Education

Seeking the Top Score (Part II)

By Helen Yoshida — March 27, 2014 3 min read

BookMarks continues the conversation with author Debbie Stier, who shares suggestions for parents and educators on supporting students preparing for the SAT based on her research for The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT (Harmony, 2014).

What are a few important takeaways from the book to help students prepare for a test like the SAT?


  1. Use official College Board material as the centerpiece of all test preparation. Don’t use any “unofficial” practice tests.
  2. Plan on a full school year of test prep to maximize potential and reduce stress. Preparing for the SAT and studying in school aren’t mutually exclusive activities.
  3. Take full-length, timed practice tests to build endurance and stamina. The SAT is every bit as much about performance on test day as it is about the knowledge being tested.



    • Experienced tutors advise 10-15 full practice tests.
    • Review all mistakes until you can explain them to someone else.
    • Keep track of errors and guesses by category.
    • Mimic actual test conditions as closely as possible

What are a few suggestions that parents can use to help their children who are preparing for the SAT?


  1. As early as 9th grade, start reading one article per day together from a periodical such as The New York Times (or another publication with comparable reading level). Identify the main point as well as unfamiliar vocabulary. This is important because the SAT critical reading section is a vocabulary-based reasoning test with most of the passages drawn from college-level non-fiction writing, a demanding form of prose seldom encountered in high school. Learning new words in context is easier than memorizing vocabulary from flashcards because the associations are richer. Building vocabulary is essential because vocabulary is the “store” of background knowledge, and background knowledge is critical for reading comprehension.
  2. Make sure your child has a solid foundation all the way through school so he or she doesn’t enter high school (or even worse, 11th grade) with gaps in knowledge. Kumon [an after-school tutoring program] is a great way to shore up math, but start early. If you wait until high school to enroll your child, you’ll meet much greater resistance, and it’s harder to instill work habits later on.
  3. If you want to know how solid your child’s foundation is, have someone administer the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and go from there.
  4. Don’t assume the SAT has to be a reviled rite of passage. The test is the last big milestone before your child leaves for college, and it’s possible to turn it into a positive experience. Trust me, if I did it, anyone can.

How do you think schools could improve testing conditions?


  1. The SAT should be taken in classrooms, not gyms and cafeterias. Classrooms have fewer distractions.
  2. Full-size desks and chairs should be used, not tablet desks.
  3. There should be a visible clock in all test rooms and the proctors need to write the section end time down and give 5-minute warnings.
  4. Proctors should meticulously follow the rules. “Quiet” should be enforced -- even in the hallways - during testing hours.

In what ways do you think schools and educators can help students become better prepared for the test?


  1. Stop perpetuating the idea that the SAT is a bad test, that some students are “bad testers,” and that the test doesn’t matter. Blaming the test doesn’t help anyone, especially students, many of whom have to take it to apply to the college of their choice and would benefit from the opportunities that can come from doing well. Teach to mastery and test for mastery. “Did you understand?” does not verify mastery. I thought learning was easy - it was “remembering” that was hard! I see the same issue in both of my kids if they don’t practice what they learn.
  2. Keep circling back to recheck for mastery. I found that the teachers who gave pop quizzes kept my son on his toes and gave us all an accurate read on how he was doing.
  3. Encourage practice. “Practice” is often spoken of with derision and scoffed at as “rote memorization” or “drill and kill.” But as I often remind my daughter when she slacks off on her math worksheets, “You’re not going get to Carnegie Hall with a great teacher alone. It takes a great teacher and great practice.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.

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