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Not-So-Standardized Testing

Controversy Surrounds Unconventional SAT Essay Prompt

March 16, 2011

Not-So-Standardized Testing

by Alexis Mattera

This past Saturday, one-third of high school students taking the SAT opened their writing sections and were met with a prompt that even the most extensive prep courses couldn’t have prepared them for. The topic? Reality television and its impact on its viewers.

While the prompt didn’t ask test-takers to cite specific shows or characters (as a New York Daily News headline suggests), SAT owner the College Board has been called culturally insensitive because the question assumes all students have a television, watch reality television and watch enough reality television to distinguish between them. Angela Garcia, executive director of the SAT program, responded that all essay prompts are pretested with students and then reviewed "to ensure that they are easily understood and that each student has an opportunity to respond, and is wide-ranging enough for a student to demonstrate their writing skills." Still, students, parents and school officials are equal parts distraught and confused, anxiously awaiting to see how answers to this question will impact scores.

Standardized testing – whether it’s about changes to existing exams or the decision to make submitting scores optional – is a hot topic as of late and now, we want to hear from you. Did you receive the reality prompt? How did you respond? Do you think you would have fared better if you were given a different prompt? Do you think the SAT (or standardized testing in general) is an accurate measure of a student’s worth?


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Oregon’s Diploma Debacle

Additional Steps Could Be Required to Obtain Certificate

April 27, 2011

Oregon’s Diploma Debacle

by Alexis Mattera

What does it take to earn a high school diploma? At most schools, going to class and earning passing grades for four years is enough but in Oregon, students may have to do a little more legwork to have that valuable piece of paper in their possession.

The Oregon House of Representatives approved a bill that would require high school students to complete one of three additional steps before they can turn their tassels from right to left. Though its main focus is to increase college applications and enrollment rates, the bill – sponsored by Rep. Tobias Read – says students can fulfill the requirements by submitting an enlistment application to the military or attending an orientation session for an apprenticeship or training program as well as applying to a postsecondary institution. “This bill does not intend to tell anyone what choice is right for them,” Read told The Oregonian. “It merely aims to prompt the consideration of those options and encourage students to think about what’s important to them.”

Read does have supporters – after all, the bill passed 33 to 26 and has moved on to the Oregon State Senate – but also numerous detractors, like Rep. Mike Schaufler. "This is not about education," Schaufler said. "It's just one more piece of paper. It's one more hoop we're making people jump through to get the diploma they have already earned."

Whose corner are you in – Read’s or Schaufler’s?


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Cheating Scam Busted in Beijing

by Alexis Mattera

There have been countless movie and television show plots surrounding forms of academic dishonesty but in real life, cheating doesn’t pay. The cheater’s reputation, on the other hand, does. Dearly.

The Associated Press reported 62 individuals have been detained by China's Education Ministry for selling wireless devices they believe would be used to cheat on the upcoming college entrance exam. Since the plot was discovered before the exam, however, the ministry hopes its actions will protect the test's integrity, which more than 9 million high school students are expected to take this week.

Whether it’s copying and pasting someone else’s words into your paper, crafting the tiniest of crib sheets or constructing an elaborate system of two-way radios to relay information in real time, cheating is everywhere. The good news is that educators are fighting back with new outlooks, smarter software, harsher punishments to curb students’ urges to cheat. Are these tactics working? The jury’s still out. What’s being done at your school to limit and eventually stop academic dishonesty? Do you have any suggestions how to make these methods more effective?


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College Acceptance in 500 Words

Common App Sets Essay Word Limit, Counselors Voice Concerns

June 10, 2011

College Acceptance in 500 Words

by Alexis Mattera

The college application essay has long been the place where students with mediocre grades, lackluster standardized test scores and nonexistent extracurricular activities have displayed their above-average writing skills and possibly turned admissions tides in their favor. College hopefuls will still be able to achieve this feat next year but with far fewer literary devices.

Officials for the Common Application have announced they’ve set a new word limit for its essay section. For the 2011-2012 application cycle, students will choose from one of five prompts – for example, "Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence." – and have 250 to 500 words to respond AND effectively sell themselves to college admissions officers at 415 colleges and universities. Some guidance counselors have complained about the limit, saying students will not have enough space display their writing abilities; in truth, the new parameters are plenty wide if students have received sufficient writing instruction in high school.

I believe brevity is a virtue but know this truncated word count will be shocking to college applicants. What do you think of the Common App’s announcement? Are you up for the challenge or has the change deterred from using the application entirely?


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Fed Law Requires College Net Price Calculators, Experts Question Accuracy

by Alexis Mattera

How much will it cost to attend the school of your dreams? The federal government hopes its new law will make that question easier to answer but higher education experts have their doubts where accuracy is concerned.

By this October, the federal government will require all U.S. higher education institutions to offer net price calculators on their websites so prospective college students can easily compare attendance costs earlier in their college searches. Users will be asked questions about their financial and academic backgrounds and their answers – and the calculator’s tallies of tuition, fees, books, housing and food, minus scholarships and grants – will reveal the net price to attend that particular school. Though many experts are glad students will have access to this information, accuracy is a concern. Certain factors won’t be taken into consideration because direct student-to-school contact has been eliminated; for example, Washington University is willing to adjust financial aid packages if a parent loses their job and this might not be reflected in the calculators’ answers.

It’s likely the law will be revised to make side-by-side comparison more accurate before the calculators are implemented - read more about the net price calculators in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch - but would you use this new technology or do you think it’s still too early to glean accurate information?


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Standardized Test ACTually May Not Predict College Success

by Alexis Mattera

Are standardized test scores and collegiate success one in the same? Not necessarily, a new study says.

The National Bureau of Economic Research’s latest findings reveal that while the English and math sections of the ACT are "highly predictive" of college success, the segments unique to this exam – science and reading – have "little or no" ability to help college admissions committees predict whether applicants will succeed. Because of this, the validity of the ACT as a whole is in question because colleges typically rely on the composite score rather than individual subject scores. "By introducing noise that obscures the predictive validity of the ACT exam, the reading and science tests cause students to be inefficiently matched to schools, admitted to schools that may be too demanding — or too easy — for their levels of ability," the study says.

ACT refutes these findings, stating it has "decades of research supporting the predictive validity and application" of its scoring in college enrollment, performance and retention and is in the process of reviewing the study’s methodology and findings. For those of you who have taken the ACT, do you agree with the study or the testmaker? Do you find high school performance is a better indicator of college success than any standardized test out there?


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The Recession: College’s Sorting Hat?

by Alexis Mattera

When the recession hit in 2008, higher education officials wondered how – not if – enrollment numbers would be impacted. Three years later, the damage has been revealed...and it’s not what anyone anticipated.

In a new report conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment of traditional-age, first-time college students rose to 2.135 million in 2010, a 6.8-percent increase from 1.997 million in 2006. Enrollment at four-year public and private colleges remained relatively stable, as did retention and persistence rates, while more students than ever have enrolled in two-year colleges, from 41.7 percent in 2006 to 44.5 in 2009. The report suggests these students either 1. might have chosen a costlier school in a better economy or 2. would have otherwise joined the work force after high school. "The news of our demise is greatly exaggerated," Don Hossler, the center's executive director and a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University at Bloomington, says of four-year institutions in general. "I was expecting more dramatic data, and thus far, the changes are not that dramatic." He does, however, go on to say that despite the encouraging findings, the recession's impact on college choices and educational paths may take years to emerge completely.

The report, "National Postsecondary Enrollment Trends: Before, During, and After the Great Recession," is the first in a series of analyses that the National Student Clearinghouse plans to release in the coming months. Given what you’ve seen or personally experienced, do you feel the results are accurate?


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PayScale’s Best-Paying College Majors

by Alexis Mattera

According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, it costs approximately $80,000 in tuition plus expenses to earn a bachelor’s degree from a public four-year college and about $140,000 to gain the same credentials from a private nonprofit four-year institution. There are certainly ways to find this kind of fundinggrants, student loans and, hello, scholarships! – but will your major of choice be worth the money? If you select one of the fields included on PayScale’s list of best-paying college majors, it is decidedly so.

The annual list is dominated by engineering, with seven of the top 10 in branches of the field, while the other top-earning degrees include physics, applied mathematics and computer science:

Petroleum Engineering

  • Starting Median Pay: $97,900
  • Mid-Career Median Pay: $155,000

Chemical Engineering

  • Staring Median Pay: $64,500
  • Mid-Career Median Pay: $109,000

Electrical Engineering

  • Staring Median Pay: $61,300
  • Mid-Career Median Pay: $103,000

Materials Science and Engineering

  • Starting Median Pay: $60,400
  • Mid-Career Median Pay: $103,000

Aerospace Engineering

  • Starting Median Pay: $60,700
  • Mid-Career Median Pay: $102,000

Computer Engineering

  • Starting Median Pay: $61,800
  • Mid-Career Median Pay: $101,000

Physics

  • Starting Median Pay: $49,800
  • Mid-Career Median Pay: $101,000

Applied Mathematics

  • Starting Median Pay: $52,600
  • Mid-Career Median Pay: $98,600

Computer Science

  • Starting Median Pay: $56,600
  • Mid-Career Median Pay: $97,900

Nuclear Engineering

  • Starting Median Pay: $65,100
  • Mid-Career Median Pay: $97,800

Does this list have you reconsidering your college path or will you stick to your intended major?


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Head Out of State for an In-State Price

by Alexis Mattera

Scenario: Your dream school is beyond state boundaries but your college fund is more suited to a college closer to home. Don't fret: If you know what and where you want to study, you could score an impressive tuition break through a regional discount program. Here's the breakdown:

New England Regional Student Program: Students living in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island or Vermont could be eligible for average savings of $7,000 per year through this program if they enroll in a degree program not available at public schools in their home state. One drawback – if majors are changed, recipients may no longer be eligible for the tuition break.

Academic Common Market: Southerners (aka those living in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia or West Virginia) follow the same guidelines as the NERSP but with some additional restrictions. For example, schools in Florida, North Carolina, and Texas only offer tuition reductions at the graduate level.

Western Undergraduate Exchange: Do you live in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington or Wyoming and want $7,500 per year in average college savings? WUE requirements vary from state to state and campus to campus but more than 26,000 residents took advantage of the program last year...so, interested students, apply early to ensure funding.

Midwest Student Exchange Program: Students from Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota or Wisconsin can save an average of $4,274 per year on tuition without being restricted by majors. The catch is that schools (public and private this time) can limit what degree programs qualify for this discount.


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New Study Explores Higher Ed Stratification

by Alexis Mattera

Money may not be able to buy happiness or love but a new study shows it’s an integral factor in getting into college.

The study – “Running in Place: Low-Income Students and the Dynamics of Higher Education Stratification” – reveals that despite efforts to attract and enroll more low-income students, such students are still more likely to attend community colleges or noncompetitive four-year universities than more elite schools. These students are indeed taking the steps necessary to increase their grades and standardized test scores but their wealthier counterparts are taking wider, faster strides toward the same goal.

According to the study’s lead author and associate professor of higher education at the University of Michigan Michael N. Bastedo, “The distance between academic credentials for wealthy students and low-income students is getting longer and longer...and that’s despite the fact that low-income students are rising in their own academic achievement.” Selective colleges claim they want to bring in more low-income students but the study’s authors say ancillary factors like higher/better job placement and more generous alumni are proving detrimental.

There is much more to the study here including the authors’ suggestions for improving equity (i.e., optional SATs, greater access to Advanced Placement and honors courses). Take a look and share your thoughts!


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