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The New SAT

On Wednesday March 5, 2014, the College Board made announcements that will change the SAT test for those students in your family who will the test in 2016 and beyond which will, among other things, change the scoring back to what it was before March 2005.  It was not that long ago that we mentioned a few thoughts in reaction to a study pronouncing the SAT as “not correlated to college success.”  We had a lot to say by way of agreement, and today we will try to address those points again in the storm of discussion – and in some quarters, panic – about these changes.

Let’s repeat our fundamental beliefs here at Get Smarter, which are backed by numerous high school teachers and counselors as well as college admissions professionals and officials: GPA is the single best indicator of how you will perform in college.  It measures multiple things – not just your ability to do well on a given test, but also your ability to complete projects, do homework, and participate in class, among other things.  A single 3-hour test on a number of different subjects can only measure how well you do against metrics determined by a particular authority.  In this case – College Board (and the ACT) for that matter, have neither a government mandate nor any form of regulation.  They are allegedly nonprofits but they act as free market businesses that have lobbyists and VERY well paid board members.  They, not we, for decades have determined “what matters” on these tests.  Some major shortcomings?  Let’s talk about three areas of the current SAT (let’s leave the ACT aside for now, perhaps for a day when they too announce changes).

Reading

Prior to March 2005, the SAT was all about “difficult” vocabulary and easy to medium difficulty reading passages.  People may whine that these words were “irrelevant” but for any serious student, these words were from a “known” list and could be studied and learned.  As for the reading comprehension – students had been doing that for most of their lives, so not too difficult there.

“Today, when we say that someone has used an SAT word, it often means a word you have not heard before and are not likely to soon hear again. The redesigned SAT will instead focus on words students will use over and over again, that open up worlds to them.”

                        -David Coleman, President of the College Board

This is somewhat puzzling.  Part of the challenge of question design in this section of the test is having a sentence that clearly indicates context and then having a number of challenging words in position.  Part of learning any language is not just using words over and over again, but using new words as bridges to expression.  We’ll see more of what they mean in one month when they release some practice questions.

Math

Prior to March 2005, the SAT was not particularly challenging mathematically.  While there was an element of trickery in the questions, the questions themselves were not terribly difficult.  As for the new test, the College Board says it will be based around “problem solving and data analysis; the heart of algebra; and passport to advanced math.”  Yet, this still repeats the same problem we saw on the old test and the current test: many students who will excel in college are LONG past algebra in their junior year of high school.  In all likelihood they are in Calculus, a math level that is actually used in college, unlike Algebra.

Writing

It is unclear whether the grammar part of the writing section will remain, as the traditional scoring has left 800 points for Math, 800 points for Reading, and over the last 9 years, 800 points for Writing, of which the essay is a little over ⅓ of the weight.  As it stands the grammar portion is the “least bad” portion of the test, as it tests frequent mistakes in grammar that manifest themselves in the emails of Fortune 500 companies on a daily basis, to take just one comparison.  The essay seems to be a new, discursive type of essay, and it is now “optional.”

As we said, we’ll have more to say on this issue in the months and weeks ahead.  As always, as long as there is an unfair testing regime in place in academia, we are going to be here to help our students overcome that regime.

Whatever College Board or pundits tell you, there is no way to “level the playing field” for a standardized test, even if it is a good one (e.g. the AP Exam) or a poor one (the SAT or ACT).  You will always have students who bring more motivation, more study skills, more intelligence, or more prep.  The future will always belong to those who deal with a challenging situation, as our students here at Get Smarter Prep always have.

Stephen Heiner is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

FairTest vs College Board: Why Neither is Totally Right

I’ve been teaching students how to beat standardized tests like the SAT and ACT for over a decade now. Invariably, I start tutoring with those students by pointing out what should be obvious: these exams measure how well you take exams, not your aptitude or your ability to do college work.  In some cases there may be a direct correspondence: students who have excellent grades have correspondingly excellent scores.  And yet, there is a not-insignificant group of students with outstanding grades and poor scores.  Does this mean standardized testing is unreliable?  Or that it fails to consistently predict student success?  Not exactly, and yes, respectively.

Let’s back up for a moment and talk about the single best input for determining college success: the high school GPA.  Time and time again a high correlation has been shown between success and engagement in academics in high school (as represented by an unweighted GPA) and performance in college.  That’s because the GPA is a many-faceted thing.  It samples various different types of classes according to how often you took them.  Classes that meet every day are weighted more than classes that meet once a week, and yet should you take French 5 times a week and Physics 5 times a week, the GPA agnostically weights them equally.  The grades for these classes themselves are multi-faceted.  Those grades represent tests, homework, class participation, quizzes, and possibly group work and projects.  Hardly one-dimensional, the GPA is an accurate and balanced reflection of a student’s aptitude and work ethic.

A three-hour test on a given Saturday morning, on the other hand, is very much a one-dimensional thing.  Neither the SAT nor the ACT tests math levels above Trigonometry, meaning that juniors in Precalculus and beyond will need to pull out old notes to prep for the Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra 2 which are heavily featured in the math section of both of these tests.

There’s also the alleged “Science” section on the ACT, which is nothing but a glorified “interpreting charts and graphs” section which features tricky questions and purposely distorted graphics much more than legitimate science questions.

There are some useful sections to these tests.  Reading comprehension is a lifelong skill – and a skill in even greater refinement in our age of information overload.  Most students take comfort in the familiarity of the question type, even if they are cowed or bewildered by the wording of the questions or the time constraints (students are typically not given adequate time to answer the questions).

I could go on, but at this point you might (rightly) ask how I can in good conscience uphold such flawed testing by doing test prep?  Fair enough.

These exams are accepted by the overwhelming majority of universities, for better or worse, as an additional – sometimes coequal – criteria for admission.  My mission has always been to help my students get into the school they want to get into.  If the hurdle is this or that specific test, I want to help them beat that test.  I have no power to change a system deep within the bowels of an institution (academia) which is defined by inertia.  So I do what’s possible: help my students beat the obstacles in place.  For those who can’t afford test prep or who simply struggle with testing, FairTest has compiled a list of schools that don’t use testing as a deciding factor in admissions.

In the challenging world of college admissions, FairTest can rightly claim that standardized testing isn’t holistic, while College Board (the writer of the SAT) can claim that while not holistic, standardized testing still has correlations with college success, while we at Get Smarter Prep can claim that we are among your best options to improve on these tests, should you choose to apply to a school that uses them.  We hope you take this article as an encouragement to be proactive instead of letting this overwhelming process “happen” to you.  As always, we are here to help anytime.

University of Virginia

Name: Page Schult
College: University of Virginia; Graduation Year 2015
High School: Pembroke Hill; Graduation Year 2011
Major: History Major with a Minor in Media Studies

1. What first drew you to the University of Virginia?

The first time I visited the University of Virginia, I could immediately feel the passion and excitement that every student had. Walking around the beautiful grounds, I could feel the sense of tradition that existed at UVA as I saw students laughing on the way to class, tossing a frisbee back and forth on the lawn, and debating current politics over lunch. Everyone just seemed so nice and eager to be a part of such a wonderful academic environment.

2. What other colleges were you considering?

I was mainly looking at two other schools: University of Southern California and Claremont McKenna College. However, I also looked at a variety of other schools like SMU and Davidson.

3. How was the adjustment from high school to college?

The adjustment was actually much easier than I had anticipated. Everyone always says that when going to college, you have to remember that everyone else is in the same shoes as you: new to a place and just trying to meet people and make friends. Although this seems rather cliché, it is absolutely true. Any college that drew you in likely drew in other students who share similar interests with you so it is easy to find that common ground to build friendships!

4. What is your favorite class that you have taken so far?

I think the class I have enjoyed the most so far is a class I took my first year on the history of philanthropy in the United States. It was the first history class I had taken that was different from the typical high school history class. I loved that the structure of the class was a seminar structure, so every week we were free to discuss and debate different topics.

5. What clubs or groups are you involved in?

I am mainly involved in three different organizations around grounds. One is Greek life, where I am a member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority here at UVA. Another organization that I am involved with is the tutoring program through Madison House. Madison House is the organization that houses all the different community service and volunteer programs available to UVA students. Lastly, I am a member of the Advertising and Marketing Association on grounds.

6. Anything else you want to tell us?

My advice for choosing colleges is that when choosing a school you must make sure it has everything you would want both academically and socially.

7. In one sentence, what do you love about your school?

I love everything about my school; mainly, I love that I have endless opportunities and have met fascinating and interesting people!

Author Page Schult is a Second Year at the University of Virginia.

Standardized Testing

Standardized testing is a blight on our educational system. It exists simply because of the overwhelming number of applications to undergraduate and graduate programs. When grades, personal statements, portfolios, and letters of recommendation fail to winnow, admissions committees look to a timed multiple-choice exam. They need a tiebreaker and this is the “best” the system has come up with. It’s deplorable, but I’m here to offer you advice about how to do better, not to complain about things we can’t change.

Before you start worrying about this test, make sure the schools you are looking at actually require it. Equally important, look at the average and middle 50% of scores for the accepted students. It is important to have a goal score before starting test preparation. If you already have your goal score, congratulations! Also, make sure that you ask about the relationship of those scores for admission as well as scholarships. Even a small increase can make a big difference for scholarships!

Want to find out where you stand? Sign up to take a free practice test at our office!

Author Stephen Heiner is a Premier Level Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.