Thursday, March 20, 2014

Leveling the Playing Field for the SAT.

I got the email the other day:
Exciting news: Khan Academy is partnering with the College Board so that all students who want to go to college can prepare for the SAT at their own pace, at no cost. The College Board just announced that they’re redesigning the SAT for 2016, and we’re partnering with them to make free, world-class prep materials. 
I'm underwhelmed. There are thousands of SAT practice sites around the Internet, some good and some not-so-good. There are thousands of SAT practice videos on YouTube, you just have to look. In my mind, the one thing that Khan is providing is a moderately well-organized list of boring-ass videos.

By spring 2015, you’ll have access to state-of-the-art, interactive learning tools that give you deep practice and help you diagnose your gaps. All of this will be created through a close collaboration with the College Board specifically for the redesigned SAT. 
So they will need at least 12 months to put this together. Seems like a lot of time spent on a test, but maybe it will be worth it. Screw you if you need anything before our planned roll-out date, of course, but Khan Academy isn't about the student.
Our goal is nothing short of leveling the playing field for every student taking the SAT, so please help us reach as many people as possible.
There's the rub. You can't level the playing field with a test-prep course. If test-prep could do that (and it doesn't), it would indicate that a few hours of knowledge-blitz is enough and would validate all those thousands of dollars spent on Kaplan and Princeton Review and everyone else in this test-prep sucker's game.

But test-prep helps, right? No, not really.  What 10 weeks of 4 hours a week test-prep will do is ease student tensions, help them focus, warn them of some of the obvious pitfalls, advise the students of "tricks" the test makers tend to play. This amounts to about 50 points "improvement" over untrained students ... which sounds like a lot, but it's well within one standard deviation, and about what happens when the student takes the test A SECOND TIME. That's right, test-prep eliminates some basic errors in test-taking, not in subject ability and knowledge.

"But the guarantee?" Yep, they have a guarantee. "Do 100 points better or we'll let you retake the course for free."  First off, 100 points better than what score if you haven't taken it? Second, if you don't improve by that amount, what kid is going to sit through another 10 weeks of this course, even if it is free?

I've convinced my school to allow me to offer SAT prep as an elective. Am I being hypocritical? Nope. What I do daily is work on math or English. I do the test-prep, too, but mostly I focus on filling all those little gaps in their knowledge and then we have time to practice them. It's a tutorial.

I'm looking to improve the math knowledge and understanding, not just talk about tricks. Sure, I'll focus on only certain parts of Algebra I, but they've already taken algebra I ... I'm filling many of the gaps. Not all, but it's an improvement.

I'm looking to improve vocabulary and grammar and I have the time to do it. It's often surprising to me how much students can appreciate grammar ... about five years after they've learned it. (Or after they've taken a language.)

I'm looking to have them write the stilted and boring essays that get scored well, while telling them all of the ways they can deviate from the stilted and boring pattern if they want to, for the English teacher or for their own personal writing.

Perfect Practice is not poison. Perfect Practice is not drill and kill. Perfect Practice leads to Automaticity, which allows the student time to think and gives her a knowledge base to work with.

Fallon is right, but I'll talk about why, next time.

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