Well, it all depends on what you mean by “prepare.”

 Let me back up for a moment and explain how this post came about: a couple of months ago, I was talking with a friend who was applying to dental school, of all things, and we somehow got into a conversation about the role of standardized testing in the American college admissions process. Having grown up in Korea, where the test-prep culture is actually a good deal more intense than it is in the US, my friend knew a thing or two about how crazy the whole standardized testing process can be, and I started telling her about some of the more common misconceptions that international students have about the SAT (particularly international students coming from countries where admission to top schools is determined solely by test scores). One thing led to another, and before I knew it, she told me that I should write up everything I’d just told her and post it on my site as an overview for international applicants. She even offered to translate it into Korean.

So I started writing it up, and about halfway through I started explaining how a lot of material on the SAT, particularly on the verbal side of things, is presented in a totally different way from how it’s presented in American schools, and that a lot of kids get incredibly thrown because they’ve never been explicitly taught the skills that it tests and simply have no idea whatsoever of how to handle it. I remembered the the half-French/half-Spanish father of one of my students was once surprised to learn that most American high schools spend essentially no time preparing students specifically for the SAT — coming from France, where high school students basically spend their entire last year of high school just prepping for the baccalauréat, he must have found that extremely odd, and so I figured that was the sort of thing that would require explaining.

And as I was writing that, it suddenly struck me how utterly and completely bizarre the American system really is. Who in their right mind would dream up a system that required students to take the most important test of their high school careers and then have no compulsory preparation for it? Even the hardest-core cram schools in Shanghai and Seoul are designed to supplement the university entrance preparation given in schools, not replace it entirely. (This is my understanding, please correct me if I’m wrong).

I do understand how the American system ended up as such an anomaly: because the SAT was developed specifically to give colleges a tool to assess students’ “aptitude” or “potential to learn” rather than the specific knowledge they had acquired in high school, thus giving students from Iowa the chance to compete with those from Andover, schools saw no reason to get involved. The problem is that the College Board recognized a while ago that the SAT is not really an aptitude test — which is why the initials SAT no longer officially stand for anything — but schools retained their traditional role of non-interference, a role that remains largely unquestioned.

Now, most critics of the SAT would argue that the only thing that the SAT tests is the ability to take the SAT, and as I’ve said before, I agree — up to a point. But unlike them, I believe that in the reading department, the SAT tests some pretty crucial skills whose importance is in no way lessened by the fact that they’re not being taught in school. Yes, the correct answers do often follow a pattern — but first, even perceiving those patterns in the first place requires pretty sophisticated reasoning skills and second, if the test were really that easy to game, a whole lot more people would score 800s. Or even 700s. But thousands upon thousands of kids take test-prep courses every year, and still only 5% of test-takers score above a 700 in Critical Reading and only 2% above a 750. Strategy-based prep really only works for the people who’ve already acquired the necessary skills elsewhere, either in school or on their own.

So back to the original question: should high schools do more to prepare students for the SAT? Well, yes and no.

If “preparation” is defined as going over how to guess efficiently, teaching how to write a stock five-paragraph essay because “that’s what the essay graders look for,” and discussing whether to fill in the little bubbles as you answer the questions or circling the answers and then bubbling everything in at the end, then the answer is no. Absolutely, incontrovertibly no. Schools already spend far too much time on that kind of drivel for state tests.

Interestingly, my students who just cannot get top scores on their essays for either the SAT or the AP English exams are the ones who spend their time in class learning…how to write high-scoring essays for the test. Trite formulas have been so ingrained in them that their writing completely lacks the kind of fluidity and daring that comes across as truly impressive. They also tend to lack the kind of broad cultural knowledge that lends itself to coming up with stellar examples at a moment’s notice. Almost uniformly, my highest scorers come from classically-oriented schools with virtually zero emphasis on test prep. Of course you don’t have to be an extraordinary writer to get a 12 on the SAT essay, but if you really want to learn to write for college, spending your time learning to please the College Board won’t cut it. (I pity the freshman writing instructors responsible for deprogramming kids who have spent the last thirteen years of their lives learning primarily to conform to standardized testing rubrics.)

 On the other hand, if “preparation” is understood to mean the kinds of underlying skills that the SAT tests, then yes, by all means, these are the skills that high schools should be teaching but that they seem to have forgotten somewhere around the time they stopped giving grades below B- to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.

I’m not quite sure what to think of the College Board’s assertion that school alone is the best preparation for the SAT. As a tutor, I know that for many kids school simply isn’t enough and wonder whom the College Board actually thinks it’s fooling — but then I also look at that statement as an example of its naïveté (kind of like the reality TV question…) I actually wonder whether the people who develop the SAT have any idea what gets taught — or rather, what doesn’t get taught — in most English classes, or if they’re living in some kind of dream world where public students are still routinely forced to recognize the difference between anapests and dactyls the way they were in 1964. Most of my students have never even had a vocabulary test in high school. The disconnect is so extreme it’s almost surreal.

In terms of grammar, schools need to teach what’s on the SAT. Period. The mistakes the SAT tests are the mistakes that kids make in their everyday writing. Trust me: I see them over and over and over again.  Not knowing how to identify a comma splices has nothing to do with being a good test-taker — it’s about knowing what is and is not a sentence, and how sentences should be punctuated. This is something that should be mastered by around sixth grade. If an eleventh grader can’t recognize a sentence, that’s a big problem. If schools aren’t teaching students to recognize sentences, that’s an even bigger problem. Most of them just won’t figure it out by themselves.

In terms of Critical Reading, the rhetorical devices that regularly get tested on the SAT (metaphor, allusion, anecdote, euphemism, irony) may have once been standard fare in high schools but are now largely absent from most curricula beyond the simplest level. I think one of my students summed it up best when he asked me, as innocently as a 6-foot tall wrestler with studs in his ears possibly could, what “rhetoric” was. The SAT is playing a game they don’t even know exists.

While SAT reading may have once been more like a series of logic puzzles, from what I’ve seen recently, the logic aspect is really only one aspect among many. Sifting through a bunch of CR sections recently, I was struck by the amount of overlap with the Literature SAT II, which is purportedly a “skills-based” rather than a “reasoning” test. Most of all, I was surprised by just how many questions there really are that ask about rhetorical strategies, and I was taken aback by the number of devices actually tested outright: metaphor, allusion, euphemism, repetition, analogy, personification, understatement… I actually got a list of about 20 different things. Knowing them has next to nothing to do with aptitude — if students can’t recognize them, it’s usually because they haven’t studied them in English class in more than a superficial manner. They might have been mentioned once or twice, but they were never reiterated enough for students to really understand how they work or why they might be used.

From what I’ve seen, though, most students, even very bright ones, who consistently score poorly on Critical Reading do so because they don’t fully understand what they’re reading. They get bits and pieces but don’t really know how to get a coherent whole because they have no context for the ideas. And that, in large part, is because they simply aren’t accustomed to reading texts at the level or with the content of those on the SAT. Aside from a handful of American and maybe British classics, in high school they’ve read…textbooks. And that’s it. They’ve had little to no exposure to the grown-up world of ideas and debates and polemics (global warming anyone?), and so of course what they read on the SAT is completely foreign to them. They’ve been taught that reading = Great Literature. (If you’re studying for the SAT and happen to be reading this, btw, ask yourself why I put “Great Literature” in caps.) The notion that there are different kind of reading for different kinds of texts is largely foreign to them. If high schools actively tried to expose their students to a wider range of writing — and asked them to consider more closely how authors use particular kinds of language to convey particular kinds of ideas — the SAT might not come as such as shock.

A couple of years ago, one of my students was required to read and summarize an Economist article every week for a Social Studies class, and she said that assignment helped her more for the SAT than anything else she’d ever been asked to do. If high schools gave more assignments like that (and required students to keep running lists of all the unfamiliar vocabulary they encountered AND to consider how the authors go about making their arguments), they’d end up preparing their students for SAT without ever even touching on the exam. Ironically, that’s much more effective test-prep in the long run than going over how many answer you should eliminate before you guess.

So to wrap up this tirade, a thought: everyone seems to think that strong high school curricula and SAT prep are somehow opposed, but the truth is that they’re two sides of the same coin. In the long run, the best test prep is not test prep, and the College Board is right in saying so. Everyone complains that the SAT has nothing to do with real life, but the truth is that many of the passages found on the SAT come from *exactly* the kind of serious adult non-fiction that students will encounter in college and beyond. And yes, some of it is boring, and some of it will have to be read anyway. If high schools actually took a cue from the SAT and exposed their students to sophisticated contemporary readings, ones closer to what they’ll find in college and that actually connect to the world at large, then students might not have to learn the skills tested on the SAT from scratch.