How to Prepare for the SAT: An Academic Approach

The Illinois state-mandated SAT is now seven weeks away (on April 10), and millions of students across the country are gearing up for March, May, and June administrations of the SAT. With so many students sitting for upcoming administrations, we want to offer some insights on how to prepare for the SAT for your student. How to prepare for the SAT reading section With the SAT’s 2016 redesign, “going the distance” means something entirely new. The redesigned SAT features a 65-minute reading section, and the number of passages has grown from four to five.  So, our little reading gladiators have entered a new arena, and the endurance requirement of the sport has changed: a reading rumble that involves only 4 rounds of approximately 9 minutes of reading on the ACT, for example, now involves 5 rounds of 13 minutes of reading on the SAT. How is your child training? Is your child getting in enough reading rounds? How long does your child sit and read complex texts? And let me specify: without interruption! No texting, no Snapchatting, no Facebooking, etc. In the weeks prior to the SAT, how can we intensify the training? A practice test to simulate the exact reading conditions of the test; shutting off all devices and reading for over an hour without breaks; timed 13-minute rounds of reading bursts to prepare for the passage-by-passage experience. As parents and educators, we know that mindless drilling does lead to improvement, if not true learning. However, understanding the actual requirements of an academic task – the timing, attention, endurance required – is necessary to create a learning experience that prepares students thoughtfully to maximize their performances. You have to practice how you play. It’s time to script out that all-important and inspiring Rocky training montage for your child, complete with some extra reading rounds to build endurance for an SAT that promises a new, important, and extended reading challenge. How to prepare for the SAT grammar questions How good is your child’s grasp of grammar? Or how well does your child grasp grammar?    Even the two questions above raise an important grammar question—what’s the difference between “good” and “well”?  That’s easy, right?  “Good” is an adjective, and “well” is an adverb. But hold on: can’t you say, “I am good,” and “I am well”?  In the second case, “well” is an adjective meaning “healthy.”  And hold on again: can’t you say, like James Brown famously did, “I feel good,” and isn’t “feel” a verb?  Oh well, maybe we should just call the whole thing off. Writing off grammar is not really an option for student’s taking the SAT, preparing for college-level curriculum, or, for that matter, anyone who wants to avoid costly mistakes in life. This point has been made especially clear in a very expensive class-action lawsuit amounting to $10M in overtime pay a dairy company in Portland, ME owes its workers—all because of the importance of one little, missing comma. The lack of an Oxford comma in [...]

College-Level Rigor in the High School Classroom: SAT Curriculum, Common Core and College Readiness

SAT, Common Core, and College Readiness No teacher, at the beginning of their career, enters the field to teach test prep. Likewise, no student shows up for their English or math class expecting an SAT prep class. They see performance on a test like the SAT as fundamentally distinct from performance in the classroom. However, College Board’s redesign of the SAT in 2016 sought to directly address these concerns. The SAT assesses the same competencies that teachers seek to foster in their students: core college-readiness academic skills, problem solving abilities, and understanding of complex relationships. To better align with high school curriculum, the SAT explicitly aligned itself with the Common Core State Standards, currently adopted by forty-two states. This alignment creates a win-win situation for students and teachers. Students have a vested interest in their SAT scores to improve their college prospects, and teachers are held accountable for their students’ performance on the Common Core State Standards. When the test assesses what is important to teachers, preparation isn’t merely “test prep”—it’s key academic instruction to prepare students for the challenges they will face in college. And the College Board isn’t making this claim without some evidence to back it up (just like we’d require of a student!). Their early predictive validity studies show a moderate correlation in both verbal and math between SAT scores and first-year college GPA. They’ll expand this analysis to a more significant set of students in 2018 to see how robust the relationship is. High-Value Skills in SAT Curriculum It’s hard to connect the esoteric idea of the SAT with the concrete skills teachers are trying to promote in their classrooms every day. However, when teachers first look at those skills most frequently assessed on the SAT—those most important to predicting college readiness—it’s often an “aha!” moment. Reading Reading on standardized tests has long been thought of merely as assessing reading speed rather than comprehension. The SAT seeks to combat this perception by providing more time per passage and per question than it has in the past (and substantially more than ACT, an explicitly speeded test, provides). The test also brings in texts more aligned with what already exists in the classroom. The rigorous texts have an average Lexile of around 1300 L and include texts students might encounter in a history or literature class. Authors have included Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Charlotte Bronte. Beyond the texts themselves, the SAT is asking students to perform tasks that most teachers would applaud—citing claims with evidence. One of the most common mistakes in student critical thinking is to make a claim about a particular text without appropriate supporting material. The SAT addresses this head on with their “command of evidence” items, like the one below from one of College Board’s released test: Command of evidence questions make up 10 items on every SAT—approximately a fifth of the text. This skill is a clear analogue to Common Core’s Anchor Standard #1 in reading: “Read closely [...]

By |2018-02-12T16:10:46+00:00February 12, 2018|Assessments, SAT SP, School Programs, Special|0 Comments

To SAT or ACT? That is the Question.

Major changes to college-entrance exams like the SAT or ACT can make Hamlets of us all, leaving us wondering what to do, what path to take, whether ‘tis nobler to SAT or ACT? To help students and families with their “Hamlet-izing,” let’s consider the following issues. Reading Comprehension: What Kind of Decision Maker is your Student? When reading, some students are more like Rodin’s Thinker — deliberate, calculating, cautious in their decision making. Others prefer more of a Looney Tunes roadrunner approach: reading and reacting quickly based on initial impressions, interpretations, and judgments. The recently redesigned SAT features passages with greater text complexity, so the reading requires a bit more thoughtful analysis. The SAT also grants 43% more time per question, however, so students have increased time for thorough pondering of the passages and the questions. So, if students prefer the extra time and enjoy deep-sea-diving into texts to arrive at decisions and conclusions, then the SAT is for them. However, if students prefer to skim the surface waters and glean the meaning quickly, making decisions on first impressions, then the ACT is their choice. Mathematical Reasoning: What Kind of Problem Solver is your Student? While the SAT and ACT math largely covers similar material, the SAT is a bit more demanding on thorough, algebraic problem solving and less concerned with a student’s memory of geometry formulae. What’s more, ACT allows a student use of a calculator throughout its 60 math questions, while SAT does not allow calculator use for 20 of its 58 math questions. Of those 58 questions, 13 are student-produced-response questions, which feature no multiple-choice answers. In short, on the SAT, students have to do math more the old-fashioned way: they earn it! So, if your student is a problem solver, who is comfortable working it out, grinding it out, and calculating answers by hand, then SAT is the preferred option. If your student is more calculator-dependent in arriving at his or her answers, ACT may be the more comfortable math path. Science Reasoning? Does your student enjoy a full science serving or merely appetizer portions? Whether your student takes the SAT or ACT, they will be asked to assess science through data presentations and analytical questions. The ACT, however, features a standalone science section consistently situated at the end of the multiple-choice sections. On the ACT, science is always the fourth section, after English, Math, and Reading, while on SAT, 35 science-related questions are spreadthroughout reading, grammar, and math. So, if your student is fond of science, and enjoys a healthy, full order of science (ending the test with science as the last section), then ACT is the right choice. If your student would prefer some assorted science appetizers, delivered as small servings throughout the exam, then he or she has an appetite for the SAT. English Grammar and Essay Writing: Apples to Apples The Hamlet-like dilemma, “To SAT or ACT,” is simplified when it comes to the English grammar and essay writing sections, which are largely [...]

By |2018-01-26T15:24:25+00:00January 26, 2018|ACT, One-on-One Tutoring, SAT, Special|0 Comments

Professional Development for Teachers and ACT/SAT Testing

Professional development time for teachers can be incredibly valuable and rare. However, recent research has found that much professional development for teachers may not actually be useful in improving effectiveness in the classroom — ostensibly its primary purpose. In a large-scale longitudinal study of three districts’ investment in professional development, TNTP found that only three in 10 teachers demonstrated substantial improvement in their evaluation scores (while two in 10 actually saw their scores decline). Moreover, after five years in the classroom, teachers rarely improve at all; the average fifth-year teacher’s performance is very similar to that of teachers with fifteen years of experience. School districts spend thousands of dollars per teacher each year on professional development, and cracking the code around how to spend that time and money most effectively is one of the highest-leverage tools administrators have in improving the performance of their schools and districts. Purpose of Professional Development for Teachers For professional development to be effective, it’s essential to first define a specific purpose. Administrators must first identify a gap in their teachers’ professional skill set. Professional development for teachers is not a panacea, and specific goals should be identified at the outset. Have administrators observed a particular instructional practice that is problematic? Have test scores been stagnant for a number of years? Is there a gap for a cohort of students that is concerning? Are teachers asking for help in a specific area? It’s essential to first identify the need in a school before identifying the solution. Once that need has been identified, it’s time to pursue a solution. We’ll dig next into a gap we’ve seen in many schools that can be improved through professional development for teachers. We’ve spent many hours of working side-by-side with teachers and administrators, and we’ve heard many of them express a need for support in preparing their students for college entrance exams. Professional Development for ACT/SAT? At first, the idea of professional development targeting a standardized test may not seem like a particularly good use of time with so many competing priorities. But the best professional development for teachers around ACT and SAT is not just about gaming a test—it’s promoting understanding of what it means for students to be college ready while building data analysis skills for teachers, two of the most important priorities for any school. ACT and SAT data can also provide a clear metric for teachers to identify gaps in their classrooms without the subjective challenges of observation data. TNTP’s professional development study found that 80 percent of teachers whose observation scores had declined substantially in the last several years self-evaluated their own practice had improved “some” or “tremendously” over the same time period. College readiness exam scores and clear data can provide teachers with benchmarks to measure their development and success. By measuring their students’ growth and performance on standards on an objective assessment, teachers can take emotion out of the equation and instead focus on what’s needed to drive student growth. Increasing Rigor [...]

By |2018-01-16T22:48:36+00:00January 16, 2018|ACT SP, Instruction, SAT SP, School Programs, Special|0 Comments

Getting the Most Out of Your Score: Learning From the PSAT

What is the PSAT? The PSAT is a practice SAT administered by the College Board and available to students in grades 8 through 11, with the PSAT 8/9 offered to 8th and 9th graders and the PSAT 10/PSAT NMSQT (identical tests) offered to 10th and 11th graders. The PSAT serves 3 important purposes: it helps students predict, learn, and qualify.   Predicting with the PSAT Since its 2016 revision, the PSAT 10/PSAT NMSQT has become a better-than-ever instrument at predicting the SAT. This is true in part because the PSAT now comes very close to a full-length SAT, covering nearly identical content in almost the same amount of time. Evidence-based Reading & Writing PSAT’s Reading is almost identical to SAT’s, except PSAT Reading is 5 questions fewer and 5 minutes shorter.   PSAT’s Writing & Language is the same as SAT’s. Mathematics PSAT’s no-calculator section is 3 questions fewer than SAT’s but offers same amount of time. PSAT’s calculator section features 7 questions fewer in 10 fewer minutes. The Essay The SAT optional essay is NOT offered at all on the PSAT. The table below offers a side-by-side of the construct and content of both exams.   15 questions, 15 minutes In short, the PSAT is only 15 questions fewer and 15 minutes shorter than the SAT, in terms of the material that contributes to a student’s composite score. Note: the SAT essay does NOT impact the student’s composite score, so its absence on the PSAT is not critical. The table below offers another view of the close comparison between the PSAT & SAT. Good News for Students The close comparison of the PSAT and SAT is good news for students. From both a content and experience standpoint, taking the PSAT prepares a student for the material covered on the full-length SAT as well as the experience of sitting for a lengthy exam and concentrating on rigorous academic material for approximately 3 hours. It wasn’t always this way! Before the 2016 revision, the PSAT from 2005 to 2015 was approximately one half the length of the full-length SAT, denying a student a complete picture of the marathon test-taking experience that the SAT demanded. What’s more, learning from the PSAT is possible  year over year. Because the PSAT system offers testing from 8th grade to 11th grade, if a school district offers that testing, a student can have a transparent view of where he or she is tracking towards 11th grade. In fact, College Board has tiered the scoring on the test to help make a more accurate prediction of exactly where the student would be on the SAT at that point in their academic career.    The detail below shows the tiered scoring of the PSAT from 8th grade through the 11th grade PSAT/NMSQT. Learning from the PSAT Learning from the PSAT is the most important reason for students to take the test. As a low-stakes diagnostic test, it can be directional, putting students on a productive path towards focused [...]

By |2022-02-04T15:43:16+00:00December 12, 2017|Assessments, School Programs, Special|0 Comments

Making the Mean Less Mean: Strategic Reading in an SAT or ACT Math Prep Course

  “I had no clue what that problem meant.” “I got confused -- what does the mean mean?” “They can do the math, but they can’t understand the word problems.” “That problem was way too wordy, so I skipped it.” When you work with students in an SAT or ACT math prep course, you realize something quickly: you’re suddenly spending a lot of your time as a reading teacher. Solving math problems presents a host of reading pitfalls—from decoding technical jargon to making sense of convoluted prose.   A Student’s Perspective Take an SAT or ACT math prep course from a student’s perspective for a moment.   You suddenly must accept that “mean,” for example, no longer applies only to how your older brother treats you, but also to the arithmetic average of a set of numbers. You must agree that a statement like “a number squared is equal to 7 less than 35 more than that number” is both a sentence that can be understood and one that you actually care to understand! In short, you are learning a new language. But here’s the rub: Learning math as a language is not necessarily invested with all the fun and purpose of becoming fluent in French, so you can travel to Paris, explore, and enjoy touring the Louvre.  Instead, all too often learning this language looks a bit more like training a puppy to sit, shake, and roll over by cueing up discrete behavioral actions with verbal commands. Doing Math Stuff Consider a student learning word-problem translation. It often begins with providing a lexicon or translation key. Students are taught that “of” means “multiply” and “is” means “equals,” etc. However, this form of instruction is largely procedural: follow this recipe, and you’ll produce an equation that will make sense. In the end, students can be trained to respond to these cues and “do math stuff”… but can they make real math meaning? Doing math stuff—executing procedures, using recipes, writing out steps—does not necessarily lead to a meaningful outcome. In fact, we often see students “do math stuff” in an SAT or ACT math prep course but produce some outrageous, illogical conclusions: In a problem that involves a series of discounts applied to the value of a $100 dress, a student concludes that the dress costs more than $100! Yes, the student did math stuff, but that stuff lacked contextual meaning and any truly incisive check back from the student.   Plants growing according to regular increments suddenly start shrinking? Athletes running foot races suddenly reach break-the-sound-barrier rates of motion? And a student with 10 equally weighted test scores –  consisting of nine 80s and one 100 – enjoys the happy fate of earning a 90 average for the semester? What luck! All these scenarios are so magical as to be kind of funny, expressing some witty adolescent desire to be subversive. But, sadly, they are not. Instead, they reflect a common gap between translating math in a perfunctory manner and [...]

By |2022-02-04T15:56:01+00:00November 15, 2017|ACT SP, Instruction, SAT SP, School Programs, Special|0 Comments

A Matter of Time Part II: The Critics and Advocates of SAT and ACT Accommodations

  Controversy has existed for years around the subject of SAT and ACT accommodations, and that controversy seems to revolve around three critical themes: 1) Equity—Are all deserving students receiving fair access to SAT and ACT accommodations? 2) Legitimacy—Are the accommodations the right ones for the specific diagnoses? 3) Validity—Do these SAT and ACT accommodations truly accommodate the disabling conditions or rather do they modify the exam, undermining its standardization? Equity.  Equity is a serious matter: A 2000 California audit concluded that those getting SAT or ACT accommodations "were disproportionately white, or were more likely to come from an affluent family or to attend a private school."  More than a decade later, the Chicago Tribune's review of data obtained under open records laws indicated in Illinois that the percentage of test takers with accommodations doubled the national average.  Schools in wealthy districts with predominantly white students were at the top of the list. Where there is wealth, there is an elevated level of advocacy and subsequently elevated levels of SAT or ACT accommodations.  That trend indicates that while accommodations are intended to level the playing field for disabled students, the administration of those accommodations is not working out equitably by socioeconomic factors. Legitimacy.  An interesting criticism on the legitimacy of accommodations has been offered by Boston University professor Ari Trachtenberg is his Sept. 2016 Chronicle of Higher Ed piece “ADA in the Classroom: Suitable Accommodation or Legalized Cheating?” He argues principally that there is a lack of research evidence for the connection between an accommodation and the disability.  “In effect, both the College Board and some colleges (which base their own policies for accommodations around the board’s practices) appear to be providing an advantage to some students on rigorously controlled tests, without a rigorous foundation for the accommodation.”  At the heart of his argument, again, is the matter of time. He sees the granting of extended time as a one-size-fits-all concession The College Board, ACT, and universities make without a specific rationale for the merits of that accommodation in relation to the specific disability in question: “Accommodations must be specific to circumstances, and transparently published for specific disabilities, just like grading rubrics and curves.  It may be convenient for both the universities and the students to indiscriminately agree to simple accommodations such as time extension for a whole host of disabilities in prima facie compliance with the ADA, but this dilutes the integrity of the academic process without providing a definable benefit, either to those students who are disabled, or to those who are not.” Trachtenberg’s premise is that time matters: he values some speeded component of his tests, and so accommodating that component—unless rigorously justified—could modify the validity of his exams. Validity.  Trachtenberg’s line of reasoning is taken to a logical extreme by Bruce Pardy of Queen’s University Faculty of Law in his August 2016 Education and Law Journal article “Head Starts and Extra Time: Academic Accommodation on Post-Secondary Exams and Assignments for Cognitive and Mental Disabilities.” Pardy argues [...]

By |2017-11-03T06:08:19+00:00November 3, 2017|ACT SP, SAT SP, School Programs, Special|1 Comment

A Matter of Time: Extended-time ACT and SAT Accommodations

“I can’t believe I went up 12 points on the ACT! Cannot believe it.  Crying with happiness.  Wow!” After 20 years of helping students grow their ACT and SAT scores, finding an email like this at the top of my inbox still brings me the greatest joy.  More satisfying still is that this email came from a student with diagnosed learning disabilities, one who worked hard to develop critical reading and reasoning skills, applied for and earned extended-time accommodations, and was ultimately able to deliver that “show what you know” performance. Learning-disabled students—when given appropriate accommodations and instruction—are capable of remarkable growth.  What’s more, it appears to be, in part, a matter of time: ACT and SAT accommodations, such as extended time, can make that critical difference for these students.   ACT and SAT accommodations – what are they? ACT and SAT accommodations are provided by ACT and the College Board (SAT)—as well as primary, secondary, and postsecondary institutions—to test takers with disabilities or health-related needs.  ACT and SAT accommodations can range from extended-time to multiple-day testing to computer testing for essays to extra breaks for medication or snacks to a host of other concessions.    These accommodations are not designed to remove standardization, because that would undermine the validity of the test, but rather to make appropriate adjustments, given a student’s disabling conditions, that will provide an equal opportunity to demonstrate skills and knowledge. In other words, ACT and SAT accommodations are designed to give disabled students a fair chance to “show what they know.”   Who qualifies for ACT and SAT accommodations? The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and federal regulations under Section 504 extended civil rights protections to disabled people.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 required test publishers and administrators to provide reasonable accommodations for disabling conditions (Asquith and Feld, 1992). The disabilities that receive accommodations most frequently are learning disabilities, including dyslexia, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other specific mental disorders.  While the range of learning disabilities in their variable combinations may require multiple accommodations, extended time is a frequent accommodation for students with learning disabilities. Extended time can provide a student with a visual sequencing disturbance more time to properly see letters and numbers, or a student with dyslexia the necessary time to read a test more slowly and comprehend more accurately. What steps do parents or guardians need to take in order for their child to receive ACT or SAT accommodations? Step 1: Determine Eligibility Eligibility for SAT accommodations requires that the disability must result in a relevant functional limitation.  For ACT accommodations, the disability must substantially limit a major life activity compared to the average person in the general population.  The longer the case has been documented, the more persuasive.  The more the student relies on the specific accommodations in school, i.e., uses the accommodations for in-school testing because they are truly needed, the more compelling.     Step 2: Gather Necessary Documentation Provide documentation that states the specific diagnosis, as captured [...]

By |2022-02-04T15:48:40+00:00October 27, 2017|ACT SP, SAT SP, School Programs, Special|0 Comments

Increase Your Reading Endurance (SAT Series Week 2)

The Illinois April 5th state-mandated SAT is now six weeks away. With all Illinois public school students sitting for that SAT, we want to offer a series of weekly insights along the way to help you prepare. This week’s focus: are your students getting in enough reading rounds? We understand the value of getting in enough rounds when it comes to a sport like boxing. For a title fight, if you want to “go the distance,” that means conditioning yourself to fight for 12 3-minute rounds, 36 total minutes of demanding physical exertion. Obviously, if you get in only 8 to 10 rounds in your training, you’d be poorly prepared, and outcomes will most likely be poor. If you appreciate the value of conditioning, then, like many boxing experts, you don’t take very seriously Conor McGregor, the UFC’s reigning champion, and his recent bid to take on Floyd Mayweather Jr., the greatest boxer of the last 25 years. As an MMA athlete, McGregor fights for 3 or 5 5-minute rounds, 15 to 25 total minutes of output, while Mayweather for the last 7 of his 49 fights has gone the distance of 36 minutes and won every time. How can you beat Mayweather’s experience in enduring that vital 11 to 21 extra minutes of intense fighting? I think you can’t. Let’s extend our MMA/boxing analogy to reading. Illinois public high school students for the past 15 years have all sat for a 35-minute ACT reading section on the state-mandated ACT in the spring of junior year. In School Year 2016-17, that ACT has changed to the SAT, and “going the distance” means something entirely new. The Redesigned SAT features a 65-minute reading section, and the number of passages has grown from 4 to 5. So, our reading gladiators have entered a new arena, and the endurance requirement of their sport has changed: a reading rumble that involved 4 rounds of approximately 9 minutes of reading on the ACT has now transformed to 5 rounds of 13 minutes of reading on the SAT. Students need to adjust to 30 continuous extra minutes of intense focus on comprehending complex texts. This challenge raises some important questions: How are our students training? Are they getting in enough reading rounds? How long do your students sit for and read complex texts? And let me specify: without interruption! With average class lengths of about 50 minutes, it is most likely that during the school day students have no comparable experience of reading and reasoning continuously for 65 minutes. In the weeks prior to the April 5th SAT, how can we intensify the training? A practice test to simulate the exact reading conditions of the test; offering more in-class reading activities that simulate timed 13-minute rounds of reading bursts to prepare for the passage-by-passage experience; full class period reading activities that train focus and endurance and comprehension. As educators, we know that mindless drilling does not lead to improvement and repetition alone does not lead to [...]

By |2017-02-22T22:45:15+00:00February 22, 2017|SAT SP, School Programs, Special|0 Comments

Beyond Academic Skills: Soft Skills, Grit, and Building a Growth Mindset

The high-stakes nature of college entrance exams is, unsurprisingly, a tough moment for many students. This feeling of dread isn’t inevitable—there’s more we as educators can do to make this moment one of triumph, not despair. That means not just preparing our students for the skills assessed on the test, but also preparing them for the emotional challenge of preparing for high-stakes tests.

By |2022-02-07T16:29:36+00:00April 14, 2016|School Programs, Special|0 Comments