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This Is Only a Test

I hate the SAT. Yet I teach a class to prepare students for this test.

I am not opposed to standardized testing. A standardized test is simply the same test given the same way at the same time. What I hate is that the SAT is a normed test. A normed test is a test that determines your score based on the scores of other people. The test-makers write the test so that they end up with a bell-shaped curve of scores at the end. It would be like me walking into my class on the first day of school proclaiming, “I plan to give out two As, five Bs, 16 Cs, five Ds and two Fs. I will plan my course so that this is the result.” That goes against every principle of good teaching.

So why do I teach the course? Because, whether we like it or not, the SAT is still one of the gatekeepers of the college admissions process. Because the test still favors populations that can afford test preparation courses. Because—when courses cost anywhere from $900 to $3,500—I like that I teach it as part of a public school experience. Your child can do well on this test. It’s simply a matter of knowing how.

How can you help your child do well on the SAT?

Read. The best way to build vocabulary and comprehension is to read. Buy books for your child as gifts. Make sure that she is reading books at the right reading level. (It won’t help her to slog through books she can’t understand.) Find reading material about things she loves. Kids who do well on the reading and writing portions of the test have been reading all of their lives.

Build vocabulary. There are all kinds of fun ways to strengthen vocabulary. My recent favorite is an addictive website called freerice.com. The site offers multiple-choice questions at varied levels. For every correct word a user supplies, the site donates rice to hungry people around the world. It’s possible to study for the SAT and save the world! Board games like Scrabble, UpWords, Boggle or Taboo are all great for building vocabulary too. Sign up for a word-of-the-day e-mail from merriam-webster.com. When you discover an unknown word in the paper, let your child catch you looking it up in the dictionary. Challenge yourself to use larger vocabulary around the house.

Talk and think together. If you read with your child at night, ask questions about the characters, plot and pictures. If you read something interesting, share it with your child. Employ critical thinking skills as you watch TV together. Use commercial breaks to predict what will happen. Talk about how the characters might feel. During a commercial, discuss what it’s selling, to whom it’s directed and whether it’s successful. These sorts of analytical skills are critical to success in high school and college.

Don’t stress the test. Don’t feed into the “I’m not good at tests” mentality. If you say tests are unbeatable, your child will believe you. If your child assumes he will fail, what’s his incentive to study or try? Any test is just a small part of his overall progress in school. Likewise, the SAT is a piece of a larger mosaic that the admissions team will examine. And remember, don’t let college talk overtake your relationship. Show the same interest you always have in all areas of your child’s life.

Embrace variety. In an effort to include everyone, the reading material will cover a wide range of topics—anything from subway to hay rides. However, this effort to include may very well exclude students who aren’t familiar with the topics. Taking your child to museums, plays and concerts will introduce him to the many worlds outside his room. Go to the library and pick up a book about an unfamiliar place or topic now and then.

Know the test. It is difficult to do well on something when you have no idea what to expect. I encourage all students to take the PSAT when it is offered by the school (usually in 10th grade). It is a practice test, without the writing component, offered by the makers of the SAT. Your child will experience a real test under true testing conditions but colleges won’t see the score. Your child would also benefit from practice tests offered in books and online. Note that the test your child will take will differ from the test that you or even your older children may have taken as the current test was created for the class of 2006.

What’s different? The test-makers ditched those pesky analogies and added a writing portion. The writing section includes multiple-choice questions primarily designed to test grammar as well as a 25-minute essay. Students may base their responses to the broad essay question in history, literature, pop culture or even their lives.

My top three tips for students doing the essay: Take a few minutes to organize, include two to three very specific examples, and write as much as possible.

We all know that teens and pre-teens are hard to mold. After all, it’s not like you can buy your ninth-grader a copy of the SAT Study Guide and expect her to study it each night for the next three years. Partly that’s because it’s difficult for teens to think that far ahead. Partly that’s because those books are boring.

That’s why I’m advocating having a broader view. Think about helping your child become a better reader and lifelong learner rather than focusing on this one test. A good reader and learner will do better on the test—and in life.

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade.  Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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