I came across a great LinkedIn group discussion recently about an in-school SAT class (not a big prep company running a course at a school, an actual class during school run by school faculty) and it really got me thinking about ways I would try to engage students in the SAT in a classroom setting given the luxury of time and the resources of a school system. I contributed a half-baked response before heading out for the day, but I’ve continued to ruminate on the idea ever since, so I figured I’d try to flesh it out a bit more here on my own blog. More so than most, this post will be a living document, in that I plan to add to it as more ideas come my way, and if I get any feedback from you all.

If I worked in a school, and was given the opportunity to run a semester-long, 5-days-per-week SAT prep course, I would spend the first few weeks teaching the requisite strategies and making students do practice drills and full tests. And then I would reinforce those first few weeks by making the class try to create an SAT of its own, from the ground up. The idea here is to really get students engaged in thinking about what the test is, and what it is not. I’ve toyed with the idea of question writing as pedagogy in the past, and although I’ve received pushback from students when I’ve proposed it, I remain convinced that under watchful, expert eyes, the construction of mock questions (and even a mock test) could be an incredible teaching tool.

I would model this part of class loosely around something that already exists in many schools: yearbook class. There would be, for example, people on a design team trying to emulate fonts, layout, and other design elements of the test. There would be teams dedicated to each subject, and possibly subteams to work on different question types. Depending on time constraints, I might or might not provide reading passages of my own choosing.

Learning objectives
  • Determine, based on available tests, what the most commonly tested concepts are.
  • Explore all the the different ways common concepts are tested.
  • Understand how incorrect answer choices are chosen. For example:
    • Common calculation missteps
    • Predictable misunderstanding of reading passage contents
    • Sentence Improvement questions that fix original problem, but introduce a new one
    • Phrases that “sound weird” but are grammatically correct
  • Learn how to write precise, unambiguous questions (and in so doing, gain an appreciation for how precise and unambiguous the SAT is).
  • Repeatedly reinforce important concepts and techniques as students emulate the style and substance of the SAT in their own questions.
  • If possible, administer both an official SAT Blue Book test and the student-built test to another group of students over a few weekends (some students do Blue Book test first, others do student-built test first).
    • Perform rudimentary statistical analysis to try to see how well the student-built test approximates the real thing.
    • Write report(s) on what worked about the process, and what didn’t.

Of course, to pull this off a teacher would need really deep understanding of the test, to provide guidance and to keep students focused on designing an SAT—simply designing a really hard test that doesn’t feel much like an SAT might be a fun exercise but isn’t going to do anybody much good from a test prep perspective. And students would need to be motivated, curious, and not easily frustrated.

Last word

Difficulties and improbability of this ever being attempted aside, I really feel like in the right circumstances, this process could create some real powerhouse SAT takers. Aside from giving students some perspective on how the sausage is made, it would give the instructor tons of opportunities to go beyond teaching the basic test-taking strategies and really dig into students’ problem areas in a nontraditional way.

It could also, done right, be a lot of fun. Just sayin’.

Comments (7)

Mike McClenathan, if I were a bigshot CEO and you were pitching me this idea, I would say, “this is a crazy idea.  I don’t understand it and therefore it terrifies me.  Now go make it work, you BRILLIANT BASTARD.”  And then I would throw a pile of money at you.

I haven’t tried that. I mean, I always know all the answers when I go through a test with a student, but I’m assuming you mean that the student gets to see the answers as he or she works through the test. 

It’s a great big world out there, so there might be someone for whom that would work, but I think it’s too easy, once you know an answer, to convince yourself you understand and move on without really understanding. Once you’ve taken a test, you should obviously go back through it with the answers and really labor over all of your mistakes, but I think it’d be a waste of a good practice test to go through it with the answers in front of you.

If I have sufficient time with a student, I usually make them write their own writing questions. They usually struggle with them at first, but it makes them “get” the test so completely that they become virtually incapable of screwing certain things up. 

I’ve also tried to do it with CR questions, and well, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t had much success. You have to understand how  a passage works rhetorically and organizationally at a really sophisticated level in order to be able to write convincing questions — it’s sometimes even challenging for me to hit the exact right feel of a passage, think up multiple ways that someone could plausibly misinterpret particular sections, and then turn those into convincing incorrect answer choices. 

The truth is that I’ve never worked with a student who had either the attention span or the necessary reading skills to go through the process with me; mostly they just got bored and tuned out. I’m not trying to be condescending here, just honest. Even kids who score in the high 700s often have trouble viewing the test as a construct whose inner workings can be systematically de-constructed. I don’t think I could have really understood it when I was in high school — I understood instinctively that the test was a construct, but I just didn’t know enough about reading, and I read A LOT. And even now I look back at the first CR passages I wrote a few years ago, and they’re awful!  You need a lot of technical knowledge about how texts function just to understand just what ETS is doing, and then you have to spend a long, long time figuring out just what does and does not make it onto the test and why. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but most test prep companies have trouble even managing it. It’s one thing to get an approximation, quite another to hit it straight on. 

Math and Writing, absolutely. But Reading is a completely different story. 

Point well taken. I think this part would require the most input from a very seasoned instructor, so it’s the most improbable. Still, I’d be interested to see what students could come up with given the time and space to explore old exams.

I agree and disagree if that is possible. To clarify, are you talking about writing your own CR passages? I choose mine from literature, and college-level textbooks, magazines, and journals. There definitely are certain types of questions that are difficult to write. However, at least for literature, I find websites such as Cliff Notes or Sparks a good starting point.

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