The war on language

I’ve been following Diane Ravitch’s blog for a while now. I think she does a truly invaluable job of bringing to light the machinations of the privatization/charter movement and the assault on public education. (I confess that I’m also in awe of the sheer amount of blogging she does — somehow she manages to get up at least three or four posts a day, whereas I count myself lucky if I can get up that every couple of weeks.)

I don’t agree with her about everything, but I was very much struck by this post, entitled “The Reformers’ War on Language and Democracy.”

Diane writes:

Maybe it is just me, but I find myself outraged by the “reformers'” incessant manipulation of language.

“Reform” seldom refers to reform.

“Reform” means privatization.

“Reform” means assaults on the teaching profession.

“Reform” means eliminating teachers’ unions, which fight for better salaries and working conditions.

“Reform” means boasting about test scores by schools that have carefully excluded the students who might get low scores.

“Reform” means using test scores to evaluate teachers even though this practice has negative effects on teacher morale and fails to identify better or worse teachers.

“Reform” means stripping teachers of due process rights or any other job security.

“Reform” means that schools should operate for-profit and that private corporations should be encouraged to profit from school spending.

“Reform” means acceptance of privately managed schools that operate without accountability or transparency.

“Reform” means the incremental destruction of public education.

Reading Ravitch’s post, I couldn’t help but think about the linguistic games that the College Board is playing — the College Board under David Coleman having become a central player in the “reform” movement.

As Ravitch points out, however, the word “reform” has become a euphemism for a whole host of destructive practices.

The point of a euphemism is to make an unpleasant or potentially offensive reality more palatable by presenting it in neutral or even positive terms. “Reform” is, of course, a nice, neutral/positive word, which is why it makes such an effective euphemism, and thus why it was seized up on in the first place.

Now, “euphemism” is a word that is tested on the current SAT. It falls into the categories of both “hard” vocabulary and content knowledge: it’s a pretty sophisticated word, but it’s also the sort of specific rhetorical device that students are presumably (or at least should be) learning in English class.

Presumably, it’s also the sort of word that is now considered “irrelevant.” And that got me once again thinking about just what the College Board means by “relevant.”

When I considered  the words held up as examples — analyzesynthesize, hypothesis — it occurred to me that  relevant also means something like “neutral.” No one would argue that these words aren’t important in school, but they are also exceedingly inoffensive, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

In contrast, when I look back through recent SATs, I’m struck by the number of “loaded” words that appear on the exam — words like partisanobsequiouspolemicpunditjargonconvoluteddeference, transparencyobfuscation.

These are incredibly negative words, not to mention incredibly political ones. While these are certainly not the kinds of words most high school juniors encounter on a daily basis, in the classroom or out, they are most certainly “relevant.” They are words that educated people use to critique politicians and corruption and so-called reform movements. People — teenagers — do not “naturally” or spontaneously acquire the vocabulary to understand and follow these types of adult phenomena. Gaining access to these words means gaining access to these concepts. How could someone make sense out of Rush Limbaugh without the word pundit?

The conflation of “relevant” with “neutral,” I think, reflects a world view that conflates neutral language, or neutral tone, with objective reality — that there is only one answer, that what is simply is, and any possibility of criticism is therefore precluded. Moreover, any person who does attempt to criticize them can be dismissed as fringe, unstable, “irrelevant,” etc., etc. and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. 

Interestingly, by asking students to identify the author’s attitude in very neutral-sounding passages, the current SAT makes the point that sounding neutral is not the same as being neutral. That’s a subtle but exceedingly important idea: in reality, people can use extremely neutral language to propose all sorts of crazy things. The fact that their tone is reasonable does not mean that their ideas are reasonable (ahem, Ben Carson). Learning to think critically involves acquiring the tools to distinguish between those two things, and to spot inconsistencies. 

The new SAT, in contrast, barely deals with tone and attitude, never mind the distinction between them. (Because, of course, appearance is the same as reality, and things should be taken at face value, right?) 

Furthermore, the exclusive focus on second meanings is now beginning to strike me as suspect as well. Obviously, yes, a number of very common words in English have multiple meanings, and understanding when words are used in non-literal ways is an important component of comprehension. (I once had a student completely misinterpret a section of a passage because he thought execute mean “get rid of” rather than “carry out.”) 

Most “hard” words have one very specific meaning that is used to add a very specific connotation; learning how to use these words appropriately means gaining the ability to write in a more nuanced and sophisticated way. In contrast, the point of focusing on second meanings is essentially that words can be used to mean whatever an author wants them to mean. 

By that logic: 

“Black” can mean “white,”

“Reform” can mean “privatize,”

“Honor” can mean “destroy.”  

How the new SAT will promote inequality

I’ve been doing some more pondering about the claims of increased equity attached to the new SAT, and although I’m still trying to sift through everything, I’ve at least managed to put my finger on something that’s been nagging at me.

Basically, the College Board is now espousing two contradictory views: on one hand, it trumpets things like the inclusion of “founding documents” in order to proclaim that the SAT will be “more aligned with what students are doing in school,” and on the other hand, it insists that no particular outside knowledge is necessary to do well on the reading portion of the exam.

While that assertion may contain a grain of truth – some very strong readers with just enough background knowledge will be able to able to navigate the test without excessive difficulty – it is also profoundly disingenuous. Comprehension can never be completely divorced from knowledge, and even middling readers students who have been fed a steady diet of “founding documents” in their APUSH classes will be at a significant advantage over even strong readers with no prior knowledge of those passages. 

You really can’t have it both ways. If background knowledge truly isn’t important and the SAT is designed to be as close to a pure reading test as possible, then every effort should be made to use passages that the vast majority of students are unlikely to have already seen. (That perspective, incidentally, is the basis for the current SAT.) 

On the flip side, a test that is truly intended to be aligned with schoolwork can only be fair if everyone taking the test is doing the same schoolwork – a virtual impossibility in the United States. That’s not a bug in the system, so to speak; it is the system. Even if Common Core had been welcomed with open arms, there would still be a staggering amount of variation.

To state what should be obvious, it is impossible to design an exam that is aligned with “what students are learning in school” when even students in neighboring towns – or even at two different schools in the same town – are doing completely different things. Does anyone sincerely think that students in public school in the South Bronx are doing the same thing as those at Exeter? Or, for that matter, that students in virtual charter schools in Mississippi are doing the same things as those in public school in Scarsdale? Yet all of these students will be taking the exact same test.

The original creators of the SAT were perfectly aware of how dramatically unequal American education was; they knew that poorer students would, on the whole, score below their better-off peers. Their primary goal was to identify the relatively small number of students from modest backgrounds who were capable of performing at a level comparable to students at top prep schools. Knowing that the former had not been exposed to the same quality of curriculum as the latter, they deliberately designed a test that was as independent as possible from any particular curriculum. 

So when people complain that the SAT doesn’t reflect, or has somehow gotten away from, “what students are doing in school,” they are, in some cases very deliberately, missing the whole point – the test was never intended to be aligned with school in the first place. Given the American attachment to local control of education, that was not an irrational decision. (Although I somehow doubt they could have ever imagined the industry, not to mention the accompanying stress, that would eventually grow up around the exam.)

Viewed in this light, the attempt to create a school-aligned SAT can actually be seen as a step backwards – one that either dramatically overestimates the power of Common Core to standardize curricula, or that simply turns a blind eye to very substantial differences in the type of work that students are actually doing in school. 

The problem is even more striking on the math side than on the verbal. As Jason Zimba, who led the Common Core math group, admitted, Common Core math is not intended to go beyond Algebra II, yet the SAT math section will now include questions dealing with trigonometry – a subject to which many juniors will not yet have been exposed. (For more about the problems with math on the new exam, see “The Revenge of K-12: How Common Core and the New SAT Lower College Standards in the U.S.” as well as “Testing Kids on Content They’ve Never Learned” by blogger Jonathan Pelto.) In that regard, the new SAT is even more misaligned with schoolwork than the reading. The current exam, in contrast, does not go beyond Algebra II – the focus is on material that pretty much everyone taking a standard college-prep program has covered. 

The unfortunate reality is that disparities in test scores reflect larger educational disparities; it’s a lot easier to blame a test than to address underlying issues, for example the relationship between tax dollars and public school funding. Yes, the test plays a role in the larger system of inequality, but it is one factor, not the primary cause. Any nationally-administered exam, whatever it happens to be called, will to some extent reflect the gap (unless, of course, you start with the explicit goal of engineering a test on which everyone can do well and work backwards to create an exam that ensures that outcome).

Assuming, however, that the goal is not to design an exam that everyone aces, then there’s no obvious way out of the impasse. Create an exam that isn’t tied to any particular curriculum, and students are forced to take time away from school to prepare. Create an exam that’s “curriculum-based,” and you inevitably leave out huge numbers of students since there’s no such thing as a standard curriculum.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Frederick Douglass PSAT passage discussed on the College Board website – before the PSAT

This is another little oddity I came across on the College Board website. While poking around, trying to find information about the connection between the College Board and The Atlantic in an attempt to explain why the latter was publishing false information about the SAT, I ended up on the AP US History (APUSH) professional development page – specifically the section devoted to teaching using historical documents to teach “close reading” and analytical writing. 

I’d heard about the controversy surrounding the redesigned AP test, and I was curious just what the College Board was preaching  to teachers in terms of how to prepare students for the new exam. Although I probably shouldn’t be surprised by these things anymore, I was a bit taken aback by the multiple-choice “check for understanding” questions. The page is, after all, designed for adult professionals, a reasonable number of whom hold graduate degrees; for those of you who don’t care to read, let’s just say it’s not exactly what anyone would call a sophisticated pedagogical approach. 

What really shocked me, however, was this video of a model AP classroom, in which a group of students discuss a primary source document about… you guessed it, Frederick Douglass and the 4th of July. Based on everything I’ve heard about the PSAT, this was almost certainly the same passage that appeared on that test. 

While the video must have made a while ago to coincide with the first administration of the new APUSH exam — the students featured in it are presumably well past the point of taking the PSAT — there’s still something not quite kosher about the College Board swearing students to secrecy about the content of an exam when content from that exam was presented on its website (albeit in a section students are exceedingly unlikely to find on their own) before the exam was even administered. 

It also got me wondering whether passages (“founding documents” or otherwise) that will appear on the new SAT are already presented or alluded to elsewhere on the College Board’s website. In particular, at the possibility that the “founding documents” that appear on the SAT will simply be chosen from among the key APUSH primary source documents. Assuming that the Official Guide is accurate, there will be non-American documents as well, but it seems like a reasonable assumption that many of the documents will issue from that list. 

Again, something seems a little off here. This is a list intended for APUSH classes; surely there are many US history classes across the country that will not have such a heavy focus on primary-source documents. If the students who read these documents in school prior to encountering them on the SAT are primarily APUSH students, where does that leave everyone else? Even a strong reader is at a disadvantage if he or she has limited knowledge of a topic, and most students are not exactly racing home after school and reading Frederick Douglass for fun.  

You cannot create an internationally administered exam that is given to students following every sort of curriculum imaginable and then claim is is somehow aligned with “what students are doing in school.” Rather, it is aligned — or intended to be aligned — with what some students doing in school. Exactly how is that supposed to make things more equitable? 

A suggestion for advanced Critical Reading practice

A suggestion for advanced Critical Reading practice

After I posted a support/undermine question as my question of the day last week, I got a message from a student asking me if I could put up more reading questions that require more extended reasoning (usually corresponding to Level 4 and 5 Critical Reading questions on the pre-March 2016 SAT). As I explained to the student, these questions are unfortunately extremely time-consuming to produce; I sometimes need to tinker with them for a few days to get them into shape.

Given that, I started thinking about what students could do in order to get more practice on these question types, which normally show up no more than once or twice per test. Even if someone uses both the Blue Book and the College Board online program, there still aren’t a whole lot of them. The problem, of course, is that these are the exact questions that a lot of people stuck in the high 600s/low 700s need to focus on.

It finally occurred to me that the reading portions of the GRE (Master’s and Ph.D. admissions), GMAT (MBA admissions), and LSAT (law school admissions) are chock full of these types of questions.

The GRE in particular is a great source of practice material because it’s written by ETS; the “flavor” and style of the tests are the same. And you can sit and do support/undermine questions to your heart’s content.

Now, to be clear: this is not a recommendation I would make to anyone not aiming for an 800, or at least a 750+. These tests are considerably harder than the SAT; if you’re not comfortable reading at a college level, trying to work with prep material geared toward graduate-level exams is likely to be an exercise in frustration. Unlike SAT passages, which are taken from mainstream “serious” non-fiction, graduate exam passages tend to be taken from academic articles — the work is written for subject specialists, not a general audience.

I would also not recommend this option unless you’ve already exhausted all the authentic SAT practice material at your disposal.

But if you do happen to fall into that category and are chomping at the bit for more material, you might want to consider the official guides for these tests as supplemental options. If you spend some time working with them, you’ll probably be surprised at how easy the SAT ends up seeming by comparison.

A note to the College Board

Dear College Board:

I understand that you are very busy helping students prepare for college and career readiness success in the 21st century; however, as I was perusing (excuse me, looking at) the section of your website devoted to describing the essay contest run jointly by your organization and The Atlantic magazine, I couldn’t help but notice a sentence that read as follows:

“To be successful at analytical writing, students must support your arguments with evidence found in the text and clearly convey information to the reader.”

As the writers of your website copy presumably know, the correct use of parallel structure and pronoun agreement is an important component of analytical writing — the exact type of writing that employees use authentically in their actual careers. 

Moreover, given that your organization is responsible for testing over 1.5 million students on these exact concepts annually, I assume that the appearance of this type of faulty construction is simply the result of an oversight rather than any sort of indication that College Board writers lack the skills and knowledge necessary for success in the 21st century — that is, the skills and knowledge that matter most.

As you update your website to reflect the upcoming changes to the SAT, however, do try to remember that carefully editing your work is also an important skill for college and career readiness. After all, you wouldn’t want to set a poor example. 


A possible explanation for “The Atlantic’s” article about the new SAT

Ever since I encountered Emmanuel Felton’s article “How the Common Core is Transforming the SAT” a couple of days ago and wrote my ensuing diatribe, I’ve been trying to figure out just why The Atlantic in particular would publish information so blatantly false. Sure, there have been plenty of articles regurgitating the standard hype about the new test, in pretty much every major media outlet, but this one crossed a line.

To be perfectly fair, Felton doesn’t actually state flat-out that analogies are still included on the test, but with lines such as On the reading side, gone are analogies like “equanimity is to harried” as “moderation is to dissolute,” the implication is so strong that it’s pretty much impossible for casual readers not to draw that conclusion.

Then, halfway through my run this morning, I had a “duh” moment. I had somehow forgotten that the Atlantic had partnered with the College Board to run an annual “analytical writing” contest for high school students.

In fact, James Bennett, the president and editor-chief of The Atlantic even appears in this College Board video on analytical writing for the new APUSH exam. That exam is Coleman’s baby.

Coincidence? I think not.

Mystery solved.