“I Don’t Want to Ruin My GPA”

Last week we found out via EdSector’s Chad Aldeman that the SAT/ACT are useless. The GPA, he says, as he clings to the coattails of the new book Crossing the Finish Line, is the best predictor of “college success.”

I pointed out in that writeup that “college success” being defined as “obtaining a degree” is problematic, as measuring whether someone has managed to leap over an abysmally-low bar doesn’t tell us much. But it’s the best we can do, said Aldeman:

“Matthew, you’re right that we can’t measure “college success” much better than “obtaining a degree.” That’s unfortunate, but you have to remember that almost all previous studies have defined “success” as “first-year college grades” or “one-year retention rate.” Surely you’d agree that success is closer to graduation than it is to those interim measures.”

Yes, it’s closer. And a foot is nearer to being a mile than an inch is, but they’re both awfully far.

I’m pleased that Aldeman has admitted that he and Education Sector can’t conceive of success in education as being more than showing up and paying the bill for 4 years. It certainly saves some of us a lot of work. But he’s wrong about what’s unfortunate. The unfortunate part is the inability to look at history – that longitudinal study of people, which includes their education and its purpose – and see in its richness something of more value than a degree.

I had the temerity to challenge Aldeman’s claim that GPA mattered all that much as an indicator of academic talent. I find that GPA is often a measure of one’s ability to function within a higher ed system as weak as a public high school from which they came – not what they know.

Aldeman spins the criticism because the truth is too damning:

“By mocking perseverance–which I tend to think is a pretty important trait for just about everything in life–you’re also shifting the discussion away from college admissions policies to college quality in general.”

Perseverance isn’t to be mocked – and an honest reading of my comment to Aldeman can’t suggest otherwise. But we should recognize what perseverance shows and what it doesn’t.

For example, one’s ability to persevere, and a GPA that reflects it, doesn’t necessarily show us that one can do basic algebra. 90% CUNY students dropped the ball on a recent measure of skills:

“During their first math class at one of CUNY’s four-year colleges, 90% of 200 students tested couldn’t solve a simple algebra problem, the report by the CUNY Council of Math Chairs found. Only a third could convert a fraction into a decimal.”

John Jay College sophomore Ahmed Elshafaie, 19, who graduated from Long Island City High School, said he avoids math classes.

“I don’t want to ruin my GPA,” he said. “High school standards were really low.”

What can the quantitative section of the SAT tell us? That a student can convert a fraction to a decimal, for one, and that they’ve got a handle on basic algebra.

What does a GPA and high school diploma hide? That for 13 years, Ahmed got shorted on math instruction. That as a 19 year old college freshman, Ahmed can’t do the most basic 9th grade math, which is not only at the heart of every academic discipline utilizing any numbers, but is also required to understand compound interest on his credit card bill. That Ahmed’s professors will be burdened by getting his skills up to speed at the expense of teaching him a class’s main content.

… and that he’s shut out of studying any math in college because he was never prepared for it.

Ahmed sounds like a decent kid – he’s more honest about his academic preparation, and the prospects it affords, than the folks at EdSector. I’m sure he’ll persevere, too, and earn a degree from CUNY. He just won’t be able to convert a fraction to a decimal, despite his likely 3.0 high school GPA matching up with his obtaining a degree.

Berlin Wall Anniversary and Happy 234th Birthday, United States Marine Corps

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s destruction. It would’ve been easy to miss as coverage was scant.

One could talk for hours about the significance of men and women swinging sledgehammers against the Wall. If you’ve ever swung a sledge against something solid – gosh, I’m going to have to describe this for the soft-handed Ivory Tower types, aren’t I? – you know that there can be a tremendous amount of recoil. Swinging such a large hammer is hard work, both propelling it forward and controlling it on the bounceback. Swinging it against something that doesn’t give way is Sisyphean.

Yet we’ve got photo after photo of mustachioed Germans hammering the wall with every bit of energy they can muster, recoil and uselessness be damned. That’s a mix of conviction, hope, frustration and certainty of outcome that’s rare in history. And from Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” [and the lesser-remembered "Open this gate"] speech to photos of the downtrodden, hammer-swinging Germans, you heard and saw little about the anniversary relative to its importance. Maybe next year, but probably not. It just isn’t in intellectual fashion, I guess.

Head on over to Darren’s “Right on the Left Coast” for one of the more memorable, moving pieces I’ve ever read in the blogosphere. “Freedom Is a Little Piece of Concrete” offers a personal view of the Wall and its destruction. It was a must-read a year and a half ago; it still is.

Today, November 10th, is another anniversary – the 234th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. I viewed a solid Marine tribute video from an unlikely place –, the website host – that’s worth viewing.

They’ve never won the Nobel Peace Prize, but few organizations have done as much to facilitate good and stop evil in the world as the United States Marine Corps.

NY Senator David Valesky Will Be Challenged By Two

David Valesky, the Senator for New York State’s 49th District, is a “nice guy,” said one of his likely 2010 opponents:

New York State Senator David Valesky

“I will be the first to acknowledge that our incumbent senator is a nice guy.”

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I don’t much care if he’s a sweetheart – David Valesky is unashamedly weak on education.

Last year I gave Valesky a grade of C- on the education portion of his public candidate questionnaire. His opponent James DiStefano pulled an F – but that’s because DiStefano didn’t bother to submit a response. As always, no response constitutes failure.

Valesky made it clear last year that he had no interest in reforming education funding. When asked about funding, he pointed to cuts everywhere else, reconstructing government and reforming Medicaid:

“As the state faces an extreme fiscal crisis, my goal remains to reduce state government spending without impacting education. I have already voted for $1 billion in state spending cuts at the August special session. I anticipate we will do more in the upcoming special session, including efforts to consolidate state government and taking a hard look at the Medicaid system.”

Valesky seemed to believe then – as he does now – that an issue as serious as funding education can be resolved not by addressing it head-on, but by fixing every other serious issue around it. Common sense suggests that approach is overwhelming and ineffective.

I admire Valesky’s honesty on this issue as much now as I did then. He’s badly misguided, but he’s up front about it:

“While I have also supported capping property taxes, I believe cutting state education funding is the wrong answer, as this will only increase the burden on property tax payers and negatively impact education and its critical role in our economic recovery.”

Valesky doesn’t mention reforming education funding or even investigating any aspects of it to ensure that current expenditures are useful. It doesn’t even occur to him that funding can be cut at the state and local levels and not be replaced needlessly. I’d be more forgiving if this was a live interview; it wasn’t. He and his staff had plenty of time to think about this one – and this was the best they could do. No cuts, no examination, nothing – just spend, because, after all, it’s for the children.

That’s what a nice guy would say.

It was with great relief that I read Valesky will be challenged by at least two candidates come 2010. Andrew Russo, a well-regarded pianist who is also an artist-in-residence at Le Moyne College, has announced that he’ll stand in the GOP primary for Valesky’s seat. Jessica Crawford has also announced; she’s a young Upstate native whose background includes work with 40 Below, an organization dedicated to halting the “brain-drain” of intellectual and social capital that’s ravaging Upstate New York.

Russo is 34, Crawford is 31. If it’s one thing the Leatherstocking Region needs, it’s strong, young leadership. On that account, both challengers look good.

It’s still early. We’ll see how things play out with Russo, Crawford, Valesky and anyone else who tosses their name in the hat. Hopefully they’ll address public education a bit more fully – and with a bit more competence – than Valesky has, as evidenced by his weak performance and poor rhetoric. I don’t expect him to change; Valesky doesn’t even address public education with any gusto on his State Senate page. [Perhaps 2010 will bring Valesky's second Tweet, too.]

Good luck, Crawford and Russo – your heartbeats and warm bodies have already launched you both ahead of the flaccid Valesky. I’ll take a good Senator over a nice guy any day.

ASCD SmartBrief Needs a World War II History Lesson

SmartBrief is ASCD’s [Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development] daily e-mail newsletter of all things school-related. Their links point mainly on policy and research news, but SmartBrief also includes a listing of new education jobs and the occasional ad.

Summary: SmartBrief is a bit like the Metamucil of education media; it isn’t tasty, but some folks still have to consume it each day.

Today’s SmartBrief includes this inspirational quote:

If you can’t see the image, here you go: “I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with the greatest caution.”

Having spent a few years reading subscriptions from hundreds of ed-related blogs, newsletters and discussions, one iron-clad guarantee each day – really, it’s as sure as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West – is that few will include any useful information we’d call part of one’s “education.” Casual ed-writers rarely mention anything of substance; it’s all process, or commentary on process, and no content. The ed-tech writers are the worst abusers. You can read 10,000 words about “collaboration,” “conversation” and “skills” and never get a scintilla of real academic content.

But sometimes they try. They struggle and strain – listen closely as you read and you can hear the grunting! – to throw in a quip, quote or factoid that, in their mind, echoes timeless meaning from the pedestal on which their education degree has placed them. Boy, do they try.

And that posturing without any real education to back it up is how we get the insertion of inspirational quotes like the one above. Wernher von Braun, the quote’s author, is described simply by ASCD as “German-American rocket scientist.” Short shrift, kids.

Wernher von Braun wasn’t just a wildly-intelligent scientist; he was the Nazi creator of the V-2 rocket that wrought destruction and thousands of civilian casualties upon London, Antwerp and other European cities during World War II.

von Braun’s story is intriguing and filled with fantastic nuance. It’s a mix of suspicious situations, claims both supported and refuted, and guesses about human nature as it relates to addressing opportunities. He claimed to have been forced to join the party in 1937, but has ties to the Nazis going back to 1933; he said he was most unwilling to hand-select and oversee slaves from the Buchenwald concentration camp, but there are testimonies of severe mistreatment of these prisoners at von Braun’s direction; by some accounts, he was a genius in the wrong place at the wrong time, and by others, a Nazi fanatic.

Wernher von Braun, young

Despite the lack of clarity in assessing von Braun’s life, we can agree that he was a brilliant opportunist. He surrendered to American forces in 1945 and was given special immunity – the US had their eye on von Braun for some time, recognizing his past contributions and those likely to come. By year’s end he was living in the US with a clean record and working as a foundational piece of Operation Paperclip, the United States’ program to employ former Nazi scientists after the end of the war. [Side note: The operation is rumored to have been given the name "paperclip" because of the new work histories and background reports, minus black marks like Nazi party and military affiliations, attached to their files.]

von Braun was made a full US citizen in 1955; his work with NASA in the 1960s was of great value to the US victory in the race to put a man on the moon.

Was von Braun’s commitment to his life’s work so stringent that he would willingly collaborate with the Nazis for the sake of advancing his research? To what extent did his knowledge of, and potential participation in, human atrocities and targeting civilians in war factor in to his decisions – if at all? Was his willingness to work for the Americans after Germany’s defeat part of a true commitment to aiding a more just power, or was he simply carrying anyone’s water as long as it came with research funding?

… and all of it distilled into “German-American rocket scientist.” Why so lazy? Because the Oprah-style inspirational quote sounded good.

That’s the state of the education media, folks – lots of media, not much education.

If you want to know more about Wernher von Braun as badly as ASCD needs to, the Wikipedia entry isn’t a bad place to start.

*** Can’t help but point out – ASCD chose an “inspirational quote” by a Nazi SS officer on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

SAT and ACT Mean Nothing?

Education Sector’s Mr. Aldeman, one of the prolific writers on The Quick and the Ed, has declared dead the usefulness of the SAT/ACT. It wasn’t his idea; he read it in Crossing the Finish Line:

Crossing the Finish Line has things to say about virtually every important factor in college life, but by far the most important thing is this:

The SAT and ACT do not matter in predicting college success.

I have been an unequivocal supporter of using the SAT/ACT* in making college admissions decisions (see here and here), but this sample of students and the rigor of this study are impossible to ignore.

No one should ignore what’s in Crossing, but I’m not about to gobble it hook, line and sinker.

The conclusions are based on a ton of data:

“Crossing the Finish Line, an important new book by former Princeton president William Bowen, former Macalaster College president Michael McPherson, and Matthew Chingos,  relied on two massive databases on the entering class of 1999–one on 96,000 first-time freshmen and 30,000 entering transfer students at 21 flagship universities and the other on 108,000 freshmen and 42,000 transfers at less selective state colleges and universities in four states (Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia)–to compile a wide-ranging book of empirical research on topics impacting American higher education.”

Aldeman details his position-reversal on the value of these tests:

I have been an unequivocal supporter of using the SAT/ACT* in making college admissions decisions (see here and here), but this sample of students and the rigor of this study are impossible to ignore. Here’s what the authors found:

  • Taken separately, high school GPA is a better predictor of college graduation rates than SAT/ACT score. This findings holds true across institution type, and gets stronger the less selective an institution is. High school GPA is three to five times more important in predicting college graduation than SAT/ ACT score.
  • SAT and ACT scores are proxies for high school quality. When the authors factored in which high schools students attended (i.e. high school quality), the predictive power of high school GPA went up, and the predictive power of SAT/ ACT scores fell below zero.
  • High school quality mattered, but not nearly as much as the student’s GPA. Other research, most notably on Texas’ ten percent admission rule, has proven this before. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but it shows that a student’s initiative to succeed, complete their work, and jump any hurdles that come up matters more than the quality of their high school.

Then he asks, “What should various actors do with this information?”

Time out.

As I wrote on the Quick’s blog entry, here’s why:

“Keep in mind that Alderman’s entire argument – and the authors’ – rests on the definition of “college success” being “graduation” or “obtaining a degree/certification.”

In theory, that’s sufficient. I’d prefer to talk about reality.

In reality, some degrees are watered-down and border on useless. At some institutions, the majority of programs fall into this category. If we pretend for a second that the degrees they award are little more than certificates of attendance and good standing with the Bursar’s Office, we do higher education reform a disservice.

Bowen, McPherson and Chingos, in a roundabout way, may have just proven not that SAT/ACT scores indicate nothing, but that high school GPA-as-harbinger means higher education is increasingly mimicking the weakness of the average American public high school.”

Mr. Aldeman et al.: Get serious about what a degree means – and what it doesn’t – and then we’ll get to work on the value of the ACT/SAT. Until then, I’m not about to worship at the altar of Crossing along with the EdSectorites.

Come to think of it, Education Sector could profit a bit from ACTA’s What Will They Learn?