The new SHSAT: What’s changing and how to prepare NOW

Quick!

• What test is more competitive and arguably harder for the grade level taking it than the SAT or ACT is for its cohort?
• And what test shuts out over 80% of its 27,000 test takers, dooming them to one of three unattractrive choices: accept a mediocre public school, pay over $40,000 per year for private school – or move out of town?

You know it’s the SHSAT, New York City’s Specialized High School Admissions Test, taken in October of eighth grade for entrance to high school the following fall. This test, taken only once, is the single detemining factor in whether students are offered admissions to one of the top eight public high schools in New York City – all of which are among the most elite in the entire country, famous prep schools included.

Given that the stakes are enormously high for New York City families, smart students start their SHSAT prep long before the October exam. The test has recently been revamped after criticism that its content, in the Verbal section in particular, was unfair to students who lacked extra prep resources outside the classroom. This material – scrambled sentences to put in order and logical reasoning questions – was deemed outside the scope of the school curriculum.

So, as of Fall 2017, the dreaded Scrambled Paragraphs and inscrutable Logical Reasoning are gone. In their place is a new ELA section, encompassing the unchanged Reading Comprehension content plus a new language arts grab-bag of questions.

The revised SHSAT is three hours long, a half hour longer than the old exam. This additional thirty minutes reflects the increased number of questions: 114, up from 95. Those additional questions will be used for “field testing” of future exam material to ascertain its “appropriateness” for the test, according to a Department of Education (DOE) representative’s talk this week at  the PA meeting of MS 51 in Park Slope. That is politically correct speak to say that the city wants to be sure that these questions don’t shut out traditionally lower scoring student populations. Whether the questions will be chosen going forward in an effort to bend the curve their way is to be seen. The bottom line, however, is that this test must stay incredibly competitive because in order for these top schools to remain academically advanced, they have to be competitive in some way.

So how can students best prepare for the revised SHSAT? Half the test is Math, and while a new format of question has been introduced (for 5 questions, non-multiple choice grid-in answers), the content is unchanged. There are great resources from the DOE, previous tests and samples to download. Start with the 2014-2015 handbook (same as 2013-14 and 2015-16) here. It contains two full tests and explanations of every question. Math and Reading Comprehension sections are unchanged from previous form and content. Google search for additional practice tests from years 2008-2012. Violetta Dubinana’s Practice Math Tests for New York City SHSAT Vol 1 and 2 are also excellent for Math practice, as is Barron’s text.

For the new section in ELA, refer first to the meager sample offered by the DOE in its FAQ about the new test here. The department has promised a full practice test by June 2017, but for students who want to get a head start, I recommend working on ACT English practice test sections and PSAT Writing test sections. Official samples with explanations of answers can be found on the ACT and College Board websites.

The SHSAT is on my mind now because this week I was invited by the Parents’ Association of MS 51, a NYC public middle school for gifted and talented students, to participate in their SHSAT test prep fair. For my table presentation, I put together a summary of my BEST TEST TIPS of all time, focussing on key techniques for middle school students’ admissions tests: the SHSAT, plus the ISEE and SSAT for private high schools. I also adapted a demo page of my very special techniques for the Sentence Completions section of the ISEE.

Below are links to my test-taking secrets – I’m giving them to you! It’s crazy – get them now before I come to my senses! Please download either or both of these .pdf files and see if your student finds them helpful. And feel free to email me if you have questions or are interested in my tutoring.

Karen’s Best Test Tips, especially for the SHSAT, ISEE and SSAT
ISEE Verbal Section Sentence Completions Techniques

Good luck to all in their quests for terrific high school opportunities!

The Real ACT Test Prep Guide 2016-2017: Deeply flawed but indispensible

As a long-time ACT and SAT tutor, I was excited to hear that the ACT people were finally updating their “Real ACT Test Prep Guide.” For too long, they offered a single book with a measly 3 practice tests, eventually upped to 5, while the College Board had many more resources. In Fall of 2015, the ACT essay was suddenly changed and a new “Real ACT Test Prep Guide” appeared, but it actually was just a new publisher and cover with no new content! Seemed underhanded of them but it was almost surely just clumsy timing. The ACT has, until recently, not been subject to the heat that the College Board has historically felt to be responsive to the public. The ACT website was corny and lame (just a few years ago, they promoted an annual student video contest and the winners’ video showed students asking each other what to bring to the exam. Super creative!) and their services were generally a step or two behind the College Board’s for the SAT. That is starting to change now as the ACT has become a major player and is competing head to head for the same students as the College Board.

But when the first true new edition of the “Real ACT Test Prep Guide” came out in 2016, it was a disappointment. This book has been widely panned by tutors and test prep teachers: Once again, the ACT is down to only 3 full practice tests and much of the material is recycled from previous exams (that are readily available from multiple sources online)! As for the new essay format, although the essay questions given are new, there are zero scored essays for guidance and, in fact, the scoring system has changed again since the book was published.

The book is a deeply flawed, overpriced, recycled resource. However, it is the only real ACT resource with answer explanations from the company that makes the test. Also, math is the one section that is not completely recycled, and it does show evidence of harder questions and math topics that have not appeared previously, confirming the rumors that the math section is getting harder.

Btw, now that the book is published by Wiley – publisher of the “Dummies” series – purchasers can access some freebie resources from the Wiley website, using a code given under a scratch sticker in the inside back cover of the book. The extras are not terribly useful, however, and I would recommend that students seeking extra study resources check out the Applerouth textbook for the ACT (only available from their website here). For advanced Math students, Barron’s Math and Science text is useful (the math section more so than the science).

Get ready for SAT test day

Taking the SAT soon? Follow these tips to approach your test with confidence.
1.    Study, but don’t cram.
2.    Get in the zone! Focus in a quiet environment before working on your practice tests, as if at the actual test.
3.    Take a working holiday for test prep. Consider taking the day before test day off from school (with a parent at home to help) – do a practice test, review, and get into your zone: calm, focussed and positive.
4.    Have everything ready to go the day before.  You’ll need: calculator, several sharpened #2 pencils, ID, ticket, extra calculator batteries, snack, drink, layers of clothing (zipped sweatshirt, etc), wrist watch (preferably one with a bezel or silent stopwatch function that you have studied with so you can pace yourself). Put those extra batteries in a pocket; you may not be allowed to bring your backpack into the test room.
5.    Know the route. Know how to get to the test center and how long it takes, keeping traffic in mind. Got gas in the tank?
6.    Get a good night’s sleep. Set your alarm and a backup.
7.    Warm up the brain! Get up a little bit early and do some practice questions before you go.
8.    Food is brain fuel. Eat a sensible breakfast and bring a good snack and drink to the test. Are you a coffee drinker? Great; get your caffeine on. If not, however, don’t choose test day to start.
9.    Arrive early. Thirty minutes early is good so you can choose where you want to sit, away from distractors, if possible.
10.    Ignore idle chatter. Focus on yourself, instead, and your test.
11.    Congratulate yourself. You’ve done your best: you should be proud!

Testing Timers silent stopwatch aids pacing on the SAT and ACT

A boy, a test, a watch: That’s the combination that made for success on the ACT – and a deceptively simple business idea.

Students have always struggled with time management on the SAT and ACT, but amazingly – despite the vast variety of stopwatches and timers on the market – no one has made one that was silent and allowable for use on these tests. When high school student Jordan Liss took the ACT, though, he decided to change that.

“This has been my vision since I took the test three years ago,” said Jordan, a student at the University of Michigan. “It’s always been about me knowing how to do it the right way. I knew how the watch had to be designed based on my own test prep, using the training I had, using the textbooks and my test experience.” Like most students, Jordan didn’t start out using a watch to pace himself. He used his cellphone as a timer when practicing at home, but at the test site, no cellphones are allowed. Students may or may not be able to see a clock on the wall, and the proctor won’t be giving detailed timing notices.

But pacing is critical on the exam. The science section of the ACT, for example, has six-seven passages with complex experiments, graphs, tables and text. Students are expected to digest the material and complete thirty-five questions in thirty-five minutes – that’s a brutally slim five to five and a half minutes per passage, including bubbling in the answer sheet. For students caught on a difficult question in an early passage, time is up before they reach the later passages.

Jordan’s watch, Testing Timers, is a terrific tool for SAT and ACT prep and invaluable on the exam itself. With a dedicated model for the SAT and a separate one for the ACT, the watch allows students to choose the test section by name and length, start timing, pause if desired, and go back to regular watch at any time. One of the cooler features of the watch is a digital running stitch border around the digital time that indicates time remaining. For some sections of the test, it is divided by passage number, which is extremely helpful on the ACT, in particular, where speed is a major factor in the test’s difficulty. Jordan says he came up with the unique feature as he was at gym, working out. Describing the epiphany, he says, “I was on the elliptical, wondering how far I was on my workout, when I suddenly realized that’s exactly what I needed for my watch! That was the last thing I put in the watch when structuring the conceptual design.”

One point that Jordan emphasizes is that students should do their timed drills and practice tests using the watch; don’t save it for test day. Before bringing the product to market, he shared it with high school students studying for the ACT and “wasn’t too surprised to hear students talk about raising their scores.” He advises students, “If you practice with this watch and you raise your score, I’m not surprised. Don’t sit in the kitchen eating your dinner, watching TV, using your iPhone to time yourself. Practice like it is the real test; keep pace.”

The Testing Timer watch is a unique and very helpful tool for test preparation and at $40 ($48 for extra time accomodations model) it is reasonably priced. It’s simple to use and the manual is even on the website, always convenient for the wired generation. Check it out and see if it helps your pacing on the test.

One caution: Since the new SAT was introduced in mid-2016, the list of  items prohibited at the test center has gotten longer. It is possible that this watch may be prohibited by a proctor. The ACT is a little less stringent, but in any case, be prepared to put it away if challenged.  It can be used as a simple digital watch when not in timer mode and I have not yet heard any stories of students being prohibited from taking the watch into the test. Still, even if you don’t use it on test day, it remains an excellent training tool for  practice tests and internalizing your pacing strategies for either SAT or ACT.

What you should be reading to prepare for the new SAT

Sure, you are slogging through challenging novels in English class, muddling along detail-strewn sagas in history and still trying to keep up with the Kardashians (stop that, by the way). It’s all good, but it’s not quite enough. If you are a sophomore or junior in 2017 or later, you don’t know what it was like before, but trust me: the SAT is a lot different in mood, emphasis and difficulty than it was just a year ago. Yet, you are still studying the same curriculum at school as students who took the old test. You are going to have to do something different if you want to distinguish yourself on this new test.

The new SAT is obsessed with historical documents (not these historical documents, but if you haven’t seen Galaxy Quest, do watch this extremely charming movie that won’t help you on the SAT but will give you a little joy). The new SAT also has a thing for what I call archaic parlor dramas: works by Oscar Wilde and other snarky Victorians, Jane Austen, and the writings of other authors –just crying out for a Merchant-Ivory production. Then there’s a smattering of sociology, anthropology and hard-core science writing.

I find that most students are surprisingly adept at the science passage; I guess that’s one thing the new SAT has got right. The current high school curriculum, now geared more towards STEM and designed to fulfill Common Core standards, does prepare students better for challenging science writing. But parlor dramas and 18th-19th century political treatises? Not so much.

Here is a starter list of some works that my recent students have found helpful:

• Franz Kafka’s Metamophosis is excerpted in one of the official SAT practice tests. If you’ve never encountered Surrealism, you’ll be flummoxed, but you can read the story in full here.

• Another writer whom I recommend is Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who died in 2015. You can find his articles for the New York Times and some excerpts from his works here. His books are here. Dr. Sacks is a favorite of both the SAT and ACT; both tests’ makers have excerpted his works more than once because he wrote beautifully with tremendous humanity – and sophisticated vocabulary and style. You can learn from him to apply to your essay, too…

• Check out some Oscar Wilde’s stories and/or plays: The Importance of Being Earnest (silly, funny, very facetious), The Picture of Dorian Gray (thrilling story).

• If you like this sort of thing, check out Lost in Austen, the British mini-series about a modern Londoner who magically becomes enmeshed in her favorite romantic tale. Tremendous fun and it will build your vocabulary and understanding of rich English speech. Did you know that “want” also means “lacks”? If not, it seems that your vocabulary wants sufficient depth.

Speaking of vocabulary, I’ll address that in a post soon. Suffice to say, vocabulary is NOT over; it’s just harder to study for in the new SAT.