13 July 2013

Short-term prep vs. long-term prep

When people “SAT prep,” they have a tendency to lump it all together in one undifferentiated mass. So here I want to talk about the differences between these kinds of preparation and what different types of students can realistically expect to gain from them.

Short-Term Prep

I tend to classify anything from a couple of sessions through about three months as short-term prep.

Short-term prep itself falls into two categories: the kind that focuses narrowly on improving a small number of skills, and the kind that focuses primarily on finding strategies that will best leverage the student’s existing skills.

On the whole, I find that short-term prep is most successful for high-scoring students who know their strengths and weaknesses and have identified a few specific goals to accomplish. In my experience and quite contrary to popular test-prep wisdom, it can actually be much simpler to raise a score from somewhere above 650 to an 800 than it can be to raise a 570 to a 650 — or even a 610. There’s almost no way to hit the high 600s, or even the mid-600s, without having solid skills, and at that point improving one’s score primarily becomes a question of identifying and focusing on a handful of discrete concepts. When a single problem such as timing in involved, it is sometimes enough to work through a representative sampling of questions to illustrate various principles and strategies, which the student can then practice applying independently.

Let me give you an example. In the past year, I’ve worked with two students who already had 800s in both Math and Writing but whose Reading scores lagged more than 100 points behind. Both of them came to me with very specific issues: one needed work only on timing, so we talked about how getting the gist of each paragraph from reading the first few sentences eliminated the need to waste time trying to comprehend every single word, and about how to identify overall structure quickly by reading topic sentences.

The other student needed work understanding hard humanities passages, “function” (purpose) questions, and “big picture” questions. The former jumped to an 800 from a 680 after only a single meeting (I had also done a couple of sessions with him months earlier, before the PSAT) and a few practice tests; the latter rose to a 720 from a 650 after about three months of more or less consistent work. We starting off just doing the most difficult humanities passages I could find so he could practice figuring out the important points without getting bogged down in confusing language, then worked up to full tests.

Short-Term prep for lower-scoring students (below 600) students can be effective, but its maximum benefits tend to show up in the Math and Writing sections, which are rule-based and relatively straightforward. In my experience, it rarely produces the kinds of significant gains in Critical Reading that higher-scoring students see.

Here I do have to mention that students with solid skills who are just beginning SAT prep may not score well because they haven’t learned to transfer their skills to the test; there’s often a very big difference between someone who scores a 550 CR on their-first ever practice test and someone who’s still scoring 550 after a year of prep. Provided that they are willing to spend lots of time learning vocabulary and do not have difficulty thinking strategically, a student starting at 580 and aiming for a mid-600s score can sometimes learn enough to parlay their skills into a 50-70 point increase in the space of a few months. (If they want to spend more than a couple of months prepping seriously, however, they can often raise their scores well into the 700s).

For students scoring persistently below 600 (let’s define persistently as after six months or more), however, short-term prep is usually a much dicier prospect. In such cases, a sub-600 score is usually an indicator of multiple missing skills, and the amount of work involved in acquiring those skills is what sets Critical Reading apart from the other two sections. As one article I came across recently termed it, reading is ‘three-dimensional” problem. No matter how self-contained a passage may seem, it always has a real-world context; the more familiar the reader is with its subject matter and the conventions of its genre, the faster and easier the reader will be able to understand it.

There’s also the decoding aspect: students who never learned to read phonetically are often either stymied by unfamiliar words and will come to a grinding halt when they encounter them, or simply plug in a similar-looking word that causes them to misunderstand the passage. When this type of confusion happens repeatedly, students can end up with only the most fragmentary idea of what they’ve read. A lack of familiarity with complex grammatical structures (multiple clauses, non-essential clauses, inverted subject-verb structure, separation of subject and verb within a sentence) and the ability to intuit where a sentence or a paragraph or an argument is going can also severely impede comprehension and make reading an excruciatingly slow and confusing process.

The real problem, however, is that fluid comprehension results from the interaction between all of these skills, in ways that researchers do not entirely understand. What researchers do understand, however, is that the relationship between the acquisition of individual skills and overall reading level is exponential. *All* of the skills must reach a critical point before their interaction results in a jump to a noticeably higher level; drilling concepts in a single area has limited effects. And because, as I discussed in my last post, because persistently low scores often result from a combination attention and memory issues as well as self-management difficulties and lack of contextual knowledge, it can be extraordinarily difficult to find success with a strategy-based approach.

That’s not to say that these students can’t improve from long-term, skills-based preparation if they are willing to work very, very hard, simply that there are no quick fixes when someone has so many gaps across the board. When the College Board says that test-prep doesn’t make much of a difference, this is what they mean, and in this sense I can’t help but agree with them. Trying to do short-term prep with a very weak student has made me realize how well-constructed the SAT really is. What seem like simple tricks to a 700-level student are actually huge obstacles to one scoring 250 points lower.

Long-Term Prep

While long-term prep (six months+) might seem like the better option, the reality is that its efficacy varies widely and, as is the case for short-term prep, depends on the particular student’s needs.

In my experience, there is usually no way to raise a below-600 Reading score to 700+ (or even 600+) without serious, sustained long-term effort, and students who are aiming to cross a major score threshold should be aware of the work involved in achieving such a goal.

The most successful students I’ve had by far are the ones whose parents came to me with the understanding that test-prep was likely to be a long-term project, one that would require consistent work, and who were actually willing to put in that work — or whose parents were willing to force them to put in the work. The father of one of my students kept a massive index-card box full of vocabulary flashcards with which he would proceed to torture his son on a daily basis. It took a year, but he played a huge role in getting his severely ADD (but extremely smart) son from a flat 500 CR to a 670.

Let me repeat that, by the way: not a quick fix, a year.

This type of prep typically involves acquiring skills that for whatever reason are either not being mastered or not being learned period in school. It also tends to involve some fairly intensive remediation, and that simply takes time. You wouldn’t try to learn a year’s worth of chemistry in one hour a week for a couple of months, would you? So why on earth would you treat the SAT that way? And I would argue that that is in fact a valid analogy: Critical Reading tests concrete, specific comprehension and reasoning skills that can be taught much the way any subject can be taught — the only difference is that those skills are not, for the most part, being taught in the classroom, and tutoring must often replace school rather than complement it.

I used to argue with Debbie Stier about the amount of time an average student should reasonably expect to spend studying for a 100+ point increase, but having learned the hard way when enough of my mid-range students didn’t improve after a couple of months, I now concur with her assessment of a year. It’s a safe bet that you’ll need that long to digest new skills to the point where you can apply them on the fly in a high-pressure situation when you’ve been up since 6am and are sure that you just completely blew the last section. Trust me: it takes a long time.

Given the time, I now treat Reading much the way I used to treat Writing and don’t even bother looking at the test until we’ve worked through the various skills that it involves. It may not be fun to spend a couple of months just discussing how passages are organized (anecdote, commentary, main point, counterargument), but surprisingly enough, it’s a whole lot easier to transfer skills to a test once you actually have them.

For students who start off scoring very well (700+), however, burnout can be a real danger. For them, it makes the most sense to focus in on their weakest areas and spend some time focusing seriously on them rather than take test after test after test for months on end (although granted, if their biggest problem is managing the whole test itself rather than any specific skill, then taking lots of practice test might be necessary.)

There is such thing as a point of diminishing returns, and it’s not pretty once someone goes too far past it — especially if their parents are demanding perfect scores. I’ve worked with some kids who kept prepping way past the point where it was beneficial for them to do so, and eventually it got to the point where it felt like an exercise in futility for both of us. They clearly no longer cared, and I was exhausted and increasingly uncomfortable trying to hold their interest when it was obvious they just wanted the whole thing to be over.

At a certain point, you either have to put in the effort to really get yourself to the next level or decide that you’re happy with what you have.

I know that some of you won’t believe me, but I feel obligated to reiterate this here:

An SAT score is only one part of your application. While a low score can keep you out, a high score alone will not get you in. No admissions committee at any elite (non-technical) school will take an otherwise undistinguished kid with a 2350 when they can take a kid with a 2250 — or, horror, a 2200 — and something genuinely interesting to contribute. It is not worth spending all your time trying to get a 2300+ if doing so will come at the expense of other parts of your application.

I’m not going to say much about medium-term prep here (4-6) months except that I find it occupies and awkward middle ground: it isn’t quite long enough to build and solidify skills from the ground up, but it is often long enough to become frustrating for a kid hovering around the 2200-2250 range and trying to break 2300/2350. If someone wants to spend time just memorizing vocabulary, that’s fine, but there are better things to do with one’s time than spend months obsessing for the sake of what often comes down to five or six questions on the entire test when simply working more carefully could accomplish the same goal in a few weeks.

For a 600-650 ish student who needs a combination of skill- and strategy-work, however, it can be very effective — assuming the time is used effectively.

I realize that this post has already become a bit long-winded (try as I might to be succinct, I just can’t get past my habitual verbosity — what can I say, I like to ramble on…), so I’ll just say this:

I’ve seen the greatest number of problems arise when people expect long-term results from short-term prep, so whichever one you choose, adjust your expectations accordingly. Take a hard look at your score, your skills, your goals, the amount of work you’re honestly willing to put in, and what you want to get out of SAT prep. If you don’t want to spend months memorizing vocabulary and your goal is to get the test over with a soon as possible, you’re probably best off looking for some short-term strategy-based prep; if you’re starting at a 550 and won’t settle for anything less than a 700, plan on a year, and expect to do a lot of work. There is no one-size fits all, and the best you can do is to choose the option that most suits your needs and be aware that your score will be a reflection of your choice.

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