Fast Track Tutoring LLC

excerpt

The Truth About the SAT and ACT

“…yeah, we definitely don’t see this stuff in school.”
– Emily K. (my student during our grammar lesson last week)

The SAT and ACT Do Not Reflect What You’re Learning in School

College Board is not telling you the whole truth about the SAT. Here’s the truth: what you’re learning in high school has very little to do with what you’ll see on the SAT. In their literature, College Board claims that the questions on the SAT reflect the same topics that students see in their high school classes. This is simply not true. The ACT is guilty of this as well. In their literature, the ACT folks say that their test measures what you “should have learned by the time you’ve completed high school”. “Should have” is an interesting choice of words. Alas, there is no perfect marriage between what students learn in high school and what is considered fair game on the SAT and the ACT. Just to illustrate with a grammar example, both exams include questions on misplaced modifiers. That’s all well and good, but my students from High School A have never seen that topic before. On the math end, both tests include questions on the exponential growth formula. Again, that’s fine, but my students from High School B have never learned that formula. (Don’t worry, we’ll be hitting both of those topics in later chapters!) I’m going to say it again.
There is no perfect marriage between what students learn in high school and what is considered fair game on the SAT and the ACT. I don’t mean that these exams expect students to know things they have once learned and have since forgotten. I mean that these exams expect students to know things they have never learned in the first place. My students’ parents are often incredulous when I tell them this, but it’s true. High School Alone Will Not Prepare Students for the SAT or ACT Here is a text I got from a student when she was accepted to college. This was in 2015, when the SAT was about to change from the 2400-scale to the 1600-scale. During that transition, College Board was touting how the material on the updated test would be more aligned with what students saw in their classwork.

She texted me the following:

“Thank you so much for all you have done for me. I truly hope that the upcoming
format changes will be better for the next generation… or that they will at least
reflect what we actually learn in high school.”
Sadly, that did not happen. Here is a message I got from another student several years later, regarding that updated version of the test:
“I don’t know how anyone knows this material without a tutor!”
And then there’s the quote I used at the top of this introduction. In the middle of a recent grammar lesson, a student of mine remarked:
“…yeah, we definitely don’t see this stuff in school.”

My students echo these sorts of sentiments every day. Their high school classes have not prepared them for what we see during our SAT and ACT prep.

Now just to be fair, I don’t think that College Board or the ACT companies are evil. In this book, I’ll give them credit when it’s due. And yes, these exams do include some topics that my students have seen before.

But when the test makers say that these exams are aligned with what students learn in school, it is simply not true.

Plus, the SAT is about to change from a paper test format to a digital test format.

Are you confused? Nervous? Downright scared?

Then this book is for you! I’m going to give you an exact step-by-step plan for how to prepare for the digital SAT, along with some great strategies for the ACT.

Bridging the Gap

 

Hello! My name is Daniel, and I have been a professional SAT and ACT tutor for over 20 years. Throughout this book, you’ll find testimonials from many of my previous students and their parents. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by your test prep, jump around to read some of these success stories. They’ll help to keep you motivated.

I’ll just include one of these stories here.

Back in 2019, I worked with a student… let’s call her Jackie. At first, Jackie was struggling with our lessons. Not academically, but emotionally. More specifically, she was embarrassed to admit when she needed help.

At one of our early lessons, she was stumped on a math question. I asked her, “So what do we do next?” But she was embarrassed to say she didn’t know. So we sat in silence for about 25 seconds.

Which was a very long time.

It was like an academic game of chicken. But neither of us budged. Her face got red. I saw tears forming in her eyes. She looked away so she could wipe them.

I put my pencil down and took a deep breath. I told her, “Jackie, it’s ok that you don’t know what to do. Truly. But telling me that is one of the best things you can say during our lessons. It’s not just that it will save us time. It will help me understand which step you’re confused about. That way, I can help you!” She dried her tears and agreed.

At subsequent lessons, she started to embrace the power of saying, “I don’t know.” This was a quantum leap forward! And much better than sitting in silence.

All told, her score improved from the 1000’s up to 1210, and then up to 1320! When her scores came out, she texted me the following:

Hello! My name is Daniel, and I have been a professional SAT and ACT tutor for over 20 years. Throughout this book, you’ll find testimonials from many of my previous students and their parents. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by your test prep, jump around to read some of these success stories. They’ll help to keep you motivated. I’ll just include one of these stories here. Back in 2019, I worked with a student… let’s call her Jackie. At first, Jackie was struggling with our lessons. Not academically, but emotionally. More specifically, she was embarrassed to admit when she needed help. At one of our early lessons, she was stumped on a math question. I asked her, “So what do we do next?” But she was embarrassed to say she didn’t know. So we sat in silence for about 25 seconds. Which was a very long time. It was like an academic game of chicken. But neither of us budged. Her face got red. I saw tears forming in her eyes. She looked away so she could wipe them. I put my pencil down and took a deep breath. I told her, “Jackie, it’s ok that you don’t know what to do. Truly. But telling me that is one of the best things you can say during our lessons. It’s not just that it will save us time. It will help me understand which step you’re confused about. That way, I can help you!” She dried her tears and agreed. At subsequent lessons, she started to embrace the power of saying, “I don’t know.” This was a quantum leap forward! And much better than sitting in silence. All told, her score improved from the 1000’s up to 1210, and then up to 1320! When her scores came out, she texted me the following:
“Thanks for everything over the past year. I think you’re an amazing teacher.
Definitely the best I ever had.”
(I’m not crying, you’re crying!)
The reason I tell this story – many of my students are hesitant to ask for help. Don’t be embarrassed! Admitting that you need help is a crucial first step.
And that’s where this book comes in. It is designed to help you bridge the
gap between what is not taught in school and what is fair game on these tests.
What You Will Find in This Book
  • -A complete step-by-step guide for how to prepare for the digital SAT…
  • -…along with steps for the ACT!
  • -Guidance on how to decide which test to focus on.
  • -A full overview of what you can expect to see on the digital SAT.
  • -A full analysis of every type of question you’ll see on the digital SAT…
  • -A full analysis of every type of question you’ll see on the digital SAT…
  • -The best test-taking “tricks”, tips, and strategies on how to navigate the ACT.

What You Won’t Find in This Book

  • -A coddling approach. I err on the side of tough love. I promise, everything I say stems from a genuine desire to help you achieve your best score. That said, some of what I say might surprise you. (See the next chapter for my speech that shocks all of my students’ parents.)
  • -A false promise of what you can expect for your score increases. See Chapter 9 for a deep dive into what you can expect in terms of reasonable score increases.
  • -Complicated language or jargon. Yes, the SAT and ACT contain some advanced topics. Still, this book is very user-friendly! Even when addressing some of the most difficult topics, I’ll be sure to use clear language that is easy to follow.
  • -A magical “do-nothing” plan to help your scores to go up. Test prep is about more than simple “tricks”. There is work involved! Or as a tutoring colleague of mine likes to say:
It’s a number 2 pencil, not a magic wand.”
(That joke is a tad dated now that you don’t need a pencil for the digital test. But you get my point.) My most successful students are those who take ownership over their testing journey. To quote another recent client: “Daniel was a great tutor for my daughter. We achieved great results with his help. You get what you put in, and his book will get you started in the right direction!” I agree! You get what you put in. I’ll give you great strategies, a detailed road map, and specific step-by-step instructions. But I can’t do the work for you. Your success is up to you.
Why Listen to Me?

Just a bit of background:

-For many years, I worked for Kaplan as an SAT and ACT teacher and tutor.

-After a few years, I started training their tutors.

-I then wrote curriculum for the Kaplan product development team.

-I was the writer and host of the cable program Mastering the SAT.

-I created the YouTube test prep channel Plan Your Work – Work Your Plan. (More on that in a bit.)

-But what I’m most proud of is my tutoring company that I’ve been running for more than a decade. During that time, I’ve worked with over 1,000 students, helping them achieve their best scores on the SAT and the ACT exams.

And now I’m going to share that secret sauce with you! This book includes the same strategies that I teach my students, along with the same step-by-step plan that I have them follow.

So all of this to say, you’re in good hands. Strap in, pour a cup of coffee (is that bad advice for a teenager?), and let’s get to work.

 

Chapter 1

Why Is Your Test Score So Low –
And What You Can Do About It!

“The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes, and leads you on to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth.”

-Dan Rather

Let me know if this sounds familiar.

-You just got your PSAT score back… and you can’t believe how low it is.

-You just took your first practice ACT… and you’re shocked by the low numbers.

-You’ve been taking a test prep class… but your scores have hit a plateau.

Your immediate reaction is some variation of:

“But my average in school is (insert number here)!”

“But I’m in the A.P. math class!”

“But I take I.B. English!”

My students are often surprised when their SAT and ACT scores don’t reflect their grades from high school.

Brace yourself. This might hurt a bit. Your GPA is irrelevant when it comes to the SAT and the ACT.

I’m going to say that again. Your GPA is irrelevant when it comes to the SAT and the ACT.

Now, I promise that this book is not all doom and gloom. Rather, my goal is to address the problem so we can find the solution! There is a light at the end of this tunnel.

Let’s start by identifying the seven reasons for the discrepancy between your high school grades and your scores on standardized tests.

Reason 1: Material You’ve Never Learned Before
Reason 2: Material You’ve Learned… But Forgot
Reason 3: Reading Comprehension Struggles
Reason 4: Grade Inflation
Reason 5: Not Thinking Like a Test Taker
Reason 6: Test-Taking Muscle
Reason 7: Equity and Access
Let’s take a closer look at each.

Reason 1: Material You’ve Never Learned Before

To reiterate what I said in the Introduction: there is no perfect marriage between what you see in high school and what is fair game on the SAT and the ACT.

In the Introduction, I mentioned how many of my students from a certain school have never learned about misplaced modifiers. My students from another high school have never seen the formula for exponential growth. In Chapter 4, I’ll make the same point with margin of error. These are all topics that are fair game on the tests, but many of my students have never seen them before.

Every state and school district in the country covers different topics of math and English. No high school class perfectly covers all of the topics you will encounter on the SAT and the ACT.

This past spring, I was chatting with the mother of one of my sophomore students. She asked me if her daughter should take (fancy name) math class A or (fancy name) math class B in her upcoming junior year. More specifically, she asked me, “Which one would serve her better for the SAT?”

My answer was neither.
Don’t pick a math class because you think it will teach you what you need for the SAT! Most of the material from your high school math class will not appear on the SAT. And only a tad more of it will appear on the ACT.
Don’t believe me?
Leaf through your junior year math textbook. See how many of those topics overlap with what you’ll see on an SAT question.

You’ll be hard pressed to find more than a few. Five might be a stretch.

I was recently chatting with one of my students about her upcoming high school math test. I asked her, “Hannah, ballpark, what percent of material from your math class would you say comes up on the SAT?” She said about 15%.
She’s not far off.
Now, please don’t misinterpret me.
1 – I’m not saying that the situation is hopeless! Again, let’s diagnose the problem so that we can then move on to the solution.

2 – I’m not trying to vilify high schools or teachers. I know many wonderful teachers who are excellent at their job. My mother is one of them. (Hi mom!)

In fact, I don’t blame high schools at all. It should not be the responsibility of a high school class to cover the material that is tested on the SAT or the ACT. It should be the other way! These tests should mirror the material that students see in their everyday classwork.

But unfortunately, they don’t.

Even though both test companies say they do.

For example, this is what the College Board book says when explaining the answer to one of their sample grammar questions. I’m paraphrasing for copyright purposes, but the gist is as follows: “You’re probably already familiar with the (such and such) grammar rule.”

No, as a matter of fact, many of my students are not familiar with the such and such grammar rule!

A fun anecdote: a student once told me that her English teacher would circle punctuation mistakes in her essays and papers. For example, if she had confused the word its and it’s or your and you’re, the teacher would write things like “This is wrong”, or “You need to proofread more”. But here’s the thing – this student didn’t know the difference between those words! So she knew that she had made a mistake, but she didn’t know how to correct it. (Shame on that teacher for not explaining those concepts to her, but I digress.)

So when College Board book says something like, “you probably already understand the concept of subject-verb agreement”, the book is wrong! Many of my students have never seen that concept before. And if you’re in that same camp of students who have never heard of that topic, that’s ok! Keep reading to the end of this chapter.

Let’s give the ACT a little love as well. The ACT is notorious for including many math topics that my students have never seen before. For example, the ACT often includes questions on how to multiply two matrices. (Because, you know, that’s relevant in life.) However, many of my students have never seen that topic in their math class. Still, the explanation in the ACT book says something like this. Again, I’m paraphrasing for copyright purposes: “…and you might have a math textbook to help explain this example.”

Well that’s wonderful. But what if you’re like my students who have never seen a matrix before? You’re screwed. Now what?

Sorry, I’m being flippant. But this sort of language from the test makers infuriates me.

Just to lighten the mood for a moment, you know that scene in the finale of Breaking Bad…

(What’s that? High school students don’t watch Breaking Bad? Au contraire! It was actually one of my students who suggested that I should start watching it. And he was right. Good call, Joe! Anyhoo…)

…where Skylar looks at Walt and says, “If I have to hear you say one more time that you did this for your family!” She’s heard him sing that refrain over and over, and she can’t bear hearing it one more time.

That’s how I feel whenever the SAT and ACT claim that their tests reflect what students see in school. In the words of Dwight Schrute: false.

(Yes, I switched to another TV show reference. Both shows are excellent! Back to the point…)

Last summer, a student’s father came to realize how false these sorts of statements were. After one of our lessons, he commented, “So in this environment of everyone-gets-a-trophy, I guess it’s a shock when the kid realizes how much material they don’t know.”

Bingo!

Now, some of you might now be thinking, “But surely, Daniel, you’re not talking about me.” Or for the parents reading this, “… that can’t be true for my Sally. She attends the such and such high school for gifted children.”

Brace yourself. Yes, I’m talking about you.

Or yes, I’m talking about Sally.

Tough love. I know. Stay with me.

Sally – I’m sure that you’re a wonderful human being. This doesn’t mean that you’re not smart. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have the potential to do well on these tests. This is in no way a personal attack on your character. That said, after 20 years of working with students, I’m confident of this: your GPA has nothing to do with your SAT and ACT scores. The majority of material that you learn in high school will not appear on either of these tests.

One more time for the folks in the back: there is no perfect marriage between what students learn in high school and what is considered fair game on the SAT and the ACT.

And that’s ok; you’re in the right place! This book is designed to help you bridge that gap.

Reason 2: Material You’ve Learned… But Forgot

To be fair, the SAT and ACT will include some material that you’ve seen before. However, it is usually material that you haven’t seen in years.

Often, when my students get stuck on an SAT or ACT math question, it’s not because they don’t understand the advanced 11th grade math topic that’s in play. Rather, it’s because they’ve forgotten a much more fundamental concept. For example, a student recently told me that she knew how to simplify a derivative in her math class, but she still missed a practice SAT question because she’d forgotten how to divide fractions.

I see this sort of thing with my students constantly; they know the schmancy 11th grade topic, but they’ve forgotten the simpler (9th… 7h… 5th) grade topic that the question is testing.

And these simpler topics are the bread-and-butter of the test!

Reason 3: Reading Comprehension Struggles

About 10 years ago, I worked with a student who struggled mightily on the verbal sections. Still, she had a high GPA. I asked her, “Chloe…” (her name was not Chloe), “Chloe… when you read a book for school, give me a ballpark number… what percentage of it do feel like you understand? 80%? 50%?”

She told me – without sarcasm – that she had never read a book.

Yep. Just another honor roll student.

After my pulse started again, I asked her how she maintained her grades in her English class. She told me that she listened to the classroom discussions, took notes on what the teacher said, and found online summaries for whatever they were reading. That was enough to get by.

And now here she was, being asked to read complex college-level SAT reading passages.

And she didn’t understand a word.

Chloe is not an anomaly. Your grades in English class are not a leading indicator of how you might score on your SAT and ACT verbal sections.

How do we combat that? We’ll get there in future chapters!

Reason 4: Grade Inflation 

Then there is grade inflation. Back in my day (Wow, did I just say that??), it was not common for students to hold a GPA above a 90, and even less common for students to hold a GPA above a 95. These days, everyone has a high GPA.
In a recent press release, College Board said the following:

“While high school grades are an important reflection of students’ work, the share of students graduating from high school with an A average has grown from 39% in 1998 to 55% in 2021.”

They even use this data point to market their test! In October of 2022, I saw a College Board ad pop up on my computer that said this:

“Most college freshmen were ‘A’ students in high school. Don’t miss the chance to stand out! (And then an advertisement to take the upcoming December SAT.)”

And they’re right! They know that the majority of students are applying to colleges with high GPAs. A high GPA does not help you stand out the way it once did.
A student recently told me how her GPA was calculated. Students in the I.B. or A.P. classes have their grades multiplied by a certain factor. So, students scoring in the high 70’s have their numbers bumped to the low 90’s. Students scoring in the low 80’s have their numbers bumped to the high 90’s, and so on.
As a result, some of my students, and their parents, have an inaccurate sense of their strengths and weaknesses. Their grades do not indicate how much they might be struggling with a certain topic.
Plus, there’s the partial credit factor. If students do just one thing wrong on a math test question in school, their teacher might still give them 9 out of 10 points. Alas, no luck with that on the SAT or the ACT! These tests will either reward you the full point for or they won’t. There is no partial credit for doing five out of six things correctly within a question.
And one parent even told me how her daughter had her grade bumped a bit for attendance, behavior, and “just being nice”. That’s all well and good, but no such luck with that on the SAT or the ACT.

A Brief Aside: There is No “Should”

Here’s an exchange I once had with a student after her second attempt at the SAT. She had seen some solid math jumps, but her verbal numbers had hit a plateau.

Me – How was the reading section for you?
Her – I feel like I should be scoring higher there.
Me – Good to know. Why do you say that? Do you feel that you understand the passages, and you’re then getting tripped up on the questions?
Her – …no.
Me – Ok. Are you understanding the passages, but then struggling with the timing factor?
Her – …no.
Me – Ok. So… why do you say that you should be scoring higher there?
Her – … I just feel like I should be!

Says who?

And I promise, I liked this student! I’m lovingly picking on her here. Still, she thought her stellar high school grades meant she “should be” scoring higher on the SAT.

Nope.

Now, I’m not saying a high GPA means you can’t score well on the SAT or the ACT. After all, that’s why we’re here! But don’t think that having a certain GPA means you should have a certain standardized test score.

And the flip side of that is also true! Just as a high GPA does not mean you should do well on the SAT or the ACT, a low GPA does not mean you shouldn’t do well on the SAT or ACT! There is little correlation between the two.

The strategies and methods outlined in this book can help students from any GPA improve their SAT and ACT scores. As I said in the Introduction, it’s all up to you!

But your GPA is not a leading indicator of your potential to do well on these tests, nor is it a leading indicator of your potential to do poorly.

Reason 5: Not Thinking Like a Test Taker

Many of my students are not used to thinking the way that the SAT and ACT want them to think. Here’s an example of the type of thinking that stumps many of my students.

Q. The number of bacteria on a lake will double every day. The bacteria will reach their final amount on the 30th day. On what day will the bacteria reach half of that final amount?

Take a minute to think about an answer before you keep reading.

(I’ll pause to let you work on it. Writing this chapter is making me hungry. Should I make a panini or an omelet on my lunch break?)

9 out of 10 times, my students will say that the answer is 15. Or more accurately, 5 out of 10 will say 15, and 4 out of 10 will say “I don’t know.”

Let’s consider 15. That’s logical, right? Half the time must mean half the number. So if we’re hitting the final number on the 30th day, then the 15th day must be half of that amount. Right? RIGHT?!?

But that’s linear thinking. If you’re doubling something forever, that’s not linear growth; that’s exponential growth.

Let’s use actual numbers to make this idea more concrete. Let’s say that we’re starting with 2 bacteria, because why not. (And don’t worry, we won’t do this 30 times. But let’s pretend we’re going to.)

On day 1, we have 2 bacteria. Doubling that…

On day 2, we have 4 bacteria. So far so good. Doubling that…

On day 3, we have 8 bacteria. Continuing to double…

Day 4 would be 16…

Day 5 would be 32…

And so on… and so on… and so on…

Notice – every day is half of the day that follows it. Day 1 was half of day 2. Day 2 was half of day 3. This will continue forever. Day 11 will be half of day 12… day 23 will be half of day 24… and so on…

…until day 29 is half of day 30. The answer is 29! If the bacteria doubles on day 29, you’ll arrive at the final number for day 30. This means that day 29 is half the amount of day 30.

Aha! Now that you got it, let’s do it again. Let’s say you have the same situation: bacteria are doubling every day. But now, they’re going to reach their final number on the 72nd day, because why not. On what day will the number of bacteria reach half of that amount?

(I’ll pause to let you think about it… and I think we’re going with an omelet.)

Just like before, it’s doubling every day. This means that the 71st day will have half of the number of the 72nd day. The answer is 71. (And just like 15 being the trap answer on the first question, 36 would be the trap answer here. Half the time does not mean half the amount!)
Now, some of my students understand that first question instantly. They can immediately tell me that the answer is 29. But other students, most of my students in fact, absolutely need the explanation above.

And if you needed the explanation too, that’s ok! But that illustrates the point: there is a difference between high school-based computation and test-based critical thinking.

Many of my students are not used to this.

(And now I’m back after eating. It was delicious.)

Transformational Insights with Daniel Fischer

Unlock your academic potential with daniel fischer: expert sat and act tutor, renowned author. Dive into fischer’s proven strategies, empowering students to excel in standardized tests and beyond. Transform your learning journey, achieve top scores, and open doors to limitless opportunities. Your success story begins here

Photos by Jess Osber Photography

Photos by Jess Osber Photography

Transformational Insights with Daniel Fischer

Unlock your academic potential with daniel fischer: expert sat and act tutor, renowned author. Dive into fischer’s proven strategies, empowering students to excel in standardized tests and beyond. Transform your learning journey, achieve top scores, and open doors to limitless opportunities. Your success story begins here

The Reason You Really Want Me to Include: “Just a Bad Test Taker”


At this point, most of you are (hopefully) with me. For the students, you’re thinking, “You’re right! They don’t ask us questions like this in school.” Or for the parents, you’re thinking, “We’re so glad we found this book for Charlie!” Hi Charlie. Glad to have you here.

But for some of you, I can still hear your gears grinding. You want to say something like, “Daniel, you’re still not talking about Sally. She’s a good student! She’s just a bad test taker.”

Are there students with genuine learning struggles? Of course. I have had many students with learning disabilities, I.E.P.s and 504 plans. This chapter is not intended to diminish how those struggles can indeed impact a student’s test-taking experience. (See Chapter 15 on testing with accommodations.)

Still, all too often, I hear the parents of my students say, “… she’s very smart, she’s just a bad test taker.”

Sometimes. But sometimes, she just doesn’t know the material.

And it is critical to be able to make that distinction.

 

Reason 6: Test-Taking Muscle 

And there are many other factors in play as well, such as timing struggles (especially on the ACT), energy, stamina, focus, nerves, and test-taking anxiety.

These factors, along with countless others, help to explain why a student with a GPA of (insert high number x) might have a standardized test score of (insert low number y). It is not the exception to the rule; it happens for many students.

Reason 7: Equity and Access

And finally, there are issues of equity and access. Not every student has the same access to quality education. And certainly, even fewer students have access to elite test prep. Tutors and prep classes can be prohibitively expensive. Not every family can “afford a Daniel”.

That’s why I created this book! I wanted to remove that barrier. This book covers the same “secret sauce” that I teach my students.
And it’s also why I created my YouTube channel, which is completely free and available to everyone!

My channel is called Plan Your Work – Work Your Plan. It is an invaluable resource for your test prep! (Side note – invaluable means extremely valuable. My students hate that one.)

The videos on my channel cover the same lessons that I teach my students. Here’s how to incorporate those videos with this book.
How to Incorporate My YouTube Channel with this Book

My YouTube channel, and this book, are designed to bridge the gap between what is not taught in school and what these tests want you to know.

Whenever I mention a specific topic, I’ll include a link to my YouTube video that covers that lesson. So if I mention a topic that you’re not familiar with, go watch that video!
My YouTube channel is an outstanding supplement to this book. More so – it is designed to bridge the gap between what is not taught in high school and what is fair game on the test.

And that is how to overcome the discrepancy between your GPA and your standardized test scores.
Now, before we get to actual material, let’s start with an overview of what you’ll see on each test. Once you’re more familiar with the format, we can get to a step-by-step plan.

Chapter 4

Why is College Board Doing This?

“It’s a bit of a nothing burger.”
-The best line I’ve heard about the digital test.

Now that you’re more familiar with the format of the digital SAT, you might be asking yourself, “Why is College Board making this change? What’s the point?”

(Granted, you might have been asking yourself before we even started.)

But seriously, why would College Board go through such a major overhaul of the SAT?

There are four main reasons for this. I agree with… two and a half of them. But according to College Board, they are transitioning to the digital test because it is:

1 – Easier to take
2 – Easier to give
3 – More secure
4 – More relevant

For those who paid attention to the first few chapters, you’ll know that I think that point number 4 is utter nonsense. But points 1, 2, and 3 are valid. Let’s take a look at each.

1 – Easier to Take

This is the point I’ll “half-agree” with. As we mentioned earlier, the digital test will be about an hour shorter than the paper test. College Board is touting this as a selling point for students. So yes, the digital test is less of a mental marathon.

Also, I mentioned how College Board removed a lot of the “fluff” from the math questions. The wording of these questions will now be more streamlined. However, that doesn’t mean that the math questions will be easier; they will just contain less extraneous information.

Reading passages will be streamlined as well. They will be one paragraph, instead of six or seven. So, that’s good for shorter attention spans. College Board also claims that because the passages will pull from more varied topics, students will find them “more interesting”. As I said in a previous chapter, I’ll let you all be the judge of that. (More to the point, there will still students who will hate the reading passages with every fiber of their being.)

And of course, some students might prefer taking the test digitally instead of on paper. We all live our lives digitally, from the way we consume entertainment to the way we interact with friends and family. To that point, students might enjoy the “choreography” of the digital test over that of the paper test. We shall see!

2 – Easier to Give

For this point, I’ll fully agree! The digital platform makes it much easier for College Board to deliver the test.

The paper test opened the door to many potential security risks:

-Delivering the test to the school.
-Storing and handling the test.
-Proctoring the test correctly.
-Collecting the tests and shipping them back.

Here are some actual kerfuffles that my students have encountered during their previous tests. (By the by – my spell check is fine with a singular kerfuffle, but it doesn’t like plural kerfuffles? Go figure.)

-Many students have told me stories about their proctors screwing up the timing of each section. Some proctors cut the time short by mistake, while others added time to a section. The point of having a proctor is to ensure standardized testing conditions for every test taker in every location. So much for that.

-Another student reported back that his proctor was a little “loosey-goosey” with the timing. At the end of a section, the proctor said something to the effect of, “Oh, you’re not done? Ok, you can take a few more minutes to finish the section.” Oh no you can’t! But these students could. Once again, way to take the “standard” out of standardized test.

-During the test, students can only work on one section at a time. They cannot go back to finish their work from a previous section, nor can they move ahead to start work on an upcoming section. However, a student recently told me she saw a nearby student working on the reading questions in section 1 while everyone was supposed to be working on the math questions in section 3. The proctor didn’t catch it.

-Another proctor told my student he was done after section 3 instead of section 4! So my student left the test room, thinking he was done. Thankfully, the proctor realized this mistake rather quickly and ran into the parking lot to call him back in. Crisis averted, but jeesh. (And shame on my student; he had taken many practice tests, so he knew very well there were four sections and not three sections. Oh Ryan, you kill me.)

-And here’s a personal favorite for paper test glitches: the 2021 April ACT got lost in the mail.

Yep. Really.

Hundreds of students took the April 17, 2021, ACT at a certain high school. Their answer sheets were sent back via FedEx. Those answer sheets got lost in the mail.

Yep. Really.

Now, those students were offered another opportunity to take the test (free of charge) or a full refund. But still… c’mon, man.

The digital test eliminates the potential for these sorts of errors!

-Timing is no longer the job of the proctor, so all students are guaranteed to have the same amount of time allotted for every section.

-The digital format only allows students to work on that specific section, without the chance to go forward or back to other sections.

-If a student is only done with three sections instead of all four, the digital test won’t excuse the student early. (Still smacking my head on that one, Ryan.)

-The digital format eliminates the need for transporting the test to and from the testing location, so answer sheets can’t get lost in transit.

So I’ll agree with College Board on this one; the digital test format eliminates the potential for these types of mishaps. Plus, the digital test allows schools more flexibility as to when they can offer the exam, which also makes the test easier to give.

3 – More Secure

I’ll agree on this point as well.

There have been many tales of bootleg tests winding up on the internet. This was especially true with the paper test overseas. The digital format makes the test much more secure.

Plus, the digital test only displays one question at a time on the screen. So, potential bootleggers can’t photocopy an entire page of questions.

Also, because of the section-adaptive nature of the modules, cheating off your neighbors won’t offer any advantage; they’re not (necessarily) taking the same test that you are.

4 – More Relevant

College Board and the ACT folks try to make two cases for this.

First – they claim that the material on the test is more relevant in terms of what students see in school.

Second – they claim that the material on the test is more relevant in terms of the skills that students will need later in life.

My thoughts on the first point: nope.

My thoughts on the second point: are you flippin’ kidding me?

On the first point – I won’t bore you with my diatribes from the first few chapters. I’ll just repeat my favorite refrain:Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

There is no perfect marriage between what
you see in high school and what is fair game on the SAT and the ACT.

Both tests include a significant amount of material that you’ve likely never seen before. See the Introduction and Chapter 1 for my full thoughts on this.
On the second point – oh please.
Are reading skills important? Of course. Are basic math skills helpful in life? For sure. Will it ever help you in life to know how the discriminant of a parabola affects the nature of its roots?
Never.
(But for a video that explains it – check out my YouTube page!)
Here’s a favorite meme I once saw on the interwebs. You may have seen it before:
I’m so glad I learned about parallelograms instead of how to do my taxes. It really
comes in handy during parallelogram season.”
This is a tad flippant, perhaps. Still, it makes the point nicely: most of what you learn in high school will be irrelevant the nanosecond that you finish high school.
I think it’s Mark Twain who said:

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

I’m also reminded of a Paul Simon song lyric, where he jokes about the nonsense that he learned in high school. I’m with ya, Paul!

That’s not meant to be pessimistic, but pragmatic. Unless you’re entering very specialized fields of biology, you’ll never need to know anything about the mitochondria of a cell. If you’re not going to be a statistician, you’ll never need to know about standard deviation.

Pay attention in school to do your best on your tests, midterms, comps, trimesters, finals, state regents, A.P. exams, I.B. exams, etc. But do not believe it for a moment when the testing companies say that any of this crap is relevant beyond high school.

My Real Beef with Each Test Company – And My Main Thesis of the Entire Book

In its practice test book, College Board repeatedly makes the point that the best way to prepare for the SAT is to “actively engage in challenging courses”. They reiterate this claim throughout the book.

False. Utterly false.

The best prep for the SAT, and the ACT, is to learn what arbitrary topics are “fair game” on that test. If your high school classes don’t cover the topics in the first place, it doesn’t matter how actively you engage in them. You still haven’t learned the topics that are fair game on that test.

I’ll illustrate with the concept of margin of error, which has become increasingly popular on the SAT in recent years. A question on this topic might look like this.

Q. A Central Park intern stands at Columbus Circle, interviewing a random sample of people as they leave the park. She asks them how far they walked during their park stroll. She calculates that the estimated mean was 3.4 miles, with an associated margin of error of 0.3 miles. Which of the following is the most appropriate conclusion that can be drawn?

A) It is likely that most visitors walked exactly 3.4 miles.
B) It is not possible that any visitor walked less than 2 miles.
C) It is likely that all visitors walked between 3.1 and 3.7 miles.
D) It is plausible the mean distance walked for all visitors is between 3.1 and 3.7 miles.

I’ll kick you into play, and then I’ll let you answer.

Margin of error measures… well… the margin of your error. Or put another way, it measures how much you’re “off” by.

For example, if you measure something to be 85% with a margin of error of 2%, it means that your measurement might be 2% too high or 2% too low. So from 85, you can add 2 and subtract 2 to get the full range. This gives you a range of 83% to 87%.

But here’s the thing: that doesn’t mean the answer is between 83 and 87. It means 83 to 87 is a plausible range for the mean.

In other words, there could very well be values that are below 83 and above 87. Those numbers are not hard and fast boundaries. Again, it just means 83 to 87 is a plausible range for the mean.


Have my students learned that in school? Nope.

Does the SAT want them to know it? Yep.

Does knowing that concept have anything to do with “how challenging your coursework is”? Nope.


So, now that you understand how margin of error works, go back to the Central Park question. Take a moment and give it a shot.

I’ll be over here, wrestling with my Wordle.

 

(It’s all about the vowel movement.)


If the mean is calculated to be 3.4, you would add and subtract the margin of error of 0.3. This gives you a range between 3.1 and 3.7. However, careful of choice C! It does not mean the final answer is between 3.1 and 3.7. Again, the magic words are that 3.1 to 3.7 is a plausible range for the mean. There very well could have been measurements outside of that range. The answer is D.

 

Now that you’re warmed up, let’s try another.

Q. Brian asks a random sample of amusement park visitors how long they had to wait for the flight simulator ride. He found that the mean wait time was 80 minutes, with a margin of error of 12 minutes. What is the best conclusion that can be drawn from Brian’s survey?

A) It is not possible that any visitors waited more than 92 minutes.
B) It is not possible that any visitors waited less than 68 minutes.
C) It is likely that all visitors waited between 68 and 92 minutes.
D) It is plausible that the mean wait time for all visitors was between 68 and 92 minutes.


I’ll be over here, finishing that Wordle. Give it a shot.

(Whew, I got it at the buzzer. My win streak is preserved.)

Many of my students are tempted by choice C. However, the answer is D. It is not enough to simply add the 12 and subtract the 12. We need those magical words: plausible range for the mean.
And this is a classic example of an arbitrary fact that the SAT wants you to know. Once you know it, it’s not hard.
However, this concept is not taught in many math classes.
And it is certainly not relevant in life.
And it is certainly not dependent on how challenging your high school classes are.
So, College Board and the ACT can keep singing their song about how their tests are:

-measuring the knowledge and skills that are taught in schools.
-measuring the knowledge and skills that are relevant in life.

And as long as they do, I’ll be over here singing “B.S.” in reply.
(I really wanted to say it, but my editor and my mother told me not to.)
Only a small portion of SAT and ACT material overlaps with what my students see in high school. Period.
And even less of it is relevant beyond the classroom.
To say otherwise is simply untrue. So Why Does College Board (or the ACT) Get to Decide What is “Most Relevant”?
Exactly.
This is the crux of standardized testing. There is nothing standard about it. Students from high schools A, B, and C might learn this math topic over there. Students from high schools X, Y, and Z might learn this grammar topic over there.
How can the SAT and the ACT perfectly align their tests with what all students have learned?
They can’t.
We simply have to acknowledge that these test makers are the gatekeepers; they get to decide which topics are “fair game” and which topics are not. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It just is. And we have to deal with it.
In their materials, College Board talks about the surveys they conduct to decide what topics appear on the test and what topics get cut. And they’re conducting more of these surveys over the coming years. But again, they get to decide. We just have to adapt.
For example, the paper SAT used to include a topic called diction. A grammar question would have said something like this:

I should of seen this trap coming.

The author doesn’t mean to use the word “of” in that sentence. The sentence should say, “I should have seen that trap coming.”
This is a topic that was tested on the paper SAT for many years. Then, College Board decided that diction would no longer be in play for the digital test.
I’m not calling that good. I’m not calling that bad. It just is. Diction used to be “fair game” on the test. Now it is not. Because College Board says so.
Ditto on the math section. For example, they announced that imaginary numbers would no longer appear on the digital SAT. I’m not saying that imaginary numbers are important. I’m not saying they’re not. But College Board gets to decide “we are cutting these topics over here and adding these topics over there”.
And likewise for the ACT, which is notorious for including random math topics. At the end of each math section, they love to throw in topics that have never appeared on the test before. They’re not hard, per se. They’re just random.
And these are the hoops that we must jump through. College Board is the vanguard of the SAT, just as the ACT folks get to decide what goes on the ACT. The best we can do is learn what is “fair game” on these tests, based on the practice materials they’ve released.
But to call it standardized is false.
To call it aligned with what students see in school is false.
To call it relevant to what students need to know beyond high school is false.
And to call it dependent on “taking challenging course work” is utterly false.

My Honest Thoughts on the Change 

So, what are my honest thoughts on the shift from the paper SAT to the digital SAT? (Which is not to say that I haven’t been honest up to this point!) To quote another tutor: it’s a bit of a nothing burger.
Granted, there are aspects of the digital test that I think are an improvement, such as making the test more secure, the quicker turn-around time for the scores, etc.
But other changes are in the “who cares” category. For example, the grid-in answers can now be negative, the “no change” option was removed from the grammar questions, etc. Nothing burgers indeed.
So is it a “better test”? No.
My honest opinion: the SAT and the ACT are both incredibly useful and incredibly useless.
They are useful because they offer a standard yardstick against which all students can be measured. How can a student with a 4.1 GPA be compared to a student with an A+ average? And what about a student with a 103 average? As we said in the previous chapter, everyone now has a high GPA.
For example, when listening to a recent webinar for educators, I heard the tale of a student with a 4.3 GPA who was ranked 27th out of 125 in her class. With a 4.3, mind you. Which makes you wonder how off the charts the GPAs must be for students 1 – 26!
This gives you a sense of how high GPAs are a bit “diluted” now. A high average doesn’t carry the same weight that it once did. So, these tests are designed to compare students using some standard barometer.
And I get that. Really. I do.
But this barometer is incredibly flawed.
Different students from different schools all learn different things! These tests only overlap so much with what students see in school.
Plus, there are the issues of equity and access that I discussed in Chapter 1. Again, that is why I created this book, along with my YouTube channel!
The bottom line: these tests don’t reflect what you’re learning in school, they don’t indicate anything about your potential for future success, and they don’t indicate anything about the quality of your character.
Are they relevant in life? Absolutely not.
But are they the necessary hoops to jump through? Yes.
And can I help you do well on them? You bet!
I’m reminded of Jimmy Fallon’s line in the movie Almost Famous:

“I didn’t invent the rainy day. I just own the best umbrella.”

That is how I feel about the SAT and the ACT. These tests are a crude assessment of arbitrary skills that are irrelevant the moment you finish the test. That said, I can help you do well on them!

So, let’s put some nothing burgers on the grill and get to the good stuff: how to prepare for the test.

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