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Student demands more support for standardized tests

How do you prepare students for the ACT or SAT?  I teach the concepts tested, and I try to familiarize students with the test format, but that's the extent of it for my Kentucky juniors.  For his final project in AP Language this year, one of my students took me to task on this point.  Read his article and let us know what you think:

SAT/ACT Test Prep in Schools?

This Student Says Yes

By Andrew Bates

On a rainy morning sometime in March, all 200 of my classmates were crowded into our high school’s cavernous gymnasium to take the ACT. That morning, every junior in the Kentucky public school system took the test for free. As I reclined in my desk during the long wait to begin, surveying the crowd of 16 and 17-year-olds, my eyes drifted from student to student. A few slept. A solid fourth of the room looked impervious to the significance of the ACT—slumped over, heads down, as if they had just been assigned a long list of chores. A few students were as sprightly as ever, radiating a playful disregard for the officiousness of ACT administration. Several students practically shook with pre-test nerves. And just a couple of students, myself included, wore faces of utter focus. These were the top students in the class, who understood the gravity of the test but felt confident in their abilities. These students were ready to beat the ACT.

(1998 Mark A. Hicks)

We had been learning ACT math, English, and reading content for years, so why were so few students prepared for the test that determines where (or whether) one can attend college? The answer is surprisingly simple: the few students that were genuinely ready for the ACT prepared on their own, outside of school—a safe assumption because the majority of schools* fail to teach the critical test-specific strategies that make the ACT beatable.

This reality is a large part of what keeps the ACT and SAT from being democratic tests—to excel requires a commitment of time and money to preparation. Wealthier, more educated parents are more likely to invest in their children’s ACT/SAT prep. The College Board’s own demographic data show that SAT scores are highly correlated with parental wealth, with students from families earning more than $200,000 a year averaging a combined score of 1714 and students from families earning under $20,000 a year averaging a combined score of 1326. ACT sells its own coaching books, indicating its acceptance of the test’s vulnerability to simple preparation. The Princeton Review test prep company boasts of the SAT’s vulnerability to its strategies: “It’s a game you can get good at, and beating the test can be fun.”

The vulnerability of the ACT and SAT to simple preparation is great news for students who can afford the requisite prep materials, ranging from study books to practice tests to actual classes.

However, the tests quickly become unfair for disadvantaged students, who go into the testing room without knowledge of basic techniques while their well-off counterparts saunter into the room armed with every trick known to The Princeton Review’s diligent staff.

Consider the following SAT math question, taken from The Princeton Review’s Cracking the SAT:

9. Zoe won the raffle at a fair. She will receive the prize money in 5 monthly payments. If each payment is half as much as the previous month’s payment, and the total of the payments is $496, what is the amount of the first payment?

A) $256

B) $96

C) $84

D) $16

E) $4

 

Educational Testing Service (ETS), the writers of the SAT, want the test taker to solve this question by setting up the following algebraic equation: p + (1/2)p + (1/4)p + (1/8)p + (1/16)p = 496. However, solving this equation can easily lead to careless mistakes and wrong answers. Princeton Review advises that instead of using real mathematics to solve the question, you can simply Plug In the Answers (PITA) to crack it. You start with the median answer, C. Adding up the resulting payments yields a total of $162.75, which is much too small, so C, D, and E can be ruled out. All that is left to do is try choice B. If B works, it is the answer, and if B does not work, A is the only choice left. ETS’s answer, by the way, was A (B yielded a total of 186, still too small).

 Education idealists will argue that Princeton Review’s method of solving this problem is not math, and that students should be learning only the algebraic method. They would be right—it is not math. But this is not school; it is the SAT. The SAT, in the words of the Princeton Review staff, is “not a test of aptitude…or how successful you will be in life. The SAT simply tests how well you take the SAT.”

If you were preparing for a basketball game, you would practice basketball, not football or coaching or sports medicine. If you were preparing for a spelling bee, you would study spelling, not punctuation. French students preparing for le baccalauréat study the contents of le bac. Likewise, if you are preparing for the SAT and ACT, you should study the SAT and ACT, not an entire high school curriculum. Here lies the problem with how schools prepare (or fail to prepare) their students for these outrageously important tests.

My own small high school in Kentucky takes the statewide ACT very seriously. For my class, the hype began freshman year, when we took a practice PLAN test—a practice practice ACT, for lack of a better term. Sophomore year, we took the PLAN along with a practice ACT. Junior year we took the same practice ACT and finally the real ACT in March. Through this entire carnival of ACT-related activities, not once were we given the opportunity to look back at the questions we missed on practice tests, and because of an issue with the company that provides our practice tests, we never even received scores for the practice ACT we took sophomore year.

What’s more, we learned very little in the classroom that had much relevance to the ACT. Well-meaning math teachers handed us stacks of practice ACT math tests, but the few times we went over them in class, we only received the mistake-prone, time-consuming, proper way to solve tricky questions, using advanced algebra, geometry, and probability. English teachers earnestly assigned us dozens of pages of reading from our textbook, very little of which pertained to the five or so basic ACT English concepts. Despite all the reading and analysis we do in our English classes, we never learned how to apply these skills to the ACT. The ACT science test was completely ignored.

I do not hold my teachers or administrators accountable for the lack of preparation. The issue at hand is not incompetence or ineffective teaching. It is not an outdated curriculum. This issue is an educational culture where the idea of teaching to a standardized test is so taboo that we harm students’ chances of success by ignoring the predictability and weaknesses of the tests. The curriculum we currently follow is effective at teaching students to think, write, and solve problems. But the SAT and ACT do not test those skills—not effectively, at least.

Whether one supports the testing system or not, data showing the bias of the SAT and ACT cannot be ignored, and a brief review of the contents and records of each test shows that they measure neither intelligence nor potential. Simply put, they are not fair tests, and their unfairness renders them useless.

Why, then, must our education system contribute to the unfairness of the tests? We teach all of our students vast quantities of in-depth information and skills, and then we place them in a desk in a huge gymnasium, hand them a pencil and a test booklet, and ask them to sort it all out in a stressful four hours. We don’t let them proceed, however, without reminding them that these four hours might determine whether or not they can go to college. Good luck!

No wonder well-off students who prepare on their own chronically outperform minorities and the poor. Students who prepare on their own learn to focus an approximate knowledge of many things down to an exact knowledge of the ACT/SAT. Their hapless, unprepared peers must wade through a mess of useless excess information, a major reason why even brilliant students can have lower test scores if they are from a disadvantaged background.

The biases of the SAT and ACT will remain as long as colleges require the SAT and ACT as admissions criteria. The stylish 2016 overhaul of the SAT, with its reduced emphasis on vocabulary and its optional essay, might make the test somewhat less blatantly biased against minorities and ESL students. However, these changes do not touch the character of the test—it will still serve the same purpose and it will still be ripped apart by well-prepared students equipped with the latest test-cracking techniques.

Since the SAT and ACT are not going anywhere any time soon (the business of testing is too lucrative to be abolished anyway), we are left with a choice. Either we can forget our ideals about the integrity of test preparation and begin teaching students the tricks to the SAT/ACT, or we can continue to allow wealthy students an edge by ignoring the predictability and simplicity of the tests. It is a matter of high schools doing their job. Their job is not to judge the ethics of teaching to a test; it is to prepare students for success. College acceptance and scholarships are undoubtedly large contributors to success in life, and the SAT and ACT are critical to both.

Test preparation does not have to be an enormous time commitment. Teachers will be rightfully reluctant to spend valuable class time on a stupid test. Efficiency is key—several focused lessons during the course of one week would surely suffice. Class time, however, is not imperative to a fair preparation system. Most important is to provide all students with equal access to preparation materials.

Let us stop throwing our students under the bus in the name of true education and confront the issue head-on. To democratize the testing system will require radical change. Teaching test strategies to everyone is a step in the right direction.

 

*I surveyed a number of friends from other high schools in Kentucky (and one in rural Ohio), from schools as diverse as a Catholic all-girls’ school in Louisville, a public school in southeastern Kentucky, and a private school in Lexington. The private schools were the only schools where all students have access to test prep. Some public schools offer test prep to gifted students but not all students; most public schools offer none.

 

Additional resources:

College Board demographic information: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/03/05/these-four-charts-show-how-the-sat-favors-the-rich-educated-families/

Bias of the ACT:

http://www.fairtest.org/act-biased-inaccurate-and-misused

SAT’s failure to predict success:

http://www.npr.org/2014/02/18/277059528/college-applicants-sweat-the-sats-perhaps-they-shouldn-t

See: Katzman, John, and Adam Robinson. Cracking the SAT. 2014 ed. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.

5 Comments

Kip Hottman commented on June 5, 2014 at 6:29pm:

So we had an ACT prep class

So we had a ACT prep class when I first started teaching at my high school.  It went away until ACT became part of the accountability of the school and it returned.  This student has legitimate concerns about having this type of class.  I agree, students are taught a specific way, and suddenly during their junior year they are placed in a room to take an exam that significantly can impact their life.

He brings up wonderful questions targeting the validity of using the ACT/SAT and asks the ultimate question, "Why, then, must our education system contribute to the unfairness of the test?"  What truly interested me and got me thinking was his answer.  He says that the ACT/SAT are not going anywhere soon so we are left with the  choice of teaching the tricks of this test in our schools or allowing the wealthy to receive the edge in being prepared for the exam.

This is where I am looking for a third option.  Do these choices have to rule the public education system or is there is a better choice? The TLM has such a strong voice, so I wonder, how and where do we make this conversation take place?  

Marsha Ratzel commented on June 5, 2014 at 8:24pm:

Some merit, some blame shifting

This is a fantastic article and it highlights how a student think about these tests.  My first reaction to his concern is this:  high stakes testing success is not the best measure of your education.  Just because teachers don't teach to the ACT doesn't mean you missed out on a good education.  Colleges don't base their entire admission decision on scores and actually many are moving away from even having students submit scores.  Lots of state colleges don't even require the ACT if you've followed their prescribed college-bound curriculum and maintained a GPA at a certain level.  I also know that the more closely aligned a high school curriculum is to Common Core, the better it will help future stduents on the ACT/SAT....those tests are moving to be more in alignment.  

I do see the merit of his argument that feedback from any kind of test would be helpful. But I don't think feedback will be happening anytime soon....and it's not the purpose of a high stakes test.  It's not a learning process, it's an achievement test. High school teachers want to help out, they can craft some questions in the ACT style to familarize students with the format.  This could be something that wouldn't be too hard to do if the faculty has the will to look at how questions are crafted and how they could tweak their own tests to give more familiarity.

But it really feels like blame shifting too because he is dissatisfied with how his school does or doesn't go about offering test prep.   A school's job is to give each student the best education they can....and best educational experience.  I might argue that some of the "dispositions" that are taught are much more important than any subject or test prep.  I would also argue that a solid curriculum prepares students for any test and what all students should be most concerned with is the learning, the rigor in those classes and how well they interact in class and with the assignments.

Sure if schools were able to be all things to all people, it would be terrific. I get it that things aren't equal and it would be terrific if they were.  If I could send my children to a public school and get a private school's education, it would be wonderful.  You can't. Yet they've gone onto college, have managable size loans and are gainfully employed (finally because it took one child a while to fit the right niche in the working world).  I think this is do-able for anyone who is willing to be creative in using community colleges, work-study grants, looking for reasonably priced schools and so on.

Good points to think about....solutions to be explored.  You gotta love the optimism of youth and their vigor in pointing out how we can improve things.

 

Andrew Bates commented on June 7, 2014 at 12:46am:

Addressing some points

Marsha, first off, thank you for your feedback.

 

I agree with you completely that the ACT is not a learning process but an achievement test. I also agree somewhat that a high school curriculum prepares students for any test. However, my main point is that while the ACT is a superficial, gimmicky achievement test, the importance that we place on it justifies a bit of extra preparation—for everyone, not just the affluent. If we cannot force the decline of the ACT/SAT, we can at least make it fair. I am not arguing for an entire curriculum based on improving ACT scores, only for equal access to preparation.

 

While a high school curriculum does teach all the ACT’s concepts, it is up to the student to figure out how to apply these many skills to a multiple choice exam that does not test much at all. The unfairness lies not in a lack of general instruction, but in a lack of instruction specific enough to help on the ACT. It is clear that the foundations are there for most students—some simple strategies from Princeton Review can drastically increase one’s score by focusing all that knowledge down to a test-specific skill set.

 

I would also like to address the apparent blame shifting that you identified. As I drafted my article, I took special care not to come across as bitter—because I am not bitter, nor do I wish to blame my school for its lack of test prep. I have been fortunate enough to score well on the ACT and SAT by rigorously studying the Princeton Review’s tricks and strategies. If I am shifting blame, it is out of concern for my peers who have had less access to real preparation, and who consequently are stumped by their disappointing scores. For my part, I believe that I learn from some of the best teachers in Kentucky. If the school provided equal access to preparation, and students did not take advantage, then the blame falls on the students. But my fellow students and I cannot assume responsibility if we do not have equal access. 

Renee Moore commented on June 6, 2014 at 11:18am:

What's Practical and (or versus) What's Right

Andrew is a sharp young man, with some real insight about the pragmatics and the hypocrisy in modern U.S. education. He correctly reads the weight that our society places on these standardized tests and points out a large part of why the scales are so tilted in favor of those students whose parents have resources versus the children of the poor. Outside test prep for the college entrance exams is a huge business in itself.

Moreover, few educators acknowledge and fewer parents or students know that the subscores from the ACT/SAT are also used for placement of every student in college course, regardless of what school student chooses to attend. So, countless Freshmen entering community colleges and universities find themselves being placed--often unnecessarily--in remedial coursework because of a low score on just one part of the ACT. And those placement cut points are determined by each college, so it varies wildly even within the same state. For example: A student scoring 17 out of 36 on the English section of the ACT, can take Freshman Comp I at our community college, but that same student would be placed in remedial English at the state university. But if our 17-scoring student passes Freshman Comp at the community college, the University must accept it as a transfer credit under our state articulation agreement. No wonder students and parents are confused.

Andrew's arguments, to me, parallel those of African American educator Lisa Delpit ("Other People's Children" and "Multiplication is for White People") who has long pointed out the need for children of poverty to be taught not only the necessary academic skills/content, but also the rules of the games being played with their lives. They rely on their teachers and their schools to give them that fuller body of knowledge that their wealthier peers can get outside.

That's why public schools, especially those that service the children of the poor, should be even better resourced and well-staffed. More important, we need to work harder to develop more critical thinkers like Andrew, so we can raise up a generation that is not afraid to confront and stop some of this idiocy that we have allowed to become standard operating procedure in education.

Anne Jolly commented on June 6, 2014 at 8:51pm:

I recognize Andrew

I recognize Andrew Bates.  He was the kid in my class who analyzed the way school and classes operated and invented better ways.  He took fearless aim at educational inequities and refused to veer from his beliefs.  Several of my Andrews (and Anns) went on to become lawyers. Somehow school and education disappeared from their radar. 

Andrew - I issue you a challenge.  I love your letter, and I believe you are right in your analysis of the high stakes tests. You will do well on the ACT, go to college, and major in a rewarding career.  Somewhere along the way you will likely identify other issues to be passionate about and your concern about the misuse of standardized tests will grow distant. Your concern about educational inequities (this instance and others) may also fade as you decide on priorities. I want to ask you to remember something when that happens.

The public education system is the most important system in this nation.  Even at its worst it is the only institution in this nation where people from all ethnicites, cultures, and socioeconomic status can come together and work together to prepare for their future together.  Whether that happens and when that happens depends on people such as you - people who are passionate, intelligent, and determined to make a difference.  

So I'd like to ask you to stay the course.  Read the responses ahead of mine and know that they both have good points for you to consider. Remain idealistic and find others who share your ideals.  Be ready for a critically important and engaging task - an education system that works for everyone. Don't let go of this passion.   

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