Core curriculum

There is very little useful material on the SAT available...

Core curriculum
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I've reviewed 2 of the top 4 SAT books at least 2 times each. I'm now working on the other 2. Sometimes I read tests and the material, but mainly I spend about 30 minutes a day discussing 5 math problems and an 10 questions from a reading passage. This is what I mean by 'reviewed'.

Official study sites, blogs, pay for tutoring content, and the forums are a different story. There are plenty of smart people with opinions on this topic, but not one who I think really gets it. I have yet to find an accurate article that I think is insightful or useful. They are more like fad diets than a serious exercise program.

Overview of the material

The material differs along two dimensions. In math, authors may present advanced or more complicated topics. Advanced for a 6th grader means basic trig. Advanced means a more complicated solution algorithm is required like finding the zeros of a quadratic. The practice test writers will make a complicated question convoluted by twisting the language and the presentation logic. I have a special place in my heart for unnecessarily complicated questions because it motivates real thinking and reminds me of my normal day at work.

Most of the practice tests in most of the books adhere to the "SAT Way". Every question must encourage mistakes. For example, -5(x-3) is harder than 5(x-3) is harder than 5(x+3) because kids under time pressure mess up negatives and parentheses. Really tedious time consuming questions may have an obvious answer or can be solved easier by estimation. The question should appear to ask for something obvious when in fact it is asking for something subtle, and if it's a multistep problem, the answer to an intermediate step can be found on the picklist, as will each common wrong answer.

For reading comp, the questions are challenging but doable if a child reads a passage with interest and concentration and forms opinions as he goes. No child I know does this. Therefore I judge the difficulty of each book by how many times we have to reread the passage to find the answer because the answer is tricky versus because we lack the maturity to understand the topic. The College Board passages are generally acceptable topics for six grade like government and science; the other books get into angst and romance and politics.

The reading comp questions suffer from unfamiliar vocabulary, unnecessarily complicated answers, misdirection on line numbers, and two types of questions that aren't in the passage. The first type is an implication based on evidence. The second type is an implication that is not based on any evidence and would take a 2 hour discussion to resolve. Barron's likes both techniques. One question type presents 4 totally wrong answers (pick the least worst one). My favorite question type of all is the question that is not supported by the passage with 4 incorrect answers.

If you want a comprehensive list of traps that the SAT has set for the student, in either subject, simply look at the 3 incrorrect answer choices and ask "what mistake would I make to get this answer?". My easy versus difficult rating comes down to advanced material or vocabulary, and comlicated versus convuluted questions; the traps are present in all books

You don't want a complrehensive list. You want a list of only those traps and techniques that result in incorrect answers for your student, and the way to find those is to get questions wrong and spend some time asking why. If I sat in a stone hut on one of those islands off of the Irish coast featured in Star Wars and I had a 4 foot long beard, and you came to me seeking advice on the SAT, this is all I would tell you.

My current ranking

The College Board tests are free on the website, thorough in their content and a good place to start. They don't want to put off any potential revenue streams by making it too hard but it is fair and accuate. Barrons is clearly the most demanding and the most challenging. Sylvan is a nicer version on Barrons - effective without as much pain. Princton starts easy; we;re on test #2 and it's getting harder quickly. Barron's does not start out easy.

My final ranking in terms of difficulty is College Board, Princeton, Sylvan, Barrons. Which one is the best for a time constrained high school student depends on their background, ability level, goals, cognitive skills and deadline. For a student who knows how to study and does not need remedial practice in topical areas, I recommend College Board followed by Barrons. For those without the discipline to put in the right kind of effort, any of these books will be equally useless. For an 11 or 12 year old, College Board and Sylvan to be followed by Barrons and Princeton. I mayove Princeton in my ranking after we complete this book.

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