Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Math SAT is it Worthwhile?

If you are one of those who bemoans the loss of the SAT as a requirement for University entrance or someone who feels it gives great information on school success ...... then you may need to readjust your thinking cap.

The following comes from Paul Dunham ME in Mechanical Engineering and certificated but not currently practicing High School math teacher. Perhaps when math returns to high School, Paul may appear to teach it. Students unfortunate to be in current Math appreciation classes masquerading as useful mathematics classes will not see Mr. Dunham as their instructor.

The Paul Dunham SAT Math report follows.
I encountered something interesting recently that is worth sharing here, especially for any of you who have a child planning to take the SAT.

My daughter recently took the SAT. Prior to the test, a friend passed on a book for her to use to prepare for it. It is the 2008 edition of "Cracking the SAT" by The Princeton Review. Thanks to the IB math program, she was well prepared already, and just used the book for the practice tests it contained, which any of the books of this type provide.

Yesterday I glanced into the book to get an idea of what topics are covered in the math section of the SAT. I found that Algebra I generally covers it. There are no logarithms, no trig, and not even any quadratics. But that isn't what floored me. What put my eyes to bugging is the general stance that The Princeton Review takes towards the task of training someone to take the math portion of the SAT. It's all about effective bluffing.

Here's an excerpt:

At the Princeton Review, we like to avoid algebra whenever possible. You read that correctly: We're going to show you how to avoid doing algebra on the SAT. Now, before you start crying and complaining that you love algebra and couldn't possibly give it up, just take as second to hear us out. We have nothing against algebra- it's very helpful when solving problems, it works all the time, it impresses your friends- but on the SAT, using algebra can actually hurt your score. And we don't want that.
Plus, when you avoid algebra, you have one other powerful tool at your disposal: your calculator! Even if you have a super-fancy calculator that plays games a doubles as a global positioning system, chances are it doesn't do algebra. Arithmetic, on the other hand, is easy for your calculator. It's what calculators were invented for.
Our goal, then, is to turn all the algebra on the SAT into arithmetic. We do that using something we call Plugging In.

This is followed by a few examples of how multiple choice questions can be answered by trying out the choices with the help of your calculator and using the process of elimination to choose an answer.

The book does contain some basic review of arithmetic and algebra, but it's all just cookbook "tricks", with no fundamental background on why any of it works. In the section on fractions:

Adding and Subtracting Fractions with Different Bottoms:
In school you were taught to add and subtract fractions with different bottoms, or denominators, by finding a common bottom. To do this, you have to multiply each fraction by a number that makes all the bottoms the same. Most students find this process annoying.

This leads to an illustration of a method they call the "Bowtie", with no discussion of factors or any of the other basic principles that make it work, only a diagram of what to multiply by what, where to put the results in an answer, and Bob's your uncle. The section on division is just as irritating:

Dividing All Fractions:
To divide one fraction by another, flip over (or invert) the second fraction and multiply. Doing this is extremely easy, as long as you remember how it works. [and in the sidebar ] Just Do It - When dividing (don't ask why) just flip the last one and multiply.

These are just a few examples of the kind of material in this book. The writers and publishers seem to presume (probably correctly, as this is the #2 book in its category on Amazon) that their readers don't know math, and don't want to know math, but just want a magic bullet that will get them past this irritating obstacle known as the SAT. Whether or not they crash and burn in their first year of college or not is immaterial. Heck, they can always transfer to the Ed school.

Now, we all know that the process of elimination is useful in any multiple choice test. And strategies to narrow choices from which to pick a guess are certainly worth knowing. But this book essentially dismisses any effort to actually understand the material being tested as pointless and ill-advised. I had to check in the frontispiece to make sure I wasn't reading a National Lampoon satire. Nope, it's for real. Sigh....

Since I encountered this book by random, I began to wonder if all SAT prep books are like this. I went to a local bookstore and browsed the options. Most are bad, but none as bad as "The Princeton Review". The best one I saw was "Math Workbook for the New SAT", published by Barron's, and written by L. Leff. The mathematical explanations in this book are complete and clear, and don't depend on "tricks" to work.

Paul Dunham,
Master of Mechanical Engineering
Past and Potential Agent of Math repair

I need another drink of Kool-Aid to get past this SAT review.
Niki Hayes writes to Paul


As I read this message, I kept thinking about what was wanted from me as a math tutor for charter school kids who needed to get ready for the TX state test. As usual, they thought I could come in four weeks prior to the test and get them "ready" for the test.

(These were boys who had put off doing any math work all year, since the school's program allows them to move at their "own pace" and study what they want for credits. Needless to say, they choose history and electives and avoid math. As I explained to the principal, the state test is a "finishing line" at the end of the year and if students are allowed to move at their own paces, they will likely NOT cross the finish line on an acceptable "time line.")

However, the other tutor (retired teacher) who seems to have a fairly good successful rate teaches the kids "tricks" in answering the questions, with very little time spent on trying to teach knowledge or skills. It was interesting to see how she helped students "guess" at the "best answer" with little or no mathematical understanding involved. She really did show me the true meaning of "test-taking skills."

The regular math teacher was frustrated with this maneuver, and I confess I had trouble understanding how to do it because the "real" math kept getting in my way.

That tutor said she had been trained in a workshop how to do this. Now there was some productive professional development, I thought. This woman gets students to pass their tests and that is all that counts. I was not as successful with my students.

Needless to say, it makes one rethink one's priorities: Do I learn how to help students just "pass the test" or do I allow it to be shown that students don't know their math?

Of course, people look at the other tutor's successes, not knowing what she's doing, and I don't come off looking so good. I guess I am just an anachronism in today's education world...but I know I can't be part of the scam program that ends up biting kids in the end. (No pun intended.)



Anonymous said...

We did a study with AVID students in San Diego (9000 students). The best predictor of college enrollment were SAT math scores, the second best predictor was parent's highest level of education.

Unlike the WASL, which is the worst test in the world for measuring student achievement and we use the WASL for measuring AYP.

The SAT would be more worthwhile if students had a math curriculum aligned to it, take Singapore for instance.

Anonymous said...

Dan - your formatting is sometimes confusing - what is actually quoted and what is commentary on the quotes


btw, I don't have time to do what you do, and I appreciate it, so, if you want to tell me to stuff it go ahead!

dan dempsey said...

Hey Anon,

I do not have time to do this either.

But as letting OSPI trample the kids without opposition is the only other option.

I've decided to have OSPI trample the kids with opposition.

I will try to get my formatting better. Look particularly at the italicized portions.

I am really tired and this is likely to degrade into a poorly formated mess but I figure even garbled info may be better than none.