would have been fine.

These tests are TIMED PERFORMANCES. Get him a good big watch and make sure that becomes aware of time. At the start of each test section he should figure out how long he should spend on each question and make a note of when he should be on the 5th, 10th, 15th question etc.

He should finish. Anyone who says otherwise is aiming LOW.

He should play in a musical recital. (I ASSUME that you have been sending him to music lessons.) This will give him experience in being PERFECT.

Posted by: Andrea Knutson at October 16, 2004 10:15 AM

What I thought was more interesting about the words that Brad chose were all the Latinates. I remember siiting in a mandatory SAT prep course in my sophomore year and being bored out of my mind because after four years of Latin and an obsession with Dickens in the seventh grade, I already knew all the words the SAT book said I had to learn. I remember the only word I didn't know (or wasn't able to figure out) was 'prelapsarian' (more specifically , I figured out what it HAD to mean. but couldn't make the cognitive leap to actual definition.)

I recommended to an older friend of mine whose daughter was failing Spanish that she take Latin instead, if only because it was too painful to listen to the poor dear attempt trilling. Turns out, she started doing much better in english as well, and smacked her way to a 730 on the verbal.


Then again, I remember being stumped by 'staunch' on the actual test, so maybe we should make our kids take CPR traingin too?

Posted by: Omphale at October 16, 2004 11:35 AM

Anne -- You and I admired the same article -- I did to the extent that I emailed Taylor about it. Too often the op-ed page is made up of ego-heavy rantings. Taylor's point about doubt just plain made my yesterday and today and probably tomorrow.

Posted by: PW at October 16, 2004 11:41 AM

2 points, from a 99th percentile scorer:

1) Practice helps, no matter what the PSAT people say. I found practicing analogies especially helpful.

2) It's certainly biased towards kids from educated families. My father was a professor too, and my parents had the NYROB, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic Monthly lying around too, which undoubtedly helped my score. I know I scored higher than people who were smarter than me.

It would be hard to do analogies with words you've never heard. And vocabulary is not just a function of how much you read. You could read Sports Illustrated and People until your eyes fell out and still not recognize the words you'll find on standardized tests.

No doubt the 14 year old will collect some National Merit Finalist money that the DeLong family doesn't need.

Posted by: rps at October 16, 2004 11:46 AM

liberal:

Re "Nonsense." Please refer to posts above by Badtux (10:30PM) and ArC (01:06AM).

Re Stephen J. Gould's _The Mismeasure of Man_: I've read it twice, once when it was first published, and then again about a decade ago after reading Jensen's _Bias in Mental Testing_. Its message that IQ tests can be and have been misused is valuable. But you must also read Jensen.

snsterling's post is exactly on the mark.

Posted by: jm at October 16, 2004 11:50 AM

I'm also thinking of CP Snow and the "two cultures." There's no reason why we have to split education into two competing lines -- science vs. humanities. We have the resources and the time in this country to really educate -- REALLY educate.

But it seems the greater the resources and time given to education, the thinner and more specialized it gets. The oft-expressed notion that the humanities can/should be skittered past -- that a "liberal education" is somehow anti-American -- is bizarre. Does an interdepartmental major still cause grief? It used to rank with underwater basket-weaving.

I'm trying to remember whether any of those guys who founded this republic were given sophisticated "job training" or were they merely indulged and given a "liberal education"? I hope at least they got special ed for SAT's? I mean, should we really have entrusted the Constitution and stuff to people like that?

Posted by: PW at October 16, 2004 12:01 PM

So some kid does well on the PSAT, then does well on the SAT and gets into a good college. After an appropriate educational interval, he gets married, gets a lucrative but painful job and winds up earning a lot of money living in an urban/suburban hellhole like the Bay Area, doing a job he detests, getting fat,wasting his life buying things he doesn't really want or need so that he and his wife can keep up with their equally desperate and deluded neighbors, thinking that one more electronic-store gadget will get him to where he really wants to be, posting semi-coherent rants on the weblogs of strangers, when all he really just wants to do is to get laid and go camping. Take away the book. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.

Posted by: JRossi at October 16, 2004 12:05 PM


The impact of the sort of SES-related environmental stuff you're talking about is measureable. It's been measured. Go look it up. I could give anecdotes about kids of blue-collar families who never read any of those publications, or anything similar who scored in the top 1/10th of 1% - but what would be the point? You can't build a quantitative case with anecdores.

Psychometrics already exists. You don't have to make a WAG.

Posted by: gcochran at October 16, 2004 12:07 PM

Your son is probably very gifted academically and won't have any problem getting a good score. I don't think these tests are given the importance they once were. Grades and other achievements count also. I think they have found that people who are only excellent test takers and lack motivation do not become good students, so it's probably not a good thing if everything comes too easy to you.


On the question of allocating resources to people and institutions, I really wonder about that sometimes, how we allocate the way we do. I don't mean to pick on Harvard Business School, but they seem to have produced more than their share of worthless business leaders, and I was wondering if we will ever get some sort of refund from them for that. They are worse than worthless; they are of negative value.

Posted by: wood turtle at October 16, 2004 12:08 PM

azurite: A very fine post, especially the comments on science education.

anne: You've persuaded me to read Derrida. Thanks.

Posted by: jm at October 16, 2004 12:19 PM

PW

Thanks! I will send along a note to Mark Taylor as well.

I found Jacques Derrida a kind person whose work was used in every which way by people who would immadiately dismiss his work at a mention of his name. Well, it would be ever so nice if we were a bit more willing to be doubtful

Posted by: anne at October 16, 2004 12:37 PM

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/14/opinion/14taylor.html?

What Derrida Really Meant
By MARK C. TAYLOR

Along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, who died last week in Paris at the age of 74, will be remembered as one of the three most important philosophers of the 20th century....

In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.

These exclusive structures can become repressive - and that repression comes with consequences. In a manner reminiscent of Freud, Mr. Derrida insists that what is repressed does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every construction, no matter how secure it seems. As an Algerian Jew writing in France during the postwar years in the wake of totalitarianism on the right (fascism) as well as the left (Stalinism), Mr. Derrida understood all too well the danger of beliefs and ideologies that divide the world into diametrical opposites: right or left, red or blue, good or evil, for us or against us. He showed how these repressive structures, which grew directly out of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition, threatened to return with devastating consequences. By struggling to find ways to overcome patterns that exclude the differences that make life worth living, he developed a vision that is consistently ethical.

And yet, supporters on the left and critics on the right have misunderstood this vision. Many of Mr. Derrida's most influential followers appropriated his analyses of marginal writers, works and cultures as well as his emphasis on the importance of preserving differences and respecting others to forge an identity politics that divides the world between the very oppositions that it was Mr. Derrida's mission to undo: black and white, men and women, gay and straight. Betraying Mr. Derrida's insights by creating a culture of political correctness, his self-styled supporters fueled the culture wars that have been raging for more than two decades and continue to frame political debate.

To his critics, Mr. Derrida appeared to be a pernicious nihilist who threatened the very foundation of Western society and culture. By insisting that truth and absolute value cannot be known with certainty, his detractors argue, he undercut the very possibility of moral judgment. To follow Mr. Derrida, they maintain, is to start down the slippery slope of skepticism and relativism that inevitably leaves us powerless to act responsibly.

This is an important criticism that requires a careful response. Like Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Mr. Derrida does argue that transparent truth and absolute values elude our grasp. This does not mean, however, that we must forsake the cognitive categories and moral principles without which we cannot live: equality and justice, generosity and friendship. Rather, it is necessary to recognize the unavoidable limitations and inherent contradictions in the ideas and norms that guide our actions, and do so in a way that keeps them open to constant questioning and continual revision. There can be no ethical action without critical reflection.

During the last decade of his life, Mr. Derrida became preoccupied with religion and it is in this area that his contribution might well be most significant for our time. He understood that religion is impossible without uncertainty. Whether conceived of as Yahweh, as the father of Jesus Christ, or as Allah, God can never be fully known or adequately represented by imperfect human beings.

And yet, we live in an age when major conflicts are shaped by people who claim to know, for certain, that God is on their side. Mr. Derrida reminded us that religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger.

As the process of globalization draws us ever closer in networks of communication and exchange, there is an understandable longing for simplicity, clarity and certainty. This desire is responsible, in large measure, for the rise of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism - in this country and around the world. True believers of every stripe - Muslim, Jewish and Christian - cling to beliefs that, Mr. Derrida warns, threaten to tear apart our world.

Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief - one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open.

In the two decades I knew Mr. Derrida, we had many meetings and exchanges. In conversation, he listened carefully and responded helpfully to questions whether posed by undergraduates or colleagues. As a teacher, he gave freely of his time to several generations of students.

But small things are the measure of the man. In 1986, my family and I were in Paris and Mr. Derrida invited us to dinner at his house in the suburbs 20 miles away. He insisted on picking us up at our hotel, and when we arrived at his home he presented our children with carnival masks. At 2 a.m., he drove us back to the city. In later years, when my son and daughter were writing college papers on his work, he sent them letters and postcards of encouragement as well as signed copies of several of his books. Jacques Derrida wrote eloquently about the gift of friendship but in these quiet gestures - gestures that served to forge connections among individuals across their differences - we see deconstruction in action.


Mark C. Taylor, a professor of the humanities at Williams College and a visiting professor of architecture and religion at Columbia, is the author, most recently, of "Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption."

Posted by: anne at October 16, 2004 12:40 PM

JRossi,

I can understand how you get tired of the "hellhole" of urban/suburban life but suburban, urban, and rural parents of teens have, with their churches, ingeniously devised things known as "mission trips", and when the kids get back from these trips they are much more content with their surroundings.

And if Mr. DeLong allowed his son to conduct his life in the ideal manner you describe, I guarantee that very soon we would have a "Grandpa Brad" type situation. Not always all bad, I am saying, but it is a big adjustment.

I hope this post has been semi-coherent enough to please you, and I remain, respectfully,

wood turtle

Posted by: wood turtle at October 16, 2004 12:50 PM

Just happened to re-read snsterling's post. Must have gotten sidetracked before getting through the third paragraph. And so must retract my earlier praise that it was "exactly on the mark."

Posted by: jm at October 16, 2004 01:46 PM

Reminds me of the story that entrance to the college for the British colonial adminstration of India (located in England) was based much more on Latin and Greek knowledge than on Sanskrit or Hindi...

The only question for things like this is: is the bias intentional, or just part of the natural outcome of one group overempasizing their own skill set?

And, btw, I've taught SAT, GRE, and LSAT prep- those classes make a huge difference (we administer practice tests before, during, and after), for the reasons outlined above: test-taking strategy is worth at least 200 points on the SAT, and often 3-400 points. Unless you were scoring in the 1500s out of the box, anyway...

And, in response to someone's assertion above that the SAT tests logical skills- that's bs. It might separate the truly dumb from the marginally dumb, but anyone of average intelligence can be trained to hit 1400s with 6 months of work.
Now, the LSAT's logic section is a good test of logical skills (although there are lots of mental shortcuts & tricks there, too).

Another analogy- I have a good friend who is a tournament Scrabble player. His vocabulary is large, but oddly limited- he knows the words that are in the Scrabble dictionary, their pluralization, etc. But he doesn't know what many of them mean, and outside of that universe of words he's no more knowledgeable than I.
Is he smarter? Or has he just spent time learning the mental equivalent of a stupid pet trick? Or somewhere in between?

Posted by: anonymouse at October 16, 2004 03:10 PM

jm,

yes, I thought that was strange you were in agreement with my disagreement.

Anyway, my disdain for the college board 'verbal' test is from experience. I have never been interested in books, and the types of things I do read aren't full of SAT type words. For the SAT I signed up with Kaplan but was too tired from regular coursework to really give it any time. Big mistake on my part! By scoring sub 600 on the verbal I was disqualified from many scholarships and probably denied admission from one or two schools despite my top grades (including English class) at a well regarded high school. For grad school I wasn't going to make the same mistake and disqualify myself for money and schools so I grabbed a princeton review book and memorized every word in it. Poof, my innate verbal intelligence jumps to 99 percentile. If I hadn't studied the words I would have had the same mediocre score. Once you know the words, it is hard to defend reasoning from a word to it's opposite as a real skill, and the analogies tested kindergarten level concepts such as "has a" or "is a type of" or "is worn on". I don't remember the reading passages as well, but there were some tough words thrown in where if you don't know the word you can't answer a question.

Posted by: snsterling at October 16, 2004 04:28 PM

Perhaps underachieving but inherently intelligent children sent to expensive SAT prep classes by desperate parents can achieve large increases in their SAT scores. But such children are probably neither average nor even representative of their SES peers.

Even the article at http://www.fairtest.org/examarts/Spring%2002/SAT%20Coaching.html claims gains on the math SAT of only 60 to 73 points, and those in a very small, self-selected sample of "twenty-one students over two years, mostly from public, suburban schools near New Haven."

For a more typical sample, the research of ETS itself is likely to be fairly reliable
(http://www.collegeboard.com/counselors/hs/sat/testprep/satcoaching.html).

Judging from the statement that "anyone of average intelligence can be trained to hit 1400s with 6 months of work," I can only conclude that anonymouse mistakenly believes the average person of his or her acquaintance to be "average". The SATs are supposedly designed so that average score of students aspiring to enter college is 1000. Is anonymouse claiming the ability to raise their scores more than 400 points???

Posted by: jm at October 16, 2004 04:53 PM

SNSterling

Interesting. Thanks.

Posted by: anne at October 16, 2004 05:05 PM

JM

Thanks as well.

Posted by: anne at October 16, 2004 05:07 PM

Inquisitor Generalis is correct about test preparation ablity in itself being a predictor. But if students are repeatedly told by the college board that the SAT is only one small factor and isn't coachable then how will they know it deserves their effort? My friends and I practically slept through Kaplan and left our take home materials in a pile because we thought regular classwork was more important. So of course we wasted our money and weren't helped by it.

Posted by: snsterling at October 16, 2004 06:02 PM

snsterling:

The quality of your prose is clear evidence of your intelligence, as is also your statement that for grad school you grabbed a review book, memorized every word, and boosted your verbal score to 99th percentile. Because you are intelligent, it is hardly surprising that once you learned the words, you found the analogies easy. As your statements on correlation between individual test questions and overall scores indicate you know, the questions are designed to span the range from very easy through moderately difficult up to very hard -- and ETS tries to make sure that the results on individual questions correlate with overall performance. The purpose of these tests is to provide a gauge of scholastic aptitude undistorted by non-uniformity of high school grading practices. How else would one design tests intended to do that?

Because the number of questions in any section supposed to be really hard is relatively small, there is some luck-of-draw, which is why ETS clearly states that its tests have an error range. What measurement doesn't?

You also wrote "I have never been interested in books ..." Might it not be the case that the schools that denied you admission wanted students "interested in books," and that they saw a gap between verbal and math scores that indicated a lack of such interest?

Posted by: jm at October 16, 2004 06:05 PM

"and that they saw a gap between verbal and math scores that indicated a lack of such interest?"

Absolutely! The SAT 'outed' me as a book hater despite my doing very well in Lit class. In the end, I don't think the score cost me anything tangible (I went where I wanted to), but I do think a student should have the right to know what is necessary to present themselves in the best way after completing 6 or 7 terms of study. It would be easier to identify the guilty I suppose if we didn't read them their rights either. What somebody needed to tell me was that studying a few hundred words was as important as English class.

Posted by: snsterling at October 16, 2004 06:34 PM

jm wrote, "But you must also read Jensen."

And you must read Dickens and Flynn, "Heritability Estimates Versus Large Environmental Effects: The IQ Paradox Resolved":
http://www.apa.org/journals/rev/rev1082346.html

Abstract:
"Some argue that the high heritability of IQ renders purely environmental explanations for large IQ differences between groups implausible. Yet, large environmentally induced IQ gains between generations suggest an important role for environment in shaping IQ. The authors present a formal model of the process determining IQ in which people's IQs are affected by both environment and genes, but in which their environments are matched to their IQs. The authors show how such a model allows very large effects for environment, even incorporating the highest estimates of heritability. Besides resolving the paradox, the authors show that the model can account for a number of other phenomena, some of which are anomalous when viewed from the standard perspective."


Posted by: liberal at October 17, 2004 12:34 AM

Inquisitor Generalis wrote, "The fact is, the SAT really does predict college performance."

IIRC it *alone* doesn't predict college performance as well as high school grades *alone* do. Of course, the best predictor is a linear combination.

Posted by: liberal at October 17, 2004 12:41 AM

Hm. When I took the SAT I sure didn't prepare (my parents were not that kind of parents), and still scored 99th %ile verbal. But what was lying around my parents' houses? NYT, NYRoB, New Yorker, SciAm (back when it could be taken seriously). And an Apple II +, and I was given an RPN calculator and an old microscope... in this environment, preparing for a bubble test simply wasn't necessary, just as I expect it not to be for Brad's kids. Perhaps their time might be more profitably spent on a bike ride, or team sports, or an afternoon at the Lawrence Hall of Science?

Posted by: CD318 at October 17, 2004 12:45 AM

I found that 2nd-generation korean-american students can often improve their SAT verbal scores by 500 points with vocabulary study. Reading british murder mysteries seemed to work just as well -- the SAT seems to zero in on the vocabulary of the british upper classes around 1920 or so.

I noticed that korean students were enthusiastic about learning SAT vocabulary when I told them it was words that ordinary people don't know but that a wealthy elite in britain and the northeast USA sometimes use.

Posted by: J Thomas at October 17, 2004 06:45 AM

I jumped to the bottom of the list here pretty quickly. I'm lazy I guess.
So you're really going to argue for the dumbing down of language? Instead of using words to find new ways to describe what are in fact the infinite gradations of sense lets keep everything neat. Language should be practical. Metaphor just leads to chaos.

Brilliant.

Posted by: seth edenbaum at October 17, 2004 09:04 AM

I see I'm late to this thread, but, Brad, your complaint about the PSAT vocabulary is precisely the same I had, years ago, about the GRE general exam. What made it particularly unfair to those of us who spend our undergraduate years learning other specialized vocabulary was that the math section was essentially at high school level.

Posted by: Matt at October 17, 2004 03:51 PM

Save your kid the $40,000 in pocket money and the shame of a meaningless preppie education. Get him into a plumbing trade apprenticeship program, then enroll him in adult night school:

1) 2 years of Mandarin Chinese at UC Berkeley
2) 2 years of business statistics at UC Stanford
3) 2 years of power brokering at UCLA Film School
4) 2 years of UCLA Spanish as fall-back strategy

When he gets out he can work as a plumber, while he's trying to get established as an import and technology broker for the PRC's techno-elites.
The Indian techno-elites are already all locked up by the Old Silicon Syndicate.

If that doesn't work, use his Spanish to hire immigrant labor, and with his nascent business connections, start his own Bay Area plumbing and landscaping business for the OSS.

It's not longer a question of if, Brad, but when.

Posted by: Grant Leiter at October 17, 2004 04:13 PM

"What made it particularly unfair to those of us who spend our undergraduate years learning other specialized vocabulary was that the math section was essentially at high school level."

Well, some of us made time to learn both the GRE-style generalized words *and* the specialized vocabulary. Adjoint functors and idempotent matrices may not be on the GRE vocabulary list, but somehow I managed to learn what "prelapsarian" meant while studying the former concepts. Wbat you put forward here is a false dichotomy (yes, I know, yet another fancy humanistic word ...)

Posted by: Abiola Lapite at October 17, 2004 04:34 PM

Have you ever compared the salaries of lawyers and scientists? I was the latter, I did the comparison, and am now with the former. Thank God I had picked up a humanistic vocabulary somewhere among the equations!

Posted by: Joe S. at October 17, 2004 06:13 PM

Abiola, I didn't mean to imply I have a small vocabulary, or that I achieved a less than excellent score on the verbal sections.

It's just that I thought a vocabulary test was supposed to measure the size of one's working vocabulary. Because many of the tested words are rarely used any more, the sampling is highly unrepresentative of a modern large vocabulary.
Fair enough, I thought at the time, let the English majors have their section, but at least give the science people a reciprocal advantage in theirs. But no, the math section was so easy the biggest risk was falling asleep.

Is there another definition of dichotomy I should know about? 'Cause I don't see how I drew one.

Posted by: Matt at October 17, 2004 07:19 PM