Category Archives: Reflections

19 Jun 2012

Why do tests matter, anyway?

On Wednesday, the New York Post reported that parents are pulling their kids out of the young, progressive and $32,000 per-year Blue School at tremendous rates because their kids are “barely learning to read.”

Originally founded in 2006 as a playgroup by members of the Blue Man Group and their wives, the Blue School places a premium on curiosity, collaboration, and creative exploration. Students and teachers work in teams to establish and construct curriculum. There are no required books or set arrival times. Grade levels currently range from prekindergarten to third grade, although a fourth grade is being added next year.

Instead of tests, Blue School teachers use “observations, field notes, photographs, portfolios, and other appropriate forms of documentation” to evaluate student progress—a system that allows teachers to assess development holistically and without comparing students to one another. Students are encouraged to learn through play, projects and reflection on their environment. Curriculum is emergent, which means that material is taught as it becomes relevant to students’ explorations and interests. Sounds like a dream!

…Until you realize second graders at the Blue School still can’t read.

Before the backdrop of recent outcry against the growing importance of standardized tests, the Blue School’s radical methods appear to represent desperate moves to get away from the mania—attempts to refocus education on the process of learning, rather than on its end results. Emphasis on standardized testing is at an all-time high; such tests determine not only the fate of NYC teachers and schools, but also whether students are permitted to advance to the next grade level. Success on standardized tests is also a prerequisite for admission to elite NYC high schools and universities nationwide.

Criticism of standardized tests seems to flow in two, interrelated directions. On one hand, parents are frustrated that measurement of their children’s achievement and potential has boiled down to a single score. Such feelings were manifest in the media’s treatment of the “talking pineapple question”, a nonsense story paired with nonsensical questions that recently appeared on New York State 8th grade ELA exams. Parents, teachers, and students alike were outraged that such a screaming error could appear on high-stakes exams. In response, the state eventually decided not to count the question when calculating scores.

Critics are also concerned about the effects of standardized tests on teaching. Under overwhelming pressure to get students to perform, some teachers are now prioritizing the pedagogy of “teaching to the test.” In other words, rather than exploring subjects in depth to instill comprehensive understanding, many teachers are relying on “drill and kill” methods that may improve scores, but foster only superficial comprehension of a given topic.

These are serious problems that must be addressed, but eliminating tests altogether is not the answer. Working in the admissions test-prep industry, I have come to see standardized tests like the SAT as useful teaching tools. Tests function to direct and structure curriculum; they focus teacher and student attention on developing and improving skills that are necessary for success in school and beyond. Furthermore, standardized tests like the SAT ask students to apply skills they have learned in new ways to solve tricky questions. Studying for such tests can actually train students to approach problems from diverse angles and find creative solutions.

The high stakes of tests are important here too—many highschoolers commit to independent reading only after they experience the brutality of Critical Reading on the SAT. In other words, the tangible goals and rewards associated with tests can nurture student motivation. Also and perhaps most importantly, studying for tests like the SAT teaches students to proceed with confidence, diligence, and determination despite not initially being the best at something.

It remains to be seen whether the Blue School’s alternative teaching methods can eventually instill core academic skills like literacy and math. For now, it seems the school is facing a harsh reality that validating free and independent exploration cannot come at the expense of giving students structure, direction, and discipline. Both elements must combine for children to grow into capable, responsible, and curious learners.


21 May 2012

Stories of success shirk fears of failure!

Last week, Yahoo! News and The New York Times gave us the stories of Chris Navas and Gac Filipaj—two individuals who sprung from humble circumstances to attain Ivy League degrees.

In Chris Navas’ narrative, a cascade of coincidences leads an academically apathetic young man to earn a spot at Dartmouth University’s medical school. The story begins when Navas, a high school dropout who holds a day job building boilers, signs up for a 200-level “behavioral neuroscience” class—simply because it works for his schedule. Normally a “do just what it takes to pass” kind of student, Navas didn’t expect to be good at neuroscience. Nevertheless, he found himself captivated by the teacher’s descriptions of breakthrough neuroscientific research and began reading unassigned chapters in the text. Before long, Navas had secured a spot in the honors neuroscience program and was working at a lab that studies learning and memory. He will begin medical school at Dartmouth this fall.

Navas explains his fortune as a force of luck. “The mentors made the difference,” he said, according to The New York Times. “I was just some kid working in a boiler company. I had no vision of becoming a doctor. I got lucky, over and over.”

Navas’ story certainly suggests fate played a hand in his scholastic path. After all, Navas signed up for “behavioral neuroscience” on a whim, without plans to become a doctor or a neuroscience major… without even particular interest in the topic! But, since there’s no lesson in luck, I’d prefer to highlight aspects of agency in Navas’ tale.

Chris Navas strikes me as a person who not only is tremendously brave, but also delves heart and soul into the activities he enjoys. As The New York Times explains, post-high-school, Navas had no plan. He picked up work as a secretary at a refrigeration company. One day all the mechanics were out, so Navas’ boss sent him to fix a broken refrigerator. Navas rose to the occasion, undaunted by his lack of training in refrigeration mechanics. He took school lightly because it wasn’t his thing, and didn’t worry too much about the future. Instead, he worked fervently at bodybuilding, his passion. When he became aware of his fascination with neuroscience, he pursued it relentlessly. He didn’t tell himself it was too late, dwell upon past mistakes, or focus on competition that lay ahead. He just did it because he loved it.

Similar bravery, passion, and perseverance can be seen in Gac Filipaj. Middle-aged and nearly done with law school, Filipaj was forced to start his life over when he fled Montenegro (then a Yugoslavian republic facing civil war) in 1992. Once in America, Filipaj lived with his uncle in the Bronx, worked as a restaurant busboy, and began to ask after the best schools in NYC. When he learned of Columbia University, he applied for a job.

Filipaj’s native language is Albanian, so his first hurdle as a degree-seeking American was to learn English. Once fluent, he took on the challenge of balancing Ivy-League-level coursework with a fulltime job as a janitor at Columbia. Yahoo! News reports Filipaj regularly pulled all-nighters during exam time or to finish a paper. Then he would go to class, and then to his 2:30–11:00pm shift at work.

Twelve years later, Filipaj donned a cap and gown to receive his bachelor’s degree—with honors—in Roman and Greek classics. In graduating, Filipaj reveals himself as someone who is able to take life as it comes and who won’t be discouraged, no matter the work required nor the magnitude of setback. Ultimately Filipaj would like to attain a master’s degree or a Ph.D. in Roman and Greek classics, so he can teach. For now, he is trying to get a “better job,” perhaps as a supervisor of other custodians.

Filipaj and Navas’ experiences demonstrate the power of hard work, passion, and faith in one’s abilities to trump even the most disheartening circumstances. When you love something and are determined to succeed at it, no task is too hard and no amount of work is too much. In turn, no goal is beyond your reach.

These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

Apathetic: marked by lack of interest or concern
Fervent: having or showing great intensity of spirit
Disheartening: very discouraging

10 Apr 2012

Debunking the Right/Left Brain Myth: What does this mean for standardized tests?

You’ve probably heard that left-brained people are logical, organized, and good at science and math, while right-brainers are creative, artsy, good at spacial reasoning and, perhaps, at interpreting the tone of a book. Maybe you’ve even used this distinction to describe yourself?

While there’s certainly no harm in using left/right brain terminology to illustrate the activities you enjoy, it’s important to take this distinction with a grain of salt. Why? Because the theory is not based in actual science. In other words: it’s bunk.

In an article for the Washington Post, University of Virginia psychology professor, Daniel Willingham discusses the parts of the brain involved in “learning a sequence,” typically considered a left-brain task. He writes,

In this brain imaging study some colleagues and I found that 14 brain areas contribute to the sequencing task we examined. “Sequential thought” is supposed to be a left brain function, but we observed five areas in the left hemisphere, five in the right, and four bilateral. (That is, the activity was in corresponding areas of both the left and right hemispheres.)

I say “sequencing” and that corresponds to 14 different brain areas! So thinking that we can identify an array of these tasks–logical thinking, language, math, and others–that all depend mostly on one hemisphere seems a little far-fetched. More to the point, we know it’s inaccurate.

So, different abilities are not controlled by distinct, hierarchically arranged sides of the brain. What does this mean for high school students preparing for college admissions tests? The SAT is split between sections that test reading, writing, and math. The ACT adds science to the mix. A motley crew of subjects, indeed! If you’re inclined toward the right/left brain theory, you might say: “Well, I’m right-brained. Maybe I can do OK on SAT verbal… but math just ain’t my thing!” Or, worse: “I’m right-brained. I’m a boss at art, but I suck at logic, analysis, and reasoning. The SAT just ain’t my thing!”

Left/Right brain distinctions dichotomize our abilities and act like destiny. They tell us that, because we’re good at one thing, we can’t possibly be good at it’s (alleged) inverse. Left/right brain distinctions downplay possible connections between different types of thought–the seeming relatedness between pattern-recognition, analysis, and intuitive interpretation. Recognizing such relationships opens the possibility for students to use inborn talents as a springboard for developing weaker areas.

Or maybe debunking the left/right brain myth just tells us that one’s gift for science has absolutely nothing to do with spatial reasoning or talent in art. You can be both intensely creative and intensely analytical. One does not prevent or undermine the other, so we get to nurture multiple, “contradictory” gifts.

Anyway, my point is: If you’re a high school student getting ready for the SAT/ACT, don’t let mythological notions about your dominant half-brain prevent you from trying for a good score in all sub-tests. Ditto that for different subjects in school.

These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

motley: made up of different colors or parts
dichotomy: division into two mutually exclusive, opposed or contradictory groups
alleged: doubtful; suspect; supposed

03 Apr 2012

How would you do on the very first SAT ever given?

Ever wondered about the history of the SAT? Probably not… but it makes for an interesting blog post, nevertheless! How has the SAT changed over time?

A Brief History of the SAT

On June 23, 1926, the first SAT was administered to about 8,000 young men, most of whom applied to Yale University. It contained nine sub-tests, 7 with verbal content, and 2 that tested math. Time-limits were fierce: students had 97 minutes to answer 314 questions and were told, in rather bizarre language, that they should not expect to finish.

An outgrowth of IQ tests given to army recruits during World War 1, the original SAT aimed to objectively measure intelligence. By 1945, however, most question types rooted in intelligence testing were eliminated–subsumed by problems that more directly assessed learned academic skills. No longer a test of inborn intelligence, the SAT became a way to quantify college preparedness. This shift in emphasis harbingers the exam’s eventual name change; originally an acronym for “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” SAT no longer stands for anything at all.

An example of this shift can be seen by comparing a 1934 “six-choice antonym” question to contemporary sentence completion questions. “Six-choice antonym” questions required students to look at a group of four words and choose the two that are “opposite in meaning.” They are called “six-choice” questions because students select from six possible answer choices: (1, 2); (1, 3); (1, 4); (2, 3); (2, 4); and (3, 4).

Here is a medium-level “six-choice antonym” question:

gregarious (1)      solitary (2)      elderly (3)      blowy (4)

(Answer: 1, 2)

Source: A Historical Perspective on the SAT: 1926 – 2001
Click here for two additional early SAT questions

As an official College Board report explains, “six-choice antonym” questions act a bit like a puzzle. There are two basic ways to solve this type of question. The first requires students to look at the words as a group and instantly determine which two are opposites. Another approach has students cross-check the words, one by one. (Is (1) the opposite of (2)? If not, is (1) the opposite of (3)?” And so on.) Of course, this method takes a lot longer than the first method, and given the intense time-limits of the early SAT, students who employed it were at a serious disadvantage, regardless of the solidity and breadth of their vocabulary.

Today’s Sentence Completion questions place more emphasis on vocabulary and reading because their format allows students to anticipate precisely what kind of word is needed. As College Board’s official report states, “In the sentence completion item the candidate is asked to do a kind of thing which he does naturally when reading: to make use of the element of redundancy inherent in much verbal communication to obtain meaning from something less than the complete communication.” In other words, rather than a puzzle, sentence completion questions are akin to a matching game: we already know what the sentence means, so what words can we insert to maintain or reinforce this meaning?

Other changes to the SAT have similarly aimed to make the test a better measure of content knowledge. For example, time-limits are frequently reset to reduce the impact of time on test performance. As mentioned above, the first SAT gave students 97 minutes to complete 9 sub-tests. In 1928, the test was reduced to 7 sub-tests, and test-takers were given 115 minutes. The current test (as you hopefully know) is 10 sections, completed in 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Other changes, such as the 1994 addition of student-produced responses to the math section, strive to reduce the effectiveness of guessing, test-taking strategy and special preparation. (By special preparation, I mean last-minute, superficial memorization of formulas & facts, not reading widely and understanding math concepts).

Both the SAT and it’s place in society have evolved greatly since 1926. Once a marginal assessment taken only by 8,000 ivy-bound men, the SAT is now given to over 2,000,000 students annually and plays an essential role in scholarship and college admissions decisions. I hope that this small history helps you better understand the SAT’s purpose & point, as it has evolved over time.


07 Feb 2012

Are Standardized Tests Still Important?

Recently, the New York Times revealed that Claremont McKenna College, a highly regarded California school, has reported false SAT scores to publications like U.S. News & World Report for the past 6 years. For the September 2010 freshman class, Claremont McKenna’s median score jumped 10 points–from 1400 to 1410–and the 75th percentile score of 1475 was reported as 1510. Small bumps, but enough to rank Claremont McKenna #9 in the U.S. News & World Report’s widely followed college rankings.

The revelation of the deception must be humiliating—especially considering that academic dishonesty is higher education’s most heinous crime. So, why would an already prestigious institution risk its national reputation for a few measly SAT points?

The scandal shows the crucial role standardized test scores play in public perception of a college’s prestige. And, as long as high scores = high rankings, colleges will continue to select students based on test performance.

What about the growing number of test-optional schools? Doesn’t this suggest the phasing out of standardized tests? According to Fair Test, more than 800 schools don’t require SAT scores for admission! True, but many test-optional schools spend thousands to purchase the names of high scoring students. As Janet Lorin for Bloomberg News explains, The College Board sells these names to over 1,000 schools—among them, such prestigious test-optional institutions as Bowdoin and Smith—for 33 cents apiece.

All of this casts unequivocal doubt on test-optional schools’ commitment to looking past standardized test scores. While test-optional schools may allow some highly capable students to work around poor scores, the schools still believe that standardized tests reveal student aptitude and skill. Accordingly, Lorin reveals that between 60 and 80% of applicants to test-optional schools submit their scores.

Though they certainly don’t reveal everything, test scores actually aren’t empty. As one member of College Confidential put it, “The SAT measures developed reasoning skills. The extent to which you can develop these skills depends on your IQ.” Although tons of students score lower than their intelligence should allow, there is some foundation to the use of the tests. Test scores help colleges compare students from different high schools, which can vary greatly in size, rigor and competitiveness.

Knowing this, we can assume that the SAT & ACT will continue to impact admissions decisions, at least until we come up with a decent alternative to standardized tests.

These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

Heinous: abominable, evil, or atrocious
: having only one possible meaning or interpretation; unambiguous, clear

01 Feb 2012

Celebrity SAT Scores: How do yours match up?

Few celebrities disclose their SAT scores, but those who do may surprise you! How do you match up?

Natalie Portman

Photobucket Actress Natalie Portman reportedly scored in the 1400s on her SAT. Of course, Portman’s supreme score comes as no surprise since she also skipped the premiere of Star Wars: Episode 1 to study for her high school final exams. In 2003, Portman graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in Psychology, which she famously explained by saying: “I’d rather be smart than a movie star.” Wise words, pretty lady!

Bill O’Reilly

PhotobucketBill O’Reilly, a political commentator best known for his FoxNews Show, The O’Reilly Factor, scored 1585 (wow!). After graduating high school in 1967, O’Reilly attended Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Will Smith

Photobucket Rumor has it Will Smith got a perfect score and a full scholarship to MIT, where he didn’t even apply. The Fresh Prince, however, humbles his story. On his admission to MIT, Smith states, “I had pretty high SAT scores and they needed black kids, so I probably could have gotten in. But I had no intention of going to college.”

Bill Gates

Photobucket Bill Gates, former CEO and co-founder of Microsoft, earned a 1590 on his SAT. Of course, this comes as no surprise, since Gates revolutionized computer technology. In 1974, Gates famously dropped out of Harvard University to start his company alongside his 1600-scoring partner, Paul Allen.


Photobucket International pop sensation, Ke$ha reports a “near-perfect score” on her SAT. In high school, Ke$ha explains, “I was this weird paradox of a person. I was in the marching band, and I played music in a really cool punk band with the hot seniors, and I’d write bratty pop songs.” Ke$ha further reveals that she used to audit Cold War classes at the local college, “just for fun.” Nevertheless, crazy Ke$ha never went to college, instead opting to exclusively pursue music.

Bill Clinton

Photobucket The 42nd president of the United States scored a 1032—12 points above average—on his SAT. Still, Clinton excelled at Georgetown University, where he majored in Foreign Service and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Later, Clinton attended Yale Law School and earned a Juris Doctor in 1973.

George W. Bush

Photobucket Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush is known to have scored a 1206. Bush attended Yale University and majored in history. In 1973, Bush earned a Masters of Business Administration from Harvard Business School. He is the only U.S. president to have earned a M.B.A.

These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

Cataclysmic: terrible, tragic

02 Jan 2012

How has SAT scoring changed over time?

Have you ever wondered about your parents’ SAT scores? My parents won’t tell me theirs, but even if they did, I couldn’t take them at face value. This is because prior to 1995 SAT scores were alloted according to a different scale.

In 2002, the College Board issued a report that explains the methods by which SAT scores are scaled, or translated into a score from 200 – 800. SAT scaling helps admissions teams compare scores from distinct tests administered to different groups of students throughout the year. In other words, SAT scaling lets admissions committees know that an applicant who scored a 2050 in October has comparable knowledge and skills to someone who scored a 2050 in June.

In April 1941, SAT scores were scaled so that an average raw score translated to roughly 500. In June the same year, SAT scores were linked to this original set via a process called common item equating. Until 1995, all subsequent administrations were likewise linked to the original April 1941 scores, thus permitting the fair comparison of examinees over time. As the test became more popular, however, and more students from less rigorous schools began taking it, averages dropped to around 422 Verbal and 475 Math. In 1995, SAT scores were thus re-centered to counter this trend and make the “new” average score around 500.

Some educational organizations censured the change, stating that it was merely an attempt to evade international embarrassment about declining test scores. Such organizations explained that even though the number of test-takers had grown by over 500,000, the number of students with a Verbal score above 600 had plummeted from 112,530 in 1972 to a sad 73,080 in 1993.

Still curious about how your parents’ scores match up to your own? Use this official College Board table to adjust pre-1995 Math and Verbal scores to today’s scale.

These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

Censure: strong or vehement expression of disapproval
: to distribute; allocate

12 Dec 2011

Reflections: SAT Cheating in Great Neck, Long Island

By now, most concerned with standardized testing have heard, read, talked about the SAT cheating scandal in Great Neck, Long Island. The situation saw roughly 15 high school students pay college proxies $500 – $3,600 to take the SAT on their behalf.

The scandal has sparked debates about the merits and drawbacks of the SAT. Reams of comments flow through the online forums at the New York Times. Most people cite their personal lives to support or challenge the SAT as a useful predictor of individual success.

In my opinion, debates about the efficacy of the SAT are futile as long as students continue to cheat. The cheating suggests pandemic attitudes of entitlement—notions that it’s OK to skimp the system as long as you don’t get caught. Ultimately, such attitudes must be dealt with first and foremost. There really aren’t any surefire shortcuts.

There are many ways for students to improve SAT and ACT scores over time—hard work, perseverance and careful planning are the ticket. As I see it, if standardized tests measure these qualities, they can predict college success. It should never be easy to achieve a high score.

That said, it’s important for students to set realistic and achievable goals. High scores may open doors, but that doesn’t mean there’s no future for average scores. The trick is to make the most of your resources, work hard and do your best.

These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

Futile: Completely useless; doomed to failure
An epidemic that is geographically widespread and affects a large proportion of the population