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SAT Prep Strategies and Practice Questions

Which practice SAT tests should I take?

Summary: Official SAT tests are the only practice SAT tests you should be taking.

Yes, it’s really that simple.

As I settle in to type out this article, I tell myself that I will keep this short because, well, the information is simple: Official SAT tests are the best. And not just the SAT test, just about every single test I’ve taught. (Possible exception: Some of the tests for younger ages, such as elementary school and middle school, have question types that are much easier to replicate, so practice tests can be of relatively high quality.)

The analogies

No, not the old SAT analogies. I mean analogous situations. Here goes: Does the food from Panda Express (a restaurant chain that serves cheap Chinese food) taste like home-cooked Chinese food? (I still don’t understand this, but a lot of our students at TestMagic say they like Panda Express.) Are the karaoke versions of popular songs as good as the originals? Are the Glee versions as good as the originals? (Hmm… Maybe not a good example. I’m sure some of you will say they are much, much better.) Would a clone of dear, departed Fido be a sufficient substitute for Fido? Does diet soda taste like sugared soda? Are taekwondo and jiujitsu the same? Is a $39 ePad as good as a genuine Apple iPad? You get the point. It’s the same with the SAT—imitation practice tests are just not the same.

Is your (insert publisher name here) practice test score accurate?

Short answer: probably not. In my two decades of teaching, I’ve seen enormous deviations from students’ practice test scores on non-official practice tests and official, “test-day” scores.  I remember a very diligent student happily scoring over 700 (out of 800) on a practice GMAT test on a CD-ROM, but scoring only in the 500s on his official GMAT. I think in his case, the student got used to the questions on the CD-ROM, and the questions were too easy and  too narrow in scope. And the reverse also happens—sometimes non-official tests are harder (or just different) from the real tests, and students score much lower.

Innumerable factors raise or lower test scores. For example, how well you do on any given SAT depends, of course, on your knowledge base (a 4.0 GPA native-speaker of English will have an easier time of the SAT than a newly arrived student still learning English), how well prepared you are for the SAT specifically, how many practice tests you’ve taken (aim for five to fifteen, depending on how much time you have and how important your SAT score is to you), how much sleep you’ve had, how hungry you are, how hot or cold the room is, how noisy the testing environment is, how confident or nervous you feel, the content of the test on that day (you got a passage on Frederick Douglass, whom you’ve just studied in APUSH (An “AP” US History class)? Awesome!), the state of your bladder and stomach, and much, much more. In other words, there is a variance in test scores that you need to take into consideration, a fact that practically means that you should plan to take more than one official SAT.

But even after eliminating all extraneous factors, not all practice SATs are created alike. Some practice tests are sloppily cobbled together by publishers looking to sell copies of books. Other practice tests are poor “clones” of existing tests. Some companies seem to spend more money on the covers of the books than they do on the content of the books themselves, knowing that people do in fact judge books by their covers. Other companies may make an honest effort to keep their content updated, but the fact remains that no one, not even the largest test-prep companies in the world, have access to the pool of data that College Board (the official SAT organization) does.

Let’s now discuss the actual content of the official SAT and the fake practice SATs.

Is the content the same?

The content of the official SAT and the books you buy at a bookstore or check out from the library are different. When I tell people this, they often don’t believe me. Many people think that all standardized tests are made alike, no matter who makes them. But if you ask any experienced test-prep instructor worth his salt, he’ll tell you the same thing I’m going to tell you: SAT tests made by other (i.e., not College Board) publishers are never as good as the official SATs. Sometimes they just “feel” different. Other times the content is just… wrong. For example, I once saw a “practice SAT question” on Yahoo.com that required the test-taker to choose between who and whom, a testing point I’ve not seen on the SAT, TOEFL, GMAT, or GRE in my two decades of preparing people for standardized tests. (I emailed Yahoo to tell them, but never heard back, surprise, surprise.) Other times the differences are subtler and harder to pinpoint. The questions and content just have a different feel or focus. Sometimes the questions are debatable or worse, downright wrong. Other times the language is stilted, inaccurate, or unnecessarily complex.

And in some cases, the questions are written in a way to reinforce the content and strategies taught by a specific book or company. For example, I was once reviewing the SAT-prep manual from the #2 test-prep company in the United States, and noticed that almost all of the questions in the practice tests could be explained with a strategy taught in the book. In other words, the questions on the practice test in the back of the book reinforced the strategies taught in the book. There is a certain rationale for that approach, but I think in the end, you’re doing your students a disservice if you don’t present them with the full breadth of questions that could appear on test day. (The fact of the matter is that there’s just not enough space in even a 500-page book to adequately cover all the points that could show up on an SAT test. Savvy students know this, and strategically focus on certain areas. “Choose your battles”, as we say.)

Related comment: Some older questions I see on SATs from the 1980s are different from current SAT questions as well, so again, be sure to use the most current official SATs that you can.

Cloned questions and breadth of question types

To create mock SAT tests, many publishers outsource the work to freelancers. These freelancers often “clone” or copy an existing test. Sometimes when I’m looking at a practice SAT, I can tell exactly where the question comes from. And I mean exactly—the date of the test administration, the section, and the question number. Now, a good question “cloner” can make passably good test questions for most of the test, but not for all of the test. For example, the Critical Reading questions are the hardest to create. It’s pretty much impossible to replicate existing questions without copying the passage verbatim, which is not legal unless the work is in the public domain.

So what’s wrong with cloned questions? In many cases, nothing. Let’s be charitable and assume that the cloned question is of good quality. What if it so happens that you’ve taken the practice SAT from which the question was cloned? You would, in this case, have at least a marginal advantage when answering that question, which effectively means that your performance on that practice SAT would not be indicative of your true SAT level. That said, I should point out that it is actually important to practice concepts in different forms, so in fact, there is some benefit to answering cloned questions. But you should be aware of what you’re working on if you’re taking a Dolly test, i.e., one that’s actually a clone of an existing SAT.

But the real problem with cloned tests is simply that after time, you will not experience the true breadth of the types of questions that could appear on your SAT test day. To prepare students best, good SAT prep teachers need to give their students a wide variety of questions types that haven not appeared on published tests. Yes, you need to know subject-verb agreement for all SATs. And it’s good to know about correlative conjunctions, too, such as not only… but also… But what if the SAT sneaks in a not just… but… as well instead of the standard not only… but also…? It’s happened before, and could easily happen again, and students need to be prepared.

Typos

This is an easy one. Some of the SAT-prep books of the very largest publishers are riddled with typos and wrong answers in the answer keys. I remember one book published by the largest test-prep company in the world that contained the very same typos year after year. Mind you, the cover changed, but the typos remained. For five or six successive years, I bought a particular book when it was released. The first thing I did was check to see whether the same typos were in the book. They were. Again, the graphics were different, but the typos remained.

This is particularly infuriating (at least to me) because I think educators have a responsibility first to… Well, educate. Large publicly-traded companies have ample resources to hire proofreaders and editors, and they should.

Mercenary publishers

This issue of the persistent typos is a nice segue to talk about what I consider overly-mercenary behavior. As I mentioned above, many publishers don’t hire competent editors or proofreaders, most likely to maximize profits. You don’t see such errors in text books, nor in official test-prep material (the notable exception being the first few printings of the current Official SAT Study Guide, an egregious and embarrassing error that hopefully will not be repeated), so it’s certainly possible for publishers to produce error-free books, but the large publishers choose not to.

I mentioned above that many test-prep organizations hire freelancers to create content for them, and these freelancers, while often intelligent and educated, are frequently simply not experienced enough with the content they’re writing to create authoritative content. I’ve browsed job listings and have been sent unsolicited samples by freelancers of published material, and some of it is just awful. I remember one particular case in which an author frequently used the explanation that a particular answer choice was “not stylistically appropriate for the sentence”, which is just hogwash. The vast majority of wrong answer choices have clear reasons for why they’re not right, and a fudge such as “sounds funny” just doesn’t work most of the time.

Finally, I’ve seen the very same questions used on different tests. I was once reviewing a practice HSPT book, and saw what I believed to be an error (turns out it was a typo corrected in later editions of the book). I searched the Internet for the question and saw that that very same question appeared not just on the HSPT (a test for middle-school students applying to high school), but also on a proficiency test for a certain vocation (think fire fighter or law enforcement officer) and in a general study guide. In other words, the author or publisher had sold the question at least three times.

Yes, I realize it’s business, and that’s the way business runs. But that’s precisely my point—test-prep organizations should see themselves as educators first and businesses second.

Summary

Before you do anything else, get as much official SAT material as you can. You can buy the Official SAT Study Guide, which we call the OSSG for short, from many booksellers. You can also download many free SAT-prep materials from the College Board web site. Many SAT-prep books are good for learning SAT-prep strategies, but for the tests, stick to official material only.

And finally, that wasn’t as short as I thought it would be. Somehow, it never is.

Any comments? Say something. I’d love to hear. :)

 

By Erin Billy

Founder of TestMagic, Inc. in San Francisco, USA.

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