Hate-Reads: College Admission, Testing, and the Media

hatereadThe media is chock full of trash when it comes to reporting on college admissions and especially college admission testing. There are few writers who provide the nuance and thoughtfulness that this process deserves. If I were a parent negotiating this process I’d be hard-pressed to sort the wheat from the chaff. So to help out, I’m here to give you a handy guide what to look for and who to read for your college admission information.
First, let’s talk about what I look for in “good reporting.”


For me good writing informs and questions. The best reporters provide the information that’s available and then inspire the reader to apply that information to their particular situation. The best reporters don’t simply parrot a press release from a college or a testing agency. They help you understand the landscape and issues and then help you acknowledge and question the common assumptions. College admission is a complex issue for which there are few easy or black and white answers that can be summarized into a 600 word limit or a catchy headline (Sweet Christmas, the headlines are terrible!). The best reporters consult those in the know and use this access to knowledgeable people to help flesh out the issues in the story, they don’t simply accept the opinion of a self declared expert (of which there are infinite in the test prep world) but instead verify the rational behind that opinion and cross reference it with others to ensure that the opinion has merit. The best reporters also understand the distinction between group statistics and small batch artisanal data and make those differences clear to the reader.


Unfortunately, most reporters seem not to do these things, especially when admission testing is the topic. Most articles about SAT or ACT (and other admission tests) are either quotes of press releases from the testing agency or a mashup of the the press release, the partially informed opinion of a local tutor, and foggy memories from high school a decade earlier. The reporting on testing has been so bad that nowadays anytime I encounter a testing article I hate-read it. Here’s one article, followed by the two press releases:




Anyway, before I give you my list of my favorite writers in certain categories, I’ll give you a brief (for me) rundown of what you should watch out for as you read through “news” articles and reports on college admissions and testing:



Screenshot from main page of a tutoring company. The names used for SAT, PSAT and ACT haven’t been that for more than a decade.


All cited people in articles regardless of their degrees or alma mater should be considered with a grain of salt, especially in admission testing. There is no certification or vetting in the test prep industry so all experts are self-declared experts. A quoted “expert” with a PhD in applied mathematics might seem like a credible source for SAT advice but if he doesn’t even know how it is scored is he really an “expert?” The owner of a test prep company that works with low income students solely will likely have a different perspective than the manager of a tutoring business that works with elite private school kids. Unless you know a bit of the background and experience of the cited “expert” take their advice cautiously because it might not apply to you.

Groups statistics and anecdotes
News stories seem to focus on providing either large group statistics or personal anecdotes. You read about average student debt topping $37k or “What $200,000 in student loan dept looks like” but it’s much more rare to see articles that dis-aggregate the numbers like this and this. Just reading those former articles might freak out a student or parent if they have read something with the nuance of the latter articles.

Focus on elitism 
Most articles about college focus on “highly selective” colleges (which I define as those that admit fewer than 25% of the applicants). This is understandable yet problematic and misleading. These colleges (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, etc) represent about 63 of the 3800 or so colleges (about 1.5%) in the United States. The advice for applying to these super-picky colleges will by nature be very different than the advice for all other colleges. Any report that uses these colleges to generalize about the college process or all colleges is wrong, flawed, and not worth reading.


Secondary Sources 
Articles that do not provide secondary sources or analyses for their opinions are suspect. If someone claims that ACT is harder there should be some object measure that is linked to or provided to support that assertion. Typically, reports on testing provide only the perspective of either one test prep company (motivated to increase business) or the testing writer themselves (motivated to spin a particular narrative about their test). The test writing agencies are reliable for information on the logistics of the tests but few of them provide good information on usage or preparation. Test prep companies can provide a different perspective that is more student focused but there is far too often a selfish bent to their advice.

Major news outlets have taken to allowing their articles to be marketing tools for business rather than having reporters actually do stories. These are usually the most suspect of stories. The perspective of an individual test prep company for instance is greatly influenced by its clientele, especially when that company is local. So you end up with skewed stores that are drawing massive conclusions from very small samples.
So without any further ado or qualifiers (as if you needed more) here is my list of who is worth reading in the college admissions space:


Reporters Bloggers Test Prep Experts
Eric Hoover (The Chronicle of Higher Ed) Jon Boeckenstedt (Higher Ed Data Stories) James Murphy
Catherine Gewertz (Education Week) Adam Ingersoll
Liz Willen (The Hechinger Report) Dan Edmonds
Melinda Anderson (The Atlantic)
Nick Anderson (WaPo)
Reuters‘s Team
 Adam Harris (The Chronicle, The Atlantic)


If you think I’m missing anyone from my list let me know in the comments. And if you’re a fan of angry rants, here is my Storify of my HateReads.



Another list of education writers you might enjoy:

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