Category Archives: Civic Issues

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.

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.

Keeping Track

Throughout our deliberation unit, the term ‘tracking’ came up frequently and it occurred to me that the definition remained rather vague. So for this week’s civic issue blog, I decided to take a look at what tracking really is.

When someone brings up the idea of tracking, people often immediately jump to think about foreign school systems. Countries such as Germany and Singapore begin separating students around sixth grade (or earlier, depending on the region). This kind of tracking is on a large scale where students take a test that places them into a high, middle, or low track. This placement determines the level of difficulty as well as the expectations for post-graduation work. This is the most common view of tracking. (**Although the focus of this blog post is not on whether these other nations’ wholesale tracking system is better or worse than our own, there is much debate over the effect it has on achievement. Click here to read about several Asian countries’ systems.)

However, tracking encompasses much more than sorting students into different schools. School districts where children progress through grade levels without taking a placement test often still track their students. To start, I would like to pose a question: how many of you took AP classes in high school? How many of you took almost exclusively AP classes? Were your electives separated by level of difficulty or did everyone mesh together regardless of ability? In elementary school, did your teacher separate you into different reading groups depending on ability? All of these are forms of tracking.


To shed some light on how the United States arrived at these various forms of tracking, let’s take a look at our educational history. Before the nineteenth century, schools were usually one-room schoolhouses where students learned from the books they had at home that they brought in or had no books and learned basic skills like reading and writing in a lecture-style class overflowing with students of all different ages. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the school system was transforming into a more hierarchical organization with certain subjects designated for certain grade levels and a narrower range of ages for students. Still, students progressed through levels of schooling based upon their mastery of the material rather than how old they were.


By the turn of the century, high school-aged students were pouring in and the schools leaned more towards separating grade levels by age and promising a single, uniform diploma for all graduates. America’s focus switched from what grade level one could attain to what level one attained within that grade level (accelerated, standard, low level classes). By the 1960’s, schools became more standardized nationally on what subjects should be taught in what order. Programs like gifted and special education came into existence as a distinct form of tracking for students with abnormal abilities. The mid-twentieth century witnessed the shift towards mass intelligence testing and schools started to adopt IQ testing as the method of separating students. **Read more about the evolution of tracking and what social and political events helped shape our system here.

So that brings us to today. (Here I will focus on schools that do not employ wholesale tracking because the norm in the United States is not to sort students into different schools based on a single test, although this does still happen.) Whereas the tracks into which schools funneled students for much of the twentieth century were rigid and limiting, today’s tracking system offers much more flexibility. IQ testing as a means to sort students no longer exists (except for placement into special and gifted education, and even then IQ is not necessarily the deciding factor). Tracking is typically done within each subject and it is academic performance and teacher recommendations that determine which track students should enter. And these decisions are almost always negotiable.


Perhaps the most important development in tracking has been the preparation these classes offer for the future. For most of American educational history, the lower tracks severely limited career paths. Although differences in the curricula still exist, all levels of classes have a focus on preparation for college. I believe this coincides with the notion that higher education is now a reality (even an expectation) for every student, not just the cream of the crop. This is an important development because it allows for every student to earn a university degree if they work hard enough, which seems essential in today’s work market.

The current controversy on tracking rests mainly on whether tracking is inequitable and unfair. Does tracking still limit learning? Should there be more guidance and rigor at every level?

Are We Getting Smarter?

In 1984, a psychologist named James Flynn published a chronological study of IQ scores. His research, based upon statistics of American citizens, indicated that our IQ scores have increased immensely over the last 100 years. From the beginning of the 20th century to today, Americans’ IQ scores have increased by three points per decade on both the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales and the Wechsler Intelligence Scales. On Raven’s Progressive Matrices intelligence test, Americans’ scores have increased by five points per decade. This trend has since taken the label of “The Flynn Effect.”

flynn effect

Psychometricians (those who study and develop intelligence tests) have updated the intelligence testing throughout the years, which means that what the tests are focusing on is different now than in the early 1900’s. To make comparison possible, what happens if we put our scores on the same scale as back in the day? If we scored our ancestors according to today’s norms, they would have had an average IQ of 50-70. If we compared ourselves to earlier intelligence test norms, the average person today would have had an IQ of 130 to 150 then.

So what is the implication of the Flynn Effect? Were our ancestors really dumb or are we all modern super-geniuses? James Flynn would argue that neither is really the case. Flynn argues that the shift in IQ is caused by new, modern cognitive demands. To understand what these cognitive demands are and where they come from, we must take a look at the historical context of intelligence tests.

1920 school


A century ago, America was undergoing industrialization and attempting to improve the economy through manufacturing and producing. People tended to be more focused on the concrete. The average citizen had a sixth-grade education when they left school to work (often in a factory), so abstract intelligence and critical thinking were irrelevant to most people. Intelligence tests thus tested crystallized intelligence (knowledge of facts such as capitals of states or names of presidents) and practical intelligence (such as what task one uses a broom for or what time of the year it would be appropriate to wear sandals).

Today, our society has progressed out of our focus on industrialization. Now, as we try to compete globally with our test scores, we tend to place value on math and science, which draw on abstract and critical thinking. This kind of thinking is “deeper” than the kind that underlies crystallized intelligence. In addition, the average citizen now completes at least a high school education, and most middle and upper class people also attend a four-year college. So the type of emphasized intelligence combined with a longer overall education contribute to our increase in test scores over time.

socratic seminar

What I take from this research is that our ancestors were not unintelligent, but their mental abilities were not as developed as most people’s are today. We have higher norms of intelligence now than we did a century ago, and our higher IQ scores reflect that change. (James Flynn published an article in 2012 that expands on his original analyses and gives examples of the types of questions seen on an intelligence test in the past versus in modern times. You can read it here.)

There are critics of Flynn’s theory, though. One critic argues that intelligence tests are supposed to test “g,” or general intelligence (the mental energy that underlies all problem-solving). SAT testing is supposedly highly-correlated with “g” and yet our scores do not reflect the same increase as they have with the other forms of intelligence testing that Flynn analyzed. He argues that the increase in scores on intelligence tests is a result of education today coaching students to perform well on paper-and-pencil tests.

Although it may be true that our schools today spend a great deal of time coaching students on how to take tests whereas they did not do that 100 years ago, I disagree that this is the sole reason for our shift in IQ scores. According to the critic, SAT scores are outside of the influence of schools’ focus on paper-and-pencil tests; however, I know I have experienced training in school on how to specifically take the SAT’s and think abstractly in a time crunch.


I believe that since our society has placed value on critical and abstract thinking, it has developed our mind to think in ways we did not think before. This new way is deeper than simply memorizing facts, and so our cognition is more developed, on average, than it was in the beginning of the 20th century.

Sternberg’s Solution

Unfortunately for intelligence theorists, many of the great pioneers and thinkers that have contributed to the development of cognitive psychology are no longer alive today. If they were, we could clarify the various questions that trouble current theorists and gain some insight from them. However, there are a few exceptions to this. Robert J. Sternberg was born in 1949 and has made more recent contributions to intelligence theory. He is currently a professor at Cornell University (he also has honorary doctorates from thirteen universities in addition to many other awards and accolades). **Read more about Sternberg here.


Sternberg’s background in intelligence theory is in psychometrics, or the science of measuring mental capacities and processes. Traditionally, psychometrics provided the basis for standardized intelligence testing as we are familiar with it today. However, Sternberg’s stance on intelligence opposes many of the facets of psychometric views of intelligence. Standardized tests are supposed to measure “g:” the mental energy that underlies all cognitive tasks. If one scores well on one of these tests, the person is assumed to have a lot of “g;” they are intelligent. However, Sternberg feels that psychometric intelligence tests only measure analytical thinking and memory skills, and leaves out other essential components of intelligence. For example, psychometrics does not tell us how well someone works cooperatively, nor does it inform us of someone’s other skills and abilities.

Sternberg argues that we are able to predict people’s future academic performance from these tests because from the time they take it, if they do well, they receive “red carpet treatment” which enables them to succeed; whereas if they do poorly, they become convinced that they are not as smart and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In reality, the tests simply do not measure more than one or two facets of intelligence, so it alienates a lot of people.


From his points of dispute with psychometrics comes Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. (**To learn more about Sternberg’s arrival at the Triarchic Theory and an additional explanation of it, click here.) The triarchic theory states that intelligence boils down to three fundamental components: analytical abilities, creative abilities, and practical abilities. Analytical ability is essentially critical thinking and problem-solving. It is what intelligence tests typically measure and thus what our current education system emphasizes and rewards. Creative ability is the capacity to generate new ideas and new ways to solve problems. Practical ability is one’s ability to understand what is needed in a given situation and respond effectively to the circumstances. To sum the three parts up, think of it like this: “You need creative intelligence to come up with an idea, analytical intelligence to know if it’s a good idea, and practical intelligence to sell it” (Sternberg).


So now that we understand what makes up the Triarchic Theory, what implications does it have or should it have for our education system? For one thing, I think it calls attention to a vast inconsistency in intelligence testing and its results: many people who scored poorly on these tests ended up doing very well in life and many people who performed well on the tests ended up leading relatively unsuccessful lives. We cannot overlook this discrepancy when these standardized tests (such as the SAT) are supposed to be reliable indicators of future success. Sternberg has offered his explanation of the inconsistency in scores and results in that “people who have superior practical and creative skills often do not perform well on tests that reflect only analytical abilities” (Sternberg).

The first implication of Sternberg’s theory is the way it could change intelligence testing. It is easier to add sections to intelligence tests that measure creative abilities than practical abilities because practical ability is, by nature, situated in a real-world context. In attempting to capture this and put it in a standardized test, it would be very difficult to avoid bias.

Another implication would be in the classroom. Right now, our education system places a lot of emphasis on math and science because those analytical abilities are what standardized tests draw on and therefore developing those helps us achieve better scores. However, in reality, isolated analytical abilities will not get one very far without the supplemental abilities to create and use ideas. So, we can encourage the development of creative and practical intelligences through our curriculum. If we also change the standardized tests, then we could not argue that spending time on creative and practical abilities is wasting time we could be spending preparing for the tests.



Is Intelligence Fixed or Malleable?

As the world pushed through the nineteenth century and entered the twentieth, humankind experienced massive transformations in social, economic, political, cultural, and academic arenas. Although the late 1800’s were a tumultuous time, we did emerge on the other side with amazing advancements in all sorts of areas. One such advancement was the development of the concept of intelligence. Before the late 1850’s, people only maintained a vague idea of what being ‘intelligent’ actually meant. Through the work of intelligence theorists such as Francis Galton, Alred Binet, and Charles Spearman, however, humankind gained a much clearer concept of this abstract phenomenon. The three aforementioned intelligence theorists clarified our definition of intelligence by leaps and bounds, but yet fierce controversy lingers today over the concept. One can understand the nature of this controversy and how the debate over intelligence came into existence by studying the similarities and differences of Galton, Binet, and Spearman.


**Alfred Binet; circa 1904

To understand intelligence, we must first examine a basic scientific and psychological dichotomy: “nature versus nurture.” People toss around this phrase often in debates on intelligence, but what does it actually mean? Francis Galton was allegedly the first to coin the phrase, and it describes the struggle to assign responsibility for particular traits (physical, social, intellectual, etc.) to one’s genetic makeup (nature) or the environment in which one grew up (nurture). Today, there seems to be a bit more of a consensus that nature and nurture interact to produce the people that we become, but back in the early days of intelligence theory, there was no such concession.

I would argue that perhaps the most fundamental divider among intelligence theorists is their view on whether or not humans can change their level of intelligence. This boils down to the nature versus nurture debate. Those who support nature as the stronger influence view intelligence as a fixed, inherited entity. Those who support the nurture side of the argument view intelligence as malleable, or subject to change depending on one’s environment.

Now, let’s take a look at the pioneers of intelligence theory and with which side of the debate their views align. Francis Galton was of the nature camp of the debate. In his book “Hereditary Genius” (1869), Galton “assembled long lists of “eminent” men—judges, poets, scientists, even oarsmen and wrestlers—to show that excellence ran in families” (Holt, Jim). **Read more of the article on Francis Galton’s work here.** The counterargument is that the children of these excellent men could have become excellent because they had grown up in exceptional households. Galton countered this argument with a control group in his experiment of adopted sons of Popes who were still “eminent.”


**Francis Galton; circa 1890

Charles Spearman was in agreement with Galton in that he, too, was a proponent of a fixed view of intelligence. Spearman based his belief off of positive correlations among students’ performances on specific subject tests (such as Latin and Music). He saw that those who did well on one test tended to score higher in general than those who did poorly. This led him to believe that there is a force that underlies all intellectual tasks. Spearman went on to create the concept of “g:” a mental energy that underlies all intellectual tasks. “G” is a fixed mental energy that education, therapy, and training cannot alter. (Howard Gardner, Mindy Kornhaber, and Warren Wake, pg. 58-70)

spearman correlation

**An example of positive correlation for high scores on one test and high scores on another. Read more on the role that correlational research has played in the development in Stephen Jay Gould’s book Mismeasure of Man. For a summary, try looking here.

Alfred Binet, on the other hand, belonged to the nurture side of the argument. In 1904, the French government asked Binet to assist them in organizing their education system to accommodate for the recent switch into mass education. Binet obliged and he and a colleague, Théodore Simon, created mental tests to determine which students were capable of regular schooling and which were not. Binet desired an understanding of how intelligence works so that society could make sound, informed decisions in regards to education. He believed that society could improve the mental capabilities of populations through these decisions. Although Binet’s work eventually led to quantifying people’s intelligence (and what would later turn into Intelligence Quotients, or IQ scores), he did not see this score as fixed. He believed that this number could be changed if a child was placed in the correct environment.