Taking the Math SAT When You've Forgotten Math

In third grade, I was a math whiz. 

We were learning times tables up to 10x10, and to test us, my teacher, Mrs. Goldman would play a game of “multiplication war.” Two students would face off at a time, with Mrs. Goldman turning over two cards, and the first student to shout out the answer if you multiplied them capturing the pair. The student with the most pairs at the end of the deck won the match.

I only had one true rival in the whole class. For the sake of her privacy, I won’t name her here, but I still remember who she was. I’m pretty sure that I won more matches than I lost, but I definitely also remember losing, because I can still feel what that was like even as I type.

Anyway, because I had memorized the times tables and was quick on the draw in number recognition, I was considered good at math. This continued through grade school — with the exception of dividing by fractions — and I entered middle school and high school on an accelerated track, heading towards AP calculus by senior year.

Fairly quickly, the acceleration slowed, and ultimately went into reverse, until senior year when

I found myself in an honors (?) pre-calculus class populated with the super-accelerated freshmen who could be taking the AP calculus exam as juniors. I had no idea what was going on, and suspect I was the benefit of social promotion. Once I matriculated to college, I figured out how to meet graduation requirements without ever having to take another math class, which felt like success at the time.

All that aside, I still did pretty well on the math section of the SAT (high 600s), probably because at the time, the math didn’t get much beyond algebra (which I could mostly do). Now, in my work for a market research company, I use math all the time, though it doesn’t often go beyond multiplication, division and percentages. Most of my current math-related work is more like “reasoning with numbers,” looking at data and drawing analytic conclusions. I like to think I’m pretty good at it.

But school math like geometry or...shudder...trigonometry? Forget it. This is why I did not hold out great hope for my retaking of an SAT math practice test. I put the over/under at 520, at least 150-180 points below my high school score.

The result? 570! While I would be below the mark for my undergraduate alma mater (University of Illinois), my combined SAT scores would help me secure admission to an excellent college.

Still some life in this old brain of mine.

I asked Stephen Weber, who is both the director of Educational Endeavors and someone I lived one block over from as a child and went to school with from pre-K through high school, to debrief me on the results.

(In a previous installment, I tried the verbal SAT with Akil Bello. Hilarity ensued.)

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John Warner: So, give it to me straight. Based on what you see in my right and wrong answers, what do and don’t I know about SAT math?

Stephen Weber: Clearly, some math atrophy has taken place over the last 30 years, but that is to be expected. You haven’t thought about some of these skills since you left Glenbrook North High School in the late ‘80s and embarked on a career as a writer. You can still add, and you remember some of the basic rules of algebra and geometry, but anything that was maybe in the second semester of algebra 1 or anything in algebra II has faded away (systems of equations, slope/intercept, functions, simplifying radicals, etc.) Amazingly, you did get a problem involving a parabola correct, but I imagine that was a lucky guess. 

JW: Oh, ye of little faith.

One of the things I say in general about any assessment is that underneath the exam is a set of values. For example, as I argue in Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, the five-paragraph essay found favor not because it’s a useful tool for learning how to write, but because it lends itself to a standardized set of assessment criteria. The rationales for the use of the form — that it’s training wheels for a more sophisticated essay — were created after the fact in order to cover over its true raison d'être. 

This is a long way of asking what values underlie the math section of the SAT?

SW: Honestly, John, I don’t think about this stuff that deeply. As someone helping students prepare for these exams, that’s not my job. My role is to get kids to maximize their potential on the exam so that they have as many options for college as possible. I don’t know what the College Board is thinking about when they construct these tests. I guess they are trying to hit on as many math skills as possible to see what you learned in high school and cram it all into sections that are very challenging to finish in time. So, presumably, they are seeing how you perform under pressure and assuming that this will indicate how you’ll do in college. Yes, you have to be good at math and able to think quickly to score well, but how that correlates to college success is, well, certainly up for debate. 

JW: So, coach me up. I don’t think I have a perfect score in me in the best of circumstances, but what could I learn (or relearn) pretty quickly that would boost my score?

SW: Indeed, a perfect score would be a pipe dream. It would be like a 40-year-old baseball player suddenly coming up with a 100 mph fastball or hitting 50 home runs. Wait, that happened. But, I don’t think there is HGH, or ‘roids for the brain — unless you count Adderall. Anyhow, a perfect score should NOT be your goal. Maximizing your potential is the key to success. Basically, that means getting all the questions that you could get right, right. It involves a strategic approach to the exam, practicing with purpose, and being in the best condition possible on test day. 

JW: And if I were to relearn those skills, would I be better at math?

SW: You left some low-hanging fruit on this test. I could easily see you picking up 50 points on your next go-around without learning anything new. Some of your mistakes were just reading errors probably caused by panic attacks and/or rushing. If you looked back at your test, you’d definitely be slapping your forehead and saying, “I coulda gotten that right for sure!” Reading the questions more carefully, answering the easy questions first, and pacing yourself better could make the difference without actually getting better at math. 

JW: You and the tutors at Educational Endeavors coach students not just on learning math for the SAT/ACT or for Chicago’s high school admissions exams, you work with students on math for school. What difficulties do you see students having with math in that context?

SW: Like most kids, they see zero practical applications for the math they are doing unless they happen to be going into engineering or something like that. So, unless they have a natural affinity for mathematics and find it fun, they are like, “Who cares?” and just want to get through it and move on. 

JW: How do you work around those problems?

SW: Look, I know teachers will do all kinds of jiu-jitsu to try and make math fun or relevant for their students, but honestly, I think that is sometimes impossible. How are you going to make factoring relevant? Realistically, I’ll explain to them that learning how to learn is what it’s all about. If you can figure out math, develop the ability to study effectively, make a habit out of good learning methods, and have a growth mindset for things that at first seemed impossible, then you’ll have the ability to tackle any challenge in front of you. I’m old school. Some things are not fun — or aren’t supposed to be fun — and can be roadblocks to the things you really want to achieve, but you just gotta push through to get where you want to be. 

JW: We both know that back in high school I was the superior student with better standardized test scores. I imagine that’s changed. What do you score on an SAT math practice test now?

SW: I haven’t done a full one in a while, but I’ll accept the challenge and let you know! I do much better now than I did in high school on the SAT and ACT because I’ve been preaching these strategies for many years and have taken a lot of practice sections. I’ll sometimes challenge a student if I haven’t done the practice test before, and that really puts the pressure on. There are students that I can’t beat. No doubt about it. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be a good coach for them. Phil Jackson wouldn’t have scored a bucket against MJ. 

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