I’m always stunned by the lack of clarity that people have about what test prep is and what test prep isn’t. Many people seem to believe that test preparation involves sprinkling pixie dust on a test-taker and waiting for the score to soar to new heights. Think about how often you’ve heard of “tricks” to “beat the test.” Now don’t get me wrong, I know it’s largely the test preparation industry that sold the nation this bill of goods (thanks Joe Bloggs), but the impact of this thinking is being compounded by the current atmosphere in education of over-testing, misuse of testing, and over-reliance on test results. This post will clarify “once and for all” what test prep is and what it isn’t. I hope after this post that I’ll never again hear the phrase “just a few tricks” combined with “get me a great score.”
“I just need a few tricks to boost my score.”
What test are we talking about?
First, let’s clarify what we’re talking about when I say test. I mean standardized admissions tests. These tests are very different from tests in class by the teacher and even from standardized statewide tests (which are generally “achievement” tests). Admissions tests are most often the target of those who hope for Tinkerbell’s Pixie Dust cures or the magical elixir of score improvements.
Admissions tests of this type (and there are a lot of them: SSAT, ISEE, TASC, COOP, SHSAT, SAT, PSAT, PLAN, ACT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and even the MCAT) are in a category by themselves with a unique purpose and thus specific predilections and foibles. Admissions tests are not primarily designed to show what you learned. Instead, they are designed to (help?) predict how well you’ll do in some future educational space (the SAT, for example, is supposed to predict FIRST YEAR COLLEGE performance). This means they are by nature going to be different than the test given in school. This also raises questions about exactly what these tests show (they do show and predict something), and how reliable that information is, but that’s a different post.
What is test preparation?
So now that we know a bit about what we are dealing with, we have to learn how to deal with it. Test preparation is the act of preparing for a test. That’s it. Shocking, I know. Most people would give you that answer and, unfortunately not much more. Or you may get the ubiquitous answer that test prep is “learning the tricks of the test.” However, those answers, while correct, are too vague, overvalued, and generally unhelpful (except for marketing a test prep business, in which case they are awesome!). So let me break it down for you, with specificity, nuance, and accuracy.
Test preparation is (in no particular order):
- Gaining familiarity with the directions, structure, question types, and timing of the test in order to build comfort and relieve anxiety on test day.
- Learning to use the specific patterns and tendencies of the test in order to answer questions more quickly.
- Reviewing the content that will be tested on the specific exam, in the way and to the extent it will be tested.
- Developing content knowledge to ensure that the test-taker knows all of the information tested and the exceptions to and nuances of rules that usually lead to mistakes.
- Learning how the specific test will present the information it tests, from wording of the question to level of subtlety to number of steps necessary to solve a problem.
- Learning personal habits and tendencies so you can control, mitigate, and prevent unnecessary mistakes during a test.
How much of the above list do you ever hear about? How many of those items do you hear in the news? In the marketing materials of test prep companies? Probably not much. It’s just not sexy to say, “our test prep strategy is to teach you stuff you should have learned in ways you didn’t learn it.” But that’s often what test prep is. It’s teaching. It’s teaching rules, formulas, and facts that the test-taker should have already been exposed to and then teach them the way it will be tested that they have probably not learned, and if you’ve never learned those things than it’s teaching you the things you didn’t learn. It’s most certainly not “teaching a few tricks,” or if it is than those few tricks will probably give you just a few points. Doubt me? Then give the following SAT-ish question a try:
Many cultures seek to —- morals to their young by using apologues and parables .
When you consider why you might not have gotten the correct answer (which is the third letter of the alphabet, oh and the question was intentionally written with harder vocab that the SAT normally uses), do you think it was due to some trick? Due to timing? Is it the multiple choice nature? Probably not. If you knew the meaning of all those words you’d probably get it right. Now clearly there are things you can do to improve your guess, but it would still be a guess. “Tricks” will often only allow you to make a better than 1 in 5 guess and for most people a 1 in 4 or 1 in 3 guess isn’t going to improve their score much (especially on a test like the SAT that specifically has a “guessing equalizer” built into the scoring).
The key to test preparation is figuring out what skills or knowledge the test-taker lacks and developing those skills, not measured against what you believe a student should be (so let’s not argue whether you think these tests should exist or are valued), but rather measured against a specific test and it’s limited knowledge base. The key to many of these tests is preparing, and preparing properly.
In parting I’ll leave you with this analogy.
Think of standardized tests as a round of competition on Dancing with the Stars. We’ve been dancing all our lives and some of us do it better than others. Most people will go on to live highly productive lives without learning to properly do an Argentine Tango, but if you want to go on Dancing with the Stars, you better learn to tango. And if you want to learn to tango so that the judges will call it a tango and give you high points for the tango, you better get a coach to prepare you. Not a person who’ll teach you what they think the tango is or what your parents have said the tango is, but for what the judges say the tango is. If you aren’t able to learn the tango it doesn’t make you a worse person or maybe not even a bad dancer, but it will probably keep you off of Dancing with the Stars.
Good luck and good prepping!