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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/ 9/2009

SPOTLIGHT: The Man Who Takes SAT Tests for a Living

By Valerie Strauss

“On the SAT, if you’re brilliant and slow - you’ll get a very average score.”--test expert Edward Carroll

Edward Carroll takes tests for a living. To be precise, he takes the SAT, the dreaded college admissions test owned by the non-profit College Board--lots of them.

The 38-year-old has taken every SAT made available over the last decade, most of the time alongside high schoolers on Saturday mornings. He has also analyzed another decade’s worth of SATs, which are given seven times a year.

“People think I’m crazy,” he said, but his job depends on his diligence: He is a standardized test expert and tutor at The Princeton Review, an education and test prep company. That means he is also an expert in the ACT, the other major college entrance exam, owned by the non-profit education and workforce development organization ACT.

Most schools use these exams to inform their admissions decisions, and just about all of them that do will accept the results of the SAT or the ACT.

For those high school students now starting the grueling admissions process, Carroll offers the following from conversations with The Answer Sheet on e-mail and on the phone:

Q) What does the SAT actually test? What does it say about someone who takes it?
A) The SAT, more than anything else, shows how well you take the SAT. It is NOT a measure of a student’s raw math or verbal ability. The College Board itself does not claim that the SAT predicts subject skills, but rather that it is a predictor of performance in college (along with the rest of a student’s application).
Personally, I think it also filters out students who can’t perform quickly. The test is rigidly and tightly timed. It is very very difficult to finish each section and the CB [College Board] knows it. They design it that way so that they can assure a nice range of scores to the colleges for comparison.

Q) So it doesn’t tell much of anything important?
A) It is a very flawed test if you expect it to reveal much about student content skill or personal study and performance ability.

Q) Who does well on it?
A) The SAT puts students in a pressurized environment, and students who perform well in testing situations will excel. Everyone knows a story of a slacker student who doesn’t work hard in school and does well on the SAT.... On the SAT, if you’re brilliant and slow, you’ll get a very average score.

Q) Why is it so difficult?

A) It’s not that it is so difficult. The questions are not straightforward.

Q) Explain.
A) Each test is equally tricky. The simplest example of that is that it often asks “What is x + 1?” when students have to do lots of calculations to solve for x. Then, as they do throughout math class in school, they choose the value of x that they found. To put it another way, they do everything correctly in solving, then circle the wrong answer (because the trap answers will always be there!) Thus, they get the question wrong, but NOT because they didn’t know what they were doing.

Q) Is the ACT more indicative of a student’s ability than the SAT?
A) In short, yes. It tests what students learn better than the SAT. It has its own flaws but what it purports to do it does better than the SAT.

Q) What are the flaws?
A) It is hard to finish... It has to have students fall into a predictable range. It is standardized.... And you always have to be suspicious of the easy answer no matter what test you are taking. These tests are multiple choice. They have to have the answer on the page, so they make the other answers as attractive as possible but specifically wrong. Students have to eliminate obviously wrong answer and get it down to 3 or 2.

Q) Is there any truth to the notion that one SAT given each year is harder than the rest?
A The SAT does not change from test to test. It is a myth that there is a better day or month in which to take the test. This is a standardized test. It does not change and the scores from one test are equivalent to scores on another test. Despite our criticisms of the SAT over the years, The College Board is very good at one thing - making its tests the same every time. It’s nonsense to think otherwise, but this myth persists.

Q) The addition of an essay didn’t change things?
A) The “old” one changed in March 2005. In a nutshell, it didn’t change very much. They took their old SAT Writing test and tacked it onto the SAT - that’s how it got an essay. The rest of it (slight math changes and elimination of Analogies) had very little effect on the overall student experience test, despite what you may have heard. The biggest effect on students is that it is now longer - 3 hours 45 minutes - much more than that if you include admin[istrative] and break times.

Q) Why would someone take the tricky SAT if the ACT is more straightforward?
A) The SAT does work for some students... Some of the material on the ACT is at a higher level than the SAT....I can tell SAT kids you will never see a question with really advanced geometry.

Q) Let’s talk about test prep.
A) In general, our approach to the SAT is that we analyze it for unintended patterns, then tell students what they are. We don’t pretend to teach more than that. This is one of the reasons that TPR has received criticism in the past. But we do raise scores. And we let students know just what they’re in for and why it exists. With that in mind, we design strategies that help and make sure students are both accurate and quick.

Q) Some people say test prep can only raise scores a little. Others say it can help a lot. What do you think?
A) It can help a lot. It depends on the point at which you start.

Q) You’ve taken scores of SATs. How do you do on them?
A) I do pretty well, but I’m human, so I can still make a mistake... I can tell you this. I have gotten a perfect score in each section but not on the same test.

Q) The kids must wonder who you are when you take the test with them.
A) The high school kids think .... I’m a little slow and I’m just getting to college.

Q) Do you finish the SAT in the allotted time?A) I can, but I have a much better vocabulary than your typical 16-year-old.... Your average adult who has gone through high school will do pretty well on the verbal section and will do less than they think they will in math, because the Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t come up much in their daily lives.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 9, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, SAT and ACT, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  ACT, SAT, college admissions, test preparation  
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I disagree with the approach his company takes to the SAT. The SAT may be a test of patterns, but the emphasis should not be on the tricks to the patterns, but the content behind the test. Students ought to know these math concepts (up to Algebra 2) or they are going to be lost in their first math class in college.

SAT prep courses should do more than just prepare students for the SAT. It should also prep students for college.

Out of the test prep companies out there, I like C2's approach the best. They focus not just on the tricks and strategies, but also on the math section they teach the math behind the test. On the reading, they teach the skills needed to take a long, boring reading comp passage and get the important info out of it - a skill certainly needed for dry college reading.

Posted by: TutorTim | September 9, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Standardized tests have their place in the analysis of a student's college application for college. I think Mr. Carroll has explained it well. It is never an indication of the student's knowledge, but it is an indication of how well they can prepare for the specific test and how well they can maintain quick-thinking over a 4-hr period.

I think Mr. Carroll should have also commented on predictions for the future of the SAT and ACT. Will they ever include current events? Can we comfortably make them optional for students who have proven themselves on other tests or who don't have the ability to think fast for 4 hours?

Posted by: doglover6 | September 9, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Focusing on "the content" of the SAT incorrectly presumes that it is testing content. Seniors in high school who have high achievement in Trig and Calc often get very average math scores on the SAT. Why? It's not because they don't know the content. SAT content does not go beyond elemental algebra, arithmetic, math vocabulary and geometry. This means that good math students miss SAT questions for reasons not related to their math ability!

If I were to teach seriously tough math content to any A, B or C math student prepping for the SAT, I'd be wasting their time (assuming our goal is only to improve SAT scores). They need to know that the test is not as straightforward as everyone assumes. Using simple math concepts, the SAT tests exceptions, patterns, short cuts, figure visualization, reading carefully and trivial details much more frequently than it tests any serious math. This test is NOT similar to tests that high school teachers give, which is the false assumption many people make.

Pick up any real SAT. You are given the math rules and formulas at the beginning of every math section on the test. Ask yourself why the testmakers would do this and how they can do that and still get students to make mistakes. The answer lies in the intentional design of the test. Your high school teachers give you a much more honest chance to show ability than the SAT does with its extremely tight timing and consistent word trickery.

The same is true for all the presumed "content" in the Reading and Writing sections of the SAT. This is why test-taking strategy works, why test prep exists.

Though it dismays many people (parents and educators especially) to hear that you can improve on the SAT without learning much math/reading/grammar content, it is neverthless true. The reason for this lies in the way the test is made, not in how students prepare for it.

Posted by: ecarroll | September 9, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

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