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“Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College”

Several years ago, I heard about a project at the Educational Testing Service to identify “strivers”: students from disadvantaged backgrounds who did unexpectedly well on the SAT (the college admissions exam formerly known as the “Scholastic Aptitude Test” but apparently now just “the SAT,” in the same way that Exxon is just “Exxon” and that Harry Truman’s middle name is just “S”), at least 200 points above a predicted score based on demographic and neighborhood information. My ETS colleague and I agreed that this was a silly idea: From a statistical point of view, if student A is expected ahead of time to do better than student B, and then they get identical test scores, then you’d expect student A (the non-“striver”) to do better than student B (the “striver”) later on. Just basic statistics: if a student does much better than expected, then probably some of that improvement is noise. The idea of identifying these “strivers” seemed misguided and not the best use of the SAT.

So, when I recently heard about a new book called Rewarding Strivers (by Richard Kahlenberg, Edward Fiske, Anthony Carnevale, and Jeff Strohl), I was interested. My first reaction was: No, not more of that Strivers crap! But then I thought that maybe I was being unfair: Even if there are statistical problems with the original idea, there may be some policy benefits that I was missing. I sent off a request for a review copy of the book, warning the book’s editor, Richard Kahlenberg, ahead of time that I was likely to be critical, given my earlier discussions on the topic, but that the review would be thoughtful in any case. To Kahlenberg’s credit, he sent me a copy anyway.

I started by flipping though and looking for details on the “strivers” and couldn’t really find anything. So I looked up “strivers” in the index, and this is all they’ve got:

Strivers: definition of, 10, 174; ETS project to identify, 10-11

They seem to be downplaying the original “strivers” idea in favor of a more general approach of affirmative action for disadvantaged students. The plan seems to be to use a regression analysis on SAT scores, identify the background variables (including family income, parents’ education and occupation, neighborhood characteristics, and ethnicity) that predict SAT scores, and then give points for having a low predicted value. They write:

We recommend that universities employ the types of data included in this paper not in a mechanical fashion (adding or subtracting SAT points from candidates, depending on their socioeconomic status and race), but rather as a general guide for assessing the merits of an individual applicant. Universities and colleagues should customize information about the various obstacles faced by applicants in the context of their own applicant pools and their own standards of readiness, based on past experience.

In practice, I’m not so sure how this differs from what colleges already do–although I don’t know how a large university is going to have the resources to “assess the merits of an individual applicant.” Actually, I don’t know how a small college can do that either. I guess they could have a checklist of “obstacles faced by applicants,” but I don’t know how they’d measure “readiness” other than through test scores and school grades.

To get back to the original “strivers” idea, which seems to have receded into the background, I can see the appeal of giving extra points to applicants with disadvantaged backgrounds. But I don’t see that it makes sense to have any discrete cutoff–for example, getting extra credit for having a predicted score more than 200 points below your actual SAT score. I think it would be more reasonable just to openly give points for being from a low-income family, having non-college-educated parents, etc.

Some interesting data from the report

Postsecondary destination of high-scoring students, by socioeconomic status:

Among the top-scoring quartile of students on the SAT: 80% of high-SES students went on to a four-year college, compared to only 44% of low-SES students.

Among the top-scoring students who do go to college, 80% of the high-SES kids graduate, compared to 45% of the kids of low socio-economic status.

My own proposal

See the next blog entry for my (current) idea.

One Comment

  1. ceolaf says:

    If Richard Kahlenberg's name is on it, it's probably not stupid. He does really good and thoughtful work.