The Showcase Magazine - Articles

by Erik R. Slagle

When test scores don’t measure up: SAT Math challenges students at all levels.

I’ve tutored SAT students since 2000, and I’ve seen the test go through some major shifts – including the one that happened last March. By now the changes to the “new” SAT have been well-chronicled (including here in this column); by and large the test seems to be better aligned with high school curriculum.

One question, though, is coming up more and more related to the Math sections of the new test: “My son or daughter is taking pre-Calc – why is their SAT Math score so low?” Sound familiar? It’s true that it seems like it’s gotten tougher for even top-performing Math students to hit that elusive 700-760 range. The subject matter being tested has gotten a little tougher, but not too much – so what gives?

Having worked with a few dozen students now on the new format of the test, I’ve seen some common issues with students who are enrolled in the highest Math classes in school, but are only scoring in the high 500s to mid-600s on the SAT. To be clear – these aren’t bad scores. A “good” score depends on the colleges you’re applying to. But for students targeting top schools, that range might not cut it.

The problem, if you can call it that, is that SAT includes a lot of subject matter that students in AP or advanced classes haven’t used in at least a year or two. Fractions, for example: a tough Algebra question might involve factoring, finding common denominators, or dividing a fraction by another fraction. Doing all of the algebra right, but incorrectly adding fractions, won’t get you to the right answer.

It’s not that the SAT is “hard,” or that these students don’t test well. It’s that they’re being asked to shake the rust off of skills they haven’t used lately. Working with exponents is also an area students are finding trouble with – when to add, subtract or multiply them, or to combine bases. I can pretty much guarantee these topics are going to come up on almost every SAT – and unlike geometry, there’s no “cheat sheet” for quick reference at the front of the Math sections.

Build a better Math score

However your teenager decides to get ready for the test – buying a book, enrolling in Khan Academy, taking a class or working with a tutor – I recommend starting with the basics: brushing up on fractions and exponents, as well as the four basic operations – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – so that the non-calculator section can be completed more quickly and accurately.

Concepts that are a little more advanced – completing the square, for example, and the quadratic equation – can also help on a few questions per test, but these aren’t as important as the more basic topics above. You also need to spot relationships between numbers given – when the SAT sets up a problem, it never gives random numbers. The sides of a triangle, for example, are always given lengths that correspond to one another in some way. (Here’s an example: two sides of a triangle are 21 and 28; what’s the third side?)

Learning to use strategies like plugging in numbers on certain questions helps too. So does eliminating at least one wrong answer per question before guessing. (And if you’ve eliminated two, you’ve doubled your odds of guessing correctly!) Function questions can also be simplified before solving.

So if your son or daughter is in an advanced Math class, but their SAT score doesn’t seem to reflect it, they’re in very good company. And they don’t need to learn a lot of new concepts to significantly boost their score! The older, more basic concepts they haven’t used in a while might be what’s holding them back – and there are quick, easy ways to fix that.