SAT's, Genius, And Smart Pills
(All emphases by Always On Watch)
According to this article which appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of the Washington Post, SAT scores have recently dropped:
"The first national results from the revamped SAT show the biggest annual drop in reading scores in 31 years..., the College Board reported yesterday.The article goes on to discuss various opinions as to the possible reasons for the drop in scores: recent changes in the test, including the addition of an essay and a grammar section (though the word grammar is avoided), the length of the test, the reduction in the number of students taking the test multiple times, and the addition of more difficult material in the math portion. The article also places considerable emphasis on the differences between the scores of boys and girls.
"The College Board said the average score on the test's critical reading section was down five points and the average math section score was down two points, for a joint score of 1021, the lowest since 2002. The reading decline was the largest since a nine-point drop in 1975 on what was then known as the verbal section.
"On the new writing section, the average score nationwide was 497, for a new total average of 1518 out of a possible 2400 points....."
What the article doesn't mention, however, is that, over at least the past ten years, both public and private schools have reported making more effort to offer higher-level courses — both AP and IB — and, indeed, to improve courses for average students; much money has been devoted to training teachers, to "improving" the curriculum, and to "maintaining high standards." Nevertheless, scores on various tests, standardized and otherwise, continue to drop, and many employers today complain, "The employee pool doesn't have the basic skills every high-school graduate should have." CEO's often say, "My people can't write, even with master's degrees." Based on the just-released information about scores on the writing section of the SAT, this second complaint appears to be a valid one.
Also not mentioned in the Washington Post article is that many students today are making a Herculean effort to prepare for the SAT's. Every sizeable bookstore has one section devoted to several different guides for taking the SAT's, and various tutoring services — most for a fee, but free services are also available — also offer courses to prepare students for this test which most universities use as an important criterion for determining admissions. I myself offer prep classses and private tutoring for the reading and writing portions of the SAT's, and in my experience, preparing for the test does indeed significantly enhance students' scores. Also in my experience, instead of merely completing a test-prep guide, many students today spend a lot of time preparing well in advance for taking their SAT's. Some students begin their preparation in sixth grade!
From what I've observed over the past ten years, no longer do college-bound students "just take the test," as most of us did when I was in high school. In fact, as I think back to my own preparation for the SAT's, that preparation consisted of buying one guide and of taking two practice tests so as to be sure of the format, to brush up on certain concepts, and to learn how to coordinate the bubble sheet with the test booklet.
Admission to Ivy League schools has traditionally been tough, as was the case with Wilber B. Huston. Of course, Mr. Huston did not have the opportunity to prepare for college admissions the way in which today's students do. Apparently, he was a genius.
Until his lengthy obitutary appeared in the Washington Post, I'd never heard of Wilber B. Huston, nicknamed "the brightest boy of 1929" and "the smartest boy in America." By virtue of his performance in an interview with an illustrious panel, he won a full scholarship to MIT after first having won the Edison Contest in Washington state. Thomas Edison himself sponsored the contest as promotion for the study of science.
Check out the names on the panel which interviewed Huston and, unanimously, found him worthy:
"No contemporary applicant to Harvard, Stanford or Chicago has faced a panel of judges who compare to those who grilled Huston and his rivals the day after their exam. Besides Edison, they included film-and-camera company founder George Eastman, automaker Henry Ford, industrialist Harvey Firestone, aviator Charles Lindbergh, the headmaster of Phillips Exeter Academy and the president of MIT."After passing both the written and oral exams, Huston enjoyed the privilege of a social occasion with Thomas Edison:
"[I]n that heady first week of August 1929, Edison sent word to Huston that he wished to have dinner with him. Huston arrived at the grand Edison home to a formal family dinner, with servants in attendance.Huston originally planned to study chemical engineering but switched to the study of physics. He graduated from MIT in 1933. Some details about his many achievements can be found here.
"'The first course was a soup,' Huston wrote in his family memoir. 'After a few minutes Mr. Edison said something, and everyone laughed. I asked my dinner partner what he had said. "I see he tasted his soup before he salted it" was the reply. Mr. Edison is famous for saying, "I have no use for a man who salts his soup before he tastes it." So I guess I passed both his examinations.'"
Due to the Great Depression, Mr. Huston could not afford to attend graduate school. Nevertheless, he managed commendable achievements. Without doubt, this fellow was brilliant, and very likely without certain pharmaceuticals known as "smart pills," recently mentioned in the June 11, 2006 Washington Post article "A Dose of Genius":
"Seen by some ambitious students as the winner's edge -- the difference between a 3.8 average and a 4.0, maybe their ticket to Harvard Law -- these 'brain steroids' can be purchased on many campuses for as little as $3 to $5 per pill, though they are often obtained free from friends with legitimate prescriptions, students report.Chemical enhancement of the brain is nothing new, of course. From the above Washington Post article:
"These drugs represent only the first primitive, halting generation of cognitive enhancers. Memory drugs will soon make it to market if human clinical trials continue successfully.
"There are lots of the first-generation drugs around. Total sales have increased by more than 300 percent in only four years, topping $3.6 billion last year, according to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical information company. They include Adderall, which was originally aimed at people with attention-deficit disorder, and Provigil, which was aimed at narcoleptics, who fall asleep uncontrollably. In the healthy, this class of drugs variously aids concentration, alertness, focus, short-term memory and wakefulness -- useful qualities in students working on complex term papers and pulling all-nighters before exams. Adderall sales are up 3,135.6 percent over the same period. Provigil is up 359.7 percent.
"In May, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America issued its annual attitude-tracking study on drug use. It is a survey of more than 7,300 seventh- through 12th-graders, designed to be representative of the larger U.S. population and with an accuracy of plus or minus 1.5 percent, according to Thomas A. Hedrick Jr., a founding director of the organization. It reported that among kids of middle school and high school age, 2.25 million are using stimulants such as Ritalin without a prescription.
"That's about one in 10 of the 22 million students in those grades, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Education. Half the time, the study reported, the students were using these drugs not so much to get high as 'to help me with my problems' or 'to help me with specific tasks.'"
"In the name of altering mood, energy and thinking patterns, we have been marinating our brains in chemicals for a very long time.Founder of Memory Pharmaceuticals Eric R. Kandel, an expert in neurological memory and who shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in medicine, said the following about students' use of smart pills:
"Caffeine is as old as coffee in Arabia, tea in China, and chocolate in the New World. Alcohol, coca leaves, tobacco and peyote go way back.
"Even psychopharmaceuticals have been around for generations. Amphetamines -- which are the active ingredient in Adderall and Ritalin -- were first synthesized in Germany in 1887. Students have been using them for generations, in the form of Benzedrine and Dexedrine.
"Beta blockers have been the dirty little secret of classical musicians since the 1970s. Originally prescribed to treat high blood pressure, they became the 'steroids of the symphony' when it became clear Inderal controlled stage fright. As long ago as 1987, a study of the 51 largest orchestras in the United States found one in four musicians using them to improve their live performances, with 70 percent of those getting their pills illicitly.
"What's new is the range, scope, quantity and quality of substances, old and new, aimed at boosting our brains -- as well as the increase in what's in the pipeline. Current psychopharmaceuticals represent only the beginning of cognitive enhancers aimed at improving attention, reasoning, planning and even social skills.
"The memory compounds being raced to market by four U.S. companies are initially aimed at the severely impaired, such as early-stage Alzheimer's patients. But researchers expect the market for memory drugs to rapidly extend into the aging population we think of as normal, such as the more than 70 million baby boomers who are tired of forgetting what they meant to buy at the shopping mall and then realizing they've forgotten where they parked their cars, too. Or students who think such drugs could gain them hundreds of points on their SATs."
"'That's awful! Why should they be taking drugs? They should just study! I think this is absurd. What's so terrible about having a 3.9? The idea that character and functioning and intelligence is to be judged by a small difference on an exam -- that's absurd. This is just like Barry Bonds and steroids. Exactly what you want to discourage. These kids are very sensitive. Their brains are still developing. Who knows what might happen. I went to Harvard. I like Harvard. It ain't worth it.'"Do we, as a society, really want to go down the road to such pharmaceutical enhancement of memory? Or is this new trend just another manifestation of scientific improvements?
As I see it, the root of the problem with education today is the widespread belief that everyone must have a college degree, whether it's needed or not. In reality, not all high-school graduates are college material, nor should they be. High schools should be focused on teaching, and they claim that they are. Nevertheless, we continue to see drops in scores on SAT's and on other tests, and even the taking of drugs to enhance academic performance.