Monday, November 28, 2016

Study materials review: PWN the SAT Math Guide, 4th edition

It has taken me far too long to review the latest update of PWN the SAT Math Guide.  Author Mike McClenathan went to a great deal of trouble to update the guide for the new SAT.  My hesitation was, in part, due to the low number of clients taking the new SAT last spring.  I just didn't have as much call to use SAT materials in general, so I didn't get to see how the book worked out with actual students.  That is gradually beginning to change, and I'm beginning to get a feel for how much I'll be using this book and with whom.

Like earlier editions, the book is designed to be used in conjunction with the practice tests that were released by the College Board.  (These were once compiled in a book that we in the test prep field referred to as The Blue Book.  The book is now teal, but the tests can also be accessed online here.)

I reviewed the 2nd edition - for the old SAT - in April 2013. At the time I said, "PWN the SAT is well-organized, comprehensive and entertaining.  It introduces a concept or technique, provides some practice problems, and then supplies a list of relevant problems in the Blue Book. You are encouraged to use the Blue Book tests for testing practice, but if nothing else the length of the list will tell you how likely you are to run into that type of problem on the SAT.  At the end of the book is a breakdown of all of the problems in the Blue Book tests with difficulty level and techniques or concepts needed along with PWN page numbers for those techniques."

These things are still true.  There are, however, a couple of things that will keep my copy of this book from becoming as well-worn as it's predecessors.  First, the problems in the former additions "felt like" SAT problems.  Many of the problems in the 4th edition don't feel like new SAT problems.  They are excellent exercises that will build skills, but their application to the test is less direct.

Second, the previous book worked well for students who had been scoring above 550, but wanted to be scoring above 600.  Many of the problems in this book are too difficult for a large portion of my students.  I would recommend it for students who


  • are strong math students who are underperforming on the SAT AND
  • are currently scoring at least 650 on the math section.

If that describes you, and you would like to order a copy, there is a link at the bottom.  The price makes this book a good value and there are additional resources available online for people who purchased a copy.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Study Materials Review: Dr. John Chung's New SAT Math 2016

The content of this prep book is divided between 54 "Perfect Tips" and 10 practice tests.  The bulk of the book (over 300 pages) is the practice tests. I am unimpressed by the tips.  He included a few I would have left out and failed to include a few I would have added.  There is targeted practice for each tip, which I appreciate, but the explanations are minimal.  I am, however, somewhat impressed by the practice tests. I've only done the first two so far, but the problems are interesting and they "feel right."  I will caution the reader that in most non-College Board SAT books the tests tend to deteriorate as you go through the book.  That could be true for this one as well;  I don't know, yet.

As tests, they might not give you an indication of how you would do on an actual SAT:  I feel like the mix of problems skews towards the more difficult ones.  For students trying for a top score, that could be a good thing, but a more average student might get discouraged.  I do plan to add this book to my arsenal of test prep materials, but I won't use it with everyone.  I can, however, recommend it for the confident math student.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The new ACT book is out - and it's interesting

Cut to the chase take-away:  Rising seniors who retake the ACT in the fall should be prepared for a math section that includes up to three AP Statistics multiple choice questions.

The new ACT book has been released a month before I was expecting it, and the first interesting change is the title:  The Official ACT Prep Guide 2016-2017.  The "old" book (referred to among tutors as "the Red Book") had been published in 2011 and has been out of date for at least two years.  It did not reflect the addition of paired passages in the reading section, the change from seven passages to six in the science section, new emphases in the math section, or the new essay prompts.  (Note that the essay prompts were the only change that the ACT officially announced, and were likely the reason we get a new book.)  A new book was long overdue and greatly anticipated.  There were few practice tests available that reflected the new changes, and we were eager for more.  I took the April 2016 test for the sole purpose of getting a copy of the test - I paid for the question and answer service - and that brought my number of complete, up-to-date practice tests up to a grand total of 2.

The Red Book included five practice tests, but it was the 3rd edition, and they had slowly been adding to it since 2005, so I figured five tests was overly optimistic.  I was hoping for three newly written practice tests.  I was expecting the book to contain the December 2015 test, the April 2016 test and the June 2016 test.  (Remember that I thought the book would be published in July.)  I got a book with three practice tests.  One is the June 2015 test, except for the math section.  One is the April 2015 test, except for the math section.  One is sort of out of the Red Book, except for the math section.

First, let's address that Red Book test:  They did alter it by dropping the last science passage and then adding questions to the other passages to bring the total up to 40.  This reflects recent changes to the science section.  They did NOT, however, replace one of the reading passages with a paired passage.  As someone who has scrambled to find good paired-passage practice, I am more than a little annoyed.

On all three tests, the math section is a strange jumble of June 2015, April 2015, Red Book questions, and a few questions I don't recognize.  The second test is actually based on the second Red Book test with questions from April 2015 and other Red Book tests, along with a few new questions.  How odd.  The last test is based on the fourth Red Book test.There has been a lot of online speculation as to why.  Why not just put the June 2015 math test in as-is?  If it was good enough to give to students at the time, why isn't it good enough to practice with now?

There has been a great deal of speculation as to what they were trying to accomplish.  One theory is that they wanted to prevent people from being able to say, "Well, I won't bother buying this book.  I'll just access the released tests online instead."  Another is that they are signaling a change to the math section.  To examine that last question, we should ask, "What did they pull out, and what replaced it?"

The most interesting thing to me is the 23 questions that I saw for the first time.  It's extra work to write brand-new questions, assuming that is what they did, so what are these questions about?  Ten of them are on probability and statistics.  Many of those actually use notation that a student would be familiar with if he or she had taken the AP prob/stat course, but likely will NOT be familiar with otherwise.  They aren't difficult questions, but many students will be stymied by the notation.  There are also two questions on vectors.  I think it's clear that we can expect to see more questions on these topics on future ACT tests.

Students who plan to take one last shot at the ACT in the fall will want to learn some rudimentary probability and statistics to increase their chances of a top score.

You can order The Official ACT Prep Guide below:





Friday, May 27, 2016

At last! I've found an ACT science workbook!

My favorite test prep materials are the ones that provide targeted practice.  Whether I'm learning content material or testing strategy, I want an opportunity to try it out without having to take an entire test section.  I don't have anything against practice tests, but we have so few of them available right now that I don't want to use one just to practice some detail.  On the other hand, I don't want to wait and practice 17 details all at once.

Up until now, the ACT science section has been the great big hole in my test prep tool box.  There are plenty of books out there that include or focus on the science, but they all fall short.  Either they don't have useful advice, or their practice passages just don't feel right. Then, while browsing on Amazon, I stumbled across For the love of ACT Science by Michael Cerro.

In under 150 pages, this little workbook gets down to the nitty gritty on the most efficient way to accurately answer science questions.  The author has a philosophy that most students will appreciate: Don't read the passage unless you absolutely have to.  I have long had this approach, but this little workbook showed me how to avoid reading the passage in more situations!  There is targeted practice for each tip and several full length science sections.  Other than the fact that some of the "science" seems to have come from the author's imagination (that's on purpose - it illustrates a point) the passages feel like ACT passages.

My one criticism is that the section on prior knowledge is thinner than it could be.  A few extra pages spelling out more of the information that tends to come up on prior knowledge questions - cell structure, plant and animal metabolism, energy, and the solar system - would have been welcome.

I've only just begun using this with students, and they haven't tested, yet, but they definitely feel better, which is half the battle.  A lack of confidence in the science section has been sending some kids to the SAT, which is a problem for this year's juniors.  We're worried that fall SAT scores won't be back in time for early decision applications, and we still don't know how those scores will play out during the admissions process.  This workbook should allow more students to take the ACT.

It's a little pricey for it's length - about $30 on Amazon on 5/27/16 - but it's packed full of useful stuff and it is easy to use on your own; it may save you the price of a tutor.  There's a link below, if you want to order it.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Plan of Action for Parents of Juniors

Someone responded to my last post with this comment:

"What can the grownups do about this?
! It angers me that my son and his entire cohort across the nation and overseas, are screwed! 
Why are we, the grownups throwing up our hands and allowing our children to be pawns in this game? 
Where/How do we begin to action?"

That's an excellent question.  Here are some ideas for parents and other adults who would like to address some of the issues faced by the Class of 2017.

First, make sure the counselors at the local high school are aware of the issues.  As recently as February, I spoke with a high school counselor who had NO IDEA that the following things were about to happen in March:

  • The SAT was changing
  • The scores would be delayed as a result
  • The new SAT would include pre-calculus topics (students at her school took pre-calculus their senior year, so they had always taken the SAT:  the ACT has included pre-calculus for a long time.)

It would not surprise me if there are still high school counselors out there who haven't yet gotten the word on one or more of the above.

Make sure they know about the ACT essay-scoring issue.  You can send them a link to a media report:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/02/12/act-essay-scores-are-inexplicably-low-causing-uproar-among-college-bound-students/

You may be in the camp that thinks all college entrance exams should be completely eliminated, and that's fine, but that issue won't get fixed in time for our juniors.  For the Class of 2017 we need to choose our battles.  There are two demands we can make that should be do-able by any university for the application period beginning THIS FALL:

  • Eliminate the ACT and SAT essay requirements for the next year.  The requirement can always be re-instated if the testing agencies get their acts together, but for this year colleges should NOT require the essays and should ignore scores for any essays already written.  The advantage for students who can pony up $50 for a re-score is too large and that inequity is something colleges are likely to respond to.
  • Promise to extend early decision and early application decisions long enough for students to be able to submit their September SAT scores even if those scores are delayed by the College Board.  Colleges should agree and make that announcement as soon as possible so students who are trying to apply for accommodations will have time to do so.
How should we go about making those demands?  You could start calling schools or set up a petition on Change.org, but it might be most effective to educate the counselors and then recruit the head of the high school counselors' association for your state to call the college admissions offices in your state.

If activism is not your thing, there are still things you can do to support your high school student.  Many college applications require a counselor's statement as part of the application.  To facilitate the submission of dozens, if not hundreds, of statements, your child's counselor will likely require him or her to send in a form.  Once filled in, it may look like a resume or CV.  It tells the counselor about your child:  his or her interests, challenges overcome, etc.  If your student has been challenged by a testing issue, that needs to be included here.  The students should give the counselor an opportunity - and the evidence - to say, "This child's test score does not represent his or her potential as a college student."

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Dear Class of 2017

Dear Class of 2017,

We are so, so sorry.  A perfect storm of college admissions messes has converged and dumped rain all over your college applications process:


  • The SAT announced and implemented a major change smack in the middle of your testing season.  How will colleges view scores on the new test?  We don't know, and frankly, neither do the colleges.
  • Of course, it won't matter how colleges view the scores if there aren't any.  The first scores aren't even due for another week (a good two months after the test), and we all remember the scoring snafu of Fall 2015.  You know, what with it being so recent and all.  And that was for the old test.
  • Both college entrance exams changed their math sections to reflect Common Core, which most of you began in 9th or 10th grade.  This means you didn't have the geometry to do well on the old tests, but didn't have some of the Common Core math to do well on the new tests.
  • The ACT failed to announce, but still implemented, a number of changes to their test before your testing season began, but they failed to provide sufficient practice material.  They have promised a new book in July, at which point we will have spent 9 months with nothing but a single online practice test that few students have managed to stumble across on their own.  (You can find it here.  It begins on page 12.)  CAUTION:  The ACT-published prep book currently available looks different, but has the exact same content as the old book.  They've updated the publisher, not the book.
  • The one change the ACT DID announce before implementing - a major overhaul of the essay - is having issues.  They clearly don't know how to score that thing.  Students who ask to have their essays re-scored see score increases of up to 12 points.  TWELVE POINTS!!!  In case you haven't noticed, ACT people, your rubric is neither psychometrically sound nor legally defensible.  (You can find instructions for having your essay re-scored here.  Scroll down to page 5.)
  • Colleges are confused.  When you ask them if they plan to change their testing requirements in light of these issues they 1) aren't aware of all of the issues and 2) describe policies that are different from the policies listed on their websites.


So, dearest Class of 2017, we hate to say it, but........you're screwed.

Sincerely,

The Grownups

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.