Diversity and the SAT

by guest author Jennifer Karan, Executive Director of the SAT Program at the College Board

In a move that has been much discussed among its current student body, Ithaca College recently announced that students applying for 2013 admission will have the option of withholding their SAT scores from consideration during the admissions process.  The statement by Ithaca College maintains that, as a result of dropping the SAT as a requirement, it is “anticipated that the applicant pool will become more diverse, as underrepresented students tend to take greater advantage of test optional policies.”

More than ever the population of students taking the SAT reflects the diverse makeup of America’s classrooms.  In fact, SAT takers from the class of 2012 were the most diverse SAT class ever: 45% self-identified as being minority students; 28% reported that English was not exclusively their first language; and, most tellingly, 36% reported that they would be the first generation of college goers in their family.

The SAT was created to democratize access to college for all students.  SAT scores provide a national, standardized and fair benchmark that neutralizes the risk of grade inflation – a particularly important point when more than 40 percent of SAT takers report an “A” GPA.

Furthermore, the SAT is the most rigorously researched college entrance exam and is consistently shown to be a fair and valid predictor of college success for all students, regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic status.  Each potential SAT question is reviewed by external subject matter experts, subjected to an independent and external sensitivity review process, and pretested on a diverse sample of students from around the world.  Any question that performs substantially different for any gender or ethnic group is eliminated.

Ithaca College and all schools should be recognized for constantly examining their admissions processes, making adjustments to expand opportunities to new applicants and diversifying their student bodies.  As a true believer in the mission of the College Board – helping to connect all students with college opportunity and success – I hope that colleges and universities choosing a test optional admissions policy continue to take the same thoughtful approach as they review the results.

As a former high school teacher and dean of students, I believe in giving students every opportunity to showcase their strengths.  In this case, Ithaca may well be short-changing both the university and potential applicants by eliminating a valid and reliable measure such as the SAT from the admission process.

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Will New Measures Halt Cheating on the SAT and ACT?

In the wake of a recent cheating scandal on Long Island, NY, new security measures were announced for the SAT and ACT exams. The principal change is that students will now be required to upload a photo of themselves when registering for these exams. The photos will appear on the students admission tickets, and also on test site rosters that will be available to proctors. Also, the photos will be attached to any score reports that are sent to high schools and colleges.

It seems to me that these measures, while not foolproof, do add an additional layer of anti-cheating protection. Consider the recent cheating scandal on Long Island. Students paid a college student to take the exams for them. The college student, Sam Eshagoff, had only to furnish cheap false IDs, and was granted entry into the testing center. Since the name on each ID matched that of the student who would receive the scores, Eshagoff was able to get away with his scam for quite some time.

If another student were to attempt a similar scam, he would now have to upload a photo of himself, or at least one that looked similar enough to fool a proctor. Of course, that wouldn’t mean he’d be any easier to detect than Eshagoff was. However, there would now be a long-lasting record of his chicanery. If at any time, a high school guidance counselor, or a college admissions officer were to notice that the photo was not that of the student, the deception would be exposed.

I think that this measure will act as a deterrent to most people who might consider cheating in this fashion. However, some students may take the risk, hoping that no one pays close attention to the photos. I suppose it’s also remotely possible that a look-alike could stand in for a student, or perhaps even an expert in disguise might give it a try.

Masked man

My major criticism of the new measures is that they only deter one method of cheating. Students can still share information in various ways. They could easily develop methods of signaling to each other. In this technological age, it’s also hard to imagine that some students haven’t tried using hand-held devices to communicate with sources outside the testing center.

I have heard other objections to the new measures. There will be no more standby registrations. As Akil Bello of Bell Curves pointed out, poorer students who lack easy access to connected computers will be most affected.

This article points out some other possible negative consequences.

Edit: Also read this article on the Bell Curves Blog.

Finally, the question remains: what should be done to the students who are caught cheating? Currently, the only penalty is having their scores cancelled.

What do you think?

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized college admission test developed by The College Board. Many college require that applying students take the SAT, or its competitor, the ACT (you can learn about the differences between the tests here).

The SAT is presently known as the SAT Reasoning Test, to distinguish it from the SAT Subject Tests, which are also written by The College Board. The Subject Tests, as their name implies, test specific subjects. This article is about the SAT Reasoning Test.

The SAT is administered seven times a year at schools throughout the U.S. The fee for the SAT is $49 (needy students can apply for fee waivers).

The SAT has three types of sections: Reading, Math, and Writing (which includes an essay). Three sections of each type count towards your score. In addition, there is an Experimental (“Variable”) Section, which doesn’t count, but is used by The College Board to test questions for future SATs. The ten sections take a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Students with special needs may apply for test accommodations, such as extra time or a live reader. Students who take the exam with extra time do not take the Experimental Section.

University of Chicago

Reading Section

There are 48 Passage-Based Reading (reading comprehension) questions, and 19 Sentence Completions.

Passages vary in length. Sometimes two related passages are given, and some questions will ask you to compare or contrast them.

Some examples: Questions may ask what is the main idea of a passage, or what the author’s tone is. You may be asked to define a word in context, or specify why the author included a quote.

Sentence Completions are sometimes called fill-ins. Sentences will have one or two blanks, and are asked to choose the answer that best completes each sentence.

Math Section

There are 44 multiple choice questions, and 10 student-produced responses (“grid-ins,” where you must fill in your answer).

Math topics include arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and some basic statistics and probability.

Calculators are permitted (be sure yours is approved for the SAT).

Writing Section

There are 25 “improving sentences,” 18 “identifying sentence errors,” 6 “improving paragraphs,” and 1 essay, which comprises an entire section.

The multiple choice questions test grammar and style, except for the “improving paragraphs” questions, which also test organizing paragraphs.

Each section is scored on a scale from 200 to 800, so 2400 is the highest possible score. On each section 500 is around average.

Click here for some sample questions of each type.

Review – Barron’s Pass Key to the SAT

This is the “compact version” of Barron’s SAT. It’s well written. It’s nifty. If you’re planning to study with the larger book, it makes a great companion book.

Pass Key for the SAT, 8th edition, is 440 pages long. At just over 5″ by 8″, it’s not quite a pocket book, but it’s a handy paperback.

Organization

Introductory chapters – SAT format, guessing, timing, study plan

Strategies by section, vocabulary

2 practice exams

Pros

There’s a lot of helpful information in this small book.

There are few errors, if any.

The text is very easy to understand.

The authors of Pass Key also wrote Barron’s SAT, and the techniques are the same.

This is one of the few quick guides that has practice tests.

Cons

Not many. Obviously, the book isn’t comprehensive, but that’s no problem if you are studying from a larger book also.

At $9.99, Pass Key costs almost as much as the 936-page Barron’s SAT.

Overview

The great thing about this book is its size. If you’re studying from Barron’s larger book, you probably won’t want to lug it around everywhere you go. But you can easily grab this one and take it to Grandma’s, the library, etc. and get a bit of SAT prep in here and there.

If you’re studying from another large prep book, such as McGraw-Hill’s, this won’t be as helpful. Although the techniques are similar, the organization and explanations will be different.

What I like about this book is that it will encourage students to study for the SAT when they otherwise wouldn’t. It’s a great “road companion.”

Buy the book here.

Review – The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer

Several SAT experts have enthusiastically recommended this book to me, and I’m pleased to add my own praise for this wonderful guide.

The grammar sections in the big commercial books aren’t bad. Grammar is grammar, and only a handful of errors are tested on the SAT. Other books list these errors, and offer illustrative questions.

But The Ultimate Guide goes further.

Organization

162 pages long, softcover

Introduction, parts of speech

Overview of error types, with emphasis on Error IDs

Fixing Sentences, more about error types

Fixing Paragraphs

Appendices – Summary of error types in the Blue Book

Answer Key

Pros

The text is straightforward and easy to understand.

Information on grammar errors is more thorough and accurate than that in other books. For example, there is a list of common idioms involving prepositions, and also a discussion of the use of this, which, and that.

The example sentences test the errors in a manner which is virtually indistinguishable from those on the SAT. That’s big, and the same is not true for any other book that I’ve seen.

There are many “predictive strategies” – i.e. methods of knowing which errors are likely based on the number or content of the question (e.g. the mention of a profession indicates a noun agreement question).

The book isn’t filled with “extra” grammar rules which aren’t found on the test. The author even let me know that a grammar rule that I posted on my blog was no longer found on the exam. Ms. Meltzer is an expert on SAT grammar, and you won’t waste your time studying superfluous material with this book.

Cons

I see none. I suppose I could point out that the author’s claim of having “cracked” the exam sounds a bit enthusiastic. However, she has written the best SAT grammar guide available.

Overview

In order to do well with this book, you’ll have to put in some hard work. But that will be true if you use any book.

The guide has mostly excellent reviews on Amazon (the two negative reviews are bizarre and lack substance).

What separates this guide from the others is that Ms. Meltzer has put tremendous effort into analyzing a ton of SAT questions. The appendices alone, which give the error type for every question in the College Board “Blue Book,” are alone worth the price (one appendix gives the questions in order, and the other is organized by error type).

Clearly, the author has analyzed not only the 10 tests in the Blue Book, but many others as well. I noticed that she mentioned a couple of questions that appeared on my students’ disclosure exams.

Ms. Meltzer stated that parallel structure errors are very common on question #11 of the long section, and #14 of the short one. Indeed, they occurred on 6 out of 20 such questions in the Blue Book, according to the appendix. I decided to test this by looking at 8 disclosure SATs which were administered in 2005 – 2007, and I found these errors in 7 out of 16 of these questions. The author has done her homework.

If you study SAT grammar from another book, you should improve, because you’ll learn some appropriate grammar rules and how to avoid errors. But you’ll do even better with this book, because you’ll gain knowledge of exactly how these errors are tested on the exam.

If you’re serious about doing your best on the SAT Writing multiple choice, this book is worth every penny.

Buy the guide here for $24.75

Review – Gruber’s Complete SAT Guide

Gruber’s Complete SAT Guide 2012, 15th edition, is 1088 pages long, making it one of the fattest SAT guides on the market. On Amazon, it ranks behind books by Barron’s, The Princeton Review, McGraw-Hill, and Kaplan in sales.

As I have mentioned in earlier reviews, most of the strategies for the SAT that are found in these books were first published many years ago. Although there are some differences between the guides, they are mostly similar.

Obviously, people who write or publish an SAT book would like their product to stand out from the pack. Dr. Gruber has made an effort to do that, but in this case, different clearly doesn’t mean better.

On the back cover, it says:

“The Best Book On The SAT” – CBS Radio

For real.

Organization

Introduction – basics, thinking skills and modes, study program, SAT format

Small Diagnostic Test – 90 questions

Mini Diagnostic Test – 18 questions! (7 Reading, 4 Writing, 7 Math)

Strategies – Math, Reading

Refresher

Vocabulary

Writing section

5 Practice Tests

Pros

The test is well written and easy to understand.

Helpful SAT tips are found throughout the book.

The practice tests have few errors.

The book is only $10.99 (eligible for free Super Saver Shipping) on Amazon.

Cons

The author goes out of his way to teach techniques that differ from those in other guides, and most of the ones here are inferior.

The practice tests differ more from the real SATs than the ones in the better guides.

Many strategies are not well explained and/or are insufficiently stressed.

The diagnostic tests are too short. The mini-test is laughable.

There are only 5 practice tests.

Overview

This book isn’t awful. I’m sure that many students could improve their scores with it.

I have mentioned in previous reviews that many of the comprehensive SAT study guides are very similar. The author of this one tried too hard to make it different, without substance to back it up.

I don’t want to list every example, but here are a few ways this book runs off the tracks:

I’ve already mentioned the ludicrous 18-question diagnostic.

There is a section on SAT strategies for women. Men beware!

Plugging in (perhaps the most useful strategy for the Math section) is mentioned almost as an afterthought, and is poorly explained.

Backsolving (plugging the answers into a variable in an algebra question) is also very useful. Every other guide, and every SAT teacher I’ve ever spoken to about it, tells you to start with answer (C). That’s common sense, since the answers are almost always in order, and you can usually tell if (C) is too large or small if it doesn’t work. But Dr. Gruber says to start with (E) and work backwards!

I cannot recommend this book.

Review – McGraw-Hill’s SAT

McGraw-Hill’s SAT, 2012 edition is 784 pages long. There is also a version that includes a CD-ROM with four extra practice tests. This book is reasonably popular with students, and even more popular with SAT teachers. That alone says something.

Note that McGraw-Hill is a major publishing house. So if you see the name on the cover of a test prep book, you have no idea of that book’s quality (as you would with The Princeton Review or Barron’s, for example). Some of the best and worst prep guides are published by McGraw-Hill.

I have reviewed several of the fat, comprehensive SAT prep books, and the good ones are very similar in quality. One may have slightly more realistic practice tests; another may be somewhat better organized. That being said, I would say that McGraw-Hill SAT is the best comprehensive guide I have reviewed thus far.

Organization

Introduction – basic information, reasoning skills (the “College Hill Method” includes advice such as “considering alternatives” and “thinking logically”)

Diagnostic Test

Vocabulary

Strategies by section type

Essay Practice

3 Practice Tests

Smart Cards (math, vocab, essay prompts)

Pros

Very well written, and directed at its target audience

Often more than one strategy is offered.

I did find some helpful techniques that aren’t in most other guides, particularly in the Reading Section. There is even a thoughtful reading list.

Step-by-step guidance, even on grammar questions.

Explanations are given for all questions (illustrative and practice test questions)

Practice tests, while differing somewhat from the real thing, are the closest I’ve seen.

There were very few errors that I could find.

Amazon’s price of $10.54 is a crazy bargain.

Cons

Some of the best techniques (e.g. plugging in on math) were not featured prominently, so many students will undervalue them or miss them entirely.

There are only four practice tests (although you can access two others online). You can get the CD-ROM edition with 4 extra tests for over double the cost.

Some of the advice is academic and not very helpful. Many of the introductory strategies are very general and can be summed up as “think in different ways.”

Overview

I found this to be the best written, most accurate, and most useful of the large prep books. I would recommend it unless you are buying based on quantity (other books have more sample questions and practice tests). It’s not head-and-shoulders above the competition, but it does many of the little things a bit better. Clearly, a tremendous amount of effort went into writing it.

That’s it. It’s funny that, although I really liked this book, I seem to have written a rather short review of it. Perhaps that’s because there was a general impression of scholarship and usefulness that’s hard to criticize. It’s not as if any one paragraph jumped out at me. rather, I repeatedly kept thinking “they explained that very well,” or “that’s a great way to guide students through this type of problem.”

I believe that most students who want to learn from a large SAT book will find this one to be the most helpful.

Buy Mc-Graw-Hill’s SAT 2012 here

Mc-Graw-Hill’s SAT 2012 with CD-ROM here