Illustration: Zohar Lazar, from The New Yorker
First, if you haven’t already read it, see There’ll be some changes made, with the news report and a reaction or two on the announced changes coming to the SAT in 2016.
Since we have a couple of years until those changes come along, here’s some more test-prep reading…
1. Elizabeth Kolbert, writing for the New Yorker, offers, “Big Score: When Mom takes the SATs.” Kolbert relates her own experience, as well as that of Debbie Stier, author of The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT, retaking the SAT as an adult, and covers a good bit of the test’s history as well.
Whatever is at the center of the SAT—call it aptitude or assessment or assiduousness or ambition—the exam at this point represents an accident. It was conceived for one purpose, adapted for another, and somewhere along the line it acquired a hold on American life that nobody ever intended. It’s not just high-school seniors who are in its thrall; colleges are, too. How do you know how good a school is? Well, by the SAT scores of the students it accepts. (A couple of years ago, the dean of admissions at Claremont McKenna College was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had inflated students’ scores to boost the school’s ranking.) As befits an exam named for itself, the SAT measures those skills—and really only those skills—necessary for the SATs.
I may be interested in reading about the SAT, but there is a less than zero probability of my registering to take the test, old or new. Just offering my real-world application of math.
2. Walt Hickey, writing for FiveThirtyEight, offers advice in “How to Take the New SAT.” I’m likely to pay attention to his recommendations since FiveThirtyEight is the new data journalism organization headed by Nate Silver, statistician, baseball and politics forecaster, and author of The Signal and the Noise. Hickey examines the announced change that the SAT will no longer penalize test-takers for incorrect answers. Currently each wrong answer costs the test-take a quarter of a point.
Since the exam’s inception, students were advised to only guess on a question if they could eliminate at least one of the answers. This put expected value on their side, and they could hope to come out ahead in the long run.
Starting in 2016, with the death of the quarter-point penalty on wrong answers, there’s absolutely no reason anyone should ever leave a question blank on the SAT. According to College Board statistics, in 2012, every five points added to a test-taker’s raw score meant an additional 30 to 80 points on her curved final score.
So guessing isn’t just advisable, it’s about to become strategically crucial for people seeking to maximize their performance. Granted, everybody guessing is probably going to increase the average raw score, but that just means the College Board will adjust its grading curve commensurately.
If you choose not to guess, you risk falling behind the pack.
3. Writing for The Atlantic, James S. Murphy says, “The SAT Prep Industry Isn’t Going Anywhere,” even though the College Board president described their partnership with Khan Academy for free test prep, a “bad day” for test prep companies. Murphy has been an SAT teacher and tutor for the Princeton Review.
The truth is that there are no tricks to the SAT, or at least none that will make a significant change to a student’s score. Test prep raises scores by reviewing only the content students need to know for the exam, teaching them techniques they have not learned in school, and assigning students hundreds if not thousands of practice questions. It is this work, and not tricks, that overcome test anxiety. As Ed Carroll, a former colleague of mine, puts it, “Competence breeds confidence.”
. . .
The main reason test prep isn’t going anywhere is that, as long as a superficial, high stakes test remains an important aspect of competitive college admissions, there will be no shortage of people looking for some advantage. Admissions anxiety is not fomented by test prep companies. They do not need to make students and parent anxious. The SAT has taken care of that for them.
4. And finally, my favorite read on the SAT this past week: Cora Frazier’s “New SAT Practice Questions” in the New Yorker. An example:
7. Student-produced-response math. You have one remaining pair of clean underwear, besides the pair you are currently wearing. You have an additional pair of underwear that doesn’t cover your entire butt and says “Thursday.” How many days can you go without doing laundry?
Now there’s a question with real-world applications.