“Simple practice effects” and the SAT

Useful article in the Washington Post re: standardized testing and fairness: No one likes the SAT. It’s still the fairest thing about admissions.

I’ll post some of the sections on income and scores in a bit, but this section on tutoring caught my eye:

Highly paid tutors make bold claims about how much they can raise SAT scores (“my students routinely improve their scores by more than 400 points”), but there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that coaching can reliably provide more than a modest boost — especially once simple practice effects and other expected improvements from retaking a test are accounted for. For the typical rich kid, a more realistic gain of 50 points would represent the difference between the average students at Syracuse and No. 197 University of Colorado at Boulder — significant, perhaps, but not dramatic.

By Jonathan Wai, Matt Brown and Christopher Chabris | 3/22/2019

Simple practice effects !

yeesh

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Putting things in order

Beth Randall leaves this observation:

Recently I’ve been seeing errors like this: “Putting things in order are difficult.” It seems that people are deciding whether to make a verb singular or plural by checking the status of the most recent noun (“things”) instead of the subject of the clause (“putting”). The horsemen of the apocalypse are not far behind …

And here’s Katharine:

Good diagnosis! Linguists sometimes call it “contact agreement” (as in “The horsemen of the apocalypse is not far behind…”).

I’d love to know more about when and where this kind of mistake happens.

What do English teachers need to know about grammar?

I don’t have an answer to that, but I do have an opinion: English teachers need to have taken at least one linguistics class somewhere along the line, and probably a traditional grammar class to boot.

We’re a long way from that standard:

A few years ago, Syntax in the Schools ran a series of articles on main and subordinate clauses — is the main idea in a sentence usually embedded in the main subject and verb?  I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised when a number of subscribers told me that the series was, for them, incomprehensible because they cannot identify clauses. And these were teachers who want to teach grammar and even belong to ATEG.

On Learning Those Pesky Parts of Speech – Dr. Ed Vavra

 

Is “its” on it’s way out?

Here’s another candidate for a rule that will be gone in 20 years: the distinction between “its” and “it’s.” Everywhere, even in published material, the latter seems to be displacing the former.

And what with basal ganglia and contagious speech patterns, we’re probably all subconsciously learning to favor “it’s”. The more often we favor it (it’s), the more often we favor it.

One could even make a grammatical case for this displacement–one that doesn’t invoke the French! Possessive nouns get the apostrophe (“the cat’s pajamas”), so why not possessive pronouns*?


*In fact, we already have one pronoun that does get an apostrophe: “one”, as in “one should mind one’s ps and qs.”

Who is doing the labeling?

Dangler.jpg

In the most obvious grammatical interpretation of this headline, it’s the parent who’s doing the labeling: we don’t get to the teachers until we’re inside the prepositional phrase the end of the sentence (“of his teachers”).

But in the most obvious semantic interpretation–which emerges once we take in the whole sentence–the credit for class-clown labeling shifts from the mother to the teachers.

In general, we want the most obvious grammatical and semantic interpretations to coincide. And so they might have, had the headline read, say, “Labeling my child as ‘class clown,’ his teachers showed their true colors.” Or “Hearing my child being publicly shamed changed my view of his teachers.”

What’s fun about the original–besides the fact that it snuck into a headline–is that the initial grammatical interpretation (mother as labeler) almost works. Indeed, if you really want to, you can probably come up with a context that actually does work for you. Perhaps conceptualizing her son as a class clown somehow helps the mother understand some of the otherwise inexplicable ways in which his teachers were treating him.

Now that I think about it, that may have been my initial take on what the commentary was about. Perhaps it was the bizarre parenting insights that it seemed to promise that got me to read beyond its headline.

Grabby headlines–maybe it was all on purpose!

Of white bears (and black ones)

As Catherine has quoted J.S. Mill as saying,

The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.

And, I would add, much of the logic of a sentence comes from its grammar.

But grammar brings us more than logic; it opens up worlds of possibility. Were it not for the various tense-marking and mood-marking verb endings and auxiliary verbs, for example, we’d mostly–whether we’re conversing, reading, writing, or even thinking–be stuck in the here and now.

Mr. Shandy (senior), in a disquisition on auxiliary verbs that concludes the 5th volume of Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, puts it nicely:

Now the use of the Auxiliaries is, at
once to set the soul a going by herself
upon the materials as they are brought
her; and by the versability of this great
engine, round which they are twisted,
to open new tracks of enquiry, and make
every idea engender millions.

The verbs auxiliary we are concerned
in here, continued my father, are, am;
was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suf-
fer; shall; should; will; would; can; could;
owe; ought; used  or is wont. — And these
varied with tenses, present, past, future, and
conjugated with the verb see, — or with
these questions added to them, — Is it?
Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May
it be? Might it be? And these again
put negatively, Is it not? Was it not?
Ought it not? — Or affirmatively, — It is;
It was; It ought to be. Or chronologi-
cally, — Has it been always? Lately?
How long ago? — Or hypothetically, — If
it was; If it was not? What would
follow? —- If the French should beat
the English? If the Sun go out of the
Zodiac?

Now, by the right use and application
of these, continued my father, in which a
child’s memory should be exercised,
there is no one idea can enter his brain
how barren soever, but a magazine of
conceptions and conclusions may be
drawn forth from it.

— Didst thou ever see a white bear?
cried my father, turning his head round to
Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:

— No, an’ please your honour, replied the
corporal.

— But thou could’st discourse
about one, Trim, said my father, in
case of need?

— How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle
Toby, if the corporal never saw one?

— ‘Tis the fact I want; replied my father,
and the possibility of it, is as follows.

A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen
one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever
to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one?
Or can I ever see one?

Would I had seen a white bear? (for
how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what
should I say? If I should never see a
white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must or shall
see a white bear alive ; have I ever seen
the skin of one? Did Iever see one
painted? — described? Have I never
dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt,
brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear?

What would they give? How would
they behave? How would the white
bear have behaved? Is he wild?
Tame? Terrible Rough? Smooth?

— Is the white bear worth seeing? —

— Is there no sin in it? —

Is it better than a BLACK ONE?

END of the FIFTH VOLUME.

Reflections on about and around

Catherine’s spending Bastille Day getting back to the US; I’ll be spending it visiting Gettysburg. One of our traveling companions has equipped us with copies of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War. I finished it yesterday, and am now primed as can be for the theater of war and the dramatis personae: from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top; from Pickett to Chamberlain.

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