The Laboratorium
June 2004

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Enough About the Cram, Already

Michael Walfish writes in with a rejoinder to my previous pieces on the test-prep industries:

I think what you’re missing (and why the colleges would never implement this proposal) is that the test prep provides a convenient fiction — an excuse if you like — for getting wealthy kids into the given college, which is in the college’s best interest, or so they think. (wealthy families give more money, wealthy kids don’t ask for as much financial aid, etc., etc.)

I think that’s right. The American system of college financing depends on a certain measure of collective dishonesty. The bias of standardized tests towards the richer is something admissions officers may bewail, but it also provides much of the necessary obfuscation. To fix that bias would make the deeper tensions dangerously obvious.

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.

So He Withheld Information from Them?

Asked if he knows information that the 9/11 commission does not know, Cheney replied, “Probably.”

Cheney blasts media on al Qaeda-Iraq link,”

It Is Just Different

Q: How is this case different from what Taguba was talking about, the ghost detainees?

SEC. RUMSFELD: It is just different, that’s all.

     Q     But can you explain how and why?

  SEC. RUMSFELD:  I can't.

Defense Department Regular Briefing, June 17, 2004

Killing the Cram

Here’s an incremental proposal for reforming the college admissions process. As I see things, one of the major issues the system has to cope with is the huge advantage that wealthier kids get. Some of those advantages are things that should be encouraged: wealthier kids tend to attend better schools and to learn more because of it. But some of those advantages are things that should be discouraged: wealthier kids can take expensive SAT prep courses.

My idea is that college applicatnts should be required to disclose on their applications all test-prep courses they’ve taken (in fact, any education or private tutoring not part of their high school curriculum). Colleges would then reduce applicants scores by the advertised SAT gain of the particular course. The Princeton Review claims an average improvement of 140 points. If you take Princeton Review classes, then, the admissions department will knock 140 points off your score.

For private tutoring or courses without disclosed information, the admissions committee will make an educated guess. Especially if colleges pool information, it shouldn’t be hard to get a good ballpark figure on how much a given course of study would be expected to raise a student’s scores. Failure to disclose a prep course, of course, constitutes lying on your application, and is immediate grounds for rejection—or expulsion, if you’re caught after the fact.

Am I missing something?

He Said, They Said

The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you. We’re a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at those laws, and that might provide comfort for you. And those were the instructions out of — from me to the government.

George W. Bush

In order to respect the President’s inherent authority to manage a military campaign, 18 U.S.c. s. 2340A (the prohibition against torture) must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority.

Working Group Report on Detainee Interrogations in the Global War on Terrorism: Assessment of Legal, Historical, Operational, and Policy Considerations (the “torture memo”)

National Day of Mourning, My Ass

If we had to have man of Ronald Reagan’s often loathsome principles and questionable intelligence as President, I suppose the Gipper wasn’t all that bad. (See, e.g., George W. Bush.) True, his presidency was a huge step backwards for social policy and a huge step forward for fiscal irresponsibility, but he did have a marvellously soothing voice—something I appreciated as a 5-year old.

I’m sorry he’s dead, and I’m sorry his last years were so difficult for him and for his family. But that’s pretty much it for me: with all the fervor about renaming things the Ronald Reagan This and the Ronald Reagan That, you’d hardly be too far from the truth for thinking that the man’s been dead a long time now.

A Day of Mourning? That’s just idolatry. My first thought on hearing the news was, my goodness, how terribly convenient for the Bush campaign, isn’t it? My second thought was, gee, this is still the top story? Don’t they have other news to cover?

I’m not going to go dancing on graves Friday, but I’m not going to be rending my clothes, either.

The Chronoliths

Robert Charles Wilson’s The Chronoliths has a brillant premise—“the sudden appearance of indestructible monuments from the future,” in Steven’s words. I got Steven to explain the basic plot at slightly greater length, but I was basically hooked when I saw that nine-word noun phrase. I mean, with that kind of a hook, the book has to be great, right?

Well, actually, it sucked. I don’t really blame Wilson; I blame myself for getting my hopes up in looking for a new twist on time travel.

See, what’s so boffo about Wilson’s idea is that unlikely combination of three key words: “indestructible,” “monuments,” and “future.” The idea that someone in the future (a warlord named Kuin) is taunting us by sending monuments of his conquests is unsettling enough: I mean, he’s clearly badass enough to have time travel technology. When you make those monuments indestructible, too, you’ve got two great themes with which to play.

The first is literary: the sense of dread involved with these enigmatic thingos is literary gold. The 2001 monoliths have that same scary inscrutibility going; so does every sci-fi novel with ancient ruins lying around from some long-dead unkown alien race. But Wilson is just such a flat writer that the dread never really materializes. Writing the novel from the point of view of a regular guy trying to ignore these “chronoliths” and go about his business was, if you ask me, a dumb move. If you, the reader, are freaked out by them, Wilson is implicitly saying, you’re one of the bad guys.

The second possibility is more plot-oriented: if some badass named Kuin is sending monuments to himself back 20 years in time, then I want to meet Kuin. Or rather, I want to see whether he really exists, how he comes to power despite people’s efforts to stop him pre-emptively, and so on and so on. I want to know what happens 20 years from when the first of these damn things appears. But Wilson cops out: his actual story ends right before the key date, and then fast-forwards several decades with a “you all know what happened next.” (And making the chronoliths physically devastating, in some cases, struck me as unnecessary. “Kuin is coming” is more uncanny, more disturbing, than Kuin flattening cities.)

Sadly, I don’t think it’s his fault. I couldn’t have done any better myself. In fact, I can’t ‘t see any narratively satisfying conclusion that start’s from Wilson’s premise and isn’t a cop out. I knew as much when I heard the premise. It’s just one of those unfortunate facts of time travel fiction.

There are, I think, two possible consistent fictional cosmologies that involve backwards time travel. In the first, there’s a single flow of events which already incorporates all time travel, ever. If the chronolith says it comes from 20 years in the future, someone will be there to send it back. Guaranteed. The second is the Back to the Future cosmology: if the “past” is altered, the future changes, too. Appropriate backwards-in-time interventions can “keep on” altering the future. Here, it’s not clear that anyone needs to send the chronolith backwards in time in “our” timestream; it might have come from some “other” future, which, ironically enough, is no longer the future, because of its own meddling with what was its past.

The problem with these cosmologies is that they have a closed universe of narrative possibility. The first has a very Fate-laden sense of one’s destiny being sealed; all you get to see is the ironic process by which the future we all know and love comes to be, the way that every puzzle piece drops into place. The second has a more existentialist flair, but the only good plots I’ve seen that use it follow the time traveller around, since he/she is the only person who gets to see “both” futures. When the time traveller is a thing, rather than a person, you just don’t get that option.

Basically, I was hoping that Wilson had come up with a third good option. The setup is so good, so strange, that I allowed myself to think that he might. Indeed, my sense that there weren’t any more possibilities was part of what made me so attracted to The Chronoliths: if he did come up with one, it would be a huge accomplishment.

But no.

Why I Am Tired

Everyone who’s lived for a while in a big city has an isotope of this anecdote. Wendy has just dumped her boyfriend, Jake. Yeah, he was an asshole (and still is), but she probably shouldn’t have broken up with him by standing him up for dinner and leaving a message on his answering machine while she knew he’d be out waiting for her at the restaurant. That’s just sinking to his level of mind games.

Well, now Jake is roaring drunk and vacillating between righteous fury and pitiful pleading. And he’s doing it at 2 AM from the street beneath her window. She took her phone off the hook a while ago, but now Jake has a better idea. He’s leaning against her buzzer, figuring that the incessant buzz will sooner or later cause her to relent and let him in. Actually, she’s going to call the police on his sorry stalker ass, but that’s still an hour away, and in the meantime, Wendy’s next-door neighbor is wondering what the hell is up with that incessant buzzing.

That’s what happened last night in my apartment complex last night, only in reverse, and without the dramatic backstory. The buzzer at the door itself—the sound it makes when you buzz someone in—had been buzzing for a couple hours when I started trying to get some sleep. As best I can guess, someone left something leaning up against their intercom buttons. Someone on the wrong side of the building to hear the door buzzer, that is. Unlike me, with a window a floor up but otherwise right next to the door.

And that’s why I’m tired.