Restatement (Second) of Killing the Cram

Killing the Cram,” my post on disclosure of test-prep courses in college admissions has drawn responses from Paula and Steven. Both are somewhat critical, but I think both miss key features of my proposal.

First, neither of them objects to my proposal for mandatory disclosure of all such courses on students’ applications. I sincerely believe that even if colleges didn’t explicitly adjust scores—in fact, even if they promised not to—we’d see a significant drop in the use of test-prep courses. Are you two also opposed to a disclosure requirement?

Second, Paula claims that my proposal, with full rescaling, would be unfair to those at the top of the score range:

Consider a very good test-taker from a ritzy private school, who without the Princeton Review course would score a 1580, but with it gets up to 1600. Under J.G.’s proposal, this kid is treated as having a 1460 — the same as a classmate who actually would have scored a 1460 but for the Princeton Review course. In other words, the ones who suffer most from the proposal are the kids who probably most deserve their scores.

Leaving aside for now the issue of “deserve,” which Steven treats at length, Paula is right that such a student is an enormous loser under my system. But I think that’s justified, because a student in this situation who takes a test-prep course is being dumb, spending time and money and effort on something that is near-worthless. My system encourages this student to forego the prep course. But will she? Paula:

Kids at private schools or at public schools in wealthy communities are more likely to take test prep courses whether they need them or not, because of insistence by risk-averse parents and because test prep simply tends to be more the norm.

But my proposal includes advance warning. The colleges would say that they will start requiring such disclosure four years from now, before anyone now in high school would have taken a course for which disclosure is required. Under those circumstances, risk-averse parents would be on pretty clear warning that the test-prep for only marginal improvements is a bad investment: I doubt that they would be forcing kids into programs when they know that colleges will correct for the average effect of the program.

As for test prep being the norm, well, my goal is to change the norm. I think my proposal would change the norm, and quickly, with at most one round of kids not believing the threats and seeing their scores adjusted as a result. After that, I think the norm would collapse in the face of self-interest.

Now, Steven raises an interlinked set of objections having to do with college admissions criteria. Steven’s parents run a test-prep course that teaches “basics,” and he claims that such achievement is legitimate education, which really does fit out students better for college. I suppose that’s possible. But I went to a high school in which test prep was epidemic, and the students around me were certainly not getting any good “basics” from it. They were getting vocabulary lists, instructions on taking standardized tests (remember to tear off the corner of one of the pages to make right angle drawings!), and stress management therapy. I roomed with a test-prep teacher for a year, and certainly he wasn’t teaching anything other than test gamesmanship. I suppose there’s definitely room for courses that teach students things of real value in the world. But the test prep system we have, for the most part, doens’t offer those courses. Here’s a handy test: does the course itself explicitly promise to teach to the test? Most major test prep companies proudly trumpet that they do.

Steven then turns to issues of inequality in students’ background. Of course he is right that the inequality in high school quality—an inequalty that aligns in many cases with racial and class-based inequality more generally—is incredibly severe. Steven sees test-prep courses as a way for students in underperforming schools to even things out; they can get what their schools don’t give them.

It’s an attractive vision, but I think it’s not a description of reality. First, test prep is so much more available to the rich than to the poor that I find it implausible that the availability of the for-profit test prep industry, on net, is progressive. I suspect that in fact this industry strongly compouds the advantage of the more affluent: they get better schools and they get better preparation for the tests. Indeed, the availability of expensive private test prep probably diverts resources from the school system: the affluent internalize the costs of having deficient local schools less than the less well-off. Thus, for example, some of the political pressure that might fight property-tax caps that starve local school systems is blunted by the ability of richer parents to take care of their own kids when SAT time rolls around. True, if the test prep goes away, some more motivated disadvantaged kids do worse, but I think disadvantaged kids overall do better. Much better.

Steven’s final point is that the test prep system-gamer is a welfare queen: a mythical person unrepresentative of the vast majority of people in the relevant category, but useful as a kind of moral cudgel. If this is so, I’d like to ask, then why do students not voluntarily disclose the courses they’ve taken? I think it’s because collectively, students and colleges understand these courses as illegitimate, as mildly shameful, as system-gaming. Students are happy to show other ways they’ve taken advantage of opportunity, but we haven’t conceptualized test prep courses as meritorious uses of opportunity.