Saturday, January 9, 2016

Which calculator should you use on your ACT or SAT?

Until 1994 you couldn’t use a calculator on the SAT.  The test was designed to be taken without a calculator and top students have made it a point to take the test without one.  That will change in March of 2016.  With the addition of precalculus problems, a scientific calculator will become necessary so that the test-taker can find the Arctangent of 3.2 or the natural log of 17.  This has been true for the ACT for years.

Which calculator will serve you best on your college entrance exam?  If you are a top math student, you probably already own a scientific calculator.  As long as your calculator will find sines,  cosines and their inverses, as well as logarthms and natural logarithms, you should be fine.  Don’t try out a new brand of calculator on the test.  Use the one you are familiar with.

Using a familiar calculator is even more important if you are not a top math student.  However, if you have plenty of time before your test, it might be worth your while to get familiar with a better calculator.  It might even be to your advantage to take more than one.

Texas Instruments has had a near monopoly on the school calculator market with their TI-83, TI-84, and TI-NSpire calculators.  Most schools have classroom sets of one of these models and some require all students in certain math classes to rent or purchase one of these calculators.  While these are versatile little machines, they aren’t as efficient for certain functions.  If you struggle to finish in time, you might want to supplement with a different model.

A student recently introduced me to the CASIO ES115-Plus.  I was impressed by how intuitive it was to use.  It takes fewer key-strokes to use certain key functions, and there are fewer instances in which you have to remember which menu to use.  Its only drawback is that it is not a graphing calculator.  However, at under $20, it is an affordable addition to your test-taking arsenal.

You can order one here:

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Vocabulary work for the reluctant reader

I've posted before on the fact that many of our students have small vocabularies and that this hampers their reading comprehension.  (You can read that post here.)  By far the best way to increase your vocabulary is to read a wide variety of materials - particularly books or articles at a challenging reading level.  I have also posted on the fact that it is difficult to get students to actually do this.

Vocabulary building needs to begin - well, from birth really.  However, college bound students should consciously work on their vocabularies beginning no later than middle school.  How can you get a reluctant reader to work on his or her vocabulary without reducing it to rote memorization?  Comic books can be a great method.  Calvin and Hobbes is a great comic series with some terrific vocabulary words in it.  It appeals to everyone age 10 and up.  The artist, Bill Watterson, has retired, but compilations of the strips are still in print.  You can also find them online.

I recently discovered another great vocabulary-building book series.  Stephan Pastis, who draws the nationally syndicated comic strip "Pearls Before Swine", has also written a series of books about an elementary school character, Timmy Failure.  The series is aimed at students in late elementary school, but I have enjoyed them, and I'm 53.  These chapter books are in the style made popular by the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. "Pearls" doesn't tend to be filled with SAT-level words, so imagine my surprise and delight when I encountered the following in the first Timmy Failure book, Mistakes Were Made:  rigorously, depiction, alleviated, stipulations, assent, prudent.  And that was just the first 50 pages!  Each book in the series is entertaining - a quick, easy read.  Unlike Calvin and Hobbes, which some children would need to read with a dictionary, many of the words in the Timmy Failure books are defined by the characters as you go, although in both series you could get the basic gist of many words from their context.

These books make great holiday gifts!  You can order them here:

Monday, November 16, 2015

Study Materials Review: Kaplan New SAT Premier 2016

As soon as the College Board announced changes to the SAT, people began publishing study materials for it.  The more responsible ones waited until after the practice tests had been published.  These materials are now finding their way to book store shelves.  I recently examined Kaplan's offering.

As a general rule, I like Kaplan's stuff better than Barron's or Princeton Review so I was hopeful that this would be a viable option.  Like most of the stuff out there, it's better for some things than for others.  Here are some impressions:

First of all, this thing is HUGE.  1337 pages, PLUS a DVD, PLUS access to online materials.  The sticker price is also relatively large at $36.  (It's a lot less on Amazon.)  I haven't read the whole thing, and I haven't examined the DVD or the online materials, so keep that in mind.

About 1/3 of the book is math review.  They assume nothing about the student's preparation: they begin with PEDMAS.  In my opinion this is a waste of space.  A student who needs help with PEDMAS needs help from a human, but whatever.  I did appreciate that there are a wide variety of targeted exercises for each section.  This book is quite useful for the student who has seen the material in class, but may not have been exposed to all of the different ways he or she could be asked about the material.  For each section there is also an estimate of how likely the topic is to appear on the test. The sections on statistics are quite nice for the strong math student who just never covered those topics, and I like the fact that they included instructions on how to use the statistical features on the TI-84 graphing calculator.  That will be useful for a lot of students.

The second third of the book is reading and grammar.  I thought the passages were well-chosen, and they advised the student to mark up the passage and take notes in the margins.  However, they didn't go into enough detail about what the student should be marking.  Then they actively discouraged re-reading the text while answering the questions on the grounds that there wouldn't be enough time.  I really have done much to work with students on this test, but my impression is that only the slowest students should be pressed for time.  Maybe I'll change my mind this spring.  The practice questions didn't feel like SAT questions.  So far we only have four practice tests to go on, but still....  They were just "off."

The last third of the book consists of 2 practice tests and then answers and explanations for the tests and all of the practice questions.  I got disgusted and quit midway through the reading test.  The questions were just strange. I really haven't examined the grammar, yet.  I though the math questions were the right style, but I haven't decided if their mixture of questions and topics makes for a good practice test.  I thought the tests released by the college board were uneven, so it will take a few administrations of the real thing to really know.

Anyone wishing to start studying for the reading or grammar sections should order Erica Meltzer's books (links below.) Kaplan's New SAT Premier 2016 might work well for the math while we are waiting for Mike McClanathan's new edition to be published.  Hopefully, the math portion of this tome will be published separately - and at a cheaper price.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Let's read the Founding Documents together!

Each critical reading section on the revised SAT will include a passage from what the College Board refers to as “The Great Global Conversation.”  These are significant documents, essays and speeches from history.  If we go by the four published rSAT practice tests, you have about a 50% chance that this passage will be from one or more of the founding documents on your test.  Thus, any student looking for a top score needs to show up on test day ready to read and understand a passage written 300 years ago.  He or she might even need to compare and contrast two such documents. 

The founding documents are not easy to read.  They contain a lot of vocabulary that has fallen out of common usage, or, more confusing, evolved to mean something else.  It’s easy to tell students that they need to dig up some of the Founding Documents and practice, but experience tells me that not many students are likely to actually do this.  The reading homework is the assignment least likely to be done.  In addition, some students might need a little hand-holding while trying to tackle these readings.

With this in mind, I have decided to offer a “let’s read the founding documents together” series.  We will meet each Sunday afternoon at 1:00 pm beginning on October 25.  We will work for an hour or two – as long as it takes to get through the document.  The cost per participant will be $10 per session, and participants can pick and choose which sessions to attend. My expectation is that there will be anywhere from zero to four students at any given session.  If these prove particularly popular, I will open an alternate time.

For details, including a list of documents, click the "classes" tab above and scroll down to "If you have a students preparing for the revised SAT".

For books that include essays and speeches that are part of the Great Global Conversation, check these:

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

You know it’s a part of your working library when you add the tabs!

A student recommended this book:

 She had found it on the shelves of the local big-box book store. I found it there as well, and brought it home. It quickly became a staple of my ACT work. The passages and questions have an ACT “feel” and there are plenty of them. The paper is of excellent quality that holds up well under markings and erasures. I was worried about the spine holding up since that is often an issue with books that are thick, so before I used it at all I reinforced the spine with clear packing tape. After moderate use the book shows no signs of falling apart or losing pages.

I was particularly pleased to see a number of paired passages in the reading section, since The Real ACT Prep Guide still hasn’t been updated to include these. I was also grateful for the trigonometry section. I had hoped for more trig problems.

There are, however, a few drawbacks:

  1. This book consists of practice questions ONLY. There is no review material, and there are no practice tests. If you have a tutor, this is an excellent source of problems, but if you don’t this book may not be as useful for you. If you need to practice your timing, you will need to find some good practice tests.
  2. I climbed on two different practice scales with this book. It doesn’t actually weigh five pounds; it weighs SIX pounds. This book is HUGE and HEAVY. I feel badly asking students to lug it to a session. I would love to see opportunities to buy just the math part, or just the grammar.
  3. The science sections just are quite ACT-like.
  4. The math sections don’t reflect the new emphases and expanded precalculus topics that were hinted at at the beginning of the summer. Needless to say, the new essay style isn’t in here, either. Look for a new edition in the coming months.

By the way, I really like these tabs:

They are Avery Printable Self-Adhesive Tabs (#16281).  My students like them as well.  We use them to mark pages we want to return to often.  You can order either the book, or the tabs here:

Monday, September 28, 2015

If you plan to take the revised SAT in March, buy these now!

Erica Meltzer has revised her popular books The Critical Reader and The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar for the new SAT. They can be ordered here:

Both books have been substantially revised to reflect the new formats and emphases of the verbal portions of the SAT. Both still provide targeted practice for the skills and concepts introduced. I have only begun to skim through, but I have already found a tip for the reading section that I hadn’t thought of. As she has done in previous editions, those concepts most frequently tested are presented first, so if you are reading this in February there is still time to buy these books and get some work done! If, on the other hand, you are reading this in September, you can buy them now and have time to work through all of them!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Hello, Founding Documents!

When changes to the SAT were first announced, there were several changes proposed for the reading section.  One of the changes was the elimination of the fill-in-the-blank vocabulary section that started off each reading section.  I thought that was an interesting choice at the time because, as unpopular as the vocab questions were, testing vocabulary is an easy way to assess reading comprehension.  Vocabulary knowledge is a reliable predictor of reading comprehension and vocab questions are a lot easier to write.  In addition, testing vocabulary, as opposed to passage-based testing, allows more questions to be asked in the time allotted, which should allow for finer differentiation among test-takers.

The reasoning offered at the time was that being familiar with "obscure" vocabulary did not predict success in college.  In the very same announcement, Daniel Coleman said that the reading passages would include "the founding documents."  At this point, the test-prep tutoring community responded, "Ummm.....have you actually READ the founding documents??"  Talk about obscure vocabulary.  I sat down and compiled a list of obscure or antiquated words from the Constitution ALONE that numbered in the hundreds.  Then the practice PSAT was posted without any founding documents in it, and I figured the College Board members had come to their senses.

Then ETS posted four practice SAT tests.  I took the first one, and then I got busy.  REALLY busy.  It's been a crazy summer in test-prep land.  All the tutors I know have been swamped.

The first practice SAT had a pretty easy reading section.  Lovely.  There was plenty of time, and the most difficult section had a passage that had clearly been written for grownups, but wasn't ridiculously challenging.  I didn't take tests 3 and 4 until this week, and HOLY CRAP!!  Hello, founding documents!

So there is a lot we could say here about the wisdom of including founding documents in some tests, but not others, and one thing we could say is, this would be a perfectly valid reason for avoiding the revised SAT.  However, if you are going to take it, you need to show up prepared to interpret writing that is 300 years old, obscure vocabulary and all.

Back before the practice tests were posted - but after the announcement - I had suggested that parents might want to purchase some nice pocket-sized books for their high school students. (They make great stocking-stuffers!)  Here they are again: