Monthly Archives: April 2014

What’s the deal with the SAT?

Seeing as we are all freshmen at Penn State University, it is safe to assume that all of us have embarked on the dreaded journey through the SATs and/or the ACTs. I would also venture to guess that we all performed fairly well, considering Penn State is considered a somewhat selective university that admits 55% of its applicants. Congratulations! You’ve made it this far and you (probably) will never ever have to go back to the mayhem of standardized testing.


Although we all took the SAT or ACT and most likely stressed over making sure our scores were “good” enough, do any of us really know what the SAT measures? What magical property does the SAT test that lets colleges know if we are worthy of attending their university?

Many people think the SAT measures mastery of basic skills (critical reading, writing, and math), which to an extent is true. However, testing the extent of students’ content-based knowledge is more the goal of the SAT II subject tests. Many other people assume it serves as an IQ test that measures relative levels of intelligence; whatever score you earn can and will rank your intellect against everyone else’s. For instance, it is popularly accepted that a student who earns a score of 2390 is more intelligent than a student who earns a score of 1550. Depending on who you ask (ie. SAT prep companies, teachers, universities, students, etc.), you will hear that the SAT measures student motivation, how well someone has mastered test-taking strategies, developed math and reading skills, innate intelligence, neural processing speed, socioeconomic background, and more. The College Board itself seems confused as to what the SAT should measure, evidenced in the change of names from the “Scholastic Aptitude Test” to the “Scholastic Assessment Test” to just the “SAT.”

Surprisingly, the stated purpose of the SAT is not to see how well students have mastered material or to rank their intelligence. The only purpose of the SAT is to predict freshman year grades. Colleges are supposed to view the SAT as an indicator of how successful a student is likely to be in their freshman year of college.

If the SAT only predicts students’ freshman year grades (and keep in mind, the test does not measure leadership, creativity, resiliency, or any other factors that could have strong influences on student success), why is it so heavily emphasized? The test has become so important that many parents spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars sending their children to SAT prep classes which might raise their children’s scores 20-100 points, a modest difference on the normally distributed curve. sat2

Colleges are in a risky situation in terms of SAT’s: on the one hand, most selective universities wish to have a holistic admissions process that considers other, more illuminating criteria; but on the other hand, universities feel pressure to report high average SAT scores among their accepted students to demonstrate the prestige and keep a competitive edge with other top universities.

There are many problems with the SAT, so the overemphasis it receives in college admissions processes just exacerbates those. First, there is inequity in students coming from families who can afford to send their children to prep classes and those who cannot. The students who do not receive preparation for the test do not have the advantage of test-taking strategies, one-on-one tutoring and feedback, or any sort of prior familiarity that students of wealthier families possess. On top of this additional disadvantage to lower socioeconomic families, those same families are more likely to be the same ones attending weaker school districts in poorer areas. Excellent school districts can hire excellent teachers and provide their students with rigorous curricula and a plethora of educational resources. Poorer school districts tend to hire the less expensive and less qualified teachers who deliver less advanced curricula and do not possess the same resources as wealthy schools.


So although the SAT itself, may be standardized, the playing field leading up to it is definitely not. Students who come from wealthy families and wealthy school districts tend to score much higher from students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I believe that universities should require an addendum to student SAT scores that indicates the high school the student attended and the environment he or she grew up in. This, combined with the SAT score, will hopefully keep it more in perspective.   

Read the breakdown for the methods of scoring here.

Bo Burnham: what.

My favorite comedian is Bo Burnham, a 23-year old satirical singer-songwriter and stand-up comedian from Massachusetts. He recently went on tour with his comedy show, “what.” which I had the pleasure of seeing live at the State Theatre in October. Although I find all of Bo’s work to be clever, what. features material that is refreshingly deep and introspective, while still staying in the realm of comedy. I wasted a lot of time on youtube trying to pick one song to focus on, but I couldn’t bring myself to choose, so I decided to do a brief overview of a few.


The first piece I will discuss is called Left Brain Right Brain. A disembodied voice asks how Bo is doing, to which he replies that he is not doing well and is struggling to connect with people and feel happy. The voice says that he is unhappy because the left and right sides of his brain are at war. She initiates a separation of the two sides, and then the song starts. Throughout the song, the lighting changes from blue/dark to red/purple as Bo switches character from the left brain to the right brain. Bo changes his inflection, posture, and facial expressions from flat, stiff, and serious for the left brain to whimsical, flexible, and starry-eyed for the right brain. The two sides argue about Bo as well as confront situations that occur during the song (like a female walking by). At the end, they decide to work out their differences by doing something productive together– comedy. I think Left Brain Right Brain does an excellent job in capturing what makes up Bo’s personality and explaining his passion for comedy. It provides an insightful look into his character while still being hysterically funny.


The next piece I will discuss is called From God’s Perspective. This song satirizes the various customs associated with religion that Bo believes to be completely man-made. He talks as if he is God and makes fun of humans for being so caught up in their own misguided world, while missing the whole point of any religion: to love one another. A pretty deep message to come across during a comedy show, right? This song puts religion in the perspective of a removed observer, which allows the kind of distance needed to realize how silly it seems to place so much importance on the tiny nuances that infuriate so many people.



The last song I will discuss today is Repeat Stuff. This song is a satire on modern pop love songs and how they all follow the same formula. Bo brings the audience’s attention to vicious cycle inherent in pop culture where teenage girls will inhale media that makes them feel awful about themselves and then listen to pop songs that tell them they are beautiful, only to take in more media featuring the artists who wrote those songs. In addition to this message, Bo makes fun of how repetitive and vague these songs are, claiming they are repetitive because teens have to be able to know all the words after one listen and vague because every girl needs to think the songs are about her. This monotonous formula makes a lot of money, so here it will stay until it stops doing that.


I highly recommend looking up this show and other work by Bo Burnham. What. is available on netflix and on Youtube. Also, here is a link to Bo on Conan talking about the unfortunate time when Justin Bieber came to see what.

Paul Is Dead

In 1969, a lot of the world believed Paul McCartney of the Beatles to be dead. Seeing as he is still making music today, that is clearly not the case. How did the “Paul is dead” rumors begin and what “clues” did the Beatles leave for their conspiracy theory fans to obsess over? Let’s take a look.

paul is dead1

The myth held that on November 9th, 1966, Paul had gotten into a car accident and died. He was then replaced by a look-alike who stood in for all the subsequent album covers. Fans drew on evidence from song lyrics as well as album art. Here are some examples of lyrics that intimated at Paul’s demise:

  • The opening words of Got To Get You Into My Life: “I was alone, I took a ride, I didn’t know what I would find there”.
  • The line “He didn’t notice that the lights had changed” from A Day in the Life.
  • The opening line of She’s Leaving Home, which highlighted the moment of the accident: “Wednesday morning at 5 o’clock as the day begins”.
  • The suppression of the story in the news found its way into Lady Madonna: “Wednesday morning papers didn’t come”.
  • At the end of Strawberry Fields Forever, Lennon can be heard muttering “cranberry sauce”. This was misheard as “I buried Paul”.
  • “Bury my body” and “Oh untimely death” appeared in the radio feed towards the end of I Am The Walrus, taken from a BBC production of King Lear.
  • At the end of I’m So Tired, John Lennon mutters “Monsieur, monsieur, monsieur, how about another one?” When played backwards, this was interpreted by some as “Paul is dead, man, miss him, miss him”.
  • “I’m sorry that I doubted you, I was so unfair/You were in a car crash and you lost your hair” – from Ringo’s Don’t Pass Me By.
  • The line “Find me in my field of grass” in Mother Nature’s Son was taken as a reference to a cemetery.
  • There is the sound of a car crash, followed by an explosion, in Revolution 9.
  • The same song, when played backwards, is said to contain the repeated phrase “Turn me on, dead man”.
  • “And so I quit the police department”, a line from She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, supposedly referred to William Campbell’s alleged former career in Ontario, Canada (see the Sgt Pepper visual clues on the next page).

(Source: is dead2

People also drew on the album covers of Magical Mystery Tour, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Abbey Road to provide proof of Paul’s death. The rumors hold that the outfits of the four Beatles reveal a hint that Paul had passed: John Lennon is wearing white to symbolize a priest or spiritual figure; Ringo is next wearing black to represent an undertaker; George Harrison is fourth in line and wearing denim to symbolize the gravedigger. Several things stick out about Paul’s appearance: he is the only one not wearing shoes, his eyes are closed, and he is out of step with the other three band members. These observations were taken as a subtle clue that Paul was no longer “walking among us.” In addition, Paul is holding a cigarette in his right hand. McCartney was left-handed, so this observation led many people to believe that a look-alike had been used instead of Paul for this photoshoot.

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The Paul is Dead rumors largely dissipated after this edition of LIFE magazine featured pictures of Paul with his family. Paul said in this article: “Perhaps the rumour started because I haven’t been much in the press lately. I have done enough press for a lifetime, and I don’t have anything to say these days. I am happy to be with my family and I will work when I work. I was switched on for ten years and I never switched off. Now I am switching off whenever I can. I would rather be a little less famous these days.”


HAIR: the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical

In April 1968, the musical HAIR took the Broadway stage by storm, leaving quite a controversial aftermath behind. “HAIR: the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” brings to life the counter-culture of the 1960’s and 70’s through the story of Claude, Sheila, Berger, and their hippie friends living in New York City during the Vietnam War.


One of the musical’s biggest criticisms is that its plot line is not very sophisticated, but I think this is what makes it so intriguing. In most musicals, the songs help to tell the story and further the dialogue along; however, in HAIR, the songs mainly focus on portraying the essence of the hippie movement: their values, morals, style, way of life. (Even if the songs did not touch on hippie sexuality, the choreography alone would suffice– not only are the dance moves suggestive and provocative, but there is a song where the entire cast stands naked and sings.) So rather than explaining events that are happening to the characters within the context of the musical, the songs explain the lifestyle that the characters are living in and illustrating the effects of a large-scale problem on a small group of people, representative of an entire movement. To understand what I mean, let’s take a look at the lyrics. (All the music was written by Galt MacDermot and Tom Pierson.)


The songs “Air” and “Hashish” establish the acceptance and widespread usage of drugs throughout hippie culture. “Hare Krishna” does this as well as introduce the influence that Eastern religions played in forming hippie ideals. Here are the lyrics to Air:

Welcome, sulfur dioxide
Hello, carbon monoxide
The air, the air
Is everywhere

Breath deep
While you sleep
Breath deep

Bless you, alcohol blood stream
Save me, nicotine lung steam
Incense, incense
Is in the air

Breath deep
While you sleep
Breath deep

Cataclysmic ectoplasm
Fallout atomic orgasm
Vapor and fume
At the stone of my tomb

Breathing like a sullen perfume
Eating at the stone of my tomb

Welcome, sulfur dioxide
Hello, carbon monoxide
The air, the air
Is everywhere

Breath deep
While you sleep
Breath deep
Deep, deep de deep

(Read more: Hair – Air Lyrics | MetroLyrics )

In the song “Where Do I Go?,” the lyrics convey the restlessness and disillusionment that led so many young people to join in on the hippie movement and continued to drive many young people to find a purpose in fighting back against what they viewed as an unjust war. (Read the lyrics here.)


In the songs “Electric Blues” and “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In),” bring to life the distrust of the government and its abuses:

[from Electric Blues]

They chain ya and brainwash ya
When you least suspect it
They feed ya mass media
The age is electric

[from Let the Sunshine In]

We starve- look at one another
Short of breath
Walking proudly in our winter coats
Wearing smells from laboratories
Facing a dying nation
Of moving paper fantasy
Listening for the new told lies
With supreme visions of lonely tunes.

(Read the rest here.)

Sadly, the 2009 revival of HAIR is no longer on Broadway, but there is a 1979 film adaptation that I enjoyed just as much! There is much more of a plot to the movie, which makes sense considering there can’t be people handing out flowers and dancing over audience members in the film version. I definitely recommend checking it out, or just listening to the music! hair3

Gifted Education

In my last Civic Issues post, I discussed tracking and the various forms it has taken on throughout history and in the present day. One specific form of tracking that I would like to look at more closely in this week’s post is gifted education. How many of you were enrolled in your elementary, middle, or high school’s gifted education program? How many of you were tested and did not get in? How many of you were never tested at all? Any one of these choices has impacted your education in one way or another, and I am sure that all of you have success and/or horror stories pertaining to it. 

Almost every state has passed legislation that requires schools to provide gifted education. However, since there is no federal law regulating it, there is a lot of discrepancy in how gifted programs are orchestrated. I could go into a lot more detail into the organization of gifted education programs, but for now, I would like to focus on the broad ethics of gifted education in general. (To read more about the organization of gifted education today, click here.)

gifted ed map


**The states in blue mandate support for gifted programs and provide funding for it. Those in red neither require nor fund gifted education.

Let’s begin with entrance to the program. Traditionally, the way to enter a school’s gifted program was solely through an IQ test. The student had to achieve at least a score of 130. The higher the score was above 130, the more gifted the school considered the child to be. In today’s time, most states require more than one method to determine if a child is in need of gifted education or not. These include student grades, achievement tests, parental advocacy, teacher referrals, etc. In Pennsylvania, school districts must “adopt and use a system to locate and identify all students within that district who are thought to be gifted and in need of specially designed instruction.” Nice and vague, right?

The legislation goes on to specify that schools must consider “multiple criteria,” but does not state how many. Examples of other criteria are: being a year or more above grade achievement level; early and measured use of creativity, leadership skills, high level thinking skills, etc; accelerated acquisition of new information and ideas. As you can see, there is a lot of room for school districts to develop unique systems.

gifted ed cartoon

I believe that the basis for placement into a gifted program should be whether or not the child is sufficiently challenged in a regular classroom environment. There are students who have IQ’s higher than 130 and who display strong leadership skills, for example, but whose needs are met in a normal classroom. School is challenging them and they will succeed without needing to be placed in the gifted education program. Other students, however, may also have an IQ over 130, but a regular classroom environment is clearly not stimulating enough for them. For example, a student who is reading complete novels when his class is still learning to read picture books will become very idle and bored. A student like this would greatly benefit from an additional program which challenge his reading skills.

Next, I would like to discuss the allocation of resources for gifted programs. Because there is no federal law mandating exactly what gifted programs should look like, the effects are extremely uneven. In some school districts, gifted education simply means taking all of the students who are not challenged in their regular classroom environments (regardless of chronological age) and putting them in a supplemental classroom where they can all engage in another activity (like computer brain games or chess). Other programs offer their middle schoolers SAT prep and practice tests so that by the time everyone takes the SATs in a few years, they have already mastered how to take the test.

Despite the inequity in gifted programs, gifted education is generally considered to be the “better stuff” of education. One reason people have such a problem with gifted education is that it takes the best resources and teachers and allocates them to a select group of people. The argument is that those resources would benefit every student. Is it fair to give the already-talented students additional materials that will advance them even further while “normal” students get left behind?

Again, I return to my policy of providing sufficient challenge for every student. Gifted education should take individuals who are clearly festering in boredom (based upon achievement tests and teacher referrals, mainly) and stimulate their minds with more individualized attention. Although every student would certainly benefit from individualized instruction, this is a far-off goal that we simply do not have the means to make a reality. If students are sufficiently challenged and are benefiting from a regular classroom environment, then we can prioritize gifted education for those who are not.