Thursday, October 23, 2014

Study Materials Review: Dr. John Chung's SAT II Math 2

I have a new favorite Math 2 SAT subject test practice book!  Dr. John Chung's version doesn't have much in the way of review information, but the practice tests are quite good.  He does a good job capturing the "flavor" of the SAT II Math 2 questions.  AND there are a whopping 12 practice tests!

That said, the book is not perfect.  So far I have taken tests 1, 8 and 12.  My past experience with practice books is that the first test is often good, but that the tests deteriorate from there.  Test 8 was still pretty good, but it did require me to use the Law of Cosines three times, which seems excessive.  Test 12 is not useable as a practice test because a printing error caused half of the math symbols to appear as little rectangles.  I was still able to decipher most of the questions, but it throws off the timing for a practice test.  This test could only be used as a source of problems, and then only by someone who knows enough to deduce what the symbols should be.  A reviewer on Amazon complained that there was not a list of errata available.  I may make one for my students.  If I do, I'll share.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Recruiting to reject"

I was reading a blog post earlier today when I came across a new phrase:  "recruiting to reject."  It refers to a practice whereby students who have a snowball's chance in the proverbial hot spot's chance of getting into a college are encouraged to apply anyway.  The college then (predictably for those of us "in the know") rejects the student.  By rejecting these students, the schools admit rate goes down and they look more competitive than they would otherwise.  This, in turn, raises the school's ranking in various lists.  I've seen this going on a various local schools, but I never had a nice phrase to refer to it by until now.

Colleges use various methods of encouraging potential rejects to apply, and I was witness to some of them on a recent visit to a local high school.  I was there to talk to the career counselor.  She wasn't in, but I happened into a room in which an admissions officer from a local public university - I won't say which one because they are both equally guilty, but if you'll note my location you'll see which two I've narrowed it down to - was meeting with a group of prospective applicants.  Among the statements she made:

"We look at your whole application."
"We really look for people who have made A's and B's, but we admit people with bad grades every year.  It really depends on your story."  (Followed, of course, by an anecdote of a kid who failed six courses, but got admitted anyway.)
"Yes, we consider your test scores, but you are more than just your score."

I had to bite my tongue.  What I really wanted to do was jump in and say, "Yes, they will admit you with substandard grades or test scores.  IF you are 6 and half feet tall and have a terrific 3-point shot. Or IF you are a Hispanic Buddhist who will be the first in her family to go to college. Or IF your family has donated money to the school in excess of seven figures."

If you want to see if you are likely to get into a school, go to a website like Cappex. It's free, but you have to sign up.  They have admission trend scattergrams that plot on a grid all of the students signed up with them who applied to a particular school according to their GPA's and test scores.

Here is a sample:

See where the blue and green dots are?  Notice those stray blue and green dots that represent students with low test scores and/or low GPA's?  Those are the basket-players, the kids of big donors, etc.  They are NOT the applicants who are generally described as "a good kid."  As in, "You know, he's just a good kid."  If nothing about you is VERY unusual (in a good way) then you are not destined to be one of the stray dots.  Consider whether to apply accordingly.


Monday, October 6, 2014

"Young people today can't make change" just took on a whole new meaning

About 20 years ago, I was standing in the checkout line at a cafeteria-style restaurant.  Everyone in line was over the age of 30 because that style restaurant mainly appealed to the older generation.  The checkout clerk, who was probably in her early twenties, rang up the man in front of me, and he handed her a 20 dollar bill.  She punched in the 20.00 and hit return.  Just at that instant, the electricity flickered.  The cash register momentarily went dead and then came back on, but the transaction was lost.  The clerk didn't know what to do.  At first the people in line thought she wasn't sure if the transaction had been recorded or if she needed to repeat it, but that wasn't the problem.  She didn't know how much change to give him.  She remembered the price of his meal.  She knew he had handed her $20.  She couldn't tell what the change should be unless the cash register told her.  Everyone in line knew exactly what the change should be, but she couldn't risk taking our word for it.  A succession of managers was called to the scene until they found someone old enough to know how to make change for a twenty without electronic aid.  Until yesterday that was my "young people don't know how to make change" story.

Yesterday, I was at the cash register paying for an item that cost $7.42.  I reached into my purse, grabbed a ten-dollar bill and then poked around in my change pocket.  I pulled out a quarter, a nickel, a dime and two pennies.  I dropped the change into the palm of the checkout girl and then handed over the bill.  She set the bill aside, spread the coins across her palm and stared at them for 20 seconds or so.  She stared for so long, I began to worry:  Had I grabbed a third penny instead of the dime I was aiming for?  Is she trying to find a tactful way to tell me I've given her the wrong amount?  Finally she looked up, held out the coins and asked, "Is this 42 cents?"

My first thought was:  what in the world would have happened if she had needed to give ME 42 cents in change?  If she can't count out 42 cents, what would she have done?  Grabbed random coins, and if I complained add more random coins?  Call a manager? I wondered how she had been handling this problem up to now, but then I realized:  I may have been the very first customer she has ever had that paid for something in cash.

We are rapidly becoming a cash-less society and as we do, the ability to count change is becoming obsolete. Money-counting lessons will eventually be dropped from the school curriculum, and my question is:  Will this have unintended repercussions?

I frequently have this exchange with my students:

Student:  (staring at 75 ÷ 25)
Me:  How many quarters are in 75 cents?
Student:  Oh. Right.  Duh. (writes 3)

Coinage is an excellent medium for practicing all sorts of math skills that have applications in other places, but how many of those applications will continue to be relevant?  Do we need to be able to do things like divide 75 by 25 in our heads?  Much of the math in the current high school curriculum is unnecessary for the vast majority of adults.  We teach it anyway because we want to leave the door open for our students to choose those careers that need math.  However, there are other things going on when we study math.  What we learn shapes our brains.  For a long time we justified teaching geometry proofs by telling students that proof by deduction teaches us "how to think."  Geometry proofs have largely been dropped from the Common Core curriculum.  (You can read my elegy here.)
Will we see changes for the worse in students' overall cognitive functioning?  Will becoming a cash-less society have an adverse effect on our brains?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Time to dispel some rumors

I recently heard some rumors from a parent regarding the SAT:

Rumor #1:  The new SAT will roll out in January 2015.  This is false.  The new SAT will roll out in March of 2016.  Our first glimpse at the new format will be on the October 2015 PSAT.  2015 was originally announced as the year they would unveil the new SAT, but they realized they couldn't get the job done in time and postponed it.  You can read about some of the changes here:

The new SAT:  Math
The new SAT:  The Essay


Rumor #2:  The new SAT will no longer have the analogies vocabulary questions.  Well, that's true, but then they don't have the analogies vocabulary questions NOW.  I think you have to be almost as old as I am to have seen those on your SAT.  You can read more about the vocabulary section here:

The new SAT: Vocabulary

Rumor #3:  Under Common Core, students will be less-prepared for the math section of the (current) SAT.  This could be true.  Geometry has less emphasis under the Common Core standards as implemented in North Carolina.  If the SAT continues to give geometry the same emphasis as in the past, the current juniors may struggle with parts of the math section of both the SAT and the ACT.  You can read more about my opinion of Common Core math here:

The Common Core High School Math sequence is broken
Euclid is rolling over in this grave




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.