When grownups take the SAT

SAT Taking the SAT as an adult is a harrowing experience, writes Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker.

She was inspired by Debbie Stier, a 46-year-old mother who took the test seven times in hopes of motivating her son, a B student. Obsessed with earning a perfect score, Stier tried various SAT-prep methods. She ended up with a book, The Perfect Score Project.

Since 2005, the SAT has included an essay. Kolbert had to write on whether progress requires struggle and conflict. From reading Stier’s book, she knew the key to scoring well is a clear thesis. “Declare, don’t waffle,” Stier advises.  “Pick a position and then bang away at it, the way you might at a piñata, or a rabid dog,” Kolbert puts it.

There was no time to argue the premise or question the definition of progress. Kolbert went with “No pain, no gain.”

I ended up writing on the Manhattan Project, despite my misgivings about whether the prospect of nuclear annihilation should count as an advance. When I got to the point of quoting Robert Oppenheimer’s famous line “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” I couldn’t remember exactly how it went, and so, heeding Stier’s advice—“Details count; factual accuracy doesn’t”— I made something up.

Kolbert, whose goal was to avoid humiliation, doesn’t report her scores.

Stier tells all. As a high school student in 1982, she received a below-average 410 on the verbal and a 480 on the math. But she was able to go to Bennington College and build a successful career as a book publicist. Stier didn’t think that would work for her son.

No longer, she’s concluded, can a kid from an affluent suburban community expect to waltz his or her way into a decent college, and from there back into an affluent suburban community.

On her fifth try, Stier scored a perfect 800 on the writing section, 740 in reading and 560 in math.
Her son, Ethan, did well enough on his SATs to get into Loyola University in Baltimore. Test prep taught him to “set goals and work hard,” he believes. “You have to have all the basic skills down before you try to learn any tricks because without a solid base of math and grammar, you won’t be able to answer the questions fast enough on the test.”

Still, his mother is doing test prep differently with her daughter. Before they start test prep, “I’m having her go back and shore up the fundamentals of math, grammar and reading,” Stier says. “I have her read the New York Times every day and we go over all the vocabulary words she doesn’t know, and we discuss the articles, starting with the main idea, which is a great exercise for the SAT reading section.”

It sounds educational.

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Comments

  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The SAT (and its older cousins, the GRE and GMAT) test a “very particular set of skills”.

    It’s always going to be harrowing to take those tests if your skills aren’t sharp, just like ANY challenge is going to be harrowing if you don’t know how to meet it.

    Sometimes your skills aren’t sharp because you’re a teenager who hasn’t been doing the school thing very well.

    Sometimes they aren’t sharp because you’ve got nasty test anxiety that interferes with their deployment.

    Sometimes they aren’t sharp because you haven’t done these sorts of things for years, and whatever skills you did have (if any) have atrophied.

    Sometimes you’re just not that bright, and math is hard for you in timed conditions. Or sometimes you just aren’t that sensitive, and picking up on themes and stuff is hard for you in timed conditions.

    Sometimes it’s a combination of any of the above.

    In order for the test to be useful, it has to be able to differentiate, even at the extremes. So going after a perfect score means that you’re trying to match the output of someone who has a natural talent, who has cultivated that talent into a skill, and who has kept up practice in that skill.

    Yeah, good luck with that. It can be done, but it seems sort of a waste of time.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “Yeah, good luck with that. It can be done, but it seems sort of a waste of time.”

      Unless you are getting paid to do it as part of a book deal.

  2. Apropos in this centennial for the “test of lower order thinking for the lower orders” that the SAT is derived from — the multiple choice test.

    It is interesting how much time and effort is put into gaming the SAT instead of, you know, seeing what the aptitude of the taker really is.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Gaming the test only gets you so far. You’re playing margins.

      I’ve told my undergrads that they’ve had 16 years of formal schooling to prepare for the GRE/LSAT. If they’re not ready now, a prep course isn’t going to do a whole lot of good. It might eke out a 5% shift, maybe 8%, but it’s not going to turn your 145 into a 173, and it’s not going to turn your 1720 into a 2150.

  3. “On her fifth try, Stier scored a perfect 800 on the writing section, 740 in reading and 560 in math.” Stier says. “I have her read the New York Times every day and we go over all the vocabulary words she doesn’t know, and we discuss the articles, starting with the main idea, which is a great exercise for the SAT reading section.”

    No wonder it took this woman 7 attempts to get a decent SAT score. She keeps studying what she already knows, and slights the area where she’s weak. HOW ABOUT WORKING SOME MATH PROBLEMS, LADY?

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Exactly. Going from the high 700s to an 800 is mostly about luck– did the particular mix of questions that day include one you didn’t know?

      Meanwhile, scoring in the 500s in math means you really need to bone up on Algebra and geometry.

    • J.D. Salinger says:

      “HOW ABOUT WORKING SOME MATH PROBLEMS, LADY?”

      She did. Why don’t you read the book, you know-it-all jack-ass.

    • It didn’t take her 7 attempts to get a decent math score. (Full disclosure: Debbie is a close friend, and I did a ‘polish’ of the book. I pretty much know it by heart.)

      Her verbal scores went straight up as a result of practice & test prep.

      Her math score didn’t budge, even with the fantastic prep “PWN” provided.

      What’s interesting about Debbie’s experience is that it confirms the need for a coherent curriculum. What Debbie always says about her year of preparing for the SAT is that if she had it to do over again she would skip the test prep and start with a real math course.

      I’m pretty sure she says it in this interview: http://www.today.com/video/today/54507075#54507075

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        Oh! That makes more sense. It *IS* impossible to cram for math. You just have to learn it.