kitchen table math, the sequel: Impostor Questions

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Impostor Questions

Any thoughts as to whether or not it's helpful (or harmful) to use non-College Board material when studying for the SAT?

I'm suspicious, and they feel like impostors (though there are notable exceptions, including PWNtheSAT and UltimateSATVerbal), but I'm open to the possibility that these impostors make the knowledge more flexible.

Thoughts? Experiences?

(Cross-posted on Perfect Score Project)

47 comments:

pckeller said...

I recommend staying with College Board questions only. There are so many of them available that if you use them efficiently, they should be enough. You have the blue book, the on line course, and whatever QAS tests that fall into your hands. If you need more than that, I'd recommend old psat or even outdated SATS.

Here's why I don't like "fake" tests:

1. Timing issues: when you practice, you are not just practicing with the concepts. You are also working on your time management. But fake tests often take too long (or less often, too short). They are not real so you are not getting real information about how your time strategy is working.

2. Level of difficulty issues: when you practice with real tests, you are in a sense calibrating yourself. You are learning how hard you have to think to solve a problem #5 vs a problem #17. Fake tests do not have the right level of difficulty throughout so they completely mess up your calibration.

3. Quality control: some of the problems are awful -- misworded, amgiguous, whatever -- and you don't know if you are having trouble because it's you or the problem. This comes up on the forums at college confidential all the time.

People occasionally argue that doing harder problems will make the SAT seem easier. But this is not like lifting weights. What will make the SAT seem easier is mastering the SAT-level problems that you have available to you.

Debbie said...

Fascinating....and my gut says that you are right. I am always sort of agitated by non-Blue Book Questions. I'm nervous and suspicious (except for PWNtheSAT and UltimateSATVerbal, as I said).

An SAT Tutor last night gave me a test in the comments of this post: http://ow.ly/5eFNr

I agree that some of them are so awful they make me want to scream.

SteveH said...

Thanks pckeller. I like the real test question driven approach, since that exactly defines the goal. I just hope I won't run out of real questions.

How useful is College Confidential's SAT Preparation forum? I've used CC for other things, and each forum seems to have its own vibe and denizens.

My son is at the end of his freshman year, so it's time to get started with all of this. My goal is to minimize the wasted effort. He will like the process more if I can focus on the exact goal.

LexAequitas said...

I agree with pckeller, pretty much.

Is it a total waste of time to use simulated questions? Maybe not if you compare it to doing nothing at all. But I'm not really even 100% convinced of that.

Debbie said...

@SteveH I believe I uttered these exact same words last summer: "My son is at the end of his freshman year, so it's time to get started with all of this. My goal is to minimize the wasted effort."

And everyone told me I was crazy (including my son).

Debbie said...

@SteveH I believe I uttered these exact same words last summer: "My son is at the end of his freshman year, so it's time to get started with all of this. My goal is to minimize the wasted effort."

And everyone told me I was crazy (including my son).

pckeller said...

FWIW, my son is also finishing freshman year. But I am going to wait one more year and then begin tormenting him, with one exception:

I will provide an incentive (yes, a bribe) for him to take his soph psat seriously so we can see where he stands.

Other than that, I see no reason to begin his sat prep earlier than the summer before junior year. That is also what I recommend to my clients, unless the student has more than the usual difficulty w/ reading comprehension. In that case, the early start helps.

SteveH said...

My son likes math, so I talked to him about how the college decision is really a merit function, where each school has its own (unknown) formula. However, we can look at common techniques like the Academic Index. That gives him some idea of how much high school grades are weighted compared to the SAT grades. He was surprised at how much the SAT is weighted in that formula. He thought that SAT scores might just be 25% and high school GPA would be 75% (of the academic portion of the merit function).

For the Academic Index, SAT Math, SAT Verbal, and Class Rank are each 1/3 of the basic academic consideration. A rank of first in class would relate to an 800 on one of the SAT tests. It goes down quickly after that based on the size of the school. You need at least a 710 on each of the three to be an average accepted student to an Ivy League school.

I told my son that colleges will probably calculate their own GPA based on only the core courses, and then weight his class rank based on the number of graduating seniors. They might even have their own fudge factors for the difficulty of the high school. The key was to get him to realize how important the SAT tests are. Next, I have to get him to realize that getting A's in honors math won't guarantee a 700 in SAT math.

I don't like this whole process. Demand is pushing competition to unnatural levels. Since SAT tests have specific limits on material that can be covered, the questions have to become more clever. It almost seems that the ACT route would be better. Would colleges question why an East Coast student took just the ACT test?

In any case, we are also starting by targeting the (optional) PSAT for his sophomore year rather than diving right into the SAT. I'm still looking for an efficient process.

Debbie said...

@pckeller I bribed my son too. I'll have to go back and look, but I think he got $.25 for each new vocab word mastered and maybe $1 for ever half hour of blue book. Stupid me: I believed him when he would say "yes, I got them all right." Took me until the end of the summer to realize that was not true.

I'd say he mastered about 50 new words last summer (I should go count and confirm that) and he maybe put in 10 hours of blue book time over the course of A YEAR (in 10-25 minute increments).

This is all to say, I was not successful with my plan, and now we are in the summer before junior year, and I've told him IT'S HIS JOB to put his mind to it now. (I don't think this strategy has worked, btw.). I even told him this whole perfect score project that I've concocted is an elaborate scheme to interest him in doing well.

(Summer fever and girls have beat me on that one.)

He has done a few BB sections with me in the last few days, but I get the "yea, I understand," whenever we go over the ones we got wrong.

It takes SO MUCH ENERGY and persistence and consistency, when your kid is not the type A kids I read about everywhere (both of mine are not). I would love to cultivate a little SAT obsession over here -- ANY IDEAS?. For a minute I thought I had him (he was procrastinating studying for finals by begging me to do BB math).....but now that school's out, I can't get his eye on the ball, much as I try.

I just finished the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom (which I LOVED, btw, and it was NOT AT ALL what the media conveyed it to be) -- and there's one line that rings in my head over and over again.

It's near the end of the book and people keep saying to her "Amy....who's this all about...., you, or your children?" (or something like that)....and she's biting her tongue, because she wants to respond back: "You don't think i'd rather be having a glass of wine and going to yoga class? You think I like staying home and having my kids scream at me and hate me?"

Believe me, I'm not a fraction of the Tiger Mom she is. I messed it up completely years ago before I realized what I was doing (I always say, my son is like the first pancake. I messed up.) -- but I also seem to place more demands on both of them than what appears to be happening with their friends.

Stacey HL said...

@SteveH - I'm a SAT tutor. From what I understand, it doesn't matter which test a student takes - colleges accept either the ACT or SAT. From what I've seen with my own students, kids who are good at logic puzzles tend to do well on the SAT. Roughly speaking, the SAT is "trickier" in the math and the critical reading is flat out tougher. The ACT has "easier" math and critical reading - but you need to work much more quickly. And the ACT has the science section which is the toughest section for my students.

I agree with @pckeller that for most students, prepping the summer before junior year is fine. The one exception is building up vocabulary - that takes longer than a couple of months.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I'm not sweating the SAT for my son, who just finished his freshman year. He got over 700 on both reading and math at the end of 6th grade (though he got the lowest possible score on the essay and only 540 on writing).

We're certainly not going to be wasting any time or money on SAT prep. If he wants to increase his vocabulary, he can read Gene Wolfe novels.

I'm more worried about getting him to jump through all the hoops that the high school sets up to impede progress. He has a very low tolerance for arbitrary requirements and gettin gup early in the morning.

Barry Garelick said...

I'm not sweating the SAT for my son, who just finished his freshman year. He got over 700 on both reading and math at the end of 6th grade (though he got the lowest possible score on the essay and only 540 on writing).

Why waste time with high school then? He's obviously ready for college. In the meantime pipe down; some of us are trying to get some sleep.

SteveH said...

"The ACT and SAT are different tests that measure similar but distinct constructs. The ACT measures achievement related to high school curricula, while the SAT measures general verbal and quantitative reasoning.

ACT and the College Board have completed a concordance study that is designed to examine the relationship between two scores on the ACT and SAT. These concordance tables do not equate scores, but rather provide a tool for finding comparable scores."


Convert ACT to SAT
Reading Math
SAT ACT % SAT ACT %
800 36 99 800 36 99
770 34 99 770 33 98
740 33 98 740 32 97
710 32 96 710 30 95
680 31 93 680 28 91
650 30 90 650 26 85
620 28 84 620 25 80
590 26 77 590 24 72


Has anyone done both tests to see if they match this curve? (It's not linear.) It seems that the "tricky" part of the SAT would hurt those at the top end.

Grace said...

Steve -- I know a student who did about ten percentage points higher in the ACT math section, where he scored 97%ile. His overall ACT score was higher (99%ile) and that was what he submitted to colleges.

Stacey's comments about SAT math being trickier and ACT requiring working more quickly ring true, based on this student. He was a NMSF, but he apparently favored the ACT style.

Definitely hav your son do both tests and then pick the better score to send. Colleges don't care which test is submitted. Also bear in mind that for many colleges the ACT can be submitted in place of SAT subject tests.

SteveH said...

If my son and I are going to play (minimize) the college entrance game, then wouldn't the place to start be the choice of ACT versus SAT? We are in SAT (East Coast) land, but some take the ACT.

I waded through the (mostly meaningless) discussions on College Confidential on the topic and it seems that there can be large individual variations that don't match the concordance in my previous post. I will assume that the SAT & ACT people did this concordance correctly, but that won't necessarily hold for each individual. My niece got a 34 on the ACT, but she is no 780 SAT math student. (She didn't take the SAT. She took the ACT once, got a good score, then quit while she was ahead.)

I suppose I can have him try both tests (at home) and see what he thinks. I've read about the trade-offs between the two tests, but I can't make a decision for my son based on that. It's not clear whether one test is more coachable than the other.

There were some comments about which scores you can have sent to colleges for ACT versus SAT, but I thought that if colleges ask for all results, you have to provide them. Does this apply to SAT versus ACT? Can you take each one once, but send only the SAT or the ACT?

SteveH said...

"ACT can be submitted in place of SAT subject tests."

I forgot about that. ACT students don't have to do subject tests? SAT students have to do the SAT AND the subject tests, but ACT students do just the ACT?

Barry Garelick said...

We had our daughter take the ACT and we're on the west coast. There were other kids taking the ACT when she took it, so it's not unheard of for kids on the coast to take the ACT. And colleges accept both. And yes, the ACT is much more straightforward on the math part. She did much better on the ACT math than on the PSAT which she's taken in school. People are slowly figuring this out. I predict in a few years, now that colleges accept both, that the SAT test taking population will drop and the questions will become more like the ACT's, competition being what it is.

SteveH said...

Verrrrry Interesting. That would imply that the their math concordance is not correct. In fact, the slight curve of concordance implies that ACT math is more difficult than SAT math. Are well-prepped SAT math students taking the ACT just to provide concordance data? Are SAT students more prepped than ACT students on average?


"People are slowly figuring this out."

Does anyone else see a shift towards the ACT, in spite of comments about time management issues for the ACT? Getting faster on a straight-forward test seems like it would be easier than learning how to grok the SAT test.


Are there differences between average students and the best students for the ACT/SAT question? Is the SAT more coachable (for the same amount of time) than the ACT?

I guess I need to try them both myself.

Barry Garelick said...

My daughter managed the time on the ACT very well. And I have an easier time working with her on ACT math questions than SAT questions because the SAT wording can be difficult.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"Why waste time with high school then? He's obviously ready for college. In the meantime pipe down; some of us are trying to get some sleep. "

Actually, he's not ready for college. He doesn't have the time-management skills and the ability to prioritize work that he would need. He's also nearly incapable of writing to arbitrary prompts (like the SAT questions), though he can write quite well on subjects of his choosing. We are looking for ways to get him these skills, which the high school does not teach.

The SAT does not measure preparedness for college, but only a fairly narrow set of academic skills. One can acquire those skills without being at all ready for college (as witnessed by the huge numbers of students who fail out of college every year).

SteveH said...

It seems that some colleges say that they prefer either the ACT or the SAT, even though they might take both.

I read one comment on College Confidential where a person had low SAT I scores, but a 34 for ACT. The colleges he applied to required his SAT II scores, but the poor SAT I scores were sent too.


I've read more anecdotes about how people screwed up the SAT, but did well on the ACT, than the other way around. It seems, however, that if you take the SAT IIs, your SAT Is go along for the ride. That would indicate that you should take the ACT first to see what your score is. If you are like my niece and get a 34, you can quit while you're ahead.

By the way, one college suggested that she retake the ACT to see if she could get a higher score ... to perhaps get more tuition assistance. Perhaps. She immediately took that college off her list. Have others heard about this technique - accepting students, but pushing them to try for better numbers? I know that many students trade down (so to speak) in colleges just to get more money, so perhaps my niece should have looked at it as a business decision.

SteveH said...

I was looking at the common app and it seems that they want both the ACT and SAT scores if you have taken both. It doesn't seem like you can take both, but only send in one of them.

For those who have gone through the process, what surprised you the most about filling out the applications? What did you wish you knew earlier?

Grace said...

It seems that some colleges say that they prefer either the ACT or the SAT . . .

Have you come across this yourself? I have never seen an instance of this, so I'm surprised to hear this.

Grace said...

Have others heard about this technique - accepting students, but pushing them to try for better numbers?

Baylor did this and was crticized for trying to "buy" a higher ranking for itself.

Baylor University is being called "the poster child for SAT misuse" after the student newspaper revealed an unusual practice: paying admitted freshmen to retake the SAT and offering large financial rewards for those whose scores go up by certain levels.

While the university says that its approach is designed to give out more scholarship aid, it is being denounced as a cynical attempt to boost SAT averages (which dropped for the class in which this approach is being used) to try to improve the university's standing with U.S. News & World Report.


The higher the initial score, the smaller the odds a second sitting will increase it. A 34 would be very hard to raise.

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/10/15/baylor

Grace said...

You can leave the entire "self-reported" section on the common app blank. It is not mandatory to report scores on the common app. The student's official scores sent directly by the testing company are the only ones that count. Check with your guidance counselor to see if this has changed.

The question of which scores must be reported can be very confusing, and many schools have slight variations on their "score choice" policies that are hard to interpret without getting a specific explanation from their admissions office.

All that being said, I wouldn't worry too much about sending in extra scores that are slightly lower. I agree with many who have said that schools are really not looking to eliminate a student based on an extra reported score.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Steve,

Just to let you know, a student's performance on the PSAT sophomore year often bears little resemblance to the student's performance on the PSAT junior year. Most kids mature a lot intellectually between fall of sophomore year and fall of junior year, and it isn't uncommon to see score jumps of a couple of hundred points without any prep. Furthermore, doing poorly on the PSAT sophomore year can get someone into defeatist mode (dangerous) before the whole test-prep thing really kicks into high gear.

Second, don't assume that the ACT is nearly as straightforward as many people make it out to be. Yes, much of it is less overtly tricky than the SAT, but that doesn't mean that the test-makers don't include just enough hard material to make it difficult to obtain a really high score. There's actually a considerable logic component to the ACT; the test just isn't advertised that way. It's not uncommon for kids to feel that they're doing better on the ACT when in reality they're doing almost exactly the same as on the SAT.

And while many schools don't require you to send SAT IIs along with the ACT, having a couple of high SAT II scores can provide an advantage.

It's really not a matter of one test being "easier;" I've worked with kids who loved the SAT and hated the ACT and vice-versa. If your son really wants to figure out which one he should take, he should try a practice test (or part of a practice test) of each and see which one makes more sense to him.

Hainish said...

"He's also nearly incapable of writing to arbitrary prompts (like the SAT questions)"

Can you say a bit more about this? It's something I find really fascinating. What does he find difficult about the task?

Katharine Beals said...

"The SAT does not measure preparedness for college, but only a fairly narrow set of academic skills. One can acquire those skills without being at all ready for college (as witnessed by the huge numbers of students who fail out of college every year)."

The more so if one's SAT scores are artificially inflated, for example by having been granted extra time on the test because of diagnosed attention or processing speed problems, or by having spent enormous amounts of time on test preparation at the expense of academic preparation.

SteveH said...

"The SAT does not measure preparedness for college,..."

Playing the college acceptance game is not about preparing oneself to do better in college. It's strictly a supply and demand game. One could use it to prepare for college, but there are better ways to do that. The question is whether one needs to play the game, and if so, at what level?

Some merit functions claim that they reflect reality rather than act as some form of handicapping or approximation. The more important the rule and the more demand there is, the more money and time people will spend trying to beat it. The rule makers scramble to fill in loopholes and weaknesses, and the players try to find new angles. In many cases, players will spend vast amounts of time and money to win the game. In all cases I've seen, the real players have an advantage. Lots of kids could handle Harvard just fine, but Harvard isn't going to pick those kids. Of course, many players get hung up on winning and not about what, exactly, they are winning.

If I'm going to have my son play the game, then there are many things I can do to minimize the effort and maximize the result. That involves learning how the game is played.

I showed my son a math question this past weekend that gave three simple equations in three unknowns (x,y, & z). Then it asked for what x+y+z was. My son solved for x, y, and z just fine and came up with the right answer. I told him that it would have been faster to just add the three equations together. He asked how you would know that it would simplify to x+y+z? I said that it was because it was a SAT question. Of course, another problem expected you to subtract two of the equations. This skill is somehow more important than knowing how to reduce equations in matrix form to determine the rank, and then solve for the variables? Isn't one of the goals of math to allow you to solve problems without being clever?

Katharine Beals said...

"If I'm going to have my son play the game"

My son is adamently against playing the game. He's very strong willed, and I doubt any parent could "have him" play it. And I cannot but respect him for his strength of conviction.

"then there are many things I can do to minimize the effort and maximize the result. That involves learning how the game is played."

There's also something to be said for minimizing the *parent's* effort. I'm curious how much time (time spent on research as well as on practice) parents here are putting into this, versus other ultimately more productive things they might be doing with their children.

"Lots of kids could handle Harvard just fine, but Harvard isn't going to pick those kids."

But, because more and more people are gaming the system, Harvard probably picks a number of kids who can't handle Harvard (Penn certainly picks people who can't handle Penn)--at least until things are dumbed down yet another notch (Penn now requires all students to take remedial writing).

How can colleges know whose test scores are artificially inflated, whose college essays were ghost-written, and whose grades were the results of homework tutors and micromanaging parents?

Because he's not playing the game, my son, a junior, is neither doing much standardized test prep nor expending much energy (including in the deconstruction of trick questions) while taking these tests. Nor is he spending much time studying things that don't matter to him--the more trivial aspects French and biology--or applying himself in assignments that he finds unenlightening. His grades and (to some extent) his test scores reflect this.

It's painful to me when I imagine more and more bridges being burned--especially given the state of the economy and my resulting fears for his job prospects. Over the years, I've tried to motivate him to the extent that I feel it's appropriate. "I know it's stupid, but wouldn't it be nice to have more choices than fewer?" "Just a little bit more effort here could make an enormous difference." "I know that, wherever you go, you will find good professors and educational opportunities, but wouldn't it be nice to be among intellectual peers?" "As your mother, I am the best proxy for your future self, and here are some things I think, based on my own experience, which is more extensive than your experience, you may regret later." Etc., etc.

For a number of reasons (which I won't elaborate b/c it isn't productive to brag, and how reliable am I anyway since I'm his mom?) I'm 100% confident he could handle Harvard. But I'm equally confident he would never get in. His application would be tossed aside before anyone sees the interesting things he's been up to.

In the end, which types of children end up succeeding in life? I'd like to think that, whatever college they attend, the strong-willed and conscientious fill ultimately find rewarding ways to contribute to society, and that society, if not college admissions personnel, will ultimately recognize them for who they truly are.

Cranberry said...

@Katharine Beals
Penn now requires all students to take remedial writing.

Really? All students? Can anyone place out of it? Is this a reflection of a general lack of composition skills, or a desire not to saddle the students who really *need* remedial writing with the stigma of remedial courses?

SteveH said...

Thank you for your comments Katharine.

I should have said that there is a limit to what I can "have" my son do, and there is a limit to what I will have him do. However, We're at the stage where we are confronted with this game and need to help him find the best level of play. It could be that he doesn't want anything to do with it. Right now, he finds a need to prove himself by showing that the SAT questions are easy.

He is at the end of his freshman year and we have done little playing except have him understand that every test and homework at school counts. We have not started to build his resume with volunteer work or awards. He works on what he wants in his spare time. I find it annoying that there is pressure to turn everything students do into a resume bullet. My normal reaction is to say: "Screw it!" I actually find that more annoying than a focus on grades and the SAT.

However, I don't see it as either all-out game playing or ignoring the process. I can spend time analyzing the game to help make his life easier. I can find the low hanging fruit in the game. As for the question of minimizing parental effort, we should go back to Kindergarten for that discussion.

I'll find out soon enough how much my son is willing to prep for the SAT game. The goal is to keep as many doors open without getting weird about it, whatever that means. Even if some doors close, most everything in life is still up to his effort and dedication. There is always grad school. I started out commuting to UCONN, transferred to Michigan, and ended up being accepted to MIT for grad school. (I didn't go there.)

I want my son to know that there may be many paths, but each one will have its game. Even when you get into college there is a game or set of rules. Some kids can't stand all of the distribution classes they have to take and just want to focus on their major. I've seen too many kids drop out of college because they think they are wasting their time. They think the classes are "stupid".


Ultimately, the goal is not so much success in life as it is happiness in life. People might be successful in a career, but hate their job. I will gladly advise him to skip college if he wants. I'll give him what we would have spent on his college education.

Crimson Wife said...

"Does anyone else see a shift towards the ACT

I've noticed this. I grew up in New England and graduated H.S. in '95. I never heard of anyone taking the ACT as that was seen as a Midwest thing. In recent years, it seems like most students in my hometown now take both. I think the big increase in ACT-taking came when the SAT was overhauled to add the essay and take out the analogies & quantitative comparisons sections.

My kids will take both tests in jr. high through CTY. Whichever one on which they score higher will be the test they take for college admissions purposes.

Crimson Wife said...

@Cranberry- I don't know about Penn, but Stanford used to let students who scored a 5 on the AP English exam take only a single writing course. Since 2001, they're required to take 2 plus a "writing within the major" course.

Katharine Beals said...

"Really? All students? Can anyone place out of it?"

All students; can't place out.

"Is this a reflection of a general lack of composition skills, or a desire not to saddle the students who really *need* remedial writing with the stigma of remedial courses?"

It may be a bit of both. The undergrad who told me about this requirement describes himself as having had some unusually good writing instruction in high school. He reports that both the instructional level, and the overall writing level of his classmates in this class, were quite low. How many of them wrote their college admissions essays without substantial help with editing, I have to wonder.

SteveH said...

I find in my first review of SAT and ACT math questions that the ACT is sooooo much easier. Perhaps I should say that it's much more straight forward. There might be more of a time crunch on the ACT, but some SAT problems could cause a severe case of brain freeze or panic. I don't see that happening with the ACT. Clever problems require much more test prep. The easy problems on the SAT aren't bad, but the more difficult ones don't just test your knowledge of math. I will have to do a more detailed comparison.

Anonymous said...

"Penn now requires all students to take remedial writing."

It's not at all obvious to me that these courses are appropriately described as "remedial." It looks more like Penn is trying to ensure that every student takes takes at least some small writing intensive seminars during their first few years in college.

I'll note that this is a pretty standard thing to require. Though it's often listed as a writing requirement, it's not the same as a remedial writing course.

-- tjb

Katharine Beals said...

Well, as I noted earlier, my one eye-witness reports that it's pretty remedial (and he's a math/science guy, not an English major).

cranberry said...

I found an online description of the seminars: http://writing.upenn.edu/critical/seminars/what_to_expect.php.

Students are strongly encouraged to take the writing seminar in their first or second semester at Penn. They should anticipate 3 to 6 hours per week of outside work, particularly in the first half of the semester when they are immersing themselves in the practice of critical writing as well as in the course topic. Attendance, punctuality, and timely submission of work are central to success. Grades are based on the work done throughout the semester, quality of contributions to class work, and a final portfolio assessment by an outside reader.

I find the last sentence interesting. Penn takes the quality of the work presented seriously. An outside reader? It seems the student must satisfy this requirement to receive the degree.

I'm not taking Penn off of my "potential list" for my kids. This could be a rational response to the current fad of not teaching grammar or writing, and a response to students not reading in their free time.

It's interesting if an Ivy League school feels it's worthwhile to require all students to work on writing skills. You'd think the college would be able to pick the students who don't need to brush up on their academic skills. Penn accepts 14% of its applicants. The middle 50% of students have SAT writing scores between 680 and 770.

If Penn feels it's worth its while to require students to take a writing seminar, what's happening at less prestigious colleges?

Crimson Wife said...

You'd think the college would be able to pick the students who don't need to brush up on their academic skills. Penn accepts 14% of its applicants. The middle 50% of students have SAT writing scores between 680 and 770.

I've mentioned this before on this site, but I was *APPALLED* by my youngest brother's writing when he asked me for feedback on a draft of his senior honors' thesis at a top 30 university. This is a kid who scored >700 on the verbal portion of the SAT and got all A's in supposedly honors English classes in H.S. Unfortunately, he went through during the height of the "whole language" fad and all the old-school teachers who'd taught me a decade prior had retired.

I would expect a certain number of errors in a draft, but virtually every sentence in my brother's paper had at least one grammar/word choice mistake and/or awkward phrasing. It was so bad that I couldn't read it for content because I had such a difficult time figuring out what he was attempting to say.

My brother wasn't quite Penn material, but he was attending a "brand name" college that accepts fewer than 1/3 of applicants.

Katharine Beals said...

"You'd think the college would be able to pick the students who don't need to brush up on their academic skills. Penn accepts 14% of its applicants. The middle 50% of students have SAT writing scores between 680 and 770. "

That's one of the eerie things about today's SAT scores: they're not as predictive as they once were--otherwise there'd be no reason for remedial classes at top colleges. If colleges had direct access to the actual essays upon which the SAT writing score is (partially) based, they could better assess actual writing ability. To sort out who can write from who cannot, colleges absolutely need to review proctored, unaided essays.

Allison said...

--If Penn feels it's worth its while to require students to take a writing seminar, what's happening at less prestigious colleges?


I guess I don't understand what you think the point of a university education is.

If your issue is the implementation of the course--that is, that the course is too simple to provide effective instruction in writing, that's one thing. But it sounds like your issue is that a university has general requirements that its students learn certain material.

Shouldn't a university define a canon of knowledge all students should have? Shouldn't a university raise the bar of its students' prior work?

Would you think poorly of a university for requiring its students to take a Great Books course, or a history of the Roman Empire course, or a science lab, or calculus? What's the difference?

Is your issue that the students can't place out of it? Because the idea that a student can't improve their writing seems absurd. Do you really think a 5 on the AP English comp test counts as demonstration of the ability to write anything other than an idiotic 5 paragraph essay?

Crimson Wife said...

I think it's a sad commentary on the state of K-12 language arts instruction that even bright students attending Ivy caliber universities need to study composition. To me, that's something that ought to be taught properly in 6th through 9th grade, and honed in 10th through 12th.

Stanford's "writing within the major" requirement sounds like a good idea IMHO, because the kind of specialized writing doesn't fit easily within a standard H.S. curriculum. But by the time students arrive at a place like Stanford or Penn, they *OUGHT* to be beyond general composition. The fact that they're not is very troubling to me.

Anonymous said...

In response to Katherine's comments about her son: been there, done that. None of my kids would Play the Game in order to be appealing to admissions officers. None of them has a competitive bone in her/his body. Two actively resisted school. So we've spent our time out in the world of second-tier colleges (and no college at all, followed by Community College and land grant U). Yes, the boost of Ivy League attendance is not there. But you know what? None of them wanted to be an investment banker, policy wonk, or brain surgeon, so there's not much damage done in the long run. And there are plenty of intellectual peers out here in mid-America.

cranberry said...

@ Allison: Please have the courtesy to allow me to make my own arguments. I will not attempt to defend the arguments you tried to put into my mouth. Thank you.

Why do I find the course surprising? Because the description of the course leads me to believe that the skills taught should have been learned in high school. The instructions for transfer students outline the seminars' expectations: Critical Writing seminars at Penn require at least 40-50 pages of discipline-based writing, emphasize rhetoric, domain knowledge, peer-review, audience, synthesis, research-writing, usage and mechanics. All seminars are discipline-based and include extensive research and writing about a full-length scholarly text as well as shorter readings and other texts on the course topic.(http://writing.upenn.edu/critical/seminars/transfer_credit.php)

It sounds to me very much like the "freshman writing" courses which are a standard part of a prep school curriculum. I think the question of whether a student can place out of the curriculum is a valid question. Students arrive at Penn from all sorts of schools. Most requirements for courses with prerequisites allow for some sort of departmental permission for advanced students.

Should the graduate from an accredited IB program be required to take the writing course? After all, to receive the diploma, such a graduate would have had to write an "extended essay," The extended essay of some 4,000 words offers the opportunity for IB students to investigate a topic of special interest, usually one of the student's six DP subjects, and acquaints them with the independent research and writing skills expected at university. It is intended to promote high-level research and writing skills, intellectual discovery and creativity - resulting in approximately 40 hours of work. It provides students with an opportunity to engage in personal research on a topic of their choice, under the guidance of a supervisor. This leads to a major piece of formally presented, structured writing of no more that 4,000 words, in which ideas and findings are communicated in a reasoned and coherent manner, appropriate to the subject, It is recommended that students follow the completion of the written essay with a short, concluding interview - viva voce - with the supervisor.(http://www.ibo.org/diploma/curriculum/core/)

As outlined on Penn's web page, I do not think that the writing seminar would give a better preparation for college work for such a student. I am especially concerned about the need to tell Ivy League students that "Attendance, punctuality, and timely submission of work are central to success." (http://writing.upenn.edu/critical/seminars/what_to_expect.php) You shouldn't have to say that Ivy League students.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Hainish asked me to explain
"He's also nearly incapable of writing to arbitrary prompts (like the SAT questions)"

"Can you say a bit more about this? It's something I find really fascinating. What does he find difficult about the task?"

I wish I knew—then we could find a workaround. Right now we're paying big bucks to a neuropsychologist to try to understand questions like this.

Hainish said...

Thank you for the clarification. I only ask because I had a lot of trouble writing to arbitrary prompts because I didn't understand the nature of the task. I figured it out in my mid-20s and now have no problem with it.

I'm surprised that you have a neuropsychologist involved. Does your son have ASD?