Tag Archives: testing

How to improve SAT test scores: Attack the Question!

When developing test-taking skills for standardized tests such as AP, ACT, and SAT tests there are usually two approaches:

  • Strategy no. 1: Improve on content knowledge & skills.
  • Strategy no. 2:  Employ test-taking strategies, such as skipping, annotating, anticipating answers, and elimination.

That’s all good and well, but there’s no single method to apply to every question. So what else can parents do to help students improve on standardized tests?

  • Strategy no. 3: Attack the Question

The Test Knows more than you?

This third approach emphasizes treating questions as sources of information, looking upon questions as giving, not taking.

All too often I hear from students that the test “knows more” than they do. What they’re saying is that they don’t trust themselves, and they end up second-guessing themselves or, worse, choosing incorrect answers simply because they don’t know the meaning of a word in it.

These students are not looking a the question as a source of information. They’re letting the question take — and not making it give.

So a very first place for improvement is to look upon…

Test Questions as Information

Effective test-takers will use information in the test, especially the questions. Questions are to them guidance and not an impediment.

Even the most basic question contains information:

Why is the sky blue?

Before answering the question, let’s see what it tells us:

  1. The sky is blue
  2. There is a reason for that.

Okay, great, but so what?

Well, that information is actually quite useful — if we look upon it as information and not a judgment about what we know or don’t know about the sky being blue.

If I don’t know what the sky or blue are, well, maybe here’s an opportunity to engage in a good skipping strategy.  Sometimes you just don’t know.

But just because I don’t know the direct answer, by looking at the question as a source of information I can begin to apply that information to something I do know:

  1. The sky is… the atmosphere.. it’s made up of, oxygen and other gasses, and clouds…  and clouds are water… sunlight bounces off the atmosphere…
  2. Blue is…  a primary color… blue light is high on the color frequencies…
  3. There is something about the sky, the color blue that combines to make the sky blue.

Having considered the information in the question and identifying what I know about it, I can now better employ our Strategy no. 2 of anticipation and elimination.

Just as importantly, since I have considered the question carefully, I will be less likely to be fooled by the possible wrong answers, many of which are designed precisely to mislead the student based upon an incorrect association with a word in the question. Thinking over the question deliberately helps me avoid that trap.

Attack the Qualifiers!

Once we get past the idea that the test “knows more than I do,” we can approach it as a useful instrument. Here Question Attack is essential.

Let’s go back to our question, “Why is the sky blue?”  Of course a standardized test will ask a more complex question,  but it’s never more complicated than a series of qualifications that limit or define a simple question, such as,

Why is the sky a lighter blue on the horizon than straight above?

First, we find information in the question

  1. The sky is blue
  2. The blue is lighter on the horizon than straight up
  3. There is something in the horizon that makes the sky a lighter blue.

Our simple question has now been qualified to a certain distinction, i.e., the difference between the color blue on the horizon and above.

Standardized test questions will always bring in some type of qualifier that defines the scope and purpose of the question. The effective test-taker will identify that qualifier and sort the information in the question according to it.

Typical qualifiers are “determiner” words such as “most,” “more,” “some,” etc.  Sometimes it comes in a prepositional phrase, such as “during the summer months…”

Again, possible wrong answers frequently tempt the test taker into making an incorrect association with a word or idea in the question, especially the qualifiers. By identifying the question qualifiers, we are less likely fooled.

Regardless the form, effective Question Attack will identify the qualifier and discern its impact on the information provided in the question.

Questions as Answers to Other Questions

If questions contain information, then it is likely that information will be used or repeated elsewhere on the test. We won’t notice it, however, if we’re looking at questions as a challenge rather than as a source of information.

This approach is less useful in SAT and ACT tests in which the textual material is random, however, on subject tests, such as AP tests and SAT subject tests, there will always be redundant information. The effective test taker will be aware of how to apply information in one question to answer another.

On the math side, it works the same, as math questions are often different forms of similar concepts, especially in the use of theorems or equations.

On the SAT and ACT tests, careful readers of test questions will identify repetition of required skills and concepts.

For example, in the SAT Writing section, a commonly addressed skill is appropriate use of semicolons, colons, dashes, and commas.  While the textual source will be different, the same concept will be tested multiple times.

For example, from the College Board Official SAT Practice Test 2, we find two questions at opposite ends of the Writing section on use of these punctuation marks:

It took me by surprise, then, when my favorite exhibit at the museum was one of it’s tiniest; the Thorne Miniature Rooms.

Her goals were straightforward, however: reduce waste, maintain and perpetuate knowledge and skills, and strengthen community.

If we compare what these questions are measuring, it helps remind us of the grammatical rules at work. In both sentences, we find  dependent secondary clauses, i.e., they do not stand as full sentences, which requires subject + verb. Therefore we know we are working with a list or example to extend or explain the first clause.

Whereas the first sentence is more straightforward in that the second clause provides an example (a list of one) to support the first, by remembering that rule, we can see through the more complex second sentence, which also provides examples or a list to support the first clause, only confused by inclusion of the unnecessary adverb, “however.”

Now that I have identified the concept or skill being measured, i.e., what punctuation mark sets up a list, and seeing multiple examples of it, I can better select the correct answer, which in both cases is a colon (only without the “however” in the second).

Slow Down, Be Thoughtful, Identify Question Expectations

Question Attack prevents the test taker from jumping straight into the possible answers, a fundamental mistake I see often in students. The temptation is to get through the test, so taking the time to consider the question seems annoying or unnecessary. It may also seem wasteful of time.

Actually, Question Attack preserves time, because it clarifies question expectations before getting lost in the wrong possible answers, which then throws the test taker back into the question for clarification — and wasting time.

Question Attack develops awareness, context, and allows for better application of prior knowledge.

In a next post, I will address effective strategies for elimination, which can only be employed upon careful consideration of the question itself.

Attack that Question, and raise your scores!

– Michael

Dan Bozzuto on Effective Teaching, Learning & Standardized Tests: Student Success Podcast no. 27

Dan Bozzuto explores the difficulties to replicate great teachers, the inherent problems with standardized testing, and some great ideas on how to address both.

Part 1/2, featuring Dan Bozzuto, award winning educator and inspired classroom teacher. Dan considers my question, “are good teachers replicable?” which takes him to standardized tests and other obstacles to student learning, including to question the very purpose of modern education.

This podcast is just a start to the essential questions of modern education, which Dan and Michael will carry forward in an upcoming Part 2 interview with Dan Bozzuto.

Student Success Podcast No. 27, published July 19, 2016 (recorded on Aug 9, 2015).

Continue reading

A Successful Assessment pt 3: how to take a test (or, reading instructions & not running out of time)

Test Prep help from the A+ ClubWhen a parent of a middle or high school teen worries that “my student doesn’t test” well, what’s missing is a combination of goal setting, preparation and execution.

As discussed in the previous posts on “Successful Assessments,” testing success consists of:

  • Identifying teacher/ test expectations (“no surprises”)
  • Preparing effectively (learning v. cramming)
  • Executing on test day (test taking strategies)

Test prep above all else

“Easy” tests are those students have or are effectively prepared for: if the student knows what to expect and prepares for it, the results will be strong.

That said, there are still a few things a student can do to better results on the test day.

A couple do-nots on test day include: Continue reading

A Successful Assessment pt 2: how to prepare for a test (or learning all along not just cramming)

Successful Test Prep from the A+ ClubParents concerned about their teen’s middle and high school exam and test prep might consider that studying isn’t just a matter of reviewing notes and study guides. Successful testing requires ongoing learning.

Here are some strategies for parents to empower their student’s exam prep and overall academic success.

In our series on  Successful Assessment: how to prepare for a test (or why doesn’t my child test well?), we are reviewing the essential parts of successful testing:

  1. No Surprises (identified teacher expectations)
  2. Student Prepared (successful learning)
  3. Student had time to finish (successful test execution)

This post regards student preparation. It’s one thing to know what will be on a test (see Part 1: Identifying Expectations) and also to understand it . But can you perform it yourself? Continue reading

A Successful Assessment pt 1: how to know what will be on the test (or identifying teacher expectations)

Successful Testing from the A+ ClubFor successful testing, students need to know what will be on the test. Sounds obvious, but parents don’t want to hear from their teens that there were “surprises” on a test or that they studied for the wrong thing.

This edition of the Successful Assessment will review how to help your teenage student identify what will be on a test.

As outlined in the introductory post, How to approach a test (or why doesn’t my child test well?), at the A+ Club, we help middle, high school and college students succeed on formal assessments, what we usually call “quizzes” and “tests.”  Our quick measure of a successful assessment means:

  1. No Surprises (identified teacher expectations)
  2. Student Prepared (successful learning)
  3. Student had time to finish (successful test execution)

No surprises!

“No Surprises” on a test means the student knew what to expect, knew what to study, and was familiar with every part or aspect of the test. Continue reading

A Successful Assessment: how to approach a test (or why doesn’t my child test well?)

We often hear from parents that “my child doesn’t test well.”

Teens have lots of excuses for their grades, and blaming it on the test is one that parents fall for all the time.

In the A+ Club, we measure middle, high school and college student success on a test or major assessment in terms of 1) identifying teacher expectations; 2) student preparation;  and 3) successful execution on the test day. Continue reading

For math success: guided and independent practice empowered by effective feedback

Help for students struggling with math: “guided” v “independent” practice

At the A+ Club we often hear from parents that their child is struggling in math.

Sometimes it’s, “she never does well in math” or “he does his math homework but scores poorly on quizzes and tests.”

Why students struggle in math: guided v independent practice empowered by feedback from The A+ Club on Vimeo.

Guided practice” is when the teacher shows or “teaches” a new topic or skill.

Independent practice” is when the student engages it by him or herself.

Effective teaching develops learning through a deliberate combination of guided and independent practice, where each builds upon the other. However, if the two are disconnected b an absence of effective and direct teacher to student feedback, then learning doesn’t happen.

This is why kids often say, “I get it when my teacher explains it, but I can’t do it on my own.” When your child complains that he or she “doesn’t test well,” it’s because your child is not receiving effective feedback to empower the independent practice required for learning.

This process is the same for all courses and subjects, but it more frequently manifests in math classes because math learning is not as easily processed through “guided practice” as other subjects.

In our A+ Club academic program, we engage students in effective learning techniques and provide guidance and direct math tutoring and in all subjects for overall academic success.

– Michael

“I don’t test well” — or do you just not prepare enough?

Testing issues?

You understand it in class, but not when you have to do it on the test?

You do all your homework, but then the teacher pops a question you never saw before?

Actually, you test precisely as well as you learn.

Nice try, though.

We hear this from parents as much as from students:

“My daughter does all her homework but she just doesn’t test well.”

And then

“I think she has test anxiety.”

It’s almost comforting to know that your child doesn’t test well. One would want to sympathize with that, because it would seem to explain things. But it’s just not true.

Here are the components of “testing well”:

  1. Identify teacher expectations

  2. Internalize them through repetitive practice.

“Testing” is demonstration of learning in what we call a “formal assessment.” Certainly there are additional pressures and conditions to render a formal assessment more difficult than homework or classwork. There’s the time limit, there’s the formality of the situation, and the discomfort a teacher getting serious all of a sudden. But that doesn’t change the fact that none of those additional challenges do anything but emphasize preparedness — or lack thereof.

Guided v. Independent Practice

For students who simply do not engage the workflow that teachers expect, they will not “test well” unless they are exceptionally bright and can learn on the fly without studying. Their grades will still suffer, because middle and high school grades are usually no more than 30 or 40 percent from formal assessments.

So acing every test without doing any homework starts you off on a B or C, and maintaining even those grades requires 100% on tests and quizzes. Good luck with that.

For students who follow in the classroom, who understand teacher expectations, and who do the homework and studying that’s required of them — and still do not “test well,” it’s not a “testing” issue. It’s the learning.

A couple of things may be going on:

1. Compliance without learning:

What we call “overly compliant” students are more concerned with fulfilling the form of teacher (or parent) expectations without actually engaging its substance. When this happens, homework and studying happen without real learning. It shows up as high  homework (process) and low test (learning) grades.

2. Lack of lesson internalization:

Whether or not the student engages the expected workflow, if test scores are low, then the student is simply not studying enough. Experts will tell you how it takes 30 distinct acts of learning/practicing something to fully internalize, i.e., to full know it.

With school work, those 30 or whatever acts of learning start with the teacher’s first lesson, then continue through the “guided practice,” in which the teacher shows and leads the students in the lesson (setting expectations, engaging students, building relevancy and breaking it down for understanding — you know, all those things a good teacher does…) and on to enough “independent” practice through which the student has applied the teacher’s learning her or himself.

A quick way to measure “internalization” is to try to teach it to someone else. If you can’t explain it to someone who doesn’t already know it, then you don’t really know it. This is how a parent can engage a child in studying topics that the parent doesn’t know about: “explain it to me.” If the student can’t, then the student needs more learning, be it guided or independent practice or both.

But here’s the crutch: is it important enough to the student to apply him or herself to it fully?

Relevancy

So let’s add an additional component to “testing well”:

3. Making it important enough to study and practice enough (relevancy and commitment)

Overly compliant students do not engage lessons meaningfully, as do other sorts of underperformers who may procrastinate, lack  executive function and other secretarial skills and do not process and practice enough independently.

Just as we would ask the internally-motivated student who learns only topics of interest, the overly compliant, externally-motivated student must adopt that curiosity and drive to learn of the intrinsic learner in order to get past “I don’t test well.”

Both sets must apply themselves with adequate  preparation, practice, and purpose in order to raise those test grades, even in an unenjoyable class.

Heh, it’s only a grade — which actually matters.

So quit making excuses about “testing issues” and get to work really learning it so that when you do have to spit it back out on a test amidst formal, “sit-down and shut-up,” nerve-wracking settings, it’s actually easy — because you already and truly know it.

– Michael

Dr. Jonathan Plucker: Excellence Gaps and the national imperative for equity AND excellence

Excellence-Gap-10-18-13Dr. Jonathan Plucker: Excellence Gaps and the national imperative for equity AND excellence

Student Success Podcast No. 17, Feb. 28, 2014, recorded Feb 24, 2014

Today’s Guest: Prof. Jonathan Plucker, University of Connecticut

For background, please see the first Student Success Podcast interview with Dr. Jonathan Plucker, Talent on the Sidelines: the Excellence Gap with Dr. Jonathan Plucker or this blog post: Student Success Blogpost: The “Excellence Gap”: income & race disparities persist

Dr. Jonathan Plucker rejoins us to update progress and events since our previous interview in October, 2013 regarding “excellence gaps” as demonstrated by his study, “Talent on the Sidelines.” Continue reading