One test to rule them all

By Razib Khan | June 22, 2012 11:16 pm

Educational Realist elaborates on some of the concerns I have had with Chris Hayes’ ballyhooed piece on the failure of elites:

Hayes is correct about one thing, though: the elites are locking out the hoi polloi from highest-level institutions. But it takes a real ignorance to pretend that the rich are doing this because of over-reliance on test scores or test prep, as opposed to buying their way in, using their powerful networks to only hire from the “right” schools, and the fuzzy math of the “holistic” evaluation process. Give me test scores any day.

ER also observes that in fact minorities, and in particular Asians, make use of test prep:

Use of Test-Prep Courses and Gains, by Race and Ethnicity

Group % Taking Test-Prep Course Post-Course Gain in Points on SAT
East Asian American 30% 68.8
Other Asian 15% 23.8
White 10% 12.3
Black 16% 14.9
Hispanic 11% 24.6

When I was in kindergarten I scored in the bottom 5 percent on an IQ test in the first week. At the end of the year I scored in the top 5 percent. I didn’t know English very well at the beginning of the year, and full immersion helped me catch up by year’s end (my English converged to nearly 100% fluency by 1st grade). Additionally, I might add that until I was in about 12 I assumed that my generally good standardized test cores and academic performance was due to my own work ethic, and that the vast majority of children who scored lower than me were just lazy (that is what my parents told me; a teacher had to explain to me that it was obvious I actually spent less time on schoolwork than some of my peers, whose realized performance was weaker).

One thing that immediately struck me about Hayes’ focus on high-stakes testing in the New York City public school system is that while it is true that investment in cram schools and test-prep can allow some students to “game” the system, this is far easier for lower and lower-middle class parents to afford than the polish, grace, and breeding, which only the upper and upper class have access to by virtue of their connections and the rich well-rounded experience of comfort.

In other news, Why Family Income Differences Don’t Explain the Racial Gap in SAT Scores:

Here, the first point made is that for black and white students from families with incomes between $80,000 and $100,000 in 1997, there still remains a huge 141-point gap in SAT scores.

Second and most difficult to explain is the fact that in 1997 black students from families with incomes between $80,000 and $100,000 did in fact score lower on the SAT test than did students from white families with incomes of less than $10,000.

MORE ABOUT: Education
  • Mike the Mad Biologist


    The book is more nuanced than the article. This is what Hayes writes in the book (p. 36):

    “Hunter has never had a student body that matched the demographic composition of the city in which it resides. White & Asian students have always been overrepresented, and they certainly were when I entered the school in 1991. But the phenomenon has intensified in recent years, leaving teachers & admissions officials worried that on its current path, the school could, before long, have its first entering class without a single black or Latino student.

    According the NYT, the entering seventh-grade class was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic in 1995, but just 3 percent black and 1 percent Latino by 2009. The rest of the students were about evenly split between Asian and white. Many teachers and even administrators at the school have grown increasingly worried about the lack of black & Latino students, particularly in a city that is 25 black & 27.5 Latino…”

    I don’t see think that jibes with your earlier post about ignoring Asians.

    He also points out that only 10% of Hunter students qualify for free lunch, whereas more than 75% NYC public school students do. As I read it, the point about Hunter is that it’s a clear case of the outcomes of extreme meritocracy–one test decides entrance (and there are courses solely dedicated to Hunter test prep), which has consequences in terms of outcomes.

  • Seth

    News flash to Hayes and others like him: failure to gain admission into elite, meritocratic prep schools or universities does not condemn blacks and Hispanics to a lifetime without access to education. The way this conversation takes shape, the Leftists make it sound like no possibilities exist between Hunter and dealing crack, between Harvard or Michigan and working at Wal Mart. White, eastern elites are so in love with themselves and their institutions, they turn themselves into a social justice cause: “The poor minorities are under-represented among us! They’ll never do well without us!”

    Hayes writes that the Hunter class is only 1% Latino, and the implication seems to be that the other 99% of the school-aged Latino population is economically doomed. I tend to think, however, that those who really are doomed would go down that road with or without Hunter; those who have a supportive home environment and some general intelligence will, on average, succeed, with or without Hunter.

    The debates about affirmative action and school demographics always center around these elite institutions. But there are plenty of fine public schools, state universities, and small liberal arts universities to which minorities can easily gain access, and at which they’ll probably find more suitable opportunities than at an uber-competitive elite school.

    In So Cal, from where I hail, elite prep and high-performing public schools are predominantly Asian or white. The poorer performing middle and lower class schools that my sister and I attended had a Hispanic majority. The students from the former schools went on to elite universities; my classmates went to state schools. In Hayes’s elitist view, however, my high school and all those Cal States are apparently as good as crack dealing. (Yes, I’m reading into his essay a bit, but I do think the implication is there.)

    The reality is, my black and Hispanic friends who never went to college or who got into crime would have failed even sooner had they been ushered, un-meritocratically, into an elite prep school. They could hardly keep up in Retard Math. My friends who did go to college and who would have succeeded at an elite school had they been ushered through the doors, well, they seem to be doing just fine with their lesser high school diplomas and Cal State degrees. They can contribute to society and increase the minority middle-class without handouts from the likes of Hunter and Harvard. I know this may be shocking to Hayes, but those not in the elite school ranks still can (a miracle, I know) get a good education and find meaningful work. Apparently, he has never heard of SUNY or Cal State.

    So I don’t know what Hayes is really about. Where’s the problem? Where are the studies showing that those blacks and Hispanics who could have but didn’t get into Hunter are now involved in a life of crime and poverty? Why is Hayes upset that an elite school is predominantly Asian and white? Does he dislike Asians and whites?

  • Syon

    Please excuse the probable stupidity of this observation, but I was just wondering, since the groups that seem to get the most out of test-prep are either Asian (East Asians: 68.8, other Asians : 23.8) or Hispanic (24.6, roughly double the White 12.3), are we witnessing a side effect of the two groups containing more ESL speakers? Is the test prep simply helping them get a better grip on the English language?

  • Karl Zimmerman

    1 –

    Your point is well warranted.

    Even if the most extreme proponents of HBD are correct, and the current racial IQ gap is 100% due to genetics (something which I’m still highly suspect of), you’d still end up with around 1/5th of black students with intelligence above the national median. Certainly, you should be able to find a “talented 10%” who should be able to thrive even in a competitive academic environment. That said, the sort of narrow boosting at the margins by competitive test-taking squeezes out all but the very rightmost end of this bell curve, given the way that scores tend to taper off dramatically for any given population group at the higher ends.

    Personally, because of situations like this, I have no issue with Affirmative Action in a more limited sense. Clearly, quotas don’t result in the best societal incomes, but taking family background into account (either racially, or in terms of economic background if you prefer) does not seem objectionable to me if all applicants meet minimal standards. It may result in an incremental lowering of overall test scores, but it probably also results in a greater net benefit to the future graduates, given the higher-scoring whites and Asians passed up will, for the most part, find other options and still have pretty good life outcomes.

  • April Brown

    Trying to wrap my head around an IQ test for kindergarteners. Doesn’t seem like you could correct for enough outside factors to get results that meant anything. Kids that young get randomized like crazy – for all the tester knows, a kid could flunk the “shapes and colours” portion of the test because they had a fight that morning with their brother about whether or not squares are stupid. Or green food being yucky.

  • Revereche

    There’s only so much you can do in the current cultural climate. As long as any perceived nerdiness is associated with only the pastiest of whites, most inner city kids are going to avoid it.

  • Razib Khan


    i want to see exact numbers of asians & whites for 1995. i looked for 15 minutes and couldn’t find it. i may be wrong, but my hunch is that the ny times didn’t give the 1995 number because it would suggest that it is asians, not whites, who are driving the % of blacks and latinos down (this was the case in the uc system; removing race initially resulted in stable number of whites, but increase in asians).

    As I read it, the point about Hunter is that it’s a clear case of the outcomes of extreme meritocracy–one test decides entrance (and there are courses solely dedicated to Hunter test prep), which has consequences in terms of outcomes.

    i don’t think the test is the issue. ‘holistic’ criteria can do the same.

    That said, the sort of narrow boosting at the margins by competitive test-taking squeezes out all but the very rightmost end of this bell curve, given the way that scores tend to taper off dramatically for any given population group at the higher ends.

    If we raise the top-scoring threshold to students scoring 750 or above on both the math and verbal SAT — a level equal to the mean score of students entering the nation’s most selective colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, and CalTech — we find that in the entire country 244 blacks scored 750 or above on the math SAT and 363 black students scored 750 or above on the verbal portion of the test. Nationwide, 33,841 students scored at least 750 on the math test and 30,479 scored at least 750 on the verbal SAT. Therefore, black students made up 0.7 percent of the test takers who scored 750 or above on the math test and 1.2 percent of all test takers who scored 750 or above on the verbal section.

  • ed

    The book is nuanced because Hayes writes “White & Asian students have always been overrepresented [at Hunter].”?

    But the NYT article he cites says that whites are 41% at Hunter, which means that they are *under*, not over represented (NYC is 45% white, and Manhattan is whiter still).

    This just supports Razib’s point that he essentially ignores the Asian part of the story. Even when he mentions Asians, he just lumps them in misleadingly with the whites.

  • WillWorkForDebtRelief

    I read this article and the comments and I’m wondering why this is important since most kids are being priced out of 4 year degrees. The tuition in the UC system is almost triple what it was just 10 years ago. The tuition increased by 18% during 2011-2012 alone. The tuition is projected to grow 8-16% annually over the next 4 years. Colleges everywhere are following this trend. This is right about to hit crisis level in CA and you guys aren’t too far behind. We all know that education is power and the power is being sucked out of middle class America right in front of us. It’s like everything else in America; the people who run the system abuse the system. Chancellors who make $400,000/yr and tens of thousands of faculty who haven’t funded their own pensions in 25 years. The solution will be the same as it always is; increase taxes to drive away jobs, that the kids will need after college, in order to make their tuition less unaffordable today. Who cares about SAT scores under the current system unless they’re high enough to earn a scholarship.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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