More on the SAT II
In a slightly random in interview with physicist Brian Greene in the NYT, he was asked the following question:
Do you think SAT scores define intelligence?
No. They define the capacity to answer questions on an SAT test.
How would you define intelligence?
Intelligence is the ability to take in information from the world and to find patterns in that information that allow you to organize your perceptions and understand the external world.
These two brilliant answers got me thinking about the physics SAT II. What does it measure? Certainly not “physics intelligence.” Is the answer as simple as “the ability to solve questions on the physics SAT II,” and if so, what does that mean?
I think more and more people are beginning to realize that the SAT doesn’t measure intelligence or aptitude (in fact, the name SAT, which once used to be an acronym for Scholastic Aptitude Test, was changed to the SAT (with no acronym) in 1993, when the College Board stopped pretending to give any meaning to the test via its name).
I’m more nervous about the Physics SAT II. I doubt more than 25% college admissions officers studied physics in either high school or college (nationally, 1/3 of high school graduates study physics, and the percentage is even lower in college), and I’m making an allowance that college admissions tends to draw larger percentage of humanities centered students. So this means most admissions officers have little or no experience with a physics, and therefore, they are highly inclined to turn to the SAT II as a measure of how well a student understands physics or is prepared for future study in science and engineering. If this test is a bad indicator of these things (I’ll make this case below), then we could be harming our ability to identify and encourage future scientists and engineers.
I am re-posting a very interesting post made by a former colleague, Mark Hammond, on the Matter and Interactions listserv. I’ve placed a few parenthetical comments in sqaure brackets  to elaborate a bit.
On to Bruce’s question. The standardized test that causes us the most heartburn
is the SAT 2. No matter the sub-discipline (Biology, Chemistry or Physics), the
tests are forced marches through much memorized material. I’ll speak to the
Physics test. The list of topics is given below. The topics (or subtopics) that
appear in parentheses are those that I do NOT cover in my FIRST year course.
E&M (magnetic fields caused by currents, particles in B fields, electromagnetic
induction, circuits and circuit elements)
Kinetic Theory and Thermo (thermal expansion, thermal conductivity, heat
I put all of Modern Physics in parentheses, because by “modern physics” the
College Board means a bunch of memorized details with no understanding… which
one conveys to students by asking them learn ABOUT physics, rather than learn
physics. My course is predicated on the atomic model of solids, gases and
liquids and is modern in that respect. Also, my students have an understanding
that our definitions of momentum (p=mv) and particle energy (E_k=0.5 mv^2) are
incomplete and need to be amended, per Einstein. That, I think, is a far more
responsible approach than talking about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and
mass-energy equivalence without any deeper understanding.
I do not feel that I can reasonably cover any more material than I do (we do
have fewer class hours than the typical day or public school, as we have to let
the kids go home for longer-than-typical holidays). Our excellent results, year
in and year out, at getting students to shed their medieval preconceptions is a
direct function of a lot of repetition (in the form of using existing models
over and over again). These preconceptions do not leave easily, as the Ga. Tech
study shows [Georgia Tech recently conducted a study of its students’ understanding of basic Newtonian concepts using a Think-Aloud Study]. In fact, I don’t think it can all be done in a single year, and this is why I like having teacher well-versed in physics teaching chemistry so
that even the kids who don’t take my second year course get a constant barrage
of situations demanding a Newtonian approach the year immediately following
their sophomore physics class. I have the occasional student showing up in my
second year class who backslides into impetus theory upon meeting a new problem.
But I expect this and am ready to deal with it. I’m not saying none of my second
year students will backslide in college, but I think they are not prone to such
So how much of the entire test is missing from what I teach? From various
breakdowns I’ve seen of the weight given to each topic, I estimate my students
have not seen 20 to 25% of the material that they will be tested on. I have been
told by other teachers who teach deep and narrow courses similar to mine that
their experience has been that students score in the 600-650 range without extra
preparation. That is also my experience (my experience also includes being
pounded on by the parents of such kids who decided to take the test with no
extra preparation). The schools to which my students tend to apply (Columbia
Engineering, Carnegie Mellon (the Engineering program especially), other Ivies,
Davidson, Williams… yes they are an unimaginative bunch when it comes to putting
a college list together) consider a score below 700 to be worrisome. Here is the
rub. In the past several years, colleges have been telling us that they care
less about the SAT… and therefore are looking to the SAT 2’s as a better measure
of achievement. Thus most of our students NEED to sit for the SAT 2 in either
Physics or Chemistry, or, if they are applying to an engineering program, both.
You might ask, “How hard is it to put in the extra study on an individual basis
to get past the 700 mark?” It turns out that this is pretty hard without teacher
intervention/help/encouragement. Starting in April, I will be teaching seven
days a week (instead of the usual six) in order to help prepare students. Our
college counseling group has asked that I do this, apparently unaware of the
toll it takes on course preparation and/or marital bliss. As you can imagine,
this makes me grouchy. I’d be somewhat less grouchy if I were not merely
drilling memorized information into the students, but this is the best way to
get them ready for a memorization-based test over the course of 8 weekends. In
fact, I generally fail at the lecture-then-memorize scheme, as I can’t resist
getting out circuit elements, etc. and playing with them.
I have actually had some back and forth with Engineering College deans on the
subject of the SAT 2. Their response is “Well, we see a correlation between a
good SAT 2 score and success in our program.” End of argument. If our students
made such a statement, college professors would be all over them for assuming
causation where only correlation has been demonstrated. Ironic, isn’t it, that
college admissions staffs demand more critical thought from high schoolers than
they do of themselves? What of the student who has a firmer foundation in
science at the expense of all that memorized material? Is there room for that
student? Because this is such a sticky question, many high school physics
teachers pick a book and grind through a chapter a week, drilling the students
with practice SAT 2’s every weekend and not daring to look for true
understanding. This not only sends weaker students your way, it reinforces the
students’ preconceptions! “Hey, I passed physics with flying colors answering
from my gut, why should I change in college?”
I hope this explains somewhat the frustration I have with the current college
admissions situation. It is all the more irritating to me as we are getting more
and more students interested in pursuing science and engineering.
A final note. I had one student who totally drank my kool-aid and refused to
even take the AP after taking second year physics with me. Also, refused to take
the Physics SAT 2. It might have cost him admission to an “elite” school, as he
suffered one admissions disappointment after another (although he was one of our
top students). He landed, happily enough, in Temple’s Honors program. He asked
that I call the professor who would be placing him in physics, which I gladly
did as he was an excellent student (the fact that this professor had just
decided to test M&I in the coming year helped a lot!). Upon my recommendation
that this student be allowed to skip first semester physics (but not the second
semester), the professor agreed to meet with the student. During the meeting he
gave the student a test…the result of which was the student was placed in a
sophomore level E&M class! He took a junior level classical mechanics class the
next spring (by somehow skirting the pre-req’s and apologizing later… I hope he
learned that from me), earning the highest score in the class. “I just keep
going back to fundamental principles,” was his explanation for his success. He’s
on his way to a physics-math double major, when he started with the idea of
being a math major with a physics minor. I suspect his undergraduate institution
will not be an impediment to his graduate school selection. If I could get all
my students to be this brave, I wouldn’t need to write any of the above.
I think Mark has some great points here. Now my question is what could be a replacement for the SAT II to demonstrate to a harried college admissions officer that a student has a strong grasp of physics and is well prepared for college science study?