There’s a good New York Times article by Todd Balf entitled The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul (hat tip Chris Wiggins).
In it is described the story of the new College Board President David Coleman, and how he decided to deal with the biggest problem with the SAT: namely, that it was pretty easy to prepare for the test, and the result was that richer kids did better, having more resources – both time and money – to prepare.
Here’s a visual from another NY Times blog on the issue:
Here’s my summary of the story.
At this point the SAT serves mainly to sort people by income. It’s no longer an appropriate way to gauge “IQ” as it was supposed to be when it was invented. Not to mention that colleges themselves have been playing a crazy game with respect to gaming the US News & World Reports college ranking model via their SAT scores. So it’s one feedback loop feeding into another.
How can we deal with this? One way is to stop using it. The article describes some colleges that have made SAT scores optional. They have not suffered, and they have more diversity.
But since the College Board makes their livelihood by testing people, they were never going to just shut down. Instead they’ve decided to explicitly make the SAT about content knowledge that they think high school students should know to signal college readiness.
And that’s good, but of course one can still prepare for that test. And since they’re acknowledging that now, they’re trying to set up the prep to make it more accessible, possibly even “free”.
But here’s the thing, it’s still online, and it still involves lots of time and attention, which still saps resources. I predict we will still see incredible efforts towards gaming this new model, and it will still break down by income, although possibly not quite as much, and possibly we will be training our kids to get good at slightly more relevant stuff.
I would love to see more colleges step outside the standardized testing field altogether.
Here are two things you might have some trouble believing if you read the papers regularly and find yourself convinced we are in a housing recovery. First, there are still huge numbers of homeowners on the brink of, or just starting to enter, foreclosure. Second, many of the banks foreclosing on those properties do not have clear legal ownership over the mortgages in question.
Obama should have addressed the first problem through TARP way back in 2008. In fact mortgage modification was an intention of TARP that was promised Congress when it passed the second half of the money but it never happened. Instead Obama came up with the garbage called HAMP, which has been dreadfully implemented and possibly a net harmful program.
Even without Obama, we should have seen a willingness to renegotiate debt. After all, we can negotiate credit card debt, and businesses routinely renegotiate their mortgages. Why are private home mortgages kept airtight? I guess the banks see it as in their interest not to allow negotiations, and whatever the banks want, the banks seem to get.
The second problem, which is essentially one of botched paperwork (explained here), is probably technically the job of some regulator to deal with, but nobody wants to “blow up the system” so nobody is dealing with it. This is especially ironic considering how often we hear about the so-called sanctity of the contract.
The result of these huge looming problems is that banks got bailed out and the system never got cleared of its actual debt and paperwork problems,.
Enter the concept of using eminent domain to force these two issues. Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, is pushing this in a few nationwide court cases, for example in Richmond, California.
More recently, and what inspired this post this morning, is a plan cooked up by Strike Debt using eminent domain to force courts to clear up broken chains of title, written by Hannah Appel and JP Massar.
This idea is on its face unappealing, given the history of that crude tool eminent domain. Everyone I meet has their own stories, but start here for a short list of eminent domain abuses.
And it might not work, either. A district judge might not want to deal with the complexity of the issue and might just let the bad paperwork through.
For that matter, many concerns have been voiced about the practicality of this approach, and one that deeply resonates with me is the idea of using it against current mortgages – i.e. mortgages where the homeowner is up-to-date with payment. Using eminent domain in such a case could set a precedent whereby, even though someone has been taking care of their property, the city uses eminent domain to condemn it based on historical data which implies the owner is likely to neglect their property. That would not be good enough. As far as I know the current plan only uses mortgages where there have been missed payments, though.
The bottomline is this: we’re in a situation where all these homeowners are being crushed with unreasonable monthly payments, and hugely inflated principals, where the legal ownership of the mortgage itself is under question, and nobody seems to want to do squat about it. Maybe it’s time a crude tool is used against a cruel enemy.
Aunt Pythia missed you very much last week and is ever so grateful to return today. And although she usually takes on four questions from readers, today she feels like switching it up and taking on three but making them extra delicious. She hopes you agree that this was the correct choice. Plus she’s running out of questions again, so she’s conserving.
In other words, after you enjoy Aunt Pythia’s wisdom, please don’t forget to:
think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!
Dear Aunt Pythia,
1. In consecutive paragraphs, she says that educated men want “younger, less challenging women” and then that educated women will be frustrated with someone who “just can’t keep up with you or your friends.” Question: is this more insulting to women or to men?
2. She says that “College is the best place to look for your mate. It is an environment teeming with like-minded, age-appropriate single men with whom you already share many things.” Is she talking about STDs here?
3. Did she actually write the sentence “Men won’t buy the cow if the milk is free.”?
4. She writes, “And if you fail to identify ‘the one’ while you’re in college, don’t worry—there’s always graduate school.” So she’s encouraging the old MRS degree. Question: what year was this article written?
That’s all I’ve got for now… I can’t bear to read any more of it!
Woman Turning Forty
First, may I express deep satisfaction and pleasure at both your willingness to hate on this article with me and your gorgeous and appropriate acronym. Nicely done, we should hang out. Plus we are age-appropriate, so I’m sure Susan Patton would approve. In fact, here’s a picture of Susan Patton approving or not:
On to the questions:
1. Great point, but I’d have to go with “equally insulting to all human persons” here. The basic assumption she makes is that people can be meaningfully measured by external attributes such as age and education level. Some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met were at Harvard and MIT, and some of the wisest – and in some sense, most threatening – people I’ve met are young children, who can really say it like it is. As to the assumption that men are only interested in young, less challenging women, I’m going to assume that’s the way she raises her sons to be, and I pity them.
2. I mean, look. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take lovers in college, and experiment with STDs for that matter, when it suits you and you have the time and interest. In fact you should fool around as much as you care to, and it’s a natural thing to do considering how many hormones are knocking about. But the idea that you should feel like you’re already late to the critical party if you graduate from college without a fiancee is just putrid advice. People make desperate and bad choices when they are insecure, boxed in, and panicking for time. The way I see it, getting people to marry young is a kind of social control that old people exert on the young, before they really know how to say “fuck this particular model of conformity”.
3. OMG yes she did, and guess what? That’s sexual objectification, pure and simple, and it’s not empowering. If she doesn’t see that, she should watch this video with Caroline Heldman, the chair of the Politics department at Occidental College. In fact everyone should, it blew me away.
4. I’m eyeballing the answer as before 1920, the year women were given the right to vote.
Thanks again for the opportunity to vent!
Dear Aunt Pythia,
You asked for questions on the Susan Patton column. This is barely a question, but here you go.
I have a lot of “alpha” traits that may be stereotypically associated with males. Your posts on being an alpha female have definitely helped me understand some aspects of myself and why it can be confusing for me when I interact with other women, so thanks for that.
For example, my ego likes it when I’m the smartest one in a group, or earn the most money in a relationship or something. But that isn’t always actually what will make me happiest/best off. I am an amateur musician, and I have learned to enjoy being in a musical group where I am the weakest link. I don’t like being a burden to the other people in the group, but if I’m the worst, that means I’m making music with a bunch of people who are even better than I am, so I am making really great music. (And of course I work hard to improve and play as well as I possibly can.) I don’t like playing music with people who are so much better that they will hate the experience, but if I’m the worst by a little bit, it’s perfect for me. Sure, it would give me a little ego boost to be the best and look down on the other people, but that ego boost isn’t as good as the feeling of making better music.
Likewise, if my family’s earnings were limited to 2x, where x is my salary, I would be worse off than if I had a partner who made more money than I did (assuming that money can buy happiness, which it basically can). But in the Patton piece, she talks about the old trope that men don’t want to be out-earned by their partners. My question is, what’s the deal with that? Why are people (stereotypically males, I guess) so threatened by having a partner who earns more than they do, or who is smarter than they are?
Another Alpha Female
I just want to make a couple of remarks before getting to your question. First of all, everyone likes feeling like a smart person in a group, and second of all, not everyone is willing to be the worst player in a band. So good for you for being willing to put yourself out there, and alpha female or not, people need to challenge themselves. Plus keep in mind many people – maybe even all – will think they’re the worst person in a band, because they notice their own mistakes more than they notice other people’s.
As for the money thing, I think there are two effects going on here. First, there’s a very temporary “attributes seem important” effect when you first meet someone. This was illustrated recently by various reports (e.g. this) on how people create artificial filters in their online dating profiles – things like height, weight, and education requirements. As it turns out, people are much more restrictive online than in real life, partly because of the nature of the information that is available to online daters.
So just as you think you want a tall guy when you fill out a form, if you meet someone in real life who is two inches shorter than you but makes you laugh yourself silly, you will not even notice his height. And just as men might abstractly be seeking a woman who earns just a little bit less than he does – although I’m not sure men think about it explicitly like this – there’s a good chance he will fall in love based on how she smiles when she plays guitar rather than her paycheck.
There may be a longer term intimidation problem as well, where men and women are accustomed to the idea that the man should be in some way dominant. For example, I still think that men are less likely to leave bad jobs because they have more of a sense of duty towards their images as workers. I’m not sure how to address this in a relationship except to advise women to find a man who loves his job.
Finally, I don’t think anyone ever thinks they’re “not as smart” as their partner. It’s a combination of the multidimensionality of intelligence and human nature that we all find ways in which we’re plenty smart with respect to our long-term friends and partners. I guess the exception might be if both people work in the same exact field and so one dimension of smarts is overemphasized. In that case I’d suggest working in different jobs or at least focusing on other kinds of talents whenever possible.
Dear Aunt Pythia,
Isn’t fairness at least as quantifiable as happiness? Why have no fairness rankings of nations been published? If psychologists can study happiness, then surely sociologists can study fairness.
Elvis Von Essende Nicholas Friedrich Lester Otto Widener IV
Well, depending on what you mean by fairness, there have been a few attempts. For just plain income inequality, we have what’s called the Gini coefficient with an associated map:
For other concepts of fairness like “given your situation at birth, what’s your situation later on?” you have the concept of mobility, and here’s a graph of that by city from the New York Times:
Did you have something else in mind?
Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!
Last November I wrote to the Department of Education to make a FOIL request for the source code for the teacher value-added model (VAM).
To explain why I’d want something like this, I think the VAM model sucks and I’d like to explore the actual source code directly. The white paper I got my hands on is cryptically written (take a look!) and doesn’t explain what the actual sensitivity to inputs are, for example. The best way to get at that is the source code.
Plus, since the New York Times and other news outlets published teacher’s VAM scores after a long battle and a FOIA request (see details about this here), I figured it’s only fair to also publicly release the actual black box which determines those scores.
Indeed without knowledge of what the model consists of, the VAM scoring regime is little more than a secret set of rules, with tremendous power over teachers and the teacher union, and also incorporates outrageous public shaming as described above.
I think teachers deserve better, and I want to illustrate the weaknesses of the model directly on an open models platform.
The FOIL request
Here’s the email I sent to firstname.lastname@example.org on 11/22/13:
Dear Records Access Officer for the NYC DOE,
I’m looking to get a copy of the source code for the most recent value-added teacher model through a FOIA request. There are various publicly available descriptions of such models, for example here, but I’d like the actual underlying code.
Please tell me if I’ve written to the correct person for this FOIA request, thank you very much.
Since my FOIL request
In response to my request, on 12/3/13, 1/6/14, and 2/4/14 I got letters saying stuff was taking a long time since my request was so complicated. Then yesterday I got the following response:
If you follow the link you’ll get another white paper, this time from 2012-2013, which is exactly what I said I didn’t want in my original request.
I wrote back, not that it’s likely to work, and after reminding them of the text of my original request I added the following:
What you sent me is the newer version of the publicly available description of the model, very much like my link above. I specifically asked for the underlying code. That would be in a programming language like python or C++ or java.
Can you to come back to me with the actual code? Or who should I ask?
Thanks very much,
It strikes me as strange that it took them more than 3 months to send me a link to a white paper instead of the source code as I requested. Plus I’m not sure what they mean by “SED” but I’m guessing it means these guys, but I’m not sure of exactly who to send a new FOIL request.
Am I getting the runaround? Any suggestions?
Tonight I’ll be giving a talk at the NYC Open Data Meetup, organized by Vivian Zhang. I’ll be discussing my essay from last year entitled On Being a Data Skeptic, as well as my Doing Data Science book. I believe there are still spots left if you’d like to attend. The details are as follows:
When: Thursday, March 6, 2014, 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM
- 6:15pm: Doors Open for pizza and casual networking
- 7:00pm: Workshop begins
- 8:30pm: Audience Q&A
A while back I was talking to some math people about how credit default swaps (CDSs), by their very nature, contain risk that is generally speaking undetectable with standard risk models like Value-at-Risk (VaR).
It occurred to me then that I could put it another way: that perhaps credit default swaps might have been deliberately created by someone who knew all about the standard risk models to game the system. VaR was commercialized in the mid 1990′s and CDSs existed around the same time, but didn’t take off for a decade or so until after VaR became super widespread, which makes it hard to prove without knowing the actors.
For that matter it is reasonable to assume something less deliberate occurred: that a bunch of weird instruments were created and those which hid risk the most thrived, kind of an evolutionary approach to the same theory.
I was reminded recently of this conspiracy theory when Joe Burns talked to my Occupy group last Sunday about his recent book, Reviving the Strike. He talked about the history of strikes as a tool of leverage, and how much less frequently we’ve seen large-scale strikes and industry-wide strikes. He made the point that the legality of strikes has historically been uncorrelated to the existence of strikes – that strikers cannot necessarily wait for the legal system to catch up with the needs of the worker. Sometimes strikers need to exert pressure on legislation.
Anyhoo, one question that came up in Q&A was how, in this world of subsidiaries and franchises, can workers strike against the upper management with control over the actual big money? After all, McDonalds workers work for franchisees who are often not well-off. The real money lives in the mother company but is legally isolated from the franchises.
Similarly, with Walmart, there are massive numbers of workers that don’t work directly for Walmart but do work in the massive supply chain network set up and run by Walmart. They would like to hold Walmart responsible for their working conditions. How does that work?
It seems like the same VaR/CDS story as above. Namely, the legal structure of McDonalds and Walmart almost seems deliberately set up to avoid legal responsibility from disgruntled workers. So maybe first you had the legal system, then lawyers set up the legal construction of the supply chain and workers such that striking workers could only strike against powerless figures, especially in the McDonalds case (since Walmart has plenty of workers working for the mother company as well).
Last couple of points. First, only long-term, powerful enterprises can go to the trouble of gaming such large systems. It’s an artifact of the age of the corporation.
And finally, I feel like it’s hard to combat. We could try to improve our risk or legal system but that makes them – probably – even more complicated, which in turn gives massive corporations more ways to game them. Not to be a cynic, but I don’t see a solution besides somehow separately sidestepping our personal risk exposure to these problems.
I heard an NPR report yesterday with Emily Steel, reporter from the Financial Times, about what kind of attributes make you worth more to advertisers. She has developed an ingenious online calculator here, which you should go play with.
As you can see it cares about things like whether you’re about to have a kid or are a new parent, as well as if you’ve got some disease where the industry for that disease is well-developed in terms of predatory marketing.
For example, you can bump up your worth to $0.27 from the standard $0.0007 if you’re obese, and another $0.10 if you admit to being the type to buy weight-loss products. And of course data warehouses can only get that much money for your data if they know about your weight, which they may or may not since if you don’t buy weight-loss products.
The calculator doesn’t know everything, and you can experiment with how much it does know, but some of the default assumptions are that it knows my age, gender, education level, and ethnicity. Plenty of assumed information to, say, build an unregulated version of a credit score to bypass the Equal Credit Opportunities Act.