What does freshman composition look like in 2024?

What does freshman composition look like in 2024?

In my previous post, I looked at how universities’ reliance on adjuncts and the resulting grade inflation in freshman composition classes trickles back to the high school level, depressing minimum SAT/ACT English scores (“benchmarks”) correlated with earning passing grades in college writing courses. I think, however, that there is another major factor at play at as well here: not only are composition instructors pressured to award higher-than-merited grades, but at many institutions, the classwork itself has become less demanding. This phenomenon seems especially pronounced at less-selective college, which enroll the vast majority of students with low scores.

While writing the original piece, I got curious about the general state of freshman composition and looked up courses at a wide swath of U.S. universities, public and private, of varying degrees of selectivity. After reading through numerous course descriptions, I started to notice a pattern emerging: highly competitive private and public schools generally emphasize a fairly traditional set of academic writing skills—essentially what would be expected from an introductory college-writing class— even if they present them within a framework of contemporary topics. Less prestigious schools, in contrast, seem to be moving toward a definition of composition that de-emphasizes academic writing, and that in some cases is expanded to encompass even non-writing activities such as podcasts and films. (more…)

Why are SAT and ACT English benchmarks so low?

Why are SAT and ACT English benchmarks so low?

In my recent post on the timing of the Math section on the digital vs. the paper-based SAT, I alluded to the striking difference in proficiency levels in Math vs. English set by the College Board (530 vs. 480). My colleague Mike Bergin left a comment suggesting that I look a bit deeper into the discrepancy, and I realized that although I’ve mentioned it a number of times since the cutoffs were introduced eight years ago (it’s amazing how time flies!), I’ve never really explored the issue—which turns out to have just as much to do with the state of higher education as it does with college-admission tests.

But first, some background: When the SAT was redesigned in 2016, the College Board introduced College Readiness “Benchmarks” for both English (Reading/Writing) and Math, comparable to those that had long existed for the ACT. Those scores (Math, 22: Science, 23, English: 18, Reading: 22, with the latter two rolled into a single ELA benchmark of 20) were intended to indicate that a student would have a “50% chance of earning B or higher grade and approximately a 75-80% chance of earning a C or higher grade in the corresponding college course or courses.

The SAT/ACT concordance charts appear to have been last updated in 2018, and to the best of my knowledge they are still being used. Unfortunately, they do not list correspondences between ACT English/Reading and SAT Writing/Reading on a 36 vs. 1600 scale. It is reasonable, however, to assume that these scores would be roughly in line with the overall concordance.

Looking at these, an ACT score of 18 (the English benchmark alone) is shown to correspond to an overall SAT score of 960-980, or approximately 480-490 per section.

However, an ACT score of 20 (the overall ELA benchmark) corresponds to an SAT score of 1030 to 1050, or approximately 520 per section—only 10 points lower than the SAT Math benchmark, and a full 40 points above the 480 benchmark listed.

The ACT Reading benchmark of 22 corresponds to an overall SAT score of 1100 to 1120, or about 550-560 per section.

So when setting benchmarks, the College Board appears to have taken the absolute lowest possible correspondence score for the English section alone and applied it broadly to the verbal portion of the exam as a whole.

As I’ve written about previously, the logical—and cynical—explanation for this clumsy sleight of hand is that the 2016 SAT redesign was based in large part on the College Board’s goal of muscling its way into the state testing market and edging out the ACT—a hugely lucrative prospect given the almost universal adoption of Common Core standards, to which the SAT (but not the ACT) would be explicitly aligned. Lower benchmarks = higher graduation rates, hence more satisfied school districts. The fact that this approach might actually result in the (further) degradation of the education system was beside the point.

But none of that actually answers the question of why ACT English benchmarks were set so low in the first place.

The Math, Reading, and Science benchmarks range from 22-23; English, at 18, is an extreme outlier.

Or, said otherwise, why do many students who lack a basic conception of how written English works nevertheless have 50% chance of earning at least a B in a college English course?

Two words: Freshman Composition.

One more word: Adjuncts.

According to the ACT, the English benchmark was based on freshman college grades in “English Composition I,” a class that perhaps most strongly epitomizes the shift toward the academy’s reliance on adjunct faculty members. Underpaid (sometimes only a few thousand dollars per class) and poorly treated by universities, and largely dependent on positive student evaluations, adjuncts are more likely than tenured faculty members to inflate grades. As a result, the level of student work necessary to achieve at least a B in classes taught by them may be very substantially lower than that required in other classes.

I was unable to find current up-to-date statistics for the percentage of freshman composition courses taught by adjunct faculty; however, as far back as 2008, Inside Higher Ed was reporting that just “42 percent of all faculty members teaching English in four-year colleges and universities and only 24 percent in two-year colleges hold tenured or tenure-track positions.

Part-time faculty members now make up 40 percent of the faculty teaching English in four-year institutions and 68 percent in two-year institutions.” https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/12/11/adjunctification-english

When part-time Ph.D. holders are not used, graduate students, who are obviously more susceptible to pressure from administrators to assign passing grades, may also be responsible for freshman English. A guide for UCLA TAs, for example, states that instructors should ensure (emphasis mine) that “students who do not come from privileged writing backgrounds can produce satisfactory, good or excellent writing”—something that is effectively impossible to guarantee. Particularly since the UC system stopped considering test scores, it is entirely possible that some entering freshmen will write so far below a college level that no graduate student, no matter how gifted, can bring them up to par in the course of a semester. And obviously, students are responsible for their own work as well.

Given this context, the fact that students stand a significant chance of earning a B or higher in freshman composition even with very low English test scores is not exactly heartening. It also points to the ways in which crises at the tertiary level can trickle down to the secondary level, making entering freshmen less prepared for college-level work (and then, in a vicious cycle, putting increased pressure on precariously positioned faculty to inflate grades). The worryingly low SAT and ACT English benchmarks are both a result and a cause.

“However” vs. “though”: similar, but not the same

“However” vs. “though”: similar, but not the same

Among conjunctions (transitional words), however and though pose a particular challenge because they are so similar in terms of both of both meaning and usage. But while there is significant overlap between them, they are not entirely identical from a grammatical standpoint. The fact that they can be used interchangeably in some situations does not mean that one can always be substituted for the other.

However is a conjunctive adverb. It can be used in the following ways:

  • To begin a sentence, followed by a comma

Correct: Many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly. However, some clay tablets have endured for thousands of years.

  • In the middle of a sentence between two commas (non-essential)

Correct: Many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly. Some clay tablets, however, have endured for thousands of years.

  • At the end of a sentence, after a comma

Correct: Many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly. Some clay tablets have endured for thousands of years, however.

Though can act as two different parts of speech.

As a subordinating conjunction, it can begin a dependent clause (fragment) that cannot stand on its own as a sentence.

            Fragment: Though many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly.

The dependent clause can be placed before an independent clause to form a complete sentence.

Correct: Though many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly, some clay tablets have endured for thousands of years.

The order of the clauses can also be flipped so that the dependent clause begun by though comes second. Because though is a “strong” subordinating conjunction, a comma is placed before it.

Correct: Some clay tablets have endured for thousands of years, though many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly, 

Note that when though is used to begin a dependent clause, it is not followed by a comma—regardless of where it appears in the sentence.

Incorrect: Though, many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly, some clay tablets have endured for thousands of years.

Incorrect: Some clay tablets have endured for thousands of years, though, many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly,

Though can also be used as an adverb.

Like however, though can be used non-essentially in the middle of a sentence. In this case, it must be surrounded by commas (one before, one after).

Correct: Many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly. Some clay tablets, though, have endured for thousands of years.

It can also be placed after a single comma at the end of a sentence.

Correct: Many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly. Some clay tablets have endured for thousands of years, though.

To reiterate: In the two adverb usages above, though is completely interchangeable with however. This means that the SAT and ACT will never give you both options and ask you to choose between them.

But here’s where things get tricky. While though is an adverb, it is not, technically speaking, a conjunctive adverb in the same way that however is.

Why? Because the main characteristic of a conjunctive adverb is that it can be used as an introductory word at the start of an independent clause (after a period or semicolon), followed by a comma. It is perfectly acceptable to use however this way—but not though.

So while we can do this:

Correct: Many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly. However, some clay tablets have endured for thousands of years.

Correct: Many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly; however, some clay tablets have endured for thousands of years.

We cannot do this:

Incorrect: Many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly. Though, some clay tablets have endured for thousands of years.

Incorrect: Many of the writing surfaces used in the past deteriorated quickly; though, some clay tablets have endured for thousands of years. 

As an SAT/ACT shortcut, know that period/semicolon + though + comma = wrong.

Next, there’s yet another twist: While though cannot substitute for however as a conjunctive adverb as an introductory word, it can still follow a period or semicolon (or even a colon) when it begins a new sentence as a subordinating conjunction.

Correct: A remarkable number of inscribed clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia have survived until the present day. [Dependent] Though many other writing surfaces used throughout history have deteriorated, [Independent] clay has proven to be the most durable surface ever employed.

Correct: A remarkable number of inscribed clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia have survived until the present day; [Dependent] though many other writing surfaces used throughout history have deteriorated, [Independent] clay has proven to be the most durable surface ever employed.

You can also think of it this way: Any word that can begin a sentence can be placed after a period or semicolon. Thus, the fact that though can be placed after either of these punctuation marks does not automatically make it a conjunctive adverb.

Now, let’s look at how this concept might appear on the dSAT. (Note: this question is based on Blue Book Test #1, Module 2, Question 22, with a slight tweak.)

Many of the writing surfaces used by ancient civilizations disintegrated shortly after being inscribed. A striking number of Mesopotamian tablets made from clay have _______ unlike other natural materials employed by ancient writers, clay deteriorates at a very slow rate, and so many tablets created from it have remained in strikingly good condition.

(A) survived, though;  
(B) survived. Though,
(C) survived, though,
(D) survived though

To be clear: (A) and (B) are not asking test-takers to distinguish between two grammatically acceptable uses of though. Rather, (B) is automatically incorrect on grammatical grounds—though is not a conjunctive adverb equivalent to however, and it cannot follow a semicolon and be followed by a comma.

In addition, there is no answer here that correctly uses though as a subordinating conjunction (to begin a dependent clause; at the start of a sentence, not followed by a comma). So the question of whether this word is acting as an adverb or a subordinating conjunction is moot.

The point of the question, rather, is to identify that a contradictor should be placed at the end of the second sentence, in order to establish a contrast with the first sentence. Otherwise, the logic of the passage gets wonky. The only option that places though in the right spot is (A).

(C) does not work because the two commas around though signal a non-essential usage, which is grammatically acceptable in some instances but not this one. If the word is crossed out, we are left with a massive run-on. (D) creates the same problem in a more direct fashion.

Statement regarding the recent website outage

If you attempted attempted to visit this website during the past week-and-half (2/5 through 2/14/24), you are undoubtedly aware that it was inaccessible. Although I’ve posted a note on Facebook regarding the situation and have been sending periodic updates to mailing-list subscribers, I am aware that the information has not reached everyone. So to explain: what occurred was the result of an unforeseeably complex and unusual situation, but the good news is that the problem has now been resolved and there should be no further issues. The short version is that thecriticalreader.com domain expired at the end of January, and I when I went to renew it, I discovered that I had been locked out of my account. Extended attempts to reset my login credentials were unsuccessful, and ultimately I needed to confirm my identity to regain access, a process that took several days. It then took another full week for the domain to be transferred back to me, during which time the site could not be activated. The domain has now been renewed for nine years (the longest period possible), with additional protection, and it should now remain continuously active.

Regarding the Question of the Day: Explanations could not be posted during the days the site was down (they were sent out to subscribers, along with the questions), but they have now been added to the relevant page.

We appreciate your patience and understanding during what has been a very stressful couple of weeks.

Digital SAT math timing, Common Core, and the “deep understanding” trap

Digital SAT math timing, Common Core, and the “deep understanding” trap

A couple of months ago, before I got sucked back into the black hole of my SAT vocabulary book, I wrote a post about the importance of time constraints in standardized testing. In it, I briefly discussed some reasons for why current students find timed assignments/assessments so overwhelming; and in particular, I voiced my concern that the loosening of academic standards during the pandemic resulted in pupils’ becoming (further) accustomed to endlessly flexible deadlines and high grades for “fuzzy” assignments such as posters, Power Points, and projects designed to disguise gaps in basic subject knowledge.

There are additional factors that play a role in declining expectations and concurrent SAT score inflation, however—and the situation long predates the pandemic. I originally started to discuss it in my previous post, but the issues seemed too complex and distracting to really get into, so it made more sense to explore them in a separate piece.

Let m start here. In terms of the timing changes on the digital SAT, the increase in the amount of time allotted to each Math question is really striking: from 25 minutes for 20 questions on the paper-based exam to 35 minutes for 22 questions. (Although slightly more time is given per Writing questions than on the paper-based test, Writing is now rolled in with Reading, which is generally more time consuming.) The more I thought about it, the more the disparity seemed odd—why give so much more time for Math questions than for Reading and Writing? (more…)

“SAT® Vocabulary: A New Approach” for the Digital SAT is now available!

“SAT® Vocabulary: A New Approach” for the Digital SAT is now available!

Traditional vocabulary is back on the SAT, and I’m happy to announce that the second edition of SAT® Vocabulary: A New Approach, co-written with Larry Krieger, is now available.

The book has been completely revamped for the DSAT and features an extensive list of high-frequency, not-irrelevant vocabulary words (as reported by students who have sat for digital exam internationally), with definitions illustrated through a variety of entertaining pop-culture example. Numerous test-style practice questions then help students transfer their knowledge to Digital SAT format.

A separate section on transitional words and phrases helps test-takers simplify challenging questions by identifying common logical relationships and grouping words by category.

Reading & Writing Comparison: Paper-Based SAT vs. Digital SAT

Reading & Writing Comparison: Paper-Based SAT vs. Digital SAT

If you’ve taken the paper-based version of the SAT and are considering taking the DSAT as well, or if you’re a tutor/teacher who is transitioning to DSAT prep, the following charts cover the major differences between the paper-based exam (final administration December 2023 in the United States) and the new digital version. A free, downloadable PDF version will be posted in the Books section as well. (more…)

Why time constraints are important on the SAT and ACT

Why time constraints are important on the SAT and ACT

Among the alterations made to the digital version of the SAT are changes to the amount of time per question. The current, paper-based version allows for just over a minute per question in Reading (65 mins./52 questions) and Math (25 mins./20 questions) vs. a bit under a minute for Writing (35 mins./44 questions).

However, the digital exam greatly increases the amount of time for both Math (35 mins./22 questions) and Writing (now integrated into Reading/Writing modules, with 32 mins./27 questions), whereas the amount of time per reading question actually decreases very slightly.

From an equity standpoint, the proportion of students with questionable diagnoses now receiving extra time has become so high that the move is perhaps designed to tacitly level the playing field somewhat. At the same time, by offering more generous timing, the College Board is obviously seeking to salvage what it can of the shrinking testing market and lure more students away from the ACT, whose timing has not changed in decades, and whose average scores are now being at a 30-year low. (Note that the College Board’s periodic “recentering” of the SAT scoring scale has prevented the organization from having to release a comparable report). The more forgiving Math timing is also presumably designed to help more students meet the benchmark—50 points higher than the Reading/Writing one—and thus to bolster graduation rates in states where the SAT is used as a high-school exit test. But if the move relieves some of the pressure on students, it may also make test results less meaningful. (more…)

Digital SAT vocabulary and… Taylor Swift?

Digital SAT vocabulary and… Taylor Swift?

Larry Krieger and I have been hard at work on our digital-SAT edition of SAT Vocabulary: A New Approach, with release tentatively planned for December. Unfortunately, I’ve been pretty much out of commission with a bad cold the last couple of weeks, but Larry has come to the rescue with a fabulous post featuring the saga of Taylor and Travis… along with some top words for the new test. Even if you’re not a Swiftie, it’s good reading. Here goes: 

Students often complain that learning vocabulary words is tedious and boring. Not in our book! We have written a series of special chapters that use popular movies like Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Avengers: End Game to illustrate the words on our list. The following chapter on the possible romance between Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce illustrates our unique method of helping your remember difficult DSAT vocabulary words.

1. Taylor Swift ECLIPSES the game
ECLIPSE – to overshadow

On Sunday September 24th the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs played the Chicago Bears before a capacity crowd of 76,000 fans at Arrowhead Stadium. Led by their Superbowl MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes and their all-pro tight end Travis Kelce, the Chiefs quickly took command of the game. Within a short time the crowd’s attention switched to an unexpected global celebrity – Taylor Swift! Taylor’s presence in a luxury suite seated beside Travis Kelce’s mom quickly ECLIPSED interest in the game. Fueled by Swift’s 12-17 and 18-49 year-old fans, television ratings soared as an estimated 24 million people watched the game.

2. Swifties begin to make INFERENCES
INFERENCE – a deduction or conclusion based upon evidence and reasoning

Known as Swifties, Taylor’s fans quickly began to make INFERENCES about her unexpected appearance at an NFL game. Taylor is well-known for leaving her fans carefully planted clues called “Easter eggs.” Afterall in her song “Blank Space”, Taylor declared, “Love’s a game, wanna play?” Many INFERRED that this was Taylor’s way of signaling the beginning of a romantic relationship with Travis.

3. Taylor fails to RECIPROCATE
RECIPROCATE – a mutual or equivalent exchange

The relationship between Taylor and Travis did not get off to a promising  start. Travis attended Taylor’s sold-out concert at Arrowhead Stadium back in early July. He tried to send Taylor a friendship bracelet with his number. But Taylor did not RECIPROCATE. Ouch!

4. Travis is RESILIENT and refuses to give up
RESILIENT – able to bounce back from adversity; quickly recover

Taylor’s failure to respond to his invitation did not deter Travis. Although he admitted to feeling “a little butthurt,” Travis was RESILENT and refused to give up. He used his popular podcast to send Taylor this message: “I’ve seen you rock the stage at Arrowhead Stadium. You might have to come see me rock the stage in Arrowhead and see which one’s a little more lit>”

5. Would Travis’s AUDACIOUS invitation work?
AUDACIOUS – bold and daring

Travis’s AUDACIOUS but risky public invitation worked. Taylor attended the game and then left the stadium with Travis in his prized 1970 Chevolet Chevelle SS convertible. Wow – that really is AUDACIOUS. But Travis wasn’t finished. He drove Taylor to a private dinner party at a well-known and fully reserved Kansas City restaurant. Taylor reportedly had a great time dancing with Travis and meeting all-world Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

INDELIBLE – memorable; cannot be forgotten

Travis clearly seized the moment and tasted it. The game and the evening dinner party left him with INDELIBLE memories. Travis later reported that Taylor “looked amazing” and that “everybody in the suite had nothing but great things to say about her…It’s definitely a game I’ll remember, that’s for damn sure.”

7. The game was PERIPHERAL
PERIPHERAL – of secondary importance; not central

The Kansas City Chiefs narrowly defeated the New York Jets in an exciting Sunday Night Football game. But the game was a PERIPHERAL sideshow to the night’s real story. All eyes were focused on a private suite containing Taylor Swift and her entourage of Hollywood pals that included Deadpool 3 actors Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackson and Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner. The NBC camera crews obliged Taylor’s legion of Swifties by cutting from the game to her box 17 times.

8. Taylor is an economic CATALYST
CATALYST – any stimulus that causes significant change or action

Over 27 million viewers tuned in to watch Taylor Swift and her entourage of celebrities watch the Sunday Night Football game. Taylor’s economic impact is much greater than prompting her legion of Swifties to watch a football game. Taylor is a significant economic CATALYST. Her Eras Tour is on track to become the biggest and most profitable in concert history. When Taylor
comes to town her fans go on a spending spree by filling hotels, packing restaurants, and purchasing everything Taylor-themed bracelets to expensive cloths.

9. This is INTRIGUING!
INTRIGUING – arousing great interest and curiosity

So what will happen next? Sports fans and Swifties are INTRIGUED! Is this the beginning of a new romantic relationship? Will Travis + Taylor = Traylor? Or will Travis end up in one of Taylor’s songs? But one of Taylor’s most popular songs does offer a ray of hope: “I’ve got a blank space baby and I’ll write your name.” Could Travis be the one? Stay tuned!!

10. Questions and CONJECTURES
CONJECTURE – an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete evidence; speculation

The apparent romantic link between Taylor and Travis is like an unexpected meteor strike that has ignited a social media firestorm. Commentators on podcasts, TikTok, and Instagram are all spreading rumors, providing breathless headlines, and asking endless questions. But their revelations are all CONJECTURES. The reality is that no one knows what Taylor and Travis will do next. But one thing is certain – Erica and I will keep you posted on all the breaking news!!!

Conjunctions vs. contractions: what’s the difference?

Conjunctions vs. contractions: what’s the difference?

In all my years of tutoring and writing about grammar, this particular point of confusion has never come up… that is, until a couple of days ago, when I clicked through a YouTube SAT-grammar video sent by a colleague and realized, after a brief period of confusion, that the tutor confidently expounding on conjunctions was actually talking about contractions. I was not exactly shocked—I mean, it is YouTube—but still, it was pretty painful to watch.

Operating under the assumption that if one person is confused about a given point—particularly someone trying to explain it to literally thousands of people—then many other people are probably confused as well, I plugged “conjunctions vs. contractions” into Google to see what the depths of the Internet would reveal. Although the phrase popped up immediately as a search term, I was, to my considerable surprise, unable to find a single explanation that both addressed the issue directly and was written in coherent, grammatical English. I felt obligated to remedy the situation, hence this post. (more…)

Coming soon! Reading/Writing test book & vocabulary book for the digital SAT

I am very happy to announce two additional forthcoming Critical Reader prep books for the digital SAT.

The first is a test book to accompany the main Reading and Writing guides. It features three full-length Reading & Writing tests in dSAT format (two modules per exam, each with 27 questions) and includes detailed explanations for all questions. It should be available from both Amazon and The Critical Reader within the next two weeks. (Please note that this book replaces The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar Workbook; because the number of Writing questions is considerably reduced on the digital test, it did not make sense to have a book of practice tests devoted solely to that portion of the exam.)

The second guide is a vocabulary book, on which I am very happy to be collaborating again with Larry Krieger. The book features approximately 200 challenging must-know words for both sentence completions and transitions, along with numerous entertaining examples drawn primarily from contemporary pop culture (think plenty of Barbie, with some Oppenheimer and The Avengers thrown in, plus an eclectic* mix of other references).

I really have to hand it to Larry: his knowledge of pop culture positively puts mine to shame, AND he actually managed to distill the Avengers plot down into a few hundred easy-to-follow words. Most impressive!

We’re doing our best to get a beta version of the book out sometime this month so that it can be used for PSAT preparation, with a final version to follow in the late winter or early spring. Stay tuned for more details.



*Varied, diverse, heterogeneous; note that this has traditionally been a favorite SAT word, and all signs suggest that the College Board is once again relying on the top ETS list. So much for that whole “no more ‘obscure’ (ha!) words” thing.

On the 1% advantage in college admissions

On the 1% advantage in college admissions

In my previous post, I discussed the recently published paper by superstar Harvard economist Raj Chetty, along with colleagues from Brown, confirming what I suspect most people involved in selective college admissions could intuitively report—namely, that the top 1%, and really the top .1%, enjoy a massive advantage in the college admissions process, largely as a result of a non-academic factors.

I’ve read the full paper, and although the statistical formulas used to calculate the effects are well over my head, the conclusions Chetty et al. draw are quite clear. (A detailed summary is also available.) Some of the main takeaways are as follows. (more…)

If non-wealthy applicants are rejected from elite colleges on the basis of “character,” then tests should be eliminated

If non-wealthy applicants are rejected from elite colleges on the basis of “character,” then tests should be eliminated

I’m going to begin this post with dSAT-style text completion.

In a 2023 paper, the Harvard economist Raj Chetty, along with colleagues from Brown University, showed that affluent students enjoy a significant advantage in the elite college admissions process: for applicants who received high academic ratings, comprising a rigorous course load and test scores in the 99th percentile (1510+ SAT/34+ ACT), those with family incomes in the top 1% were admitted to Ivy-plus institutions at a 43% higher rate than middle-class applicants, and applicants in the top .1% were admitted at a 250%* higher rate. The researchers found that high-achieving affluent and non-affluent students applied to Ivy-plus schools at relatively similar rates and received comparable academic assessments; however, wealthy students received significantly higher ratings for “personal qualities,” legacy status, and athletics. Based on these findings, Ivy-plus schools that want to improve the economic diversity of their student bodies should ________

(A) place less weight on non-academic factors that disproportionately favor wealthy applicants.
(B) recruit more heavily at high schools that enroll predominantly low- and middle-income applicants.  
(C) give greater consideration to personal qualities such as empathy and curiosity.
(D) adopt policies allowing applicants to choose whether to submit SAT or ACT scores.

If you approached this question from the standpoint of reason and logic, you probably picked (A): if, all things being equal academically, the emphasis on “character,” along with legacy and athletic-recruitment status, disproportionately favors wealthy applicants, then placing less emphasis on those factors would presumably result in a more even distribution of students from across the economic spectrum.

However, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, this is a trick question.

If you’re an elite private college (other than MIT), the answer is of course (D).


Because the response to basically any form of inequity in the admission process is always to remove standardized testing requirements—even when the data directly suggest that doing so would be counterproductive. Indeed, highly ranked public flagships, which rely more on objective metrics, admit students much more evenly across the economic spectrum.

To be clear, the issue is not a dearth of applicants. Academically qualified middle- and lower-income students are already applying to Ivy-plus institutions in large numbers: slightly more than 11,000 per graduating high school cohort, according to Chetty et. al., with another 13,000 likely to attain high academic ratings if they applied. If those students are not being admitted under the current system because of “soft” factors, not because of their test scores, then there is absolutely no reason to think that academically weaker students—as candidates who do not submit SAT or ACT scores tend to be—would be more likely to gain admission (particularly since Affirmative Action has been dismantled).

So, yes, although there is a direct correlation between family income and test scores, although there are gaping disparities in the type of test preparation applicants have access to, the SAT and ACT are still doing more or less what they were introduced to do: provide talented students from outside the traditional prep-school circuit a way to demonstrate that they could compete academically with their more advantaged peers.

In fact, given the disparities in preparation, Chetty and his colleagues mention that standardized tests probably have even more predictive value for middle- and lower-class applicants than they are given credit for.

I have more thoughts about the paper, but I’ll save them for my next post.

The real winners in test-optional admissions

The real winners in test-optional admissions

Now that the Supreme Court has issued its expected ruling dismantling Affirmative Action, it is reasonable to assume that widescale test-optional admissions are here to stay. While applicants are still free to discuss their ethnic backgrounds in their essays, and colleges may consider that information as part of the holistic review process, the ruling issues a clear warning to schools not to attempt to use such information in an attempt to circumvent either the letter or the spirit of the ruling.

Although the new landscape is murky, and colleges are understandably hesitant to undertake an action that might result in additional court cases, it is also clear that they will take any legally permissible steps necessary to enroll URM applicants. As Bates professor Tyler Harper pointed out in a New York Times piece responding to the ruling, this is likely to result in an admissions process that is even more subjective, opaque, and open to “racial gaming” than it is at present—in the absence of test scores, accusations of unfairly (dis)advantaging certain categories of applicants become much that more difficult to prove in court, and, there will undoubtedly continue to be much wailing and gnashing of teeth about How the Woke Mob Is Destroying the Great American University.

However, there is rhetoric and virtue-signaling, and then there is a more complex reality. In fact, the test-optional movement cuts both ways. On a small scale, it will undoubtedly result in the admission of some underrepresented minority students who would not have gained acceptance to particular institutions otherwise. On a very broad scale, in contrast, those effects are likely to be more muted. From universities’ standpoint, there are benefits to dropping standardized testing requirements that are entirely unrelated to promoting equity, and that are likely to benefit the most advantaged applicants.


Weighing in on the digital SAT: 6 key points

Weighing in on the digital SAT: 6 key points

At this point, I’ve spent many months picking apart released dSAT questions and attempting to use their logic and patterns to construct hundreds of my own. I realize that I haven’t offered much in the way of opinions about the digital exam, but that’s mostly because I’ve been spending so much of my time over the last six-plus months trying to get the new editions of my SAT books finished. I assure you that I have been thinking very, very hard about the alterations.

So that said, are six key changes—both positive and negative—that I think are particularly deserving of attention, and I’d like to discuss them here.

1) Short-Passage, One-Question Format

Without a doubt, this changed makes the exam more streamlined and is ideally suited to the online format. Longer passages would require test-takers to continually scroll up and down, making the process of answering questions somewhat awkward and increasing the chances important information will be overlooked.

This shift also brings the SAT closer to exams such as the GRE and GMAT, which have been offered electronically for many years and feature primarily short passages.

As much as I appreciate the practical aspects of this decision, however, I still find it worrisome because it so clearly panders to ever-decreasing expectations about the amount that students in both high school and college should be expected/able to read. Anecdotally speaking, several colleagues who teach at the secondary and post-secondary levels have told me that they can now only assign a fraction of the reading they regularly assigned even five or ten years ago, and one (non-tenured) friend who teaches at an extremely selective university was recently reduced to bargaining with her students about the amount of reading they would tolerate—not for one assignment, but for the entire semester.

This really does not bode well.

In theory, at least, dealing with complex arguments in writing is one of the main purposes of college, and most serious ideas cannot be boiled down into a paragraph. Call me old-fashioned, but from my perspective a student who seriously cannot handle even 500-750 words of text is not ready for a university-level education. (more…)

“The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, 6th Ed.” (final) is now available

I am happy to report that Amazon/KDP has approved the file for the final version of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, 6th Edition, making both the grammar and reading books available for through Amazon and The Critical Reader.

At this time, we do not yet have copies of the new editions in our warehouse, so books must be sent directly from the printer. As a result, orders may take longer to arrive than would normally be the case. If you need the books urgently, please order directly from Amazon.

In addition, please note that if you are located outside of the United States and wish to purchase the books on Amazon, you must order through the corresponding Amazon page in your country of residence.

If you have a question regarding the new editions, please contact us directly.

Update on dSAT book releases, 4/28/23: “The Critical Reader, 5th Ed.” is now available; release of “The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, 6th Ed.” is pending

I am happy to announce that the final version of The Critical Reader, 5th Edition, for the digital SAT, is now available on Amazon.

Approval for The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar is still pending and, based on recent experience, may take an additional few weeks to be granted.

Although it is impossible to know for sure, this is likely due to formatting issues in the grammar book that causes the file to require manual inspection from Amazon in order to be approved. In the past, this has not caused significant problems; however, Amazon has made major staffing cuts in recent months, and it seems reasonable to assume that the increased turnaround times are among the results.

If you would like to pre-order the book through The Critical Reader, please contact us, and we will have you sent a copy as soon as the book is available.

We apologize for the delay.