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On Reading and Test Prep

Last week, I talked about the links between vocabulary, reading, and socio-economics: Specifically, a New York Times' discussion of a study that showed poorer children are exposed to fewer and less complex words than their wealthy counterparts, so that they enter school with huge disparities in vocabulary knowledge. These gaps are unfortunately never bridged, such that these students are far under-represented in specialized high schools where admission is determined by a test. Their SAT scores are also lower than those of their wealthier peers, making family income the single strongest correlate to test scores.

My students are all taking the PSAT tomorrow, which is what made me want to write about this some more. I spent some time today giving a "PSAT Lesson"--namely, giving the kids printouts of sample PSAT Critical Reading and Writing sections, and discussing techniques for answering different types of questions. With the exception of my 10th period class (some of whose members had apparently just seen a live mouse in the building, which resulted complete silliness for the next half hour), the kids were interested in learning the techniques. I demonstrated some strategies for the vocabulary questions--looking to see whether a positive or negative word is needed, using context clues, filling in the second blank first--and most of the kids were able to apply them on their own, to some degree.

Now, a lot of people might say, "See? Kids can be taught test prep in a classroom setting--so why are inner city students' scores so low on these standardized tests?" Now, leaving aside the obvious flaws in a curriculum designed solely to "teach to a test" (which I'll go into another time), the sort of crash course in test prep that I gave to the kids today is a lot more effective in groups of three than in groups of 30. In the spring of previous years, I've run an SAT course in our school. The only real requirement for the course is to stay after school a couple of days a week (and acquire a copy of the Princeton Review guide, which the school provides to students who really can't afford one.) Last spring approximately 10 kids committed to showing up during 10th period a few times a week--I'd usually see them in groups of three. And those kids made statistically significant gains in their scores, from the time we started preparing to when they took the test.

However, when you think about it, this experiment wasn't easily replicable on a large scale: It was entirely about the individual attention the kids received, which really allowed me to focus on their personal strengths and weaknesses and make sure they could utilize the test-taking strategies. In essence, they had the benefits of expensive semi-private tutoring for free. Students across the country who are struggling to raise their scores on standardized tests don't always have access to three-times weekly test prep in small groups. And if you're a teacher in an inner-city school, you have 150 students per semester; there simply aren't enough hours in a day--even if (against your better judgment) you use your dedicated subject periods to teach test prep, as well as an after-school program--for one teacher to meet with all those students in small enough groups.

The other problem, which I can see I'm going to harp on endlessly in this blog, is the lack of reading that kids do at home--and this a problem across the socio-economic spectrum. I'm now going to be very blunt. My three brothers and I all did well on our SATs. And the reason for this wasn't because we had tutors (we didn't), or because we studied particularly hard (we definitely didn't), or because we were particularly well prepared in any way (I went to a friend's homecoming dance the night before the SATs.) Rather, we did well because my parents made sure that we read all the time. When we were little, my father read to us in the evenings, and when we were older I took over that job with my younger brothers--and my mom brought us to the library every three weeks to exchange our books. Through this effort, each of us had 16 years of accumulated vocabulary and skill in reading comprehension by the time we sat down for the SAT. There is no better or cheaper test prep to be had. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.)

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