Getting a Top SAT Score

Why Strong Students Do Not Always Lock In High SAT Scores, And How to Change That

While there remains a strong correlation between high grades and high SAT scores, it is especially exasperating for parents to see their diligent teens failing to complement their high grades with high SAT scores. Since explanations may lead to solutions, allow me to hypothesize based on my experience with high school test-takers and the SAT in particular.

Correlation does not equal causation

Though the correlation between high grades and SAT scores is strong, it is wrong to say that mastering a school’s English and math curricula will result in 1200+ SAT scores. Any causation is better attributable to work ethic by the student than to a transfer of skills in traditional curricula, especially in the English section. Since the SAT tests very coachable skills, a student’s desire to master those skills plays a large role in her/his performance.

The correlation that I believe has the highest elements of causation is parent expectations. It is no secret that the children of doctors, engineers, lawyers, and professors garner a huge share of the highest SAT scores. Though some attribute “smarts” to genetics, I am not one of them. The children of well-educated professionals have high standards that they are 1) exposed to and 2) motivated to meet.

Exposure and motivation

For students at a strong public school or even a mediocre prep school, exposure to the college admissions process and standards comes almost automatically. For motivated students in schools that send few kids to competitive colleges, I recommend that their parents stay in touch with parents who chose a college preparatory school for their kids. If they do not know such parents, consult actively with a college placement counselor. Form a group to seek out the information that many other kids are exposed to beginning in 9th grade. My first class of students took place in south central Los Angeles. The four students who chose to be in the class were daughters and sons of working class Mexican Americans. Three of them are among Ivy Bound’s top improvers and one attained the school’s record for highest-ever SAT score. As far as exposure to the SAT itself, that’s easy –$19.95 at Barnes & Noble buys any kid The Official SAT Study Guide. There is no excuse for not knowing what skills are tested on the SAT.

How does a student get the desire to master the SAT? I cannot say. Fear of not keeping up with peers who are bound for competitive colleges is a good motivator for some. Fear of failing their parents’ expectations is a motivator for others, but a dangerous one. (The reward for meeting such expectations is probably a more positive motivator). Though far from a scientific survey, I find that the students who have improved the most just want to meet a certain number for the sake of meeting that number. By this I mean they are not telling me “I just have to get in to ______ college”, or “I have to meet the score my dad expects”, but “I want a 2100″.

Here’s one reason why “I want a 2100” is a good attitude and can lead to success: it divorces the consequences of the test from the studying and doing of the test. Consequences are the things we both aspire to and fear. Unfortunately fear too often takes over. In the process a student’s mental energies along with emotional energies are distracted. When the student can remind himself “here’show I’m supposed to do this test”, instead of “here’s what happens to me if I don’t get into Stanford”, the anxiety is reduced.

One thing that dampens desire is the attitude that “the SAT is a stupid test”. A test that helps evaluate grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension, math, and logical reasoning is not a stupid test. Anyone in your child’s midst who is purveying that attitude should be quarantined, teachers included. The current SAT is a decent test of skills and knowledge that are important in higher education, if not everyday life. It could be a broader, less coachable, and thus fairer test, and I’d like to see it untimed, but on the whole it is a well-crafted test and is no longer racially biased. If not convinced, see my piece on “Why The SAT Is A Decent Standard”.

Why SAT Verbal Skills may not meet expectations

A reason why even the diligent child of two well-educated professionals might not lock in a good SAT score is that the child’s verbal education never targeted skills tested on the SAT. Particularly if the child is not an avid reader, s/he is unlikely to absorb the vocabulary tested on the later (tougher) SAT questions. Drilling vocabulary can only go so far, and it’s not especially fun. I don’t blame schools for eschewing vocabulary drills, but in its place they MUST instill a reading ethic.

A failure to target skills includes a neglect to instill careful reading. Though students at fine schools might proudly cover Dickens, Hemingway, Hawthorne, and Wharton in one semester, they are rarely called upon to parse a single paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word. The SAT tests short, dense passages. The makers of the test excerpt passages from fiction and scholarly reviews and further edit them so as to pack a lot of information in a mere 60 lines. Few high school teachers invoke similar passages, followed by questions where the right answer sometimes turns on the forcefulness of a single word. (I took nine English courses at a very good prep school; only when covering Shakespeare and a few other poems was I asked to analyze a sentence word-for-word.) Yet SAT Reading Comp success is driven by careful analysis, both at the “big picture” and at the “detail” level. In 1994 the ETS significantly changed the format of the SAT verbal section and in 2005 ETS re-formatted to place even more weight on reading. A careful reader, armed with good vocabulary, should score a 700 on the verbal.

Why SAT Math Skills May Not Meet Expectations

The math section of the SAT has more questions that directly correlate with a traditional high school curriculum than does the verbal. Nevertheless, many “A” math students receive only mid-range scores on the SAT math.

One reason is that even in a well-taught math class, the students never see questions that the SAT asks. Kids spend a whole year in Algebra I, and a whole year in Geometry. They may never fuse the two, yet at least some SAT questions combine Algebra and Geometry.

Another reason is that high school math makes use of intricate and often lengthy calculations. The SAT rarely does. When students are tempted to take out their calculators for what is bound to be a two-minute or more exercise, they should think again. Step back, for there is usually a creative, simple way to nail that problem in less than 60 seconds.

Rarely does a high school teacher teach “logic”. The closest is typically geometry, which builds logical thinking through proofs. SAT never asks for proofs, yet it very much rewards logical thinking. Indeed, since 1996, ETS has called its test the “SAT I Reasoning Test”. Buried into the math section are questions relying on “pure logic” and others relying on “vision”. The “housing lots” questions on the May 2000 SAT, profiled in the cover story in the April 2001 Time magazine, exemplify a combination of logic AND vision questions.

“It’s Just Test – Taking”

Notice that my analysis is void of discussing “test-taking”. That is because I attribute little to it. The “tricks” and time management skills that can avoid test-taking impediments can be taught in 90 minutes. Students these days are used to standardized tests. Once kids are familiar with the format of this test and a few test taking and time-management “tricks”, the remainder is skill mastery.

So I conclude by imploring schools to teach mastery of the valuable skills tested on the SAT. If “teaching to the test” is a taboo phrase, that’s understandable. Teach good skills that the test rewards. That will reward the students.

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