May SAT Test: Lessons Learned After 18 years

May 2011 SAT

I took the SAT yesterday (May 7, 2011) for the first time in 18 years.  I have been helping students prepare for the SAT for the last 12 years and it was time to put myself through the real, live experience- uncomfortable desk and all.  I learned a lot.  For one thing, I found myself forgetting to use the very same strategies that I have been teaching students to use, day in and day out, for the last 12 years.  Of course, my next thought was: “How can I expect my students to remember and follow all of my advice when I can’t follow it myself!”  And the weirdest thing: when I did follow the strategies, they really helped and I remember consciously thinking- “Wow, this is definitely making the questions easier.”  Then 45 minutes later when I was back on the same type of section, I found myself drifting from the strategy.  Just to give one simple example- I tell my students to cross out the entire answer choice, words and all, when they are using the strategy of process of elimination to answer sentence completion questions (rather than just crossing out the letter of the choice.)  This is especially helpful on “two-blank” questions.  When I used this strategy, I found myself moving more confidently and quickly through the section and being aware of how helpful the strategy was.  Inexplicably, on the next critical reading section, I found myself just crossing out the letters on the first 4 questions and had to remind myself to go back to crossing out the whole line.  Of course, this is not an SAT issue or even a general test prep issue- this is an issue of human psychology and speaks to the difficulty and importance of maintaining discipline.

A second thing that kept racing through my mind is just how difficult it is to concentrate on one thing for five and a half hours.  While my mind didn’t wander to which room my girlfriend was in or the big soccer game I had after the test, it did wander often to my twin 2 year olds and also to the students I had tutored who were taking the test.  I also lost focus when one student kept sneezing in the back of the room and every time she did, five students unfailingly said “Bless you.”  All in all, I lost a lot of crucial time to lapses in concentration.  And I’m an SAT tutor who has spent 12 years teaching students tricks on how to stay focused during the SAT.

A third thing that kept slapping me in the face as I took this SAT: just how repetitive of a test it is.  Of course, like any SAT tutor, I was already enormously aware of this aspect of the exam but sitting in a classroom surrounded by high school students struggling over the questions brought out the pink elephant, so to speak.  There were just so many questions that were based on concepts that are easy to teach and easy for students to learn but if the students hadn’t practiced on similar questions before, they were likely to get the question wrong.  I kept thinking this is just a test of how well you know the SAT.  Of course, this is one of the many criticisms of the SAT and of testing in general- that it just leads educators to teach towards the test and part of me felt frustrated by this notion as I felt the anxiety of students around me.  But I also believe that the SAT tests students on English and math concepts and skills that a person should be fluent in before starting college.  Teaching to a test that is full of crucial skills is not such a bad thing.  So while I was taking the SAT, my brain was stuck on this familiar paradox in education.  I was getting questions right simply because I remembered essentially the same questions from SATs from 5 or 6 years ago.  But this is crucial stuff that students need to know and if a student had worked hard preparing for the SAT, he or she would be successful on many questions.

Photo by ccarlstead.

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