Saturday, April 9, 2016

I took the ACT today

The ACT has made 4 big changes to the test in the last two years.  They have only announced one of them.  Their new practice book reflecting these changes is long overdue, and won't be published until July.  We have a real shortage of representative practice tests, and that's an issue for a test on which timing is critical.  I signed up to take this test partly for the experience but mostly to get the test booklet:  I paid extra for the question-and-answer service.

Here are my brief impressions:

First, I have been timing my students incorrectly.  I have timed them at my dining room table, or I have allowed them to time themselves at home.  I have not set the timer and had them complete the test while perched before a desk the size of a large clipboard trying to juggle their extra pencils, test books, answer sheets and calculators.  And it makes a difference.  Especially on the ACT where timing is a big piece of your performance.

This was not my first big test as an adult.  A few years back I took the SAT Math 2 subject test.  The desks at that high school were quite a bit larger.  In the future I will take desk size into account when choosing a testing site.  Meanwhile, if anyone is looking for a research topic for their PhD in Education, this might be interesting to study.

The English section went well for me, but hats off to Erica Meltzer!  On more than one question I can credit my correct answer to The Complete Guide to ACT English.  It's my go-to grammar workbook.  There's a link to order it below.

The math section went well for me, but HO.LY. CRUD.  The ACT folks really upped their game in the conic sections category.  Unless there was something I missed, you had to write the equation of a ellipse from the graph and then use that equation to find the y-coordinate of a point on the ellipse. Yikes.  Most of my kids haven't looked at the standard equation of an ellipse at all, ever.  My treatment of them up til now has been fairly cursory.  I guess that will have to change.

I thought the reading section was a tad bit easier than usual.  There was only one question on which I disagreed with all of the answer choices.  Usually there are more.

I thought the science section was a tad bit harder than usual, and the tiny table issue didn't help.  I wonder if you can apply for a Larger Desk accommodation.  Fortunately most of my kids taking this test have already banked respectable science scores.  They should be ok.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Is it "unfair" to get a test-prep tutor or enroll in an expensive course?

I once had a parent call to explore the idea of getting an SAT coach for his daughter.  He told me about her, but then he said he was worried about whether or not getting her a coach represented an unfair advantage.  I pointed out that since she was at an expensive private school, her application would be read as if she had a coach whether she did or not.  (I did not point out how funny it was that he was worried about unequal access to test coaching, but not about unequal access to the private school she was in.  They also lived in one of the neighborhoods filled with mcmansions.) I guess my argument did not carry the day, because I didn't end up working with his daughter.

So is there an inequity involved in spending money to get your child ready for a college entrance exam?  And if there is, how much should you worry about that?  Would the world be a better place if everyone boycotted the tutors, the Princeton Review, the books, and online courses?  This came up on Quora, and this was my reply:

Here is something to keep in mind about "SAT coaching": It is a really big umbrella. When we read or hear about it in the media it sounds like the rich kids are buying special secrets that you only get to have if you have enough money. I assure you that I have never given anyone a test-taking tip that isn't available "out there" for everyone. As one fellow tutor always says, "There is no special sauce." Hiring an SAT coach might be like hiring a personal trainer. Most people could do it on their own, but hiring someone streamlines the process. People with more money than time tend to do this for all aspects of their life including SAT preparation.

When parents call me to coach their kids for a college entrance exam they always say, "He/she is a very good student, but he/she doesn't test well." They will allow that the student might need just a little review, but they will anxiously inquire as to whether I teach the testing tips. And I say, "Umm...sure." And I do. For five minutes. And then we spend the rest of the ten hours on the algebra he never learned, or the grammar she completely missed because they moved at just the wrong time. You see, there is a lot of cachet in going to an SAT tutor every week. There is no cachet at all in going to an I-never-learned-grammar tutor every week.

Is it fair that the rich kid who never learned grammar gets a tutor to fill in that hole before he has to take his college entrance exam, while the poor kid who never learned grammar doesn't? Of course not. However, it would be silly to say that no one gets to learn grammar until everyone can. Or that no one can know algebra well until everyone does. Surely the more educated people we have the better off we are.

So, in answer to your question: If you need a coach, and you can afford one, get a coach. Be a more educated person. If you are worried about the inequities of this world - and really, if you were to rank all of the inequities in the world, unequal access to SAT tutors wouldn't make the top ten - then use your increased knowledge to do good.

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: