By Dr. Ruth White
I am fortunate to have been able to buttress a long professional career teaching Advanced Placement Literature and Humanities in and outstanding US high school, with some post-retirement work with International (Indian) students around preparation for standardized tests required for matriculation in American Universities. What follows is my subjective assessment of the struggles that the highly motivated and extremely bright students experience in their preparation for assessment tests.
My interaction with these students was facilitated through the technological magic of Transwebglobal which eased me into the world of international communication via Webex communication. Through these transatlantic sessions, I had the opportunity to actually speak with and get to know, albeit on a cursory level, the students who had consented to work with me on negotiating the ins and outs of the standardized exam. I found these students to be personable, willing, inquisitive and bright. Only a few were arrogant, or presumptuous and none was blatantly disrespectful. It is important to remember that these students were teens, with many of the accoutrements and foibles of US teens.
Underpinning students’ signing on with Transweb was a sense that no matter the caliber of education in their home schools, and in spite of an acceptable level of excellence in math and the science portions of standardized exams, there remained a desire to maximize students’ potential for admission to US universities. In addition to focus on test-taking skills, actual practice with materials, and the opportunity for one-on-one Q and A with a faculty person, there remained a desire/need to focus in the language and reading portions of the ACT/SAT tests, which is what I did.
What I found can be collected into three broad categories:
1. Outside/Recreational Reading—As an icebreaker, I asked new students to tell me about themselves- what they liked to do in their off hours, what they liked to read, if they had siblings, etc. I became less and less surprised when more students told me that they did not read beyond what was required for school. There was very little reading for pleasure—very little recreational reading. I strongly recommended that students to begin reading beyond school requirements, and even offered reading lists to students who indicated that they would use them. The test is its own entity, true, but we know that test developers draw from a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction when selecting passages upon which questions will be formulated. Not only do students who read gather a stronger literary base to draw from, they also gain vocabulary, learn about sentence structure, and develop the vaunted critical-thinking skills. Students who begin reading outside of school and who continue to formulate the habit of reading, will very likely score better on language and reading-related tests than those who do not. This is a general admonition, useful to students around the globe. Additionally, knowing that the Exam is timed suggests the need to be able to read quickly and accurately, a skill which is honed by wide outside reading practice.
2. Cultural differentials in content and vocabulary—While the students I worked with were admirable in their English language fluency, that fluency sometimes flags in a testing situation where passages are from English/American origins, and in which structures and words may have a different meaning or multiple meanings— enough to confuse a test-taker. Take the following short passage, for example:
The blues—a neologism attributed to the American writer Washington Irving (author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) in 1807—evolved from African-American folk music. Its beginnings can be traced to songs sung in the fields and around slave quarters on southern plantations, songs of pain and suffering, of injustice, of longing for a better life. A fundamental principle of the blues, however, is that the music be cathartic. Listening to the blues will drive the blues away; it is music that has the power to overcome sadness. Thus “the blues” is something of a misnomer, for the music is moving but not melancholy; it is, in fact, music born of hope, not despair.
For students studying for the exams, vocabulary lists notwithstanding, may falter at the definitions or implications of words like, “neologism”, “cathartic”, or the inverse usage of “melancholy”. While a wide range of recreational readings can help fill these voids, my students testified that outside reading was hot high on their list of priorities.
Taken from a Short Passage practice set, the above-mentioned passage also exemplifies how assumptions of cultural knowledge and understanding can create an environment that tests more than a student’s critical thinking/analytical skills. Suppose the student has not studied black history, and/ is not familiar with the blues? Suppose the student has not read enough American Literature to be familiar with Washington Irving and his works? The Assumptions regarding student familiarity with such cultural nuances may contribute to difficulties for international students not accounted for in the testing parameters.
3. As I worked with my students, I also found it necessary to point out that passages can be about almost anything—from Shakespeare to sushi—and that is important to know how to deconstruct the structure of the prompts and responses. The format is multiple choice–either interpreting a passage, or providing a fill-in-the-blank response. (There is also an optional writing section which is not under discussion here.) It is helpful for students to understand how questions are designed, lest they mark incorrectly in areas in which they are otherwise conversant.
See the practice passage below, and tips we discussed, following:
Burgers, fries, pizza, raw fish. Raw fish? Fast food in America is changing. Sushi, the thousand-year-old Japanese delicacy, was once thought of in this country as unpalatable and too exotic. But tastes have changed, for a number of reasons. Beginning in the 1970s, Americans became increasingly more aware of diet and health issues and began rejecting their traditional red-meat diets in favour of healthier, lower-fat choices such as fish, poultry, whole grains, rice, and vegetables. The way food was prepared began to change, too; rather than frying food, people started opting for broiled, steamed, and raw versions.
Sushi, a combination of rice and fish, fit the bill. Sushi started small in the United States, in a handful of restaurants in big cities. But it quickly caught on. Today, sushi consumption in American restaurants is 40% greater than it was in the late 1990s, according to the National Restaurant Association. The concession stands at almost every major league stadium sell sushi, and many colleges and universities offer it in their dining halls. But we’re not just eating it out. The National Sushi Association reports that there are over 5,000 sushi bars in supermarkets, and that number is growing monthly. This incredible growth in availability and consumption points to the fact that Americans have decided that sushi isn’t just good for them—it’s also truly delicious.
11. The author asks the question “Raw fish?” in line 1 in order to
A. demonstrate surprise that sushi is a popular fast food.
B. highlight the differences between sushi and other fast foods.
C. express his dislike for sushi.
D. provide a definition of sushi.
E. suggest that sushi is much healthier than other fast foods.
12. The passage describes Americans’ sushi consumption as
A. beginning for many in college.
B. important when watching baseball.
C. taking place primarily in their homes.
D. a trend due to supermarket marketing.
E. more than it was five years ago.
13. In line 2, unpalatable most nearly means
A. not visually appealing.
B. not good tasting.
C. bad smelling.
D. too expensive.
E. rough to the touch.
14. The author supports the main idea of the passage primarily by
A. describing where sushi is sold.
B. providing a brief history of sushi in the United States.
C. comparing sushi to other fast options.
D. citing statistics about sushi consumption.
E. describing how sushi is made.
A. Read the passage. It may seem obvious, but the point is to read the passage critically. While most students read the passage first, and go on to the questions, some students may prefer to read the questions first and then read the passage, seeking answers. Students are urged to underline, look for context clues and parse vocabulary, reading the passage quickly and carefully.
B. Determine the query, and answer only the question asked. (Question 12 offers an open ended prompt that could be answered by any of the options. But what does the passage offer, and what does the prompt ask?)
C. Focus only on the information presented in the query. Outside information becomes extraneous and can lead to errors. (The prompt for Question 14 asks about the main idea of the passage. The student’s focus should only be on determining the main idea based on information provided in this particular passage, no matter what he/she knows about sushi.)
D. Know that using process of elimination is a legitimate strategy and is in fact part of the test design. The trick is to understand that the two or three options remaining are often only a shade apart, which necessitates revisiting the question and determining the response which best fits the query. (For question 13, most students would successfully eliminate options D and E as unlikely “near meanings” for unpalatable, leaving three options, each having to do with one of the senses. Knowing that the palate is in the mouth is helpful.)
E. Note that prompts often use open words/phrases like “best fits”, “most nearly describes”, “suggests”, and so on. These prompts intentionally avoid definition, or concrete interpretation, focusing instead on analysis, inference, or critical interpretation. (The options for questions 13 and 14 use “most nearly means” and “supports…primarily by” as choices.)
While certainly not exhaustive, this information comes from my personal interaction with international students engaged in test prep with me via Webex. Generally, I was in my basement and students were in their bedrooms. This one-on-one intensive preparation offered students the opportunity to engage in and score practice tests, and perhaps most valuable, analyze choices to determine the logic behind a right or wrong answer. It offered me the opportunity to engage with bright, willing students whose initial motivation was to do well on the ACT or SAT exam as an entrée to a US university, but who ended up with information that carry them well beyond an entrance exam.
About the Author
Dr. Ruth White
Dr. White served as an English teacher, Advance Placement Literature instructor and academic advisor to minority students in the Cedar Rapids Community School District for over 30 years. Currently Dr.White is the Executive Director for The Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success—a college preparatory program for students of color—and serves as an educational diversity and cultural competency consultant for Transwebglobal. Dr.White holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa and has taught at both the high school and college level.