Thursday, May 15, 2014

Plug and Chug on the Current SAT? I Don't Think So!

So I've been reading some of the pro-College Board propaganda regarding the SAT redesign, and where the math is concerned, I feel the writers in question must hail from some bizarre parallel universe. I've been preparing students for the SAT for nine years, and quite frankly, the claim that the current test favors plug-and-chug mathematics over "deep understanding" and "real world problem solving" (God save me from empty buzzwords!) simply does not jive with my own experience.

Clearly, many of these folks have never worked with actual teenagers in an actual classroom; otherwise, they'd know that the solutions to apparently "simple" SAT Math problems are frequently not evident to the average adolescent and often do require critical thought. For example, take this question:
A string is cut into 3 equal parts. These pieces are then cut into 4, 6 and 8 equal parts, respectively. If the resulting pieces all have integer lengths, what is the minimum length of the original string?
This seems simple, right? Indeed, solving it only requires basic middle-school math. But in order to complete this problem - and others like it - correctly, you have to understand that "cut into equal parts" is referring to division, and then you have to make the connection to least common multiple; in other words, you have to understand what division and the least common multiple are conceptually and be able to recognize how they'd be applied in unfamiliar contexts. And can my students do this? Nope! Most of the time, they get distracted by the odd surface features and fail to grok this question's deep structure.

Real world problem solving? Word problems are already a central feature of the current SAT, and most of them can't be "cleverly back-solved" -- at least, not efficiently. You will not do well if you don't know how to, among other things: 1) calculate percents and apply them in "authentic" contexts; 2) use the concept of the average to find a requested value; 3) write and solve linear equations based on information given in a text; 4) write and solve systems of linear equations, again based on information provided in a text; 5) read tables and graphs; 6) apply basic geometric theorems to complex diagrams; or 7) interpret key mathematical vocabulary and use the basic field properties of real numbers.

There are features of the new SAT that I like. I like, for instance, that they're adding a "no calculator" section, as I think today's students are far too calculator-dependent. But in advertising this redesign, let's not blatantly mischaracterize what it will replace. It is just not honest to pull out the rare odd logic question and argue that the entire old-style SAT is like that. I know this test backwards and forwards, and I can assure you that at least 95% of its content can be connected to the in-school math curriculum -- and no, students can't skate by without thinking carefully about what things mean.

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