Learning the SATs

A former, very-high priced SAT tutor notes the following about ‘beating the exam‘ (boldface mine):

I’ve spent a decade tutoring the SAT. In that time, I’ve developed a reputation for efficacy. My students routinely improve their scores by more than 400 points, and wealthy parents desperate for a solution to their test prep woes have no problem paying me what most would consider outrageous rates: up to $1,000 an hour. I work from home, I make my own hours, and I have a job that a friend of mine describes as “cushy beyond belief.”

…How is it possible that a student who can ace his trigonometry tests and get an A+ in English can’t apply those same skills to the SAT? On the surface, it seems unlikely. But as I learned, parents and students around the country have been conned into thinking that it’s not only possible but standard.

What do you need for a perfect SAT score? A thorough knowledge of around 110 math rules and 60 grammar rules, familiarity with the test’s format, and the consistent application of about 40 strategies that make each problem a bit easier to solve. If you can string together a coherent essay, that’s a plus.

But there has been extensive propaganda to the contrary:

American academic culture has taught students that the SAT is a reflection of their own innate abilities, despite all evidence to the contrary. They’re given unrealistic expectations about its difficulty, about the steps necessary to master it, and about the timelines they’ll need in which to do so. And they’re given the stark impression that any efforts they take to understand it are futile and misguided.

Because we’ve taught them that they can’t study for the test, they don’t — and if they do, they do so in the most cursory, ineffective manner possible. When they take the SAT, they get the poor scores reflective of non-study and inattention, yet they feel that their results are a reflection of their own inherent inability to take the exam in the first place, reinforcing the initial fear and inertia that prevents them and their peers from studying for the next round. And around and around we go….

Few understand that the SAT requires specific, school-independent training. Instead, they assume that if their children do well in school and poorly on the SAT, they are bad testers.

I was a ‘very good tester’ (perhaps an excellent one). While I never took any prep courses–my prep consisted of the old Barron’s practice exam books, which I usually partially completed–I did enough self-prep to learn how to maximize my effectiveness. At the time, it was realizing they give you the answers and working quickly so you have time to check your work (the math was, at most, trigonometry).

I suppose I could receive credit for cleverness by going ‘meta’ unassisted and figuring out the exam on my own, as well as reading a lot, especially newspapers* (which provided me with a good vocabulary and ability to comprehend the reading sections).

But anyone who says students can’t be ‘taught to take tests’ is being absurd.

As an extra, bonus exercise, I will leave it to the reader to determine if this has any consequences on IQ tests, as well as heritability estimates of IQ.

*I’m not an idiot; obviously, poor students wouldn’t have this opportunity (or their own Barron’s guides).

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4 Responses to Learning the SATs

  1. Bashir says:

    My experience was similar. I actually took it very early for an academic program I applied for. It took a lot of the mystery out of it. A lot of my classmates seemed convinced that the SAT would be the hardest thing they ever did. There were all sort of rumors about tricks and rules (that you could only take it once). I score very well mostly on the strength of test taking strategy. Managing your time is a big part of that. I’d have classmates spend hours and hours on vocabulary but give no thought to just overall strategy. It was all very strange.

  2. Don says:

    I went to high school in the 70s at a rich suburban extremely college prep focused public high school. It dawned on me later in life that my entire education was one long SAT prep course. We had vocabulary books all though jr high and high school that miraculously mimicked the SAT. We had math tests aimed at the Regents exams but that had substantial crossover to the SAT. I ended up doing quite well on the SAT and the ACT even though I was God’s worst student. And not one iota of test prep although I’m pretty sure I was sober that weekend. Good thing too as I would have never got into any decent University based on my GPA alone. A 1470 made up for a world of sins.

  3. Edward W. Baptist
    Crprod says:

    My wife and I grew up in rural Virginia during the Byrd era. We each had some very good teachers, and our families were much more in favor of education than their economic circumstances might have indicated. We did well on the SAT then. Our three children all took the SAT in the seventh grade and easily qualified for the Duke TIP program. I remember reviewing the sample questions in geometry with my daughter, but all I did was point out important things to remember about triangles, parallel lines, etc which could be used to identify the correct answer to problems.

  4. harrync says:

    I did pretty well on the SAT’s also. In addition to the time management others have mentioned, my main strategy was to ask myself “What is the answer the test writer is looking for, taking into account that they are probably not as intelligent and well informed as I am.”

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