Are math majors better at reading than English majors?
Well, math majors do have the highest Reading SAT scores of any major, according to this study Kevin Drum pointed to yesterday. And this really isn’t surprising. That’s because, of all the majors in the study, math is the most selective on cognitive ability. In other words, basically anyone who can get into college can major in “soft” subjects like English or…economics. (Heh. It’s true; look at the data. Also, philosophy majors have slightly higher Math SATs than economics majors.) But just to do the coursework in math or physics, you have to have extremely high SAT scores, in both math and reading. In the researchers’ terms, math and physics seem to have a “cognitive threshold”: even if you’re very hard-working, without high SAT scores, you can’t “achieve mastery”, i.e. maintain a GPA above 3.5 and have a shot at getting into grad school:
To reiterate, SATM ≈ 600 seems to be the lowest score at which even a very motivated student has a chance for mastery. From the data one might guess that only for SATM well above 700 do students have more than a 50 percent chance of obtaining GPA > 3.5. That is, a student with average motivation or conscientiousness probably needs SATM well above 700 to have a high probability of obtaining mastery.
We were unable to ﬁnd any similar threshold (either in SATR or SATM ) in other majors, including economics, sociology, history, philosophy, biology, chemistry, etc.
It’s amusing to note that math majors have higher English SATs than English majors, but it’s kind of a linguistic trick. The point is that math is simply the most cognitively selective major. Math majors also have higher Math SATs than physics majors, which isn’t particularly predictable and doesn’t tell us anything obvious about math or physics as disciplines. This is basically all selection effect. If you’re wondering whether studying more math will get your kid to read better…well, that’s entirely possible, but it requires a different study.