Some thoughts on the 2019 NAEP reading-score decline

Some thoughts on the 2019 NAEP reading-score decline

2019 NAEP scores have been released, and the results in reading… aren’t good. As the New York Times reports:

Two out of three children did not meet the standards for reading proficiency set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the Education Department.

The dismal results reflected the performance of about 600,000 students in reading and math, whose scores made up what is called the “nation’s report card.” The average eighth-grade reading score declined in more than half of the states compared with 2017, the last time the test was given. The average score in fourth-grade reading declined in 17 states. Math scores remained relatively flat in most states.

Only 35 percent of fourth graders were proficient in reading in 2019, down from 37 percent in 2017; 34 percent of eighth graders were proficient in reading, down from 36 percent. Overall student progress in reading has stalled in the last decade, with the highest performers stagnating and the lowest-achieving students falling further behind.

Despite attempts to pin the blame on poverty and other social ills, the fact that math scores have not declined to anywhere near as much as reading scores suggests that the problem lies in the schools—in considerable part, at least. Intuitively, at least, it does not make sense to suggests that socio-economic factors could suddenly have such an outsized impact on one area of the curriculum while having almost no effect on another. In fact, math scores actually improved in some states. (more…)

Regarding the 2020 AP English Lang/Comp test (yes, I will be updating my book)

Regarding the 2020 AP English Lang/Comp test (yes, I will be updating my book)

I’ve received a couple of inquiries about the updated AP English Lang/Comp exam, so I’m putting this out there now: yes, I am aware that the test is being updated for 2020, and yes, I will be revising my guide for that exam. I’m aiming to get it out by around February 2020.

In the meantime, if you are self-studying for the exam and absolutely cannot live without a book now, you can use a combination of the current AP Lang/Comp book and either The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, fourth or fifth edition OR The Complete Guide to ACT English.

The major change to the AP exam involves the introduction of SAT/ACT-style writing passages, and from the document released by the College Board, it appears that there will be a heavy focus on “is this sentence relevant?” questions. These are discussed in great detail in the grammar books. 

For practice, you can do SAT/ACT Writing passages, with a focus on the rhetoric questions. If you’re already comfortable with them, you probably won’t need to do too much more to prep.

If that’s not enough for you, I would also recommend getting the old (pre-2016) SAT official guide and doing the Fixing Paragraphs questions; since the AP exam (unlike the current SAT) will presumably continue to be written by ETS, it’s reasonable to assume the content will be extremely similar.

Although the essay-scoring rubric will be changed, the essays themselves will remain the same. If you’re a sold writer, you don’t need to worry.

The bottom line is that there’s plenty of material out there that will be directly relevant to the updated exam, even if it doesn’t have “AP English Language and Composition, 2020” stamped on it.

And finally, I feel obligated to point out that if anything, the new version of the test will if anything be easier than the old. The reading passages will be shorter and have fewer questions, and the writing passages will be written at a considerably lower level than any of the multiple-choice passages on the current exam. If the College Board wants to continue to “expand access” to the AP program—and collect even more of those $94/exam fees it’s now insisting that students pony up in October—it needs to ensure that pass rates don’t dip too low.

Follow the money, baby. Follow the money.

Picture power!

Lest anyone should have read my last few posts and concluded that my depiction of the state of American reading instruction was exaggerated in some way, I direct you to the video below. If you’ve ever wondered why so many children struggle, this pretty much says it all; you basically get to watch reading problems being created in real time.

Notice that a couple of times, children attempt to use the letters sound out words, but the teacher reminds them to focus on the pictures instead. The clear message is that sounding out words is a strategy to be avoided.

The only times she acknowledges that letters have something to do with how the words are said is when she tells children to look at the first and last letters in conjunction with the pictures; the fact that the sounds in the middle of a word also play a role in how it is said is not mentioned, ever.

This is pure three-cueing: if teachers are taught that reading is a “psycholinguistic guessing game,” then they will in turn make reading into an actual guessing game.

I have to wonder: do the children understand that the words don’t say what they say because of what the pictures show? That is, do they grasp that if you took the pictures away, or changed the pictures, the words underneath would still say the same thing? I’d bet that at least some of them would struggle with that idea.

At any rate, it isn’t hard to imagine what will happen to kids taught like this when the pictures are taken away.

And remember: this type of teaching is being held up an an example.

How can it even be allowed?

 

Whole language is rote memorization

Whole language is rote memorization

A  couple of days ago, I got curious about the state of phonics instruction in New York City schools and started googling away. I learned all sorts of fascinating things about the respective reigns of Joel Klein and Carmen Farina, and about the ongoing and pernicious influence of Lucy Calkins/Reading Workshop and Columbia Teachers College; I also came across a well-intentioned an article in Chalkbeat about the struggles of some Brooklyn parents to get their dyslexic children into appropriate programs. The content of the article was disheartening but fairly predictable—what I found more interesting was the semantic confusion the writers displayed in a discussion of balanced literacy vs. phonics, and it got me thinking about how the standard reading-war rhetorical tropes get wielded. (more…)

Why won’t students look at the text? Blame the three-cueing system

Why won’t students look at the text? Blame the three-cueing system

Of all the difficulties involved in tutoring SAT reading, the one that perplexed me the most was the inordinate difficulty certain students seemed to have in grasping the notion that the answers to the questions were *in the passage,* as opposed to in their head or somewhere on the other side of the room. As I wrote about in a fit of irritation many years ago, not long after I started this blog, it literally did not seem to occur to them to look back at the text, and I could not figure out how to get them to do otherwise.

That many tutoring programs treated the location of the answers as some kind of amazing secret baffled me even more. Where other than in the passage would the answer be? How was it possible that so many students seemed to struggle not just with understanding what various texts said, but with the idea that answers to reading questions were based on the specific words they contained? How could such absolutely fundamental notions of reading be so lacking that they could actually be packaged as tricks? (more…)

10 Tips for New Tutors

10 Tips for New Tutors

 

1) Teach real lessons; don’t just go over practice tests

Yes, the amount of time you can spend just teaching material is obviously subject to time constraints; and yes, there is a small subset of mostly high-achieving students who just need to take practice tests and go over what they missed. However, virtually all students in the low-middle score ranges are missing specific pieces of knowledge, and getting taught the material while working through actual questions that involve additional, potentially unfamiliar pieces of knowledge, is often overly taxing for their working memories—there are just too many pieces to juggle. Unless you are very pressed for time, use the student’s diagnostic to figure out what they actually need to learn, and spend some time just teaching it to them before gradually relating it to the test. Repeat for as many concepts as necessary, gradually moving to full-length sections and then tests as students become comfortably with the material.

(more…)

Update: new SAT books are now available

Update: new SAT books are now available

Announcement: the new editions of The Critical Reader (4th ed.) and The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar (5th ed.) are now available. Please note that orders placed through thecriticalreader.com will have longer-than-usual shipping times (expect approximately 5-7 days for delivery) for the next couple of weeks, until the new editions are stocked at our storage/shipping facility.

If you need the books urgently in the meantime, please order from Amazon: the reading book can be found here, and the grammar book here. (As of 9/20, the books do not appear to be consistently appearing at the top of Amazon searches even when the exact titles are entered, so we recommend that you use the links provided here to navigate to them.)

The ACT English book is now projected to be released by the end of next week (by 9/27). Unfortunately, there have been some delays involving the cover and proof shipping, and the book cannot be released until physical proofs have been checked.

To reiterate: if you are a student or parent who has recently purchased the current editions, you do not need to purchase the new ones as well. Tutors/companies may find it helpful to keep the updated editions on hand, however.

How to Use a Dash

How to Use a Dash

Dashes are a form of punctuation that is pretty much guaranteed to show up on both the ACT® English Test and the multiple-choice SAT® Writing Test. Because they tend to be used more frequently in British than in American English, they are typically the least familiar type of punctuation for many students. That said, they are relatively straightforward.

Dashes are tested in three ways. The first is extremely common, the second less common, and the third rare.

 

1) To set off a non-essential clause (2 Dashes = 2 Commas)

In this case, dashes are used exactly like commas to indicate non-essential information that can be removed without affecting the basic meaning of a sentence. If you have one dash, you need the other dash. It cannot be omitted or replaced by a comma or by any other punctuation mark. This is the most important rule regarding dashes that you need to know.

Incorrect: John Lockewhose writings strongly influenced The Declaration of Independence, was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.

Correct: John Lockewhose writings strongly influenced The Declaration of Independencewas one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.

You can assume that almost every ACT, and most SATs, will contain at least one question testing dashes this way.

 

2) To introduce an explanation or a list (Dash = Colon)

In this case, a full, stand-alone sentence must come before the dash. The information that follows the dash does not have to be a full sentence (although it’s perfectly fine if it is).

Correct: John Locke was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth centuryhis writings strongly influenced The Declaration of Independence.

The information after the dash explains why Locke was one of the most important thinkers of the eighteenth century.

 

3) To create a dramatic pause

Finally, dashes can be used to create a break in a thought–they force the reader to stop for a fraction of a second before continuing on to whatever idea comes next. They are used to create a slight sense of drama or suspense.

Grammatically, this use is more or less interchangeable with #2: a full, standalone sentence must come before the dash, but either a sentence or a fragment can follow.

Correct: A number of John Locke’s ideas influenced The Declaration of Independenceparticularly those concerning government, labor, and revolution.

To reiterate, this usage is not tested often, and you should simply be aware that it is acceptable.

Interview with a tutor: Tanya Lesser

Interview with a tutor: Tanya Lesser

Bio

Tanya has been tutoring for 25 years. In college, she first pursued a major in math/science;  however, she missed the humanities and made the switch to history.  She also trained to teach and tutor the GRE and  SAT CR and M for the Princeton Review.

After earning an education degree and a teaching certification, she pursued a 10 year career teaching reading, interpretation and writing in social studies classes, including AP US History.  She continued to tutor math on the side and in Ridgewood, she worked as a teacher’s aide in Chemistry, Geometry and Alg 2 classes.

Tanya and her husband moved to Ridgewood (her hometown) with their two children and  started The Ridgewood Tutor in 2012. She took official SATs at local high schools and earned an 800 in CR, a 790 in Math, and an 800 in Writing over the two times she took the test in 2015.

Strong scores don’t always necessarily translate into good teaching–that’s where those ten years of teaching have helped her develop the necessary planning skills.  She has organized lessons for the SATs, ACTs and GREs from wonderful resource material that she hand-picked after much trial and error.

Educational/certification details: National Board Certified and state certified in social studies education by NJ and NY,  she also holds a Masters Degree in Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Good to know: Tanya gives presentations featuring SAT and ACT tips several times during the year at the Ridgewood Library. Check out the home page of this site for upcoming presentations, or follow her twitter feed (which also features general college prep retweets).

(more…)

Update: new SAT books are now available

Announcement: updated editions of the SAT reading & grammar books, and the ACT English book, are coming in September

Announcement: I realize this is coming on the late side (long story involving proofreaders, How to Write for Class, and the Random House permissions office), but I am planning to release updated editions of my SAT reading and grammar books, as well as my ACT English book. 

Now, before you get your knickers all in twist over which editions to buy, here’s what you need to know:  (more…)

“How to Write for Class: A Student’s Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Style” is now available!

“How to Write for Class: A Student’s Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Style” is now available!

I’m happy to announce that my first foray into non-test-prep grammar is finally available on Amazon and The Critical Reader.

How to Write for Class: A Student’s Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Style is a comprehensive guide to the concepts students need to know to write effectively for school. Although there is some overlap with the SAT and ACT grammar books (and tutors/parents who remember the pre-2016 version of the SAT grammar book will see some familiar material), it is not aligned with any particular test and covers certain concepts in significantly more depth. Rather than treat grammar as a series of rules to be memorized, it emphasizes the logic behind the English language as well as the relationship between grammar and meaning, and provides answers to burning questions such as “why can’t you end a sentence with a preposition?” (spoiler alert: you can).

The approach taken in the book is also based on the observation that students often find it challenging to apply rules studied in isolation, or in terms of overly-simplified examples, to the more complex sentences they want to include in their own writing. As a result, How to Write for Class makes use of numerous examples from actual student papers, and walks students through the process of constructing the type of sophisticated but grammatically coherent statements that will raise their academic writing to the next level.

Click here to read a preview.

Whole language and the art of “making meaning”

Whole language and the art of “making meaning”

I found myself stuck at home sick today, and unable to do pretty much anything other than lie flat on my back on the couch, I inevitably ended up trawling the internet and somehow found myself on Retrospective Miscue, a blog run by various members of the whole language community (including Yetta Goodman, wife/collaborator of Ken Goodman, the founder of whole language and one of the figures discussed in the article by Marilyn Jäger Adams I posted about recently.)

As I read through the posts, I couldn’t help but notice what seemed like a rather idiosyncratic connotation of the term “making meaning,” and it occurred to me that what scientists and, well, most educated adults understand by it is fundamentally different from what the whole-language crowd—or a certain segment thereof—mean. The two groups are not simply having a theoretical debate; they’re living in two separate universes, one of which is based in reality and the other of which is not. (more…)

Yes, the GMAT does test “so that” vs. “so as to”

Yes, the GMAT does test “so that” vs. “so as to”

Thank you to Soph Lundeberg at Soph-wise Tutoring in San Diego for calling this to my attention.

Soph wrote:

The following Magoosh blog claims the GMAT will not test “so as to” versus “so that,” and furthermore, the two are idiomatically acceptable.

 

 

The solution for #150 is on page 302. Erica’s solution says “All of other options are idiomatically unacceptable” but does not have any further explanation for why A, “so as to escape,” is wrong, whereas the longer construction, “so that she could escape” is correct. If two constructions are acceptable, “shorter = better”, right? 

 

I checked the Magoosh blog post, which claimed that the GMAT would never ask test-takers to choose between “so that” and “so as to,” and something really did not sit quite right about it.” There was just no way I would have bothered to put “so that” and “so as to” head to head in a question unless I’d actually seen the GMAC do so first. (more…)

What does it mean to understand words “in context”?

What does it mean to understand words “in context”?

In the course of my recent research on the phonics debate, I came across an idea that in retrospect should have seemed obvious but that nevertheless seemed entirely surprising when I encountered it—namely, that a reliance on context clues is a strategy employed primarily by poor readers.

Consequently, when schools teach young children to use context clues as a decoding aid, they are actually encouraging them to behave like weak readers. Strong readers, in contrast, rely primarily on the letters themselves to figure out what words are written.

According to Louise Spear-Swerling, professor of Special Education at Southern Connecticut State University:

Skilled readers do not need to rely on pictures or sentence context in word identification, because they can read most words automatically, and they have the phonics skills to decode occasional unknown words rapidly. Rather, it is the unskilled readers who tend to be dependent on context to compensate for poor word identification. Furthermore, many struggling readers are disposed to guess at words rather than to look carefully at them, a tendency that may be reinforced by frequent encouragement to use context. Almost every teacher of struggling readers has seen the common pattern in which a child who is trying to read a word (say, the word brown) gives the word only a cursory glance and then offers a series of wild guesses based on the first letter: “Black? Book? Box?” (The guesses are often accompanied by more attention to the expression on the face of the teacher than to the print, as the child waits for this expression to change to indicate a correct guess.) (more…)

Caveats and misgivings (not all vocabulary can be learned in context)

Caveats and misgivings (not all vocabulary can be learned in context)

As I was categorizing the reading questions from the new tests in the 2020 edition of the Official SAT Guide, I noticed something a little odd about question #47 from the October 2017 exam.

The question, which accompanies a passage about the search for new types of antibiotics, reads as follows:

 

In line 79, “caveats” most nearly means

A) exceptions
B) restrictions
C) misgivings
D) explanations

 

Now, the answer, C), was correct in the most technical sense. Among the answer choices, “misgivings” obviously made the most logical sense when it was plugged into the passage, and it was perfectly consistent with the list of drawbacks the author provided in regard to a particular drug.

But when I thought about it, something about the question kept nagging at me. (more…)

The three-cueing system and its misuses (or: the biggest problem in reading you’ve never heard of)

The three-cueing system and its misuses (or: the biggest problem in reading you’ve never heard of)

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference on the science of reading held by John Gabrieli’s lab at MIT. It was, if nothing else, an eye-opening experience—not always in good ways, but certainly in ways that laid bare the problems involved in implementing broad changes to how reading is taught in the United States.

At the reception after the conference, I happened to be introduced to Nancy Duggan, one of the founders of the Massachusetts chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, an organization that advocates for screening and support for dyslexic students. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned one of the stranger reading problems I’d seen among my students—namely, that they had trouble making their eyes follow a line of text from left to right. Instead, their gaze seemed to dart randomly around the page. “Oh,” Nancy said promptly, “that’s the three-cueing system. Kids are supposed to look at just the beginning of the word and then look at the pictures for context clues.”

I was vaguely familiar with the term, but I had never made the connection between it and the reading difficulties I had witnessed in teenagers. I also confess that I did not know that children were actually taught to read in quite this bizarre a manner, or that the three-cueing system had anything to do with it. (more…)

The LaGuardia protests and the privatization of the public school curriculum

The LaGuardia protests and the privatization of the public school curriculum

If you live in the New York City area, you might have heard about the recent student protests against cuts to the arts programs at LaGuardia High School (aka the “Fame” school).

I don’t normally focus on local news, but in this case, I think the real story is much larger than what’s getting reported; in fact, I think that it’s getting overlooked entirely. I happen to have some insider knowledge of the school (colleagues, former students), and although it’s unique in many regards, some of the changes it’s undergone are actually reflective of a much larger trend involving the creeping privatization of public education.

In case you haven’t been following the events, here are the basics: (more…)

Commas and subordinate clauses

Commas and subordinate clauses

Considering that a large part of my job revolves around grammar, I’m somewhat more laid-back about certain rules than one might expect. Or rather, like most people who traffic professionally in the English language, I have a set of rather idiosyncratic preferences that may or may not align with what most people imagine a member of the grammar police would take people to task over.

If, for example, someone assures me that they would never, ever end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive, my response is, well, “meh.”

One of my biggest pet peeves, however, involves dependent clauses—specifically, ones begun by subordinating conjunctions—and commas. Or rather, the lack thereof. (more…)