"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, April 10, 2009

Two Americas But Only One With Advantages

From another piece in WaPo on the new challenges faced by the College Board to maintain a system rigged against the poor:
. . . . After years of muted criticism, there has been a growing chorus of concern about increasing inequalities in access to higher education. Much of the debate centers on how to make college more affordable for lower-income students. But some educators also argue that standardized exams are a more accurate measure of economic privilege than of the potential to succeed in college and in life. Meanwhile, more nonprofit and government programs are cropping up to give disadvantaged students test preparation and other help getting into college.

Last fall, the National Association for College Admission Counseling broke new ground by urging colleges and universities to rethink their reliance on standardized testing and switch to exams that are more closely tied to high school achievement. The counselors' report suggested using measures such as Advanced Placement exams, the SAT subject tests, and tests linked to the specialized International Baccalaureate program.

"It is nothing even remotely like a level playing field," said William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, and leader of the commission that studied the issue.

Among wealthier families, he said, "parents might be more into test prep, your peers are more likely to be into it, many of the better schools, whether they think this way or not, tend to teach to the test . . . There are at least two Americas out there, and the advantages are all in one of them."

Bob Schaeffer, co-founder and public education director for the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has long urged colleges to reconsider the entrance exam requirement, saying the tests are stacked against kids without financial resources. He cites studies that show these students can easily slip behind their more affluent peers when tackling the college admissions system.

"Our biggest concern about the SAT is that the SAT, rather than a gateway to opportunity, reinforces the factors that hold kids back from access to college," he said. SAT scores "march up -- it varies -- by about 30 to 50 points for every $20,000 in family income. Kids whose families earn less than $20,000 per year have an average combined score of 1320 on the SAT; those with income of $80,000 to $100,000 have a combined score of 1543; for those who reported family income of $200,000 or higher, the combined score is 1676." A perfect score is 2400.

More than 800 colleges have already deemphasized test scores in the admissions process, Schaeffer said, many of them "very fine schools."

Barry Mills, president of Bowdoin College, which stopped requiring standardized tests in the 1960s, said this approach has worked well for the highly selective college in Brunswick, Maine. Bowdoin receives about 6,000 applications for almost 500 spots in its freshman class, he said, and each applicant's package is read at least twice.

"When we look at the students who have done well, or moderately well, there is a huge correlation between our reader ratings, and a lesser correlation with SATs," he said. He acknowledged that such personal attention is easier to provide at smaller colleges such as Bowdoin, because the applicant pool is relatively small.

A student's overall record in high school is crucial, too, he said. "Often what we find is how a kid does in high school, even with grade inflation, is a much more accurate reflection of how they are going to do in college than SATs."

A spokeswoman for the College Board acknowledged that economic and academic inequalities affect tests scores, but says the tests themselves are not to blame. "The unfortunate reality is that underrepresented students, such as low-income students, often don't have the same access to the educational opportunities, rigorous courses and resources as other students do," said Alana Klein. "Their performance on standardized admissions tests, as well as on other educational assessments, often reflects this." . . . .
You are right, Ms. Klein, the tests are not to blame--it is the use of the tests by your kind of technocratic deniers to determine poor people's educational opportunities that is to blame. And Ms. Klein, or Alana if I may, your preferred "rigor" solution of turning poor schools into anti-thinking testing camps devoid of the arts, humanities, or humanness (think KIPP) is not a morally-defensible alternative to addressing the shame of poverty in the richest country in the world. So, you see, your "solution" simply offers to perpetuate the College Board's punishing of the poor as the basest and most malevolent form of class warfare against children. We need to change the unfairness of the system, Alana, rather than changing the children so that we can continue to pretend that what you are doing is fair.

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