Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Tebows of Harvard, Part 2

It is easy to offend Asian people so I take some pride in it. Even my wife hates "the Tebows of Harvard" blog post. The point of the post, as you may recall, is that it turns out that sometimes a skill that does you a lot of good on one task does not help that much on a seemingly closely related task. Tim Tebow was a great college football player. You would think that would help him be a great NFL football player. But no, he sucked, because his skill set was not very useful in the NFL the way it was in college.

How does that relate to Asian people?

Asians do very well on the SAT in general and on the math section in particular. That probably has a lot to do with parenting and almost certainly nothing to do with genetics. Asian parents are stricter than other parents about doing homework, studying, and preparing for college. Strict parenting is especially helpful in helping kids learn math.* It shows: 41.3% of the kids who score >= 700 on the SAT math section are Asian and 50.1% of the kids who score >= 750 are Asian. Most likely an even larger percentage of the kids with perfect scores are Asian.

Some people have used these numbers to infer that Asians should make up a similarly large proportion of the students at top colleges. But Harvard is at most 31.4% Asian, Princeton is just 28%. Yale just 27.7%. MIT weighs in at 30% but that does not include mixed race students and Stanford leads with 32%, probably because of its location.**

Because all of those numbers are inflated, the true proportions of Asians at these top college is on average probably in the 18-25% range, about half of what we would expect if admissions were based only on having high SAT math scores.

But admissions is supposed to be abut more than SAT math scores, right? At the very least we should also consider SAT reading. Not that surprisingly Asian make up a disproportionate share of top scorers on the SAT reading section too. 20.8% of the students scoring >= 700 are Asian as are 23.1% of the student scoring >= 750.

If SAT reading scores were the only factor in admissions then Asians would be pretty fairly represented. They make up 20% of the top scorers and something like 20% of the students at top colleges. The situation is somewhat in between for the writing section which is formulaic like the math section but based on language skills like reading, 31.8% of those scoring >= 700 and 28.9% of those scoring >= 750 being Asian.

So what percentage of the top schools should be Asian: 40-50% like if things would be if just the math test matters, or around 20% like if the reading just mattered? Should it be a combination of the three, as if the top scorers in each section were admitted? And why is there so much variation?

What if colleges used non-academic criteria? With the percentage of Asians qualifying variating widely on academic measures they could shoot all over the place by other measures. If we included teacher evaluations, GPAs, character traits like grit, zest, or compassion maybe the percentage of Asians with top scores would be 50%. Probably it would be more like 11.5%, their share of the population.

That last point, of course, was the point I wanted to make in Part I. Being great on the SAT math doesn't mean you'll do great on the reading or writing sections much less have good character, a good GPA, or good evaluations according to your teachers or interviewers. It is pretty plausible that the reason so "few" Asians get admitted to Harvard is not discrimination but rather just a lack of the traits Harvard should be looking for. In fact, with so little evidence to show for exceptionalism in Asians aside from the SAT math test, it seems more natural to ask why so many Harvard students are Asian, not why so few are.

* - A lot of inner-city charter schools that work with low-income students have had a ton of success in closing the achievement gap on math standardized tests but somewhat less success in closing the achievement gap for reading. Their methods mostly emphasize discipline as they substitute doing the parents job in the parents place by having much longer school days, longer school years, mandatory Saturday tutoring, time to do homework during the long school day, shorter summer breaks, and strict punishments for misbehavior.

* - All of these numbers are inflated for effect where we count all "unknown race" and "two or more races" as Asian. Also they are only for American students, so these are percentages of the American part of the student body.

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