With Memorial Day less than two weeks away, and warm weather finally in the air, students, parents, (and tutors!) are counting down the days to summer, and its promise of vacation, relaxation, and sunshine. After getting through final exams and projects, everyone will certainly need time off to recharge. However, after getting in one’s share of R&R, the summer also presents us with an ideal opportunity to get a head start on the school year to come. For students entering 8th grade, that might mean preparing to take the SHSAT or ISEE high school entrance exams in the fall, or, for high school students, preparing for the PSAT, SAT, or SAT II Subject Tests.
What going to the gym and test prep have in common
This past January, I saw an interesting sign at the gym that said, “Summer bodies are built in the winter.” In many ways it’s an obvious statement. When it comes to physical fitness, we all understand intuitively that it’s impossible to get fitter and stronger without regular exercise, and that fitness training takes time. Strangely, however, this concept becomes less obvious to us when we think about building and maintaining mental and intellectual skills, such as those used in math, reading, and writing. And yet these skills, just like our physical ones, can be built and strengthened only with focused and consistent practice. And just like our physical fitness, our mental acuity can become “out of shape” when not exercised regularly.
A head start
As my students and families know from working with me, effective test preparation involves breaking the exam up into specific, digestible topics, and then practicing, practicing, and practicing some more. Even one session per week can help to maintain and strengthen skills that are learned during the school year. Even better, a consistent program can give students a head start by having them tackle real test questions and passages—months in advance of test day. Ultimately, this long-run approach is the most effective strategy to getting great results. Summer bodies may be built in the winter, but school-year test takers are built in the summer.
If you, your son or daughter, or any of your friends or family members might benefit from test preparation this summer, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re more than happy to discuss your needs for tutoring, and consultations are always free.
At the beginning of March, on the eve of the first SAT date of the year, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled, “The Truth about the SAT and the ACT.” Naturally the headline grabbed me, and I read through the piece.
Written by Drs. Nathan Kuncel and Paul Sackett, two psychologists at the University of Minnesota, the article argues that SAT and ACT scores are as important as ever. According to the authors, test scores are accurate predictors of student success, both in college and in their future careers. As such, the authors argue that the high importance placed on test scores by college admissions officers is justified.
To prove their point, the authors seek to debunk a number of myths that have been raised about standardized exams in recent years, one of which was the following:
“Myth: Test Prep and Coaching Produce Large Score Gains.”
Naturally, this one made my eyebrows go up. I read on. To justify their claim, Kuncel and Sackett cite a study, coauthored by Sackett, in which 4,248 high school students were sampled, and the average score increase due to tutoring and coaching was, according to the authors, “14 points on the math test and 4 points on the verbal.” That is, essentially nil.
As these numbers are so foreign to my own experience of helping students achieve far more substantial score increases, I needed to read through the researchers’ paper myself, to learn more about their methodology. The article in the WSJ provided a link to their study (I’m linking it again here), which was published in the academic journal Personnel Psychology. I clicked, downloaded, and read the PDF of the journal article. Here’s what I found.
An admirable study, with limitations
In his paper (coauthored with Brian Connelly of the University of Toronto), Sackett candidly acknowledges the difficulties in measuring the effectiveness of a treatment such as SAT preparation. There are so many confounding variables—students who pursue test prep tend to be highly motivated, they tend to already be high performers in school, they tend to come from families that strongly value education, etc. Sackett rightly acknowledges that any or all of these variables could necessarily be a reason for higher test scores, and not the test prep itself. So, to remove some of this “self-selection bias,” Sackett uses a technique called “propensity scoring,” in which he matches like students to other like students. The ideal pairing would be something like the following:
Mark A and Mark B attend the same high school, live in the same neighborhood, attend the same classes, have similar GPAs, and their parents earn similar incomes and have similar levels of education. Mark A undergoes private SAT tutoring, while Mark B does not. Let’s look at the increases in their test scores before and after Mark A undergoes tutoring, and see if there is any significant difference between the two.
This is an idealized account, but Sackett’s “propensity scoring” attempts to match students who come from very similar backgrounds, like the two Marks, in an attempt to control for other confounding variables. In doing so, Sackett is hoping to show that any difference in score increases must be solely due to the SAT tutoring. While this methodology is certainly more rigorous than just taking any old random sample of students who did some preparation and compare them against those who didn’t, there were issues with the study that led me to find its conclusions less than convincing.
No attempt to define “private tutoring”
Sackett distinguishes between students who underwent “private tutoring” and those who did not. However, he and his coauthors make no attempt to define what kind of tutoring program the students were exposed to, or for how long they were exposed to it. To my mind, this makes any conclusion about the effectiveness of tutoring seriously flawed. To illustrate why, compare the following two students:
John receives private tutoring for thirty minutes the night before the SAT.
Mary receives private tutoring twice a week for three months leading up to the SAT. Each of her lessons is ninety minutes long, for a total tutoring regimen of three hours per week. After each lesson, Mary is assigned a custom-tailored set of homework problems designed to specifically strengthen her weak areas. Every few weeks, Mary is given a full-length practice exam to complete on Saturday morning, timing herself to simulate real test conditions. This not only gives her practice taking the exam, but it also helps to motivate her as she begins to see the progress she’s making.
It should be obvious which of these two students will see a large score increase, and which will not. And yet, according to my reading of Sackett’s study, both John and Mary would get lumped together as having been “privately tutored.” Of course, John, seeing little or no increase, will bring down the average, leading to the faulty conclusion: “private tutoring realizes negligible gains.”
A study I’d love to see
I would love to see a study comparing the type of tutoring program I prescribed to Mary—regular and frequent, with minimum ninety-minute durations, with sufficient support and practice for the student—and compare score increases for students who undergo that type of private tutoring to those who have no tutoring at all. I’d gladly endorse Dr. Sackett’s methodology of propensity scoring, to match students of similar backgrounds and control for confounding variables. From my experience, I believe such a study would yield some very different results.
Paul King is a private tutor based in Manhattan. Over the years, he has coached nearly one hundred students for the SAT and the ACT, helping them to build intellectual and personal confidence, and to achieve their full potentials.
According to Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and other bestselling books on business and human behavior, we are living in what he calls the “SAT-ocracy.” As someone who started tutoring for the SAT and other tests as a way to earn income on the side, only to have it grow into a full-time business, I’m well aware of the demand for test preparation. According to a 2014 article on Bloomberg, the number of tutoring centers in the U.S. doubled to more than 11,000 from 1998 to 2012; by 2009, the entire business had grown in value to more than $4 billion annually.
There is a good reason for all the demand. Despite the College Board’s claims that the SAT measures “inalterable aptitude” and that the test cannot be prepared for, studies have shown that even run-of-the-mill test prep can help improve a student’s score by twenty or thirty points, and in my own experience, personalized, one-on-one tutoring has led countless students of mine to increase their scores substantially higher than this. (Feel free to contact me for more details.) Ultimately, it is revealing that the College Board, despite its claims the test cannot be prepared for, still sells proprietary test materials that are marketed for students to “be ready for the SAT with strategies…straight from the exam makers” [bold mine].
Indeed, as long as colleges continue to use the SAT as a key barometer for undergraduate admission (as well as the GRE for graduate programs, or the GMAT for MBA programs, or the MCAT for medical school, etc), test preparation is here to stay. But despite the dominance of the SAT-ocracy, there are some undeniable flaws in the system. While the SAT was originally developed to measure a prospective student’s ability to succeed in university (indeed, “SAT” itself stands for “Scholastic Aptitude Test”), a 20-year study conducted by William Hiss of Bates University found little to no link between SAT scores and student GPA in college. (The greatest predictor of student success in college, it turned out, was high school GPA.) Other critics of the SAT contend that it only tests “left-brain” abilities, such as logic and analytical reasoning, and neglects creative and practical skills necessary for success in life and business; still others argue, quite fairly, that the test favors students whose families can afford tutoring and extra help, thus contributing to an SAT inequity. With all of these concerns, is it possible that the future may one day hold some interesting alternatives to the SAT?
The answer is most likely a yes. In an effort to develop a test that can better predict student success not only in college but throughout one’s adult life, Robert Sternberg, a professor of psychology at Yale, has developed the Rainbow Project—a kind of “right-brained” alternative to the SAT. On one section of the test, students are faced with five cartoons from the New Yorker with the captions removed—and are asked to supply their own. Scorers then grade the student responses on a 1-to-5 scale, based on appropriateness, originality, and humor. Another test section includes a series of story titles, and students are then prompted to write the story.
Could such a test ever replace the SAT? As someone who believes in the efficacy of the SAT to measure real skills (while readily acknowledging the imperfection of the test as a barometer for success, as mentioned earlier), I certainly don’t think so. But it’s possible that such a test might one day be taken in addition to our current battery of analytical tests. In fact, this seems even likelier when you consider who funded Sternberg’s Rainbow Project. Can you guess? In true SAT fashion (hint, hint), it was one of the following:
A) the U.S. Department of Education
B) Yale University
C) the NFL
D) the College Board
Nice job if you selected D. It appears the makers of the SAT themselves are invested in developing alternative aptitude tests.
What do you think? Is the SAT a good indicator for college admissions, or do we need alternatives? Feel free to comment below.
Conventional wisdom holds that most of us are extrinsically motivated—offer us some extra credit, a bigger bonus, or a heftier piece of cake, and we’ll work harder and achieve better results. We also tend to believe that the reverse is true: if we punish poor behavior, a bad grade, or low performance, we’ll see less of that behavior in the future. This is known as the “carrots and sticks” model of motivation, and we see it everywhere, from the parenting of children, all the way up to complex diplomatic relations between nations. If you’re a parent, and you’ve ever offered your student a desirable reward for a good grade, while threatening to take away iPhone privileges for a failing one, then you’re more than familiar with carrots and sticks. The question we should all be asking ourselves, however, is: Do carrots and sticks actually work?
Despite the fact that the reward/punishment model is so deeply rooted in how we think about influencing behavior, psychological studies have shown that carrots and sticks really only work well when the task at hand is algorithmic—that is, when it involves repeating the same mundane sequence over and over again. If you offer someone a cash bonus to stuff a certain number of envelopes in an hour, that person’s going to work faster, and you’re going to get better results. Stuffing envelopes is a simple, left-brain task that everyone already knows how to do; to do it more quickly doesn’t require activating the complex, creative thinking of the right half of the brain.
However, reward/punishment is actually detrimental when it comes to problems such as the following:
The above is a classic SAT problem: you can actually solve it without ever finding the values of or alone. However, because students are taught algorithms in school to solve for , they typically try to do just that, and then run into all kinds of problems with questions like this one. Essentially, most students try to approach this problem with the left half of their brains, in envelope-stuffing fashion. But this problem cannot be stuffed like an envelope; it requires “outside-the-box,” right brain thinking. Oftentimes, this is where students hit a wall—a wall that no reward or punishment is going to motivate them to get over. So how do we get these students to persevere, to try the problem, to fail at it, then to try again in a different way, and if necessary, to ask a teacher, a parent, an older sibling, or a tutor for help, and then, after that whole process, to finally go back, to discover the error, and then re-attempt the problem and finally get it right?
The only way students will bother with any of this is if they are intrinsically motivated, or rather, if theysee thetask as its own reward. At first glance, this might seem laughable. Except for a handful of math geeks, who would ever see a math puzzle as its own reward? As it turns out, however, we are actually psychologically hardwired to enjoy puzzles; for those students who claim to dislike math, my bet would be that it has far more to do with an embarrassing or traumatic experience they had with math at a young age than with any built-in animosity towards numbers. I also know from my own tutoring experience that “I’m just not good at math” is largely a self-limiting belief that can be unlearned. As we now know, intelligence is not a fixed quantity like your height, but much more like a muscle, which can be strengthened through training and exercise.
So how do we intrinsically motivate our students or, for that matter, ourselves? I encourage you to try the following the next time you want to get your son or daughter to sit down and study (or to get yourself to do something you’ve been procrastinating):
On a scale of 1 to 10, how interested are you in [studying, going to the gym, writing your novel, etc.] right now?
Typically, you’ll get a response of 3 or maybe 4—big surprise. Now ask the following:
Why didn’t you say a lower number?
No one expects this follow-up question, and it takes us off guard. In answering the question, we spontaneously begin to list all the reasons we actually do want to do the thing we’ve been procrastinating—“Well, I do actually want to get a good grade, and it would be great to get this out of the way before the weekend…” In listing all the reasons we actually do want to tackle the task at hand, we unknowingly increase our intrinsic motivation, which is what actually gets us to move.
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Do you need help motivating your teen to excel in school? Contact me today for a free consultation!
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Unlike the regular SAT, which tests general math and verbal ability, the SAT II Subject Tests are your chance to show off your best subject areas. The subjects offered include History (U.S. and World), English Literature, Math I and Math II (Math II covers more advanced topics than Math I, typically up through a high school pre-calculus course), as well as Sciences (Chemistry, Physics, Biology) and various foreign languages. These tests are only one hour in length, and you can take up to three in one test setting. Colleges typically recommended that you take tests across various subject areas (i.e., one History, one Math, one Science). For a complete list of all the SAT II Subject Tests, including their various test dates, click here to view the College Board’s official information.
Do colleges require SAT II Subject Tests scores?
It varies by school. Some colleges require seeing at least two to three SAT II Subject Test scores, while others simply recommend submitting the scores, as strong scores can strengthen your college application. This is especially true if you’re applying, say, as an engineering major, and you submit strong SAT II scores in Math and Science. For this reason, most schools will consider your SAT II scores if you submit them along with your application, even if they aren’t required, as they help to give a more well-rounded picture of you, your interests, and your strengths. Lastly, some schools will even accept SAT II Subject Test scores in place of a regular SAT or ACT score, although this is less common. For a complete list of colleges and their SAT II Subject Test requirements/recommendations, click here.
When should I take the SAT II Subject Tests?
While the tests are offered throughout the year on the same dates as the regular SAT, I always recommend that my students take the tests in early June, after they have completed at least one full year of the subject being tested. For example, if you plan to take the SAT II Chemistry exam, it’s best to take it after you’ve covered the bulk of the course content, as the SAT II is comprehensive. I wouldn’t recommend waiting until the fall after you’ve completed the course to take the test–we all know how much we tend to forget over the summer vacation!
Which subject tests should I take?
Pick the subjects where you feel strongest in school this year. For example, if you’ve had a great year in Biology, taking the SAT II Biology test could be a good choice. Next year, when you take precalculus (just for an example), you might consider taking the SAT II Math II exam. While you can take up to three tests in a single sitting, you certainly don’t have to, and plenty of students space these tests out over the first three years of high school. By the end of junior year though, having 2-3 Subject Test scores under your belt will help strengthen your college application.
One last note: If you’re currently enrolled in an AP course that coincides with an SAT Subject Test, you should definitely consider taking that SAT II. For example, if you’re currently taking AP U.S. History, and you’re planning on taking the AP test in May, then by all means take the SAT II U.S. History test. The reason for this is that the SAT II is generally slightly easier than the AP test, and if you’re already working hard to prepare for the AP test in May, then you’ll be in great shape to take the less rigorous SAT II in June.
How should I prepare for the SAT II Subject Tests?
The College Board offers a prep book that contains one previously administered test for every SAT II Subject Test that they offer. While one test doesn’t offer a ton of practice, it still will give you a good sense of what the test is like and what to expect.
Need help preparing for an SAT II Subject Test? I can definitely help you! Contact me today for a free consultation.
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In Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize-winning economist outlines our “two selves”—our fast, intuitive brain that leaps to quick judgments (what he calls System 1), and our slow, methodical brain that we need to perform a calculation such as 243 x 849 (what he calls System 2). System 2 is inherently lazier than System 1, and it would prefer not to do work if it doesn’t have to—a fact you may have noticed if you saw 243 x 849, and groaned audibly.
After reading this fascinating book, I’ve come to believe that standardized tests are not just a math test or just a verbal test. They’re also a test of how well a student can “slow down” or ignore her System 1—that part of her brain that leaps to quick, intuitive (and often wrong) judgments—and how well she can engage the slower, more methodical (and more lethargic) System 2, which is necessary to actually solve the problems on the test. In fact, the test-makers know this, and they’re brilliant at creating trap answers that are craftily designed to exploit your System 1 intuition, which is so often incorrect. What do I mean by this? To illustrate, try this example, care of Kahneman:
A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much is the ball?
Spoiler alert: The answer isn’t ten cents. But if you thought ten cents, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in good company: many MIT and Princeton undergraduates still said ten cents. In all likelihood, “ten cents” flashes across the mind of anyone who is asked this question—even the respondents who get the question right. No one is immune to the false intuitions of our fast-moving, System 1 brain. However, what differentiates the correct respondents is that they remain skeptical of their intuition, and they force themselves to slow down and examine the question with the rigor of their more careful, calculating System 2 brain. The thought process might go something like this:
Okay, so the ball costs $0.10. Wait. If the question were that easy, why would this smartypants even bother asking me? Let’s slow down and really look at this. If the ball is really $0.10, and the bat is a dollar more, that would make the bat $1.10. But of course that can’t be right, since together they would cost $1.20—and that’s too high. So my intuition was wrong. However, it wasn’t entirely useless—because $1.20 is too high, I now know the ball has to cost less than $0.10. In fact, it must cost $0.05, because that would make the bat cost $1.05. Together, they cost $1.10. Solved!
My bet would be that a thought process along these lines occurs inside the brain of anyone who gets the problem right. I bring it up here to hopefully dispel one of the most common and pernicious misconceptions many of us have around standardized tests—namely, that the smartest students are simply gifted with some superhuman intuition that is capable of knowing the right answer instantly, as if they possessed a kind of flawless System 1. Luckily for us mere mortals, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the best test-takers aren’t superhuman at all. In truth, they’re just better at slowing down.
Tests or exams coming up? I can definitely help. Contact me today for a free consultation!
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