Unexpectedly Intriguing!
February 20, 2006

Did you ever wonder about the relative mental horsepower required by various academic and professional disciplines? Does it, for instance, take more smarts to get a degree in Chemistry than it does to get one in Business? And how could you find out rather than make a bunch of chemists and business people take IQ tests?

One of the things you could do is look at how individuals with undergraduate degrees in various majors perform on standardized graduate school admission tests. By comparing the performance of people on tests like the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT) or the Graduate Record Examination, it should be possible to get a really good feel as to how smart the people who graduate from these disciplines are relative to one another.

As it happens, there has been such a study. Clifford Adelman researched and analyzed 20 years of graduate school admission test data in The Standardized Test Scores of College Graduates, 1962-1982 and found that there were clear differences between those with degrees in different disciplines. The following dynamic table presents some of Adelman's findings and allows you to rank the listed majors according to how well they did on the indicated exams (by clicking the column headings):

Standardized Test Performance by Undergraduate Major, 1962-1982
Percentages by which the average scores of majors in each field were above or below the average score of all test-takers.
Undergraduate Major LSAT GMAT GRE Verbal GRE Math
Biology F4.0 E3.3 G5.4 H8.0
Business B-4.5 A-5.0 B-9.1 E-2.3
Chemistry H7.6 H7.5 E2.1 I18.3
Education A-8.7 B-4.2 A-10.4 A-15.8
Engineering I8.0 I10.0 C-7.3 J25.1
English G5.6 F4.1 I14.5 B-5.7
History E2.9 G4.6 H10.8 C-5.5
Philosophy J8.7 J11.0 J17.6 G4.6
Political Science C-1.6 D0.6 F3.5 D-5.0
Sociology D-0.7 C-0.5 D-0.7 F-1.5

Overall, the results generally follow what common sense would predict - engineers do exceptionally well in demonstrating math proficiency but below average in verbal skills (at least on the GRE!) Conversely, we see the opposite pattern for English majors on the same tests, which we would also expect! Overall, the best performances were turned in by those with degrees in philosophy. Adelman noted (via George MacDonald Ross) that:

Students who major in a field characterized by formal thought, structural relationships, abstract models, symbolic language, and deductive reasoning consistently outperform others on these examinations.

The notable exception is the performance of education majors, which I've highlighted in the table above. Education majors, the majority of whom typically go on to become teachers, fall to the bottom of the rankings rather than being near the overall averages on the exams, as one might reasonably expect since they couldn't be considered to be "specialists" with respect to any given tested material. As it turns out, this is a shared characteristic of "vocational" degree programs, which includes education-related fields. Adelman comments (again, via George MacDonald Ross):

Driven by the requirements of specialized accrediting bodies, the curricula in many of these areas tend to be confined to very few fields, none of which require the exercise or development of the verbal skills necessary to perform well on examinations such as these. Nor do any of these professional/occupational 'disciplines' have strong knowledge paradigms, structures that require the rigorous exercise of analysis and synthesis that is so often reflected on the tests.

And so, we have the situation where the people most responsible for the preparation of young people to even enter college are the least capable of exercising the skills needed to succeed there. Especially as compared to those with degrees in nearly every other academic discipline. This fact becomes even scarier when you consider that subsequent, more limited research suggests that the overall pattern of performance by academic major has remained static in the years since the original study.

Given this information, is it any wonder that the President proposed improving math and science education by bringing active practioners of those disciplines into the classroom in this year's State of the Union address? Or should we perhaps be disappointed that the proposal is limited to just math and science and doesn't go far enough? In either case, it's a change that needs to happen, the sooner, the better. To borrow a phrase from Michael Ledeen, "Faster, please."

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