SAT tutoring in El Segundo, Oct. 5 Notes

When a student comes to me for SAT tutoring, one of the first things I ask is how familiar he or she is with the test already from school (the idea being to build on whatever foundation teachers have already laid). Most of the students I ask glance up to the side and wrinkle their foreheads, combing through the past couple of years of high school, but come up with nothing. At most, they have taken the PSAT as sophomores. But for the majority, “SAT” is an ominous but vague trio of letters representing something on which a great deal of their futures will depend — what it is, they can’t say, but something.
I see these possible alternatives: either schools aren’t adequately introducing students to college entrance exams, or they’re just not introducing them at all. Whatever the case, this is an error. The arguments in favor of students attending college are by now well known and need not be reiterated, but it does seem a good time to repeat that preparing students for college is incumbent on high schools. Now, I do not believe in a model of “teaching to the test” — that kind of teleology narrows, shortens, and twists students’ vision of education and understanding of what it’s really for. I do, however, believe in a pragmatic approach to school; we must recognize that until the SAT (or ACT) can be replaced with something better, it will stand as a necessary hurdle in the college application process for most students. We (students, schools, and SAT tutors) have to face it.
How and when to do it, though? From my experience as an SAT tutor, I can say that the test is a puzzle unlike most others that high school students have to contend with, calling for certain strategies that don’t lend themselves to other tests or studies. Private lessons are still the best thing for many students (although the price of SAT tutoring through some companies has become prohibitively expensive). But is it wise to wait until students are juniors before suddenly thrusting the test upon them? Is the test so difficult that they can’t handle it before then? Is it really so foreign, so unlike anything else in high school, that it should be kept out of classroom discussion? Well, let me tell you a story.
Recently, I had an unusually productive tutoring appointment — one of those which seem to get progressively better as they go on. I and my student were in the zone. This student — let’s call him James — had brought his algebra homework and laid it on the desk alongside his SAT math assignment: he hadn’t been able to tackle either of them and was eager for help. Looking them over, I realized I could teach him the information and strategies he needed to know for both assignments simultaneously, thereby accomplishing two lessons for the price of one (if you will). I explained them to him, and we worked through some practice problems together. When our appointment time was done, he gave me a broad smile of surprise and satisfaction. “Wow,” he said, “we did a lot today!” I agree and disagree with that. Yes, we accomplished a great deal insofar as he was confidently acing every problem by the end of the session. But our actual workload had been fairly average. I think the accomplishment felt bigger to him because he had seen his knowledge adapt itself so smoothly from one area of study to another. In my experience, nothing inspires students to develop self-assurance and enthusiasm more than the realization that knowledge is connected and versatile. James was encouraged because the skills he needed to take on the SAT (or at least that part of it) didn’t seem completely foreign and unrelated to all the schoolwork he has invested so much effort to master.
So what is the point of this? I urge (not so humbly) that teachers and tutors begin incorporating SAT prep into their lessons from the time students first enter high school. To begin with, students need to be acquainted with the purpose, scope, and format of the test from early on. This supplement to the curriculum, however, need not be heavy-duty: a ten-minute multiple-choice exercise a few times a month would probably suffice. I don’t mean for teachers to assume all, or even most, of the responsibility for students’ test prep. The point is merely to show students early in the game how they will eventually need to apply their knowledge and skills beyond the parameters of regular homework and tests. Incidentally, teachers may find that students are galvanized by SAT prep to do better in their school subjects, since the test offers tangible evidence for any student that he or she will be using knowledge from high school to reach the next stage of life.

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