Join me in the 2015 Reading Challenge!

Hi everyone!

Just a quick invitation to join me in the 2015 Reading Challenge! I decided to tackle this 50-line challenge at the beginning of the year, and each book I finish gets a mini-review posted on my Facebook page. “Like” me on Facebook to follow along as I dive headfirst into this ambitious attempt to read one book per week all year long!

If you want to join me, here are the rules:

  1. The 50 line items are detailed in the image below. You may choose to read one book per line item, or double up and check off as many items as apply to each book you read. I’m going for the super challenge of only assigning one line item per book.

  2. Either way, the goal is to have checked every item off the list by the end of 2015.

  3. EXTRA CHALLENGE BONUS RULE! I’m adding the bonus rule that each book must be one I haven’t yet read. I tend to do a lot of re-reading books as preparation for working with my students, but I was unsatisfied with the amount of new material I was reading. Completely optional, but bonus points if you do!

Here’s the list of items – get to reading!

New Subjects Added!

Just a quick update: I’ve completed several more certification tests through WyzAnt and added new subjects to my list. New subjects include Pre-Calculus, ACT prep (Math, English, and Reading) and GRE prep (Math, Reading, and Essay Assistance). If you or someone you know is in need of tutoring in any of these subjects, look no further!

Ellen’s Choice: How I Feel About the SAT Redesign

A few weeks ago I posted an article about the impending SAT redesign and the changes that have been announced. I mentioned at the end of that article that I’d be posting another one soon with my thoughts on the redesign, once I’d had time to think more about them. Well, this is that article.

Overall, I think the motivation for the redesign is good – that the College Board’s heart is in the right place and they’re acknowledging some of the very real problems that the current SAT has. I’m very happy with their partnership with Khan Academy as well. I’m happy to hear that they acknowledge that students really do need some kind of prep help for the SAT, and that if they’re going to force every student who wants to apply to college to take it, they should be offering free prep help for everyone who wants it. Not everyone can afford a private tutor, and money should not be a limiting factor in every student’s ability to thoroughly prepare for the test. (That said, I am always willing to adjust my rate for a student with a special circumstance, so if you’re in need of help, don’t hesitate to contact me!)

As for the specific changes they’re making to the test itself, I have more worries there. Again, I think their intentions are good, but I suspect some of these changes will have unbalancing ramifications that the College Board is unaware of. I’ll detail a few of my biggest worries below.

Passages About School Subjects

In the current SAT, passages for the reading comprehension are deliberately selected to be obscure and deal with topics the students wouldn’t have heard about before. This is done to ensure that students are forced to draw their information exclusively from the passage, and to prevent students from having an unfair advantage due to prior knowledge of the topic. In the 2016 redesign, passages will now deal with topics from school subjects such as science, history and social studies. The College Board says that this will make the test more relevant to the information that students are learning in school – but I was under the impression that the whole point of the obscure passages was that they weren’t relevant to the information from school – you couldn’t get lucky and get a passage you knew a lot about already.

Here’s an example: suppose two students, Student A and Student B, are given the same booklet on the same test date. This booklet, by luck of the draw, contains a majority of history-based passages, including one about the Haitian Revolution. Student A loves history, and actually wrote a term paper about the Haitian Revolution the previous year. Student B, on the other hand, hates history and has an awful time reading about it – the names and dates just jumble together into a big mess in her head. Obviously, Student A has an unfair advantage overall on this test – her love for history means she will likely be better able to find the information needed in the passage. Student B will be at a disadvantage, and will probably struggle to make sense out of the information that Student A found so enthralling. On the other hand, of course, Student A’s extensive knowledge of the Haitian Revolution from her term paper might lead to her relying on information not present in the passage, which could cause her to miss some questions. Or she could still get the right answers, but not even need to use the critical reasoning skills that the test is supposed to be evaluating.

Overall, I’m reserving judgement on this topic until we hear more from the College Board about the process of creating the new test. I do see ways in which they could balance the test – make sure there are exactly the same number of passages and questions about each subject, for example, or make the topics discussed come from higher-level topics than the students would have covered. However, I would want to know that the test structure has been heavily beta-tested before it is unleashed on the general student population.

No Penalty For Guessing

The concept of “being penalized for guessing” versus “not being penalized for guessing” is actually a gross oversimplification. It’s not that the current SAT can somehow tell whether you knew that answer was right when you picked it – it’s all about probability. There are 5 answer choices for each question of the SAT, and a wrong answer gets you a ¼ – point penalty. This means that if you can narrow it down to 3 choices or less, you’re actually better off guessing, statistically-speaking. So the SAT doesn’t penalize guessing, it penalizes blind guessing. It actually rewards educated guessing. By removing the penalty for wrong answers, they are no longer offering an incentive to avoid random guessing. The College Board says this change is to encourage students to offer “the best answer they have to every question” – but that’s what I already teach my students to do with the current system! The only real difference, if taught appropriately, is that in the last minute or so of each section students should now go back through and randomly pick answers for any questions they were completely clueless on, since leaving a question blank is now, statistically, a bad idea.

So this change will have very little effect for students who are already learning smart test-taking strategies – so why am I worried? Well, it could artificially inflate the scores of students who are less prepared. Unprepared students who are guessing blindly could now conceivably get lucky and happen to pick the right answers enough of the time to raise their scores, which would give an inaccurate assessment of their abilities and knowledge. Without the discouragement of wrong-answer penalties, you just encourage blind guessing. Most of the changes in the SAT over the years have been in response to either substantially decreasing or substantially rising test scores, and I worry that eliminating the penalty for guessing will cause scores to artificially rise, possibly resulting in an increasing number of perfect scores such as the ones that prompted the 2005 redesign.

The “Great Global Conversation”

My final worry is a somewhat different one. The introduction of the new “Great Global Conversation” sounds as though it is intended to encourage students to learn about and participate in a nation-wide discussion of the principles our nation was founded on and how they have developed over time. While this is an admirable sentiment in general, I can’t help feeling it is really not the business of a standardized test to encourage it. If we want our students to participate more in the conversation about our nation and where we should be headed, that’s fine – but why is the College Board worrying about it? Shouldn’t that ball be in the court of the country’s social studies teachers? I’m not convinced that putting the Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the SAT and asking questions about it would really affect the “conversation” that much. Especially since they’d be treated like any other passage on the SAT – that is, the test-taker would not be supposed to bring outside information into their process, but simply look for evidence in the text itself. It’s not as if the questions about the Gettysburg Address would be asking for the test-taker’s opinion on the topic; even a passage written by another notable figure about the Gettysburg Address would be followed with questions asking about that author’s opinion, not the student’s. It is certainly an admirable goal to have for students’ futures, but I don’t think the College Board should be trying to achieve it through a standardized test.

The SAT Redesign: What You Need To Know

The news broke recently that the College Board is once again changing the SAT. These new changes, scheduled to be implemented in spring 2016, represent a pretty large departure from the SAT of the past. The College Board states that this new SAT will “ask students to apply a deep understanding of the few things shown by current research to matter most for college readiness and success.” Here are the changes that will have the biggest effect on test preparation, as I see them:

An Increased Focus on Evidence-Based Analysis

The new SAT will place a higher priority on analysis based on evidence. In the critical reading and writing sections students will now be asked to support their answers with evidence, including citing portions of the passages. In effect, the new SAT will require students not only to know the correct answer, but to be able to explain why the answer is correct, and point to specific evidence in the passage that supports their choice. The essay will also now focus on supporting claims with evidence (which I will discuss more below in the Essay section).

An Increased Focus on the Topics that Students Will Need in College

Vocabulary, Math concepts, and Passage selections will all focus on skills and topics that students are most likely to need for college and beyond. No longer will the SAT throw obscure words at students simply because they are difficult; the new test will focus on vocabulary such as “empirical” and “synthesis,” words more likely to be found in the college and career environments. The Math section will focus more narrowly in on a smaller range of topics more likely to be encountered in life, and will now include a calculator-forbidden section where students must rely on their own abilities rather than the calculator to solve problems. The passages selected for critical reading questions, previously chosen specifically to be obscure and offer no unfair advantage to students, will now be selected to be reminiscent of classroom work assignments in social studies, science, and history.

Data Analysis and the “Great Global Conversation”

Passages will now be chosen which incorporate both text and graphs or charts, challenging students to be able to synthesize data presented in many formats and analyze with equal skill graphs as well as written paragraphs. In addition, every test will include at least one passage chosen using their new concept of “The Great Global Conversation,” meaning that they will incorporate passages from the founding fathers and/or other notable historical figures. This is meant to draw students more into the current or historical conversations that matter in our country and encourage them to participate in those conversations.

The Essay

The essay is now optional rather than mandatory. Instead of a randomly-assigned prompt, all students will know the basic prompt ahead of time. Rather than asking for a student’s opinion on a question, the student will be assigned a random source document and asked to write an essay explaining how the author of the source document builds his or her argument. This will require students to be able to cite specific parts of the text and support their claims with evidence. While the basic prompt (“write an essay explaining how the author builds his argument”) remains the same, the source material in question will be random.

The Nitty-Gritty Changes

The Writing section has been abandoned, combined into one with the verbal now called “Evidence-based Reading and Writing”. Together with the Math section, this will return the scoring system to its pre-2005 1600-point scale. The essay, if taken, will be scored separately and will now be given 50 minutes instead of the current 25.

In addition, the new SAT has abandoned the penalty for wrong answers. Entirely. You now receive zero points for a wrong answer instead of the previous quarter-point off. The College Board states this as “encourag[ing] students to give the best answer they have to every problem,” but what this effectively means is that you are no longer penalized for guessing.


I’ll post another blog entry in a few days with my thoughts on these changes, once I’ve had time to process them a bit more. For now, I think the initiative is a good one, though there may be ramifications of these changes that the College Board is unaware of.

One other thing to mention – in addition to the changes to the actual test, the College Board is now partnering with Khan Academy in an initiative to make sure that every child gets access to the test prep help they need, even those from less-wealthy families. I definitely approve of this initiative; it’s always bothered me that the SAT really does require special prep help to score well, when many students are unable to afford such help. For my part, I am always willing to adjust my rate for a student with a special circumstance, so if you need help, don’t hesitate to contact me!

Extra Exposure on WyzAnt!

We interrupt your regularly-scheduled weekly posting for a special update!

A few weeks ago I was asked by the WyzAnt team to write a pair of articles offering an overview of the SAT Writing section and the SAT Essay. Those articles have just gone live on WyzAnt’s “Lessons” page! You can check them out at the links below:

SAT Writing Overview
SAT Essay In-Depth

The articles have a byline linking to my profile page on the site, so it’s great exposure for drawing new students to me. If you’re here, you don’t really need to use WyzAnt – you can just contact me directly at the email in the sidebar. But it’s still a great chance for you to experience a taste of my teaching style, so enjoy!