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Each week, the coaches from Milestone Academic Counseling offer timely advice for high school students in the Princeton area.
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Most recent posting below. See other blog postings in the column to the right.

1 comment - Last on 02/06/2011

Lessons from our Trenton SAT Prep Initiative

With the January SAT in the books, we are looking ahead to the second semester of the school year and preparation for the upcoming SAT dates in March, May, and June.  These tests offer juniors a chance to fire their first salvo over the bows of college admissions officers and serve notice that they will be serious contenders for the spots at top colleges.  Those juniors who are the best prepared just sat their first test last weekend.

Building on our work in the fall, Milestone will be offering a second edition of its SAT class to Trenton-area high school juniors.  Our goal is give a group of kids who would not otherwise have access to supervised SAT prep the opportunity to attend a college of their choice.   In some cases this means attending a top college; in others it means attending college, period.

The inaugural edition of our program this fall was a serious learning experience, at least from our perspective.  Teaching a standardized test to students who have been thoroughly prepared by their public and private schools for such tests from grades K-10 is relatively straightforward, because most of the basic test-taking habits are already well ingrained in those students. Even the weakest testers in that pool find much of what we are asking to be intuitive. 

For our Trenton program, the most productive approach was not to replicate what we would do with our kids in Princeton, but to teach the very fundamentals of test-taking.  We realized most of the kids simply were not fluent in the language of the test.  We could have spent 10 hours decoding test questions and been perfectly productive.  Emphasizing this approach was a helpful exercise for us, as it deepened our understanding of how to prepare students of any ability.

For instance, take the following sample reading question:

The parenthetical remarks in lines 79-82 serve to

(A)            indicate why those who disagree with the author are in error

(B)            support the author’s position by citing authorities

(C)            distance the author from controversial opinions

(D)            point out problems with certain examples of the impossible

(E)            prove that many arguments advanced earlier are sound

This is a question of easy-medium difficulty, but the students would not even know where to start.  They were immediately thrown by the word "parenthetical" and the phrase "serve to," and thus couldn't piece together what the question was asking.

After a minute, a few might realize that they were supposed to be asking themselves the question, “why did the author include the words in parentheses in lines 79-82,” but even then they would only be able to answer if they had managed to have enough time to read the passage.  It would take them another minute to read and understand lines 79-82, at which point they would have spent 2 minutes simply trying to get their head around what a question was asking, before even starting to think about answering it.

Our advice was to eliminate a few answer choices based on their incompatibility with the text from the passage straightaway, and then, if still stuck, to guess from the 2 or 3 choices remaining.

Even a weak PHS tester would be able to eliminate a few choices within 30 seconds, and could then have a reasonable chance at answering the question correctly with an informed guess.  Only the students in the top quartile of the Trenton group, though, would be able to take that step. 

The Critical Reading section of the SAT allots students an average of 1 minute per question.  It expects that students will spend, on average, 45 seconds answering Sentence Completion questions, a total of 3-4 minutes reading the passages provided for Reading Comprehension, and then an average of 45 seconds answering the questions corresponding with the passages.

If a student has to spend 2 minutes per question deciphering the language of the test, then they will not even get to the second half of the test, resulting in a score of, at best, between 400 and 500 per section.  The median score for the group at the outset was in the low 400s per section, with half the questions left blank.  The lesson here? Speed matters.

A post-mortem analysis of the program I conducted with a college classmate currently heading up curriculum development for a New Orleans charter school confirmed what I should have known going into the program.  When his school first tried to tackle standardized tests with 9th and 10th graders, they found that a conventional test prep approach yielded little success.  It was only when his school tackled to problems at the root of the poor testing- poor reading skills and limited exposure to timed reading comprehension tests- that it saw improvement across the board.

That story confirmed for me that our mission is not to equip the kids with the pure 'content' knowledge they are missing, but rather it is to take what they already know and teach them how to apply that on the test, so that 600-level processing and reading aptitude in the classroom does not translate to a 350 on the SAT.   Moreover, these lessons apply not only to after-school programs prepping kids for the ACT and SAT, but also in the context of the No Child Left Behind debate and state-by-state efforts to raise test scores in failing districts.

If city and state educational boards are serious about raising test scores in failing districts, particularly in the context of NCLB, their members have to acknowledge that curriculum is not a one-size-fits-all affair.  Unfortunately, this can look an suspiciously like "teaching to the test."

When we kick off our Trenton program in 2011, we will go in with a revamped curriculum that we hope will do a better job of getting the kids up to speed.  Less “SAT vocabulary”, more practice simply reading old test questions and learning those words and phrases.  Less abstract math lessons covering new content, more applying what they already know to easy and medium test questions and building test comprehension.

We can’t wait to get started!

Moderated by Jake Cornelius.

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As my sixteen year old becomes more in tune to what is expected of him and from him in the coming months, it has become quite clear as to the advantage he has over those less fortunate.  This program you offer is right on target - keep up the good work and good luck with this necessary endeavor.


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