Sunday, January 11, 2015

What's critical about reading?

As the college application process gets under way, certain questions loom:

Should someone with SAT Critical Reading and Math scores, respectively, in the 3rd and 99th percentiles be admitted into an engineering school?

Should someone with similar percentiles on the Common Core-inspired statewide reading and math tests be held back in high school or otherwise barred from getting a diploma until their reading score reaches "proficient?"

These are, essentially, the questions I raised in my earlier posts (see here and here). I've had a couple of thoughts since then.

First, it strikes me that, besides the gigantic spread between the student in question's reading and math scores, there's another spread that is perhaps equally uncommon: a 170 point spread between hid reading and writing scores, or, in percentiles, 3rd vs. 40th.

The writing score suggests substantially stronger literacy than the reading score does. Unfortunately, in the college application process, it often flies under the radar. Many college admissions offices enter only the reading and math scores into their comparison grids.

Of course, for most people, this is not a big deal. Math and reading scores are fairly correlated, and reading and writing scores even more so. For a minority of intellectually gifted outliers, many (most?) hailing from the autism spectrum, even different sorts of reading skills are highly uncorrelated.


Waverly laughed in a lighthearted way. "I mean, really, June." And then she started in a deep television-announcer voice: "Three benefits, three needs, three reasons to buy ... Satisfaction guaranteed . . . "

She said this in such a funny way that everybody thought it was a good joke anti laughed.. And then. to make matters worse, I heard my mother saying to Waverly: "True, one can't teach style. June is not sophisticated like you. She must have been born this way."

I was surprised at myself, how humiliated I felt. I had been outsmarted by Waverly once again, and now betrayed by my own mother.

Five months ago, some time after the dinner, my mother gave me my "life's importance," a jade pendant on a gold chain. The pendant was not a piece of jewelry I would have chosen for myself. It was almost the size of my little finger, a mottled green and white color, intricately carved. To me, the whole effect looked wrong: too large, too green, too garishly ornate. I stuffed the necklace in my lacquer box and forgot about it.
[From a sample reading passage in the College Board Official Blue Book SAT Study Guide]

The CPU interprets and executes instructions stored in RAM. The CPU fetches the next instruction, interprets its operation code, and performs the appropriate operation. There are instructions for arithmetic and logical operations, for copying bytes from one location to another, and for changing the order of execution of instructions. The instructions are executed sequentially, unless a particular instruction tells the CPU to "jump" to another place in the program. Conditional branching instructions tell the CPU to continue with the next instruction or jump to another place depending on the result of the previous operation.
All this happens at amazing speeds. Each instruction takes one or several clock cycles, and a modern CPU runs at the speed of several GHz (gigahertz, that is, billion cycles per second).
To get a better feel for what CPU instructions are and how they are executed, let's consider a couple of examples. This will involve a brief glimpse of Assembly Language, the primitive computer language that underlies the modern languages you have heard of, such as C++, Java, and Python.
[From "Mathematics for the Digital Age and Programming in Python," one of the textbooks for the student's AP computer programming course.]

Computer programming and engineering are two fields in which high functioning autistic students often have the greatest potential to thrive. Obviously, even in highly technical fields like these, verbal skills are important. But wouldn't it be nice, for this population, if there were an alternative to the Critical Reading test, call it a Technical Reading test, that specifically assessed comprehension of the kinds of material they are most likely encounter in the kinds of fields to which they are most likely to make the biggest contributions--if only they had the chance to?


TerriW said...

The Core Knowledge folks talk a lot about how reading tests are actually tests of knowledge base -- and I suspect that they think they are talking mostly about nonfiction reading, but I think it is just as applicable (if not more so) in fiction or passages about human interaction. There is a huge amount of assumption of background knowledge about people going on.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

It would be really useful for college entrance exams to have a technical reading component, not so much to catch the very unusual cases like the one you mention (designing mass exams around the rare cases is pretty much a recipe for terrible tests), but because most high school students do very poorly at technical reading, having never been taught any.

lgm said...

Would you say most teen males are proficient at understanding all those feelings about jewelry significance and sophistication expressed in the Waverly passage? That one requires a certain cultural background to begin to understand.

J.D. Salinger said...

not so much to catch the very unusual cases like the one you mention (designing mass exams around the rare cases is pretty much a recipe for terrible tests)

And so you can have sub-scores to then better evaluate the cases you think are so damned rare?

Anonymous said...

Kids who are aiming at engineering would be helped by this. Also kids who are aiming at the building trades, food service management, nursing, medicine, and even law. And hundreds of other occupations.

lgm said...

So, are you saying that in your state, special needs children do not have their reading skiils evaluated in any sort of manner that would make a meaningful determination of being able to handle college work?

Katharine Beals said...

Lgm, I'm not sure who you're addressing this question but my concerns are about the Common App, not about state-level stuff.

lgm said...

The common app includes the diploma info in the guidance counselor's section. A Regents Diploma in my state has a reading level associated with it, a pass on the Regents English Exam. The transcript has that score listed. The SAT or ACT then has more detailed info. The s.n. diploma though has other options that can be used to earn a local diploma and the options taken are listed on the transcript so the college can have that info on the common app. So, I am asking if your state has a special needs diploma option that lists other reading test info that is more useful than the sat or act info.

Katharine Beals said...

As I mentioned in the post, the person in question scored in a really low percentile on the state-wide reading exam (below basic and therefore non-passing). That exam does not differentiate between technical reading and other sorts of reading. I'm not aware of any tests that do. There is currently no special needs diploma here in PA; the state-wide exam is not yet a requirement for graduation (it will be soon).

lgm said...

In my state there are alternatives to the exit exams that disabled students can use to demonstrate achievement towards state standards. There is also a portfolio based assessment. Guidance would work with the student on the Common App to accurately portray the students abilities.

lgm said...

Nonfiction reading here seems to be covered adequately on the Earth Science Regents Exam.

The ACT also has nonfiction reading.

I will be interested to read PalisadesK's response. She is quite knowledgeable in this domain.

Katharine Beals said...

It would be great to hear from Palisadesk on this!

The ACT reading test mixes in a variety of genres. See

So far as I can tell, there are no subscores for different types of reading.

Anonymous said...

The ACT score report shows three reading scores, the overall score and two subscores: social sciences/sciences and arts/literature. Unfortunately, mixing social science in with science confounds the interpretation for scientific reading.