I put myself to the test

I put myself to the test

Choose the best way to finish this sentence:

Taking the SAT decades after your last algebra class is

a) innovative.
b) daring.
c) thoughtful.
d) really, really stupid.

I didn’t actually take the full SAT, for real; if I had, I would have prepared better.

But GPAs and college test scores are kind of a thing in our house right now, and I wanted a taste of what our high school junior faced when he took it last week. As a reporter, I thought it would be interesting to see what today’s tests are like.

The College Board makes it easy, offering seven practice tests online.

I figured I’d do OK on the reading and writing/language sections; it would be embarrassing if I didn’t after 30 years in the business.

The plan was to tackle those first, then give math a try.

My high school junior had some good advice: just take the non-calculator math section. You know, algebra, a bit of geometry, subjects I actually did well in back in the day. I only made it through trig and pre-calculus, and I’m not sure I remember how to use a graphing calculator.

So I settled down in our office, downloaded one of the practice exams and got to work.

Until I remembered I hadn’t printed out the answer sheets or picked up a No. 2 pencil. Yes, despite our technological advances, you still have to fill in those cursed bubbles.

Not one of the hundreds of pencils in our house was sharpened, of course. I grabbed three passable ones, set my phone timer for 65 minutes and got started.

The reading section consisted of several passages followed by a series of multiple-choice questions — a comfortable enough format with no sign of the universally hated, “both A and B” options.

But I had a few hiccups that I’ll attribute to technology and age.

Some questions were followed by the dreaded, “Which choice provides the best evidence for the previous answer?” The four choices — all plausible — would refer to a specific set of lines in the passage, but not in full, so you’d have to scroll back and forth to read each section and then decide which was best. By the time I got to the fourth one I’d forget what the first one said.

Suffice to say those took me more time than a 17-year-old might need.

Who, by the way, wandered in at that point to ask what was for dinner. (Moms even multitask when they’re taking achievement tests.)

So it’s not surprising that, about 29 questions in, I realized I had somehow skipped a question. I had to go back through two readings to figure out what I missed, then erase all the bubbles and fill them in again.

I finished with 7:20 minutes to spare — with one caveat: I had stopped the timer while I fixed the bubbles. Obviously that wouldn’t have happened in a real test, but as it turned out I had plenty of time left so it didn’t matter. So there.

On to writing/language. This test is basically editing — choosing the best way to improve a passage, fixing punctuation or grammatical errors, or correcting inaccuracies based on charts or tables accompanying the readings about yogurt and Greenland’s ice sheet, among other topics. Fairly straightforward, though it included the “no change” option that always makes me rethink my answers. (Would they really include two “no change” answers in a row?)

I breezed through it fairly quickly before realizing, at roughly the same point as the first test, that I had skipped a question AGAIN. Same rereading and furious erasing. But I finished with time to spare.

I took a quick break before tackling math. Twenty questions in 25 minutes. It sounded doable.

Then I looked at the directions page, which included long-forgotten geometry equations and reminders such as, “Unless otherwise indicated, the domain of a given function f is the set of all real numbers x for which f (x) is a real number.”


I decided just to go for it.

The first few questions were simple algebra, i.e.: “If x - 1 over k equals 3, and K equals 3, what is the value of x?” Some basic algebra principles kicked in from the recesses of my brain, and my confidence grew.

It was short-lived. By question five I was dealing with complex problems with multiple variables, and things went downhill.

I vaguely remembered trying to isolate variables to find their value, but couldn’t remember all the rules. Some equations I managed to solve by randomly inserting numbers for x and y until something worked.

But my time-management suffered. By question 10 I realized I had only a minute and a half left. So I just started guessing. That didn’t go well either.

I didn’t even get to questions 15-20, some of which I could have answered, in retrospect.

I dutifully scored my sheet. As predicted, I did well on the first two sections, getting a total of six wrong out of 96 (including two of those “best evidence” questions), for a score of 760 out of 800.

Shockingly, I only got one wrong in the passage about how DNA is structured (which contained words I truly had never seen before) but somehow missed two in a passage on shopping and gift-giving.

In math, it was the reverse: I only got seven correct. That translated to a score of 290, out of a possible 450 on that section.

Did I learn much through this exercise? Three things.

I should have studied.

I have newfound respect for high school juniors.

I apparently chose the right profession.


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.

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