Back in 2016 I wrote about the media coverage of college admissions and testing issue. I’d taken to fisking articles on Twitter under the hashtag #hateread and thought I needed to provide a bit more explanation of that and nuance. I’m updating it now because, with all that’s going on (waves vaguely at the world), finding good information is getting harder. So here goes . . .

The media is chock full of trash when it comes to reporting on college admissions and especially college admission testing. There are few reporters who have the time or space (word limits) provide the nuance and thoughtfulness that this process deserves. (I’m going to skip talking about TV, stories are so short they will almost never suffice.) 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 rationale 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 press release, the partially informed opinion of a local tutor (who makes his living from the test), 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 hateread it. Here’s one article, followed by the two press releases:

Ugh #hateread | New SAT Format Preferred by Most Students

— The Test Prince (@akilbello) March 10, 2016

College Board press release and The Princeton Review press release.

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:

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 kids from Country Club College Prep Academy. 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.

One thing I’ve learned is that many articles start because a business pitches the article to the reporter. Those emails often go like this “Did you know that students are getting rejected at record rates from college? Please interview our company founder about this important topic.” It’s a marketing strategy to get the company featured in a paper and the business owner perceived as an expert.

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 disaggregate the numbers like this and this. Just reading those former articles might freak out a student or parent if they haven’t read something with the nuance of the latter articles.

What’s a reporter to do after quoting a fin. services co on education? why ask the parent of 6 year old about a college entrance test natch — The Test Prince (@akilbello) August 5, 2016

unfortunately, in a fit of rage I deleted a bunch of tweets a few years back and this was one so I can’t find the source article.

Focus on elitism 
Most articles about college focus on “highly rejective” colleges (which admit fewer than 25% of the applicants). This is understandable yet problematic and misleading. These colleges represent about 63 of the 3800 or so colleges (about 1.5%) in the United States, but in some papers (WSJ and WaPo come to mind) are often used to speak for all colleges. 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 catering to a particular audience, wrong, flawed, and probably not worth reading.

on Big Future about 8% (289) of the 3843 #college or universities admit 50% or fewer of applicants @James_S_Murphy

— The Test Prince (@akilbello) September 8, 2016

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 objective measure that is linked to or provided to support that assertion. What’s great about reading online, its easy to link to sources. If an author doesn’t link to sources, what does that suggest?

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). Big Test is reliable for information on the logistics of the tests but rarely provides 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.

Even when a company doesn’t have nefarious intent, quoting one company is problematic. The perspective of an individual test prep company, for instance, is greatly influenced by its clientele, especially when that company is local or of a particular socioeconomic status. So you end up with skewed stores that are drawing massive conclusions from very small samples.

The List
This list is a list of people who primarily write about education (especially college). They aren’t the only people doing good work but its the folks that come to mind right away. So without any further ado or qualifiers (as if you needed more) here is my partial (and likely ever changing) list of folks worth reading in the college admissions space in 2022:

(Twitter handle)
How I would describe their writing
(link to stories I like)
Erica Green
Thoughtful human centered nuanced k12 stories
Adam Harris
Deeply reported stories on education race and America
Francie Diep
Deep dives into the business of education
Melinda Anderson
Real raw takes on race, education, and policy
Teresa Watanabe
News about the current events and stories that impact CA colleges
Melissa Korn 
National college news for the WSJ audience but not exclusively so
Chris Quintana
National higher ed news with a particular passion for exposing shenanigans and bad actors
Christina Veiga
NY education news focused on K12 and the DOE
Reema Amin
NY education news focused on K12 and the DOE
Eric Hoover
Higher education reporter who humanizes each story and provides deep thoughtful reporting with a twinkle of humor
James Murphy
Data-informed college admissions news with a penchant for calling BS
Jon Boeckenstedt
Brings data to the anecdote party, offering a look at the raw data that many stories partially rely on
Adam Ingersoll
Test prep company Compass Prep is honest about its focus on “popular colleges” and data driven
Matt Barnum
Education reporter in k-16 that enjoys exposing bad takes and bad data
Ron Lieber
Thoughtful writer about education, money, feelings and perceptions.
Andrea Fuller
Data driven analyses of the business of education for good and, more often, bad.
Kate McGee
Tejas reporter writing about education in that state.
Word in Black
New outlet with a team I really like
News outlet with a great team.
coming soon

2 thoughts on “#HateRead: Admissions, testing and the media

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