Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monday, November 2, 2009

Girls Achieve Rare SAT Scores

While the average reading and math scores on the SAT fell again this year, the test results showed a new gain for girls.

For the first time in a generation, girls outperformed boys on one section of the exam, edging them out by 11 points on the writing portion of the test. The results raise new questions about gender, learning and a test that has become an American rite of passage.

"Since the '70s, we haven't seen women score better than men on the SAT, so that is dramatic … absolutely," said Drew Deutsch, a vice president at Princeton Review, which offers preparation courses for the test.

The test results released Tuesday were the first batch of SAT scores since the exam was revamped to include a graded 25-minute essay. High school junior Ana Merida, who is studying for the test now, said she believes the new test plays to her strengths.

"I can look at the question I am being asked and put my own knowledge and thoughts in the essay, rather than … filling out a bubble," Merida said.

And the essay may be something that may benefit all girls. Neuroscientists say, in general, that girls' brains may be better wired for the demands of open-ended essay questions than those of their male counterparts.

"They tend to have better attention spans, and that is something that the essay question demands," said Dr. Jay Selman at the Columbia University Medical Center. "The essay question also demands a lot of organizational skills -- these arise in large part from the frontal lobe."

And girls tend to perform better on tasks that use that part of the brain.

"Placed in a situation where they have to make a decision, they are going to think about the possibilities and ruminate a little bit more than boys," Deutsch said.

But these qualities are not necessarily an advantage on the rest of the SAT, which brings a barrage of multiple-choice questions for which there is little time to ruminate. And despite the gain for girls this year on one part of the test, boys still score 26 points higher overall.

Ironically, the SAT was designed to help predict how students would do in college. But while boys still score higher on the tests, girls get better college grades.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The College Insider: Admissions Freak Out Countdown #3: The Squeeze Play - Early Decision, Budget Cuts, And No Vacancy Signs Read more at: http://ww

-Karen Stabiner

Early decision: A senior applies to a pie-in-the-sky school in November and gets an answer before Christmas, while everyone else is still filing applications. "Yes" means that the second half senior year will be more fun than the pervasive nervous breakdown. "No," or a deferral, means joining the rest of the class in the purgatory known as waiting for regular admissions notices in the spring. Or for wait-lists after that. Hanging on until April is hard enough, but with the common app encouraging students to apply to more schools that ever before, those schools are having a terrible time guesstimating how many of their applicants will actually show up. They hedge their bets; they put so many kids on wait lists that there's essentially a second round of acceptances in early summer.

Anyone in their right mind would want to avoid that kind of cliffhanger, which explains the enduring appeal of early apps - but as power struggles go, this one favors the schools. If you get accepted you have to attend, which does wonders for a school's yield, the percentage of applicants who choose to attend. Early action is slightly kinder to the applicant, because it allows a senior to apply to other schools and delay a decision until the spring, but c'mon: A first choice can afford to be generous because it's a first choice, and if a kid is waffly enough to change his or her mind, well, who wants kids who don't know what they want?

Decision or action, the allure is obvious to anyone who can manage simple math (and if you can't, perhaps early is not for you): Early applicants take up as much as 25 percent of an incoming class. If you're the kind of person who buys movie tickets on-line so you can choose the best seat, you know that the later it gets, the fewer options you have. But high stakes are high stakes. Traditionally, public universities are part of the safety-net scenario; Star students across the country can always find a welcome home within their state system, which is there, after all, to educate state residents.

Not so much, these days. Fees at private schools seem immune to the economy, but public institutions of higher learning are definitely feeling the pinch. The headline consequence of the recession is higher state fees and accompanying protests. The stealth side effect is going to be fewer acceptances. In the old days of fully-staffed newspapers and a healthy economy, there was a story every spring about Berkeley turning down California high-school valedictorians. In the new order, even UC campuses with less marquee value are going to start channeling Nancy Reagan and just say no.

The standard narrative - I bet the house on Harvard because I can always go to UCLA, or Michigan, or whatever my state school is - isn't the lock it used to be, and the next fall back position doesn't look so healthy anymore, either. Community college applications have been on the rise, but they, too, have been hamstrung by funding cuts, and it looks like they're going to embrace the same less-is-more approach as their four-year relatives.

Scared yet? Let's channel the lesson of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, about seeing things in a new way, and reconsider regular admissions. Maybe it's not the consolation prize for the slightly less than fabulous; maybe it's a smarter place to be. Early-decision skews toward the illustrious, so a terrific student with the occasional B, or a test score below 700, might not show to advantage. Put that same kid in the regular-decision pool and suddenly he or she looks like a star. Goldfish among the earlies; orca among the regulars. And regular applicants can comparison shop their financial-aid offers, while earlies pretty much have to take what they get.

Besides, educators are starting to wonder if decisions made at the beginning of senior year are as satisfying as decisions made six months later, and the answer seems to be, maybe not.

The long good-bye starts to sound better and better - but if you're determined to get this out of the way before the holidays, how about looking for a school you like that's less of a leap? There have to be at least three of them out there. Maybe more. You still have a couple of weeks to find one.

College Admissions Must be Watertight

Posted Sunday, October 18 2009 at 19:01 at http://www.nation.co.ke/oped/Editorial/-/440804/673972/-/phsqfoz/-/

Admission to secondary schools and tertiary colleges attract attention because of scarcity of places. For every one available vacancy, there are at least three qualifiers, making the exercise quite competitive.

Due to the stiff competition, temptations is high for applicants to seek shortcuts, including bribing or using family, ethnic or political connections.

Universities have fairly watertight procedures that largely guarantee that only the best candidates get the few available places. At the secondary level, a computer system introduced about five years ago has streamlined selection. But influences still determine those joining Form One in the best schools.

But an area that is quite porous is the tertiary level, where admission procedures have not been tightened, especially teacher training and medical colleges. Last week, we reported about investigations being carried out over suspicious admissions to teacher training colleges. Although the colleges completed admissions a month ago, students continue to bombard institutions with all sorts of letters purportedly issued by the Ministry of Education.

Allowing unqualified candidates to join the colleges is fraught with risks. Among others, it dilutes the quality of training and undermines the profession. Moreover, it raises fundamental issues about governance and integrity. The ministry has been rather guarded over the matter, but speaking broadly, there is reason to expeditiously investigate the claims.

What is even more critical is to establish an effective system for selection. The current devolved system that involves local education officials, though promoting equity, is prone to manipulation and abuse. Even if it is to be retained given that devolution is the way of the future, it must be fine-tuned with safeguards to eliminate corrupt dealings.

Perhaps we may need to think about setting up a national agency to coordinate admission to all tertiary institutions to ensure quality and standards.

Monday, September 28, 2009

SAT Prep, The Good, The Bad, and The Goofy

Karen Stabiner

It's fall. Normal happy people watch the leaves change color, but parents of seniors care only for the stark black and white landscape of inked circles on bubble grids. Adults whose SAT prep involved two sharpened number two pencils and a good breakfast invest in test prep because we're terrified not to. If the test-prep czars ran the automotive industry, we'd all be out buying cars; they're that good at creating desire.

Just days before the first Super Saturday of the fall test season, seniors are finishing up weeks if not months of prep classes, private tutoring, guide books, on-line classes, or any combination of the above. Juniors are already underway; I know eighth-graders who take sample tests. Sometimes it feels as though standardized test prep is going to knock juice-and-nap time off the kindergarten itinerary.

How much are we betting? While thousands of students protested University of California system-wide tuition hikes that brought this year's tuition and fees to about $8700, a test-prep quotes $7599 for one high-end package and won't even publish the total cost of the more expensive and extensive Global Elite Tutoring. Power to the people, indeed.

On the theory that it's never too late to save a little money, I suggest we try to deconstruct the process and look for cheaper ways to achieve results:

• Test-taking strategies: If there's a consensus on anything, it's that your child doesn't want to spend valuable time reading the instructions for the first time on the day of the test. Before you pay for sample tests in a room at a prep center, or proctored by a tutor, consider a few free sample tests at home. If a student's reading comprehension isn't strong enough to make sense of the instructions, test-prep is probably not going to turn him into a star.

• Success, SAT math: A wildfire one-word chant, "Sudoku," went up when my daughter was in high school. No hard research but lots of enthusiasm among parents who saw a link between the obsessive working of Japanese number puzzles and good math scores. If your kid can't work even the easy puzzles, then you can always consider prep or find a school that no longer requires standardized tests.

• Success, SAT verbal: This strategy really should be put into play before the training wheels come off, but it's never too late to start: Encourage your child to read when he doesn't have to for school. Reading helps with tests that require you to, yep, read. Compare the cost of a library card to a stint in Global Prep.

Parents in the Bellevue, Washington school district endorse the test-prep equivalent of home-cooking, a lonely but comforting voice in the for-profit test-prep wilderness. Are you brave enough to try it?

Nah, at this point we all want results; we want our kids to be at the high end of the advertised score hikes. But test-prep carries risk, like any investment, so let me share a couple of potential odds-busters, to take junior off the hook if the score report is south of what you'd hoped for:

Finger length: Hormone levels in utero affect brain development - and finger length. Ring finger longer than index finger, innately greater math abilities. Index finger longer than ring finger, stronger verbal skills. And yes, researchers see a correlation in SAT scores.

• Menstrual cycles: Scientists say there's no significant relationship between test performance and a girl's cycle - and yet a prominent educational psychologist advises parents to make sure girls schedule the SAT to avoid the last four days of their cycles and the first four days of their periods.

• Personal psychology: Put one kid in a class with seven other students and he will be inspired to competitive excellence by all the ambitious energy in the room. Put another kid in the same room and the ambient anxiety sticks to him like H1N1 germs on a doorknob. You may not find out which type you have until it's too late.

Still, the two-generation peer pressure can be enormous; I'm only trying to provide a safety valve so you can get some needed rest before the exam. And for no charge whatsoever, I'm going to toss in one sophisticated tidbit that surfaced when the new essay section of the SAT was introduced a few years ago:

"Write big."

That's it. Readers slog through stacks and stacks of blue books for hours on end, and the word is that some of them get a wee bit testy, and quite possibly start to confuse volume with effort. If an essay covers a lot of pages, it must be serious; if it doesn't require the reader to turn the page, perhaps the student is blowing off the test. Big writing, it seems, matters as much as big ideas.

I have witnesses. Honest.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Admission dean reflects on college years

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Gregory Peck said that as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but the words of the favorite actor could very well be Richard Shaw’s personal motto.

As Stanford’s dean of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid, Shaw is the man with the power to make or break the dreams of thousands of high school students vying for admission at the Farm. But not so long ago, he was the one feverishly applying to schools and going through orientation.


In 1968, Shaw was a bright-eyed theater buff fretting over his college admission essay.

“I was so afraid of not getting in somewhere,” he told The Daily, repeating the words he’s heard from thousands of applicants. “I think it’s pretty normal.”

Shaw was grappling with his admission topic: Who was one of the great people of the 20th century who influenced you?

“Those are hard questions because you weren’t too sure of answering the way that you thought the admission officers wanted to hear or telling the truth about who was important to you during that time of your life,” he said. “That’s true today — students try to develop a strategy in which they try to game the system and tell us what they think we want to hear, rather than talking about what’s really important to them.”

Shaw decided to bite the bullet. He wrote about Jimmy Stewart.

“I wrote an essay that nobody would ever write,” he admitted. “I said the person who was important to me at that time was James Stewart. I wrote about his acting and his characters and the impact he had on me, and that was really odd. That was an odd choice because at that time, people would have said Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King. I’m hoping that it helped, but even if it didn’t, I told the truth, and that was important.”

It worked. In 1968, Shaw entered his father’s old stomping ground and began as a freshman at Dartmouth.

“I was terrified,” Shaw remembered. “I wondered in some ways whether I was a mistake — I think we all feel that way when you start to meet others in the class and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you did that?’”

Shaw says that a dear-old Dartmouth tradition didn’t exactly ease his move into college. Until the late ‘60s, Dartmouth required its freshmen to don floppy bright green beanies to identify them as tyros. The 19-year-old Shaw wasn’t too keen on gamboling about campus with Dartmouth’s equivalent of a freshman red-nametag.

“I was really offended when Dartmouth made me wear a beanie,” he chuckled. “I was so offended by that that I sort of sat around in my room — I was angry at them. I frankly think orientations are much better today.”

Dartmouth took the playful freshman hazing avenue of welcoming students in Shaw’s day, but he said that now, the administration takes a hats-off approach (literally) to opening its doors warmly to freshmen.

“My hope is that in these orientations and transition, there is a high level of comfort,” Shaw said. “I think the experience will be a little daunting, but tremendously awesome.”


Shaw’s world was upended when he got into college — a culture shock from the Ozzie and Harriet homogeneity he knew from his childhood in Colorado and Vermont. America was embroiled in civil rights unrest at home and trying to disentangle itself from the disaster of Vietnam abroad.

“Growing up, I was pretty sheltered and probably I was pretty clueless about what was going on around me,” Shaw said.
He woke up when he got to college.

“I’ve never seen student activism like it was then,” he remembered. “I saw students lying down prone on the highway. I saw actions of the Spartacist League [a far-left student movement] defending the Weathermen in Washington, submachine gun nests on the top of federal buildings pointed down at the crowd. Pretty interesting times.”


Just three days before the May 4 Massacre at Ohio’s Kent State, Shaw found himself in Washington, D.C. for the May Day protests, decrying America’s invasion of Cambodia. It was 1970.

“That had a tremendous impact on my perceptions of the world in which we live and the challenges and issues — issues around access and opportunity and for populations to be enfranchised,” he said.

“I came from a very conservative family,” he said ruefully, “so it resulted in having some pretty interesting conflicts within my own family.” Shaw’s involvement didn’t stretch to the peripheries of radicalism, but his activism irreparably damaged his relationship with his father, the then-Republican state chairman of Colorado, who disowned him.

“A lot of that period was not so much being swept up in radicalism as it was learning,” he said. “So, from my vantage point, it was all-night conversations for weeks about issues that were of concern to us — not just war but concerns over the nature of society and the opportunities that people did or did not have. There were political debates going on all the time.”


Shaw didn’t come to California until 1983, after nabbing the post of associate director of admissions and records at the University of California-Berkeley.

“I was really blown away by how incredibly diverse and representative it was,” he remembered. “It had huge influence on me in terms of my career.”
Shaw went back to the East Coast as Yale’s dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid officer for 12 years until he returned to California and signed on with Stanford in 2005.

Fast-forward to now. Shaw is a bit grayer than when he entered the hallowed ivy-covered halls as a freshman, but every bit as passionate.

“I’m with young people who have dreams and hopes for what is possible,” he said. “To me, why not be at a place like that, a place where your dreams are always ahead? At college, you don’t get stuck in a viewpoint. That’s what it’s all about.”

Forty-one years ago, he was sitting slumped on his new college bed with a green beanie flopped on his head, discussing politics. Now, as he beams out over the 1,700 new freshmen at Convocation, Dean Shaw will be speaking as much to the Class of 2013 as to himself at 19 years-old — college is going to be a great run.

By: Amy Julia Harris