Friday, October 12, 2012

Playing the PSAT Game

My youngest child takes the PSAT next week. So I’ve been helping him prepare.

The reading sections are his favorite, so he doesn’t need any help with those.

Then, there are the math sections. Matthew isn’t bad at math, but he has the same issue that I do—calculator error. I reverse numbers. (I’m really bad with phone numbers.) So when you’re moving numbers back and forth from the page to the calculator back to the page a couple of times, you’re almost guaranteed an error. So we look for shortcuts.

For example: “Look if you draw a line here, then you can turn the triangle into a 3, 4, 5 triangle and solve the problem in your head.” (Our brains don’t confuse the numbers, it’s the whole brain, eye, hand thing.)

Of course, other problems are so convoluted in terms of calculator use that I tell Matt don’t waste your time because you’ll have to double check your calculator work too many times. (This is why I hated chemistry in college. I’d have to run the numbers through the calculator multiple times and get many different answers.)

Then Matt and I got to the writing section. Having helped several kids prepare for the PSAT, I knew that I needed a deep breath. The PSAT writing section is not about good writing. It’s about using sentences to test grammar—sometimes. Other times, it’s just…horrid.

So we went over the questions that Matt missed on the pretest. I read the “question,” which isn’t really a question but a list of five sentences and they tell you to “pick the best one.” All five sentences sucked. I said, “These are bad.”

Matt said, “Uh, yeah.”

I said, “Why did you pick C.”

Matt: “Why not?”

Me: “Right.” I take another deep breath and begin to take apart the sentences.

“Okay, A is wrong because the pronoun and its antecedent don’t match—one is plural and the other is singular.”

“And E is wrong because, well, I’ve never seen anything written that poorly before. That clause stuck in the middle totally destroys the flow of the sentence—and I’m not even sure what they think it’s supposed to be modifying. If you wrote this, I’d make you rewrite it.”

D is wrong because the verb’s in present perfect tense and the action was actually completed in the past.”

B is wrong because it doesn’t have parallel structure in the verbs.”

Then, I read answer C—the wrong answer that Matt chose. “It’s in passive voice, Matt, so that’s why it’s wrong.”  I thought for a moment. “Wait a minute, I’ve ruled out every answer.”  So I looked the question up in the back of the book. The correct answer was E.

I was dumbfounded.

I looked at Matthew. “I’m sorry, buddy. This is really lame. You’re going to have to “game” the system. Don’t look for good writing. Just try to pick the sentence that has the least number of grammar and usage errors.”  

As we moved on, I realized that some of the questions were based on idioms—it was basically a match the correct preposition to the idiom. Really? That tests writing ability? I don’t think so. (And, let me just say, I’ve never heard of some of these “idioms.”) Does the ability to do this makes you smart? Does it make you a good candidate for scholarships?

Don’t get me wrong, my hat’s off to the kids who become National Merit Scholars. I know a lot of National Merit Scholars. And, yes, they will do very well in college because they are very bright students—they have to be. And ultimately, that is what the PSAT predicts. So it does what it sets out to do. But as for testing writing ability, not so much.

Standardized testing should dump the “writing” section. If you want to test grammar, then test grammar. If the test makers want to test students’ ability to use words and their ease in doing so, they should go back to analogies (those were actually fun).

In the meantime, I’ll keep telling Matt, “It’s a game. Play it the best you can, and then let it go.”

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