Friday, September 12, 2014

A less-biased look at Northeastern University's "meteoric" rise in the U.S. News and World Report ranking.

College rankings have taken a big PR hit in the last year.  Some of it is deserved.  However, as has become the norm in American public discourse, people eager to jump on the “bash the latest unpopular thing” bandwagon have demonstrated a remarkable lack of critical thinking skills.  This is especially sad when the topic is higher education – an institution that should be dedicated to encouraging critical thinking.

An article recently published in Boston Magazine by Max Kutner purports to be about how Northeastern University, located in Boston, managed to rise in the rankings of the U.S. News and World Report by “gaming” the system.  Before going on, it might be useful to note that “gaming the system” is typically defined to mean manipulating the rules in such a way as to gain an advantage.  It is generally understood, that the entity “gaming the system” is not breaking the rules.  Rather, the entity is typically following the letter of the rules, but not the intent.  Breaking the rules would be subject to disciplinary action of some kind.  “Gaming the system” generally is not.  Despite that, it is also generally understood that “gaming the system” is an unscrupulous act designed to obtain an advantage unfairly.

The article opens with a description of the state of Northeastern University in the early 1990’s.  Their situation was dire:  the school was under-enrolled and under-funded.  There was a real danger that if they could not turn things around, they might have to close their doors.  Enter one Dr. Richard Freeland who is charged by the author with making “gaming the U.S. News ….part of the university’s DNA.”

Here is a list of the things the university did under Freeland’s administration that resulted in a rise in the school’s ranking from 162 to 98:

  •       Reduce class sizes
  •        Begin accepting the Common Application, which made it easier for students to apply
  •        Constructed new dormitories because studies showed that student who lived on campus were more likely to graduate
  •        Do some PR to boost the school’s image
  •        Report the number of students each year differently to reflect the number of students on campus instead of including co-op students


Wow.  How nefarious of them.  The author emphasizes that Dr. Freeland kept his eyes on the rankings throughout the improvement process.  What he fails to acknowledge is that, while the college rankings are far from perfect, they do include some measures that legitimately affect the quality of education.  Smaller class sizes are not only linked to better learning outcomes, they are also a measure that potential students and their parents find interesting.  Surely no one thinks that making the application process more convenient and accessible is a bad thing.  And if graduation rates needed to be raised (and it seems they did) then building dormitories sounds more like “data-based decision-making” than “gaming the system.”  Oddly, the author carefully avoids telling us how much the graduation rate rose, but rise it must have – the subsequent increase in ranking could not have been obtained otherwise.  On what planet is that a bad thing?

The one item in the list that sounds like it might be shady is the last bullet point in the list.  Northeastern changed their reporting methods.  Dr. Freeland realized that the metric being used by U.S. News hurt schools with strong co-op programs.  Northeastern counted significantly more students each year than were actually on campus, which made it look like the school was spending a lot less per student.  He took his case to the U.S. News statisticians who declined to change their metric, but who explained what they were doing with the numbers and why.  As a result, Northeastern stopped including co-op students who weren’t on campus in their numbers.  Is that dishonest?  I don’t think so.  I think it makes for a more accurate picture of their situation.

The article includes a list of schools caught flat-out lying on the numbers they report to U.S. News.  While the author acknowledges that this does not fall under the category of “gaming the system,” he does offer this as evidence that the rankings are irretrievably broken – an accusation the magazine denies.  Including them tends to – intentionally or otherwise – give the impression that the measures Northeastern has taken are as dishonest as these examples.

Not until the last few paragraphs do we find any evidence of actual “gaming,” and these were introduced after Freeland retired in 2006.  Northeastern stopped requiring foreign students to submit SAT scores.  Foreign students, for whom English is often a second language, can have lower SAT scores.  Not to require scores from foreign students may be a bit shady, although it has recently come to my attention that taking the test represents a true hardship for many foreign students by requiring an overnight trip to a distant city.  Some might consider dropping the requirement an effort to be more understanding.  Then in 2007, the school began a program whereby students could begin at NU in the spring – thus excluding their data from the reporting.  The author states that these excluded test scores and GPA’s are “lower”, but offers no evidence for this statement.  They certainly could be, and if they aren’t, one wonders why NU would begin the program.

As a final jab, the author points out that the measures taken to improve educational quality at NU – and quality has undeniably been improved by increasing retention and graduation rates, if nothing else – has cost money, making the school more expensive.  This is undoubtedly true, but it’s an odd accusation to make.  Typically the complaint is that we don’t spend enough on education, or that when we do spend more, we don’t see an improvement in results.  But here is an example of a school that spent more – and it paid off.  The alternative was to close their doors.  Does anyone wish to argue that they should have chosen that as the more honorable course of action?  The price increase does, indeed make Northeastern one of the more expensive options out there, but price is one of the factors every family should weigh in making decisions about where to send a student to school.


In over 30 paragraphs of writing, the author only mentions 2 possibly unscrupulous methods Northeastern may have used to improve their ranking.  He mentions several instances in which the school used metrics in the ranking to guide decisions that led to improved outcomes.  At one point the author quotes Lloyd Thacker as saying, “Have rankings contributed to anything beneficial in education?  There’s no evidence.  There’s lots of evidence to the contrary.”  As a refutation of that statement, I would point to Northeastern University.

Friday, August 8, 2014

What are the SAT subject tests?

There seems to be some confusion about the SAT subject tests.  I've now written to several individuals about what they are and who needs to take them.  Rather than tell people one at a time, it would make sense to tell a bunch of people at once.  The next time someone asks, I can point him to this post.

What are the SAT subject tests and how are they different from the "normal" SAT?

The "normal" SAT was originally designed as an aptitude test as opposed to an achievement test.  Because the SAT was designed as an aptitude test, it attempts to measure how well you can solve novel problems - problems that are about what you learned in school, but that are designed differently from the problems you are used to seeing in your homework or on classroom tests.  The SAT subject tests are achievement tests.  They are designed to measure how well you learned a particular subject.  The SAT folks have tests for literature, US History, World History, Math (two levels), Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and nine different foreign languages.  The questions on the subject tests are likely to resemble the questions on your classrooms tests.

When and where can you take an SAT subject test?

The SAT subject tests are offered on most of the same dates that the SAT is offered, and will be offered at the same sites.  The people taking subject tests will be in a different room from the people taking the "normal" SAT.  You cannot take the "normal" SAT and a subject test on the same test date.  Registration and payment works just like it does for the SAT, except that the price is different.

You can take up to three subject tests in one morning.  You pay for each one.  You must register to take a subject test in advance, but you can change your mind about which test(s) to take or even how many tests you wish to take on the morning of the exam. All of the subject tests are in the same test booklet, and if you choose to take multiple subject tests, you can pick which order you wish to take them.

You should go to the College Board website for details.

Who needs to take an SAT subject test?

Most students do not need to take an SAT subject test.  Most colleges don't require them, but if you wish to showcase your kick-ass chemistry skills, colleges will consider the score as part of your application.  Some of the more elite colleges do require subject tests.  If you are planning to apply to a selective college, or if you are planning to apply to a very selective program at a more normal college, you should check to see if they require subject tests.  The most common requirement would be that you take any two subject tests.  However, there are a handful of colleges and programs that require specific subject tests.  For example, MIT requires that you take one math test (either level) and one science test.  The Honors Program in Medical Education at Northwestern specifically requires the chemistry subject test and the math level 2 test.

What should you do to prepare for a subject test?

The only subject test I tutor for is the math test.  You can read what I have to say about preparation here.  The information I have on the other tests is hearsay.  Students who had taken an AP or IB class in the subject have said that they felt very well prepared without any extra study, although one student did say that she felt she could have done a bit better (over 750 instead of a 730) if she had taken a practice test before the exam.  She knew the material, but she had expected the question format to be like the AP test, and the difference put her off a bit.  She felt that an hour spent looking at practice questions would have helped.

The College Board has posted sample questions on their website, and have published practice tests which you can order through this link:

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Six Things You Should Do in College

Lately we've been hearing a lot of questions about the benefits of college in general and, more specifically, the benefit of attending a more-expensive, selective college over a less-expensive, less-selective college.  Evidence for the benefits of a college degree remains strong, but pundits are beginning to challenge the benefits of struggling to get into the biggest name school.  Evidence is mounting that what you do while in college matters more than which college you attend.


A new Gallup poll released this summer suggests that there are six choice students can make while in college that will make a difference in their Great Jobs Great Lives index.  The poll looked at five elements of well-being for 29,000 recent graduates:  social support, financial stability, physical health, sense of purpose and sense of community.  One interesting finding?  That students scored higher on the index when they had made these choices in college:
  1. Do an internship or hold a summer job in your field of study.
  2. Get deeply involved in an extracurricular activity.  (As opposed to shallowly involved in many activities.)
  3. Do a long-term academic project - one that takes more than a semester.  It can be for a particular class, a senior thesis project, or an independent research project.
  4. Find a professor that makes you excited about learning.  It doesn't have to be in your major.
  5. Choose, as your professors, instructors who care about students as people.
  6. Find a mentor.  This doesn't have to be someone associated with the university.
Doing these things was more important to the quality of graduates' well-being than their majors or which colleges they attended.  As you travel off to college this fall, keep these six things in mind, and look for opportunities to do them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Read These!

Yesterday's post emphasized the need to read college-level nonfiction to prepare for college entrance exams.  Actually, you want to practice reading college-level nonfiction to prepare for college, but it's the looming test that serves as the motivation for most students.

Here are some specific suggestions for practice reading for the ACT or SAT:

Scientific American
The Economist
The Atlantic Monthly
National Geographic
Smithsonian Magazine

If you are a parent who would like to encourage your child to read these, then ideally you would have them lying around the house.  They are all excellent periodicals for teens and adults alike, so feel free to subscribe.  Here are some handy links:



I have also found a number of excellent practice essays in these books:

Conformity and Conflict
The McGraw Hill Reader
The Art of Critical Reading

The books above are excellent but expensive, so check your local library. If your library doesn't have them and you are feeling generous, buy a copy of each and donate them after the test. You can order them through these links:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

READ, dangit!

There exist SAT and ACT tutors who fill out a form after the test outlining for parents why the student didn't get the score they wanted.  I think it's a CYA thing, and I can see the motivation, but it seems a bit mean.  However, if I DID fill out such a form, "Doesn't read enough" would be one of the check-boxes.  "Didn't do what I told him to" would be another, and for many students this would amount to the same thing.

Students (and their parents) are told the importance of reading over and over again.  We all know we should be reading, but many people -- teenagers in particular -- don't.  Even if a student is a big reader, sometimes they don't read a wide enough variety of texts.  How many times have you heard, "They can read ANYTHING! It doesn't matter!  Find something they enjoy!"  This is only true up to a point.  When it comes to college readiness, the ability to read non-fiction at a college level is crucial.  However, you can't count on colleges to teach the student how to do this.  They expect their students to arrive already reading at a college level.  In fact, college entrance exams are specifically intended to measure the ability to do this.  High schools haven't traditionally done such a great job either.  They tend to focus on the types of fictional reading the practice of which will come in handy if you major in English Lit.  The Common Core Standards are supposed to address this issue.  We'll see.

When I get a student who needs work in the reading section, I usually assign reading homework.  I send home articles that were written "for grownups."  The students get to choose what to take home, although I encourage them to choose articles on topics they know little about rather than articles they think they would enjoy.  This is the homework that is least likely to get done.  I'm not sure why.  Is it because they can't bring themselves to read "boring" stuff?  Is it because they don't see the immediate connection between the assignment and improving their test scores?  Is it because the improvement is not as immediate or obvious?

An aside--  If you are reading this, and you are one of my current students:  I can tell when you didn't really read the article.  I may have chosen not to embarrass you, but I know.

Usually when a child's reading score is low, it's because he really doesn't read all that well.  You can't fix that without reading.  So, READ, dangit!

Check back tomorrow for some specific reading suggestions.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Study materials review: Up Your Score ACT

Up Your Score for the SAT was originally introduced in the 1980's.  It is periodically updated by a fresh crop of perfect scorers.  (You can read my review of that book here.) This is the first ACT version.  It was put together by a test prep tutor (Chris Arp) and 3 perfect-scoring students who are now in college.  Like the SAT version, the book is cute and clever.  Also like the SAT version you have to wade through an awful lot of cute and clever to get to the actual meat of the advice.  As you may have gleaned from my previous reviews, I like the books that offer targeted practice.  This one does not.  It was not written as a stand-alone resource; you'd have to buy a guide with actual practice tests as well.  As of this writing (June 2014) the price isn't bad - about $14.  Still, there's no reason not to just check a copy out of the library.

There is some fairly interesting study advice that will apply to subjects other than the ACT, and, as I mentioned in a previous post, the section on punctuation is particularly useful.  If you really need to own your own copy, there is a link below.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

It's hard to solve the triangle if you don't know what a "guy wire" is.

Happily all of my students currently studying trigonometry know that one would find a shadow on the ground, and all of them know how a kite works!  However, I did have to tell three students in a row what a "guy wire" is.

I'm not sure how we should be trying to address this problem.  On the one hand, we don't want a student who knows how to solve a triangle to miss the question because he doesn't know a non-math vocabulary word.  (And what about the ESL kids?) One solution might be to provide a labeled diagram with each question.  However, many would argue that being able to model the problem involves the student drawing his own diagram. Is there even a description of a guy wire that doesn't essentially tell the student how to draw the diagram?  And if we restrict ourselves to vocabulary that was used for examples in class, then how do we ever present a student with a novel problem?

The fact is, that a word problem has to be about something.  And if the student has no experience with that "something" then it's a lot harder to work the problem.

(For more context, see this earlier post.)