Friday, May 14, 2010

How to ace the math section of the SAT

The SAT is the toughest ninth grade math test you'll ever take. The questions can be complex, subtle, even tricky in the sense that you have to pay attention to what the problem actually says, not what you expect it to say, but even the most challenging of the problems require no mathematical background beyond Algebra I and a few basic geometry concepts.

Because of this basic-math/difficult-questions dichotomy, many of those question have a short solution and a long one (check out this Colbert clip for an example). Quite a few others just have long solutions. Since the SAT gives students about ninety seconds for each problem, a high score normally indicates a student who was insightful enough to spot AHA! solutions* and fast enough to get through the rest.

Of course, if the SAT were not a timed test, a high score wouldn't indicate much of anything. Which is why the following is so troubling.

From ABC News:
At the elite Wayland High school outside Boston, the number of students receiving special accommodations is more than 12 percent, more than six times the estimated national average of high school students with learning disabilities.

Wayland guidance counselor Norma Greenberg said that it's not that difficult for wealthy, well-connected students to get the diagnoses they want.

"There are a lot of hired guns out there, there are a lot of psychologists who you can pay a lot of money to and get a murky diagnosis of subtle learning issues," Greenberg said. ...

The natural proportion of learning disabilities should be somewhere around 2 percent, the College Board said, but at some elite schools, up to 46 percent of students receive special accommodations to take the tests, including extra time.

This is not a new problem. I know from personal experience as a teacher that public schools have a history of trying to keep kids from being diagnosed as LD, both to save money and avoid paperwork. Everyone in education knew that, just as everyone knew that expensive private schools were working the system in the other direction.

* I assume everyone has read this. If you haven't, you should.

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