SSAT Reading: Grade (In)Appropriate?

If you’re preparing for the SSAT, one of the important things to learn early is how to roll with the punches. The SSAT is an inconsistent and fickle beast chock-full of trips, traps, bumps and hiccups. It’s designed for students in multiple grades and thus most of those taking the test will see concepts they have not yet learned, or be required to read at a level that is above (or below) what they’ve been doing in school. This creates lots of variability and can be confusing and daunting. Let’s check out what we mean by variability by exploring the grade levels of the reading passages in the reading section.

In order to analyze the reading level of the passages on the test, we took the passages that were in the “The Official Guide to the Middle Level SSAT” and ran them through the Flesch-Kincaid (F-K) analysis to see the grade level and readability score of each passage. This gives us one objective and consistent way to see how hard the passages were. Our findings are summarized in the chart below:

Test Prep: A few tricks to beat the test?

I’m always stunned by the lack of clarity that people have about what test prep is and what test prep isn’t. Many people seem to believe that test preparation involves sprinkling pixie dust on a test-taker and waiting for the score to soar to new heights. Think about how often you’ve heard of “tricks” to “beat the test.” Now don’t get me wrong, I know it’s largely the test preparation industry that sold the nation this bill of goods (thanks Joe Bloggs), but the impact of this thinking is being compounded by the current atmosphere in education of over-testing, misuse of testing, and over-reliance on test results. This post will clarify “once and for all” what test prep is and what it isn’t. I hope after this post that I’ll never again hear the phrase “just a few tricks” combined with “get me a great score.”

“I just need a few tricks to boost my score.”

Tips from an Expert Tutor

The question I am asked the most often after revealing that I’m a professional standardized test tutor is, “How should I study for Test X?” The reply is always invariably a petition for more information such as the materials being used, past testing history, study habits, and anticipated testing schedule, all of which is just a baseline amount of information that I would then use to offer the most basic and topical plan of action. The reason for such a skeletal plan is because of a very simple reason:  every student’s needs are different and if I haven’t spent any time observing a student’s habits and logical process then I can’t say what he or she needs. The effectiveness of tutoring lies in the customization and personalized guidance. A large part of a tutor’s job is identifying where in the process of answering a question, between reading it to choosing the correct answer, is there a disconnect.  The tutor then formulates a way for that particular student to most effectively bridge that gap. With that said, here are three of the most common issues many of my students face across different tests have.

 

1.            Lacking the fundamental knowledge base that is being tested.

2.            Having difficulty recognizing the topics being tested by the questions.

3.            Executing a strategy for specific question types consistently.

 

The first issue is usually the easiest to diagnose. This issue is most notable with math questions but can manifest with verbal questions (albeit less alarmingly and thus usually more ignored, unfortunately). My opinion on this issue, shared by the pedagogy of Bell Curves, is that regardless of how much test-taking savvy you have, if you don’t know the base content (e.g. geometry formulas, grammar rules, argument structure, etc.) there is absolutely no way to consistently answer questions correctly. The solution is pretty straightforward  – study the material until you understand the rules and their applications.

Vocab from context vs Vocab in Context

We probably all remember being told “if you see a word you don’t know try to understand the meaning from context.” While this was pretty good strategy for early readers (let’s say through 6th grade), the older you get the less it works.  Trying to learn vocabulary from context as you get older is fraught with peril (is fraught a typo?). Let’s explore the difference between vocabulary in context and vocabulary from context. We also explore some strategies on how to use this to help us with the SSAT, ISEE, SAT, and GRE.

Learning vocabulary from context
Children’s books are often written with the intention of helping children acquire new words. To help children learn new words, these authors of children’s books will often use a word and then immediately define it in the context of the text. That text might look like this:

ISEE and SSAT: Parents Just Don’t Understand

Not much has changed since DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince rapped “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” And while we can’t explain what would motivate a teenager to run off with the family car without permission we can answer the most common questions we’ve had about the SSAT and ISEE.  Here are some answers to some of the more common questions about these two tests:

 

SSAT and ISEE: What makes these tests so darn hard?!?

Admissions tests (while this post is focused on the SSAT and ISEE, it’s also applicable to the SAT and ACT) are notoriously difficult for students and confusing to parents, especially when otherwise high-performing students get “low” scores. While there are many possible reasons for a student to under-perform on a test, we’ll tackle some of the most common. Hopefully this will give you some insight into how to help your child succeed on a standardized admission tests. Here are a few reasons students struggle with admissions tests:

Starting Prep Early: SAT Vocabulary Strategies

Earlier this year we joined SAT aficionados and college counselors on Twitter for the bi-weekly #CampusChat. The topic was SAT vocabulary and it sparked a zany hour of interesting words being used in fun context. By our estimation the prize for most interesting use of SAT vocab was taken by Suzanne Schaeffer (mostly because of her fun digs at Bell Curves founder @akilbello). If you’re interested you can see the full twitter transcript here.

This chat got the juices flowing over in BC central and sparked us to ask our teachers for recommendations for short-term (less than 6 months) and longer term vocab acquisition tools and tricks. In this blog we’ll address some of the long term vocabulary strategies that parents can use to help their children develop college-ready vocabularies.

ISEE Prep: Bromances, Frenemies, Stanines, and squishy terms.

Sporting a manpurse

When I first heard “stanine” I thought: “Oh, that poor lady. Did they name her after some guy named Stan?” It turns out it’s not a person, but a system for standardizing test scores. This makes more sense and is less upsetting than thinking some woman has gone through life saying “No, not Janine, Stanine.”

But turns out it’s actually pronounced “Stay-Nine” since it squishes the original title of the process called Standard Nine into one word (like romance and brother make bromance, murse = man + purse, friend and enemy make frenemy, giant + enormous = ginormous). Stanine is a way to explain test scores using just a single number from 1 to 9. The important part to keep in mind is that this isn’t the actual score, as in how many questions you got right or wrong, but instead it’s a way to see how your test score compares with everyone else who took the test.

Test prep tips: How parents, counselors, and mentors can help

One of the biggest challenges for parents and mentors is how to support a student as she transitions to high school and later to college.  The older the student is, the more she studies content that the parent or mentor no longer remembers, or has to navigate a system that is new or different from what parents and mentors experienced (we all know college admissions looks very different than it did 20 years ago).

Overwhelmed parents often mistakenly leave the preparation for SAT, ACT, and college admissions to schools or tutors. Many parents will be shelling out money to provide children access to test preparation tools and educational support, but we can’t let that be the end of our involvement. These tips will help you support your child’s test preparation (and college readiness) efforts even when you don’t fully understand the content or know the system. Here are two tips for helping your child even when you don’t quite get it:


Be the Planner

One of the best roles for parents as students approach high school and college should be as the “keeper of the calendar.” A parent should help the child make a plan and stick to that plan. This plan should be jointly created by you and your child (and maybe even an admissions counselor) and be revised periodically. You should include registration deadlines, filing deadlines, recommended test dates, summer enrichment activities, sports, etc so that both of you will have target dates readily available. There are lots of online college planners available online to give you a starting point. One such site to check out is http://www.knowhow2go.org/ .  In general, all planning for transition from one level of school to the next should start at least 18 months before you expect to start. So to go from junior high to high school, parents need to have the calendar planned out by the spring of 7th grade. Here are a few things the parent or mentor can help schedule and plan for:

Academic record: Make sure the right classes are taken and excelled in.

Enrichment activities: Help find enrichment activities for the summers and weekends that will help students prepare for school and life (internships, academic summer programs, creative outlets, etc).

Extracurricular activities: Guide students to explore their areas of interest via programs and clubs that will allow them to participate for the long term and gain leadership experience.

Interviewing skills: Practice for the types of questions asked will put the child at ease.

Applications: Be the monitor and proofreader and make sure applications are filled out properly and submitted before deadlines.

Test scores: Make sure they reflect the student’s abilities by preparing in advance and taking the exam more than once if necessary and applicable.


Be the Student

One of the best ways parents and mentors can help a student prepare for admissions tests (and concurrently make sure that the student is doing their work) is by having the student teach them. We often learn more and better when we are forced to explain to others. You can help your child lock in classroom lessons by not simply asking him if he did his homework, but instead by asking him to teach a problem to you. This way you can participate actively in his learning, support him by letting him see you struggle, encourage him by letting him see you figure it out with his guidance, and reinforce the work by helping him “study” by teaching. Since you know your child best, you’ll know best how to motivate him. You can make this competitive (by challenging him to get more of the questions right than you), you can make it supportive (by showing him that you struggle with the test as well), or you can make it a bonding experience (by sharing the challenge of figuring out problems). The key is to work with them and allow them to show you what they are learning from their prep book, prep class, or prep tutor.


Blog connections:

An awesome example of a parent helping their child with testing can be found by checking out our friend Debbie’s blog. To help and support her son she took every SAT offered in 2011 and blogged about the process.

We cross-posted this blog by Lawrence Watkins, who traced his success, summer program by summer program.

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For more advice about college admissions, testing, and supporting your students, check out our free events, courses, and tutoring options.

Study Tips: Test yourself!

In this edition of our ongoing study tips, we introduce you to the testing effect, another handy (and scientifically proven, read about a study here) method for improving your study habits and information retention.

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