Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Opposite Ends

Last night, I taught my class, focusing on strategies for attacking the quantitative section. The first math class, where I focus on strategies, is always hard. Next Tuesday, I will be starting with arithmatic and taking them through test content. But the nature of teaching strategy is that I am using some math lots of them won't be familiar with. I say things like,

"I'm showing you how this strategy can work on an exponent problem. Try to focus on the strategy. If you don't completely remember how to do exponents, no biggie, we will do that next week."

It seems counterintuitive and leads to some worried faces the first math class, but it also means that as they are relearning the content, they will be practicing the strategies and using them. Also, strictly manipulating the numbers is not the point of most GRE quantitative questions. Frequently, it is about reading a word problem and figuring out what the question is asking for. THe hardest math on the GRE, after all, is tenth grade math, but you have a lot of questions like:

A family pays $800 per year for an insurance plan that pays 80 percent of the first $1,000 in expenses and 100 percent of all medical expenses thereafter. In any given year, the total amount paid by the family will equal the amount paid by the plan when the family's medical expenses total which of the following?


The only math this sucker requires is percents and addition. The math itself would be junior high school level if I gave it to you in an equation. But you have to know how to approach it.

The proper, speedy, approach to this problem is to plug in the answer choices and work backwards. But lots of people don't know to do that or how to do that until they learn it from someone like me.

Happy Feminist said once, "I tend not to think that there are legal jobs that are morally superior to others. After all, our legal system is predicated on the notion that we are all equal before the law and that we all deserve some measure of fairness and justice," later adding the qualifier that those who represented the poor and took less money for doing so were giving more.

She actually said that awhile ago. I've been running it through my head in relation to GRE prep. Education is a good thing, so all teaching is equal, right?

I'm tempted to say, "no." Test prep has to be the lowest form of teaching. Sometimes, I take a returning student who left school two decades ago to raise her kids and remind her of what she already knows. Those are frequently my favorite students. But mostly my students are upper middle class kids who partied too much in college and now want to get politics degrees.

I'm going to visit Linguist Friend for a weekend to recover from the last two weeks and I called him up to make logistics plans. He mentioned that another professor in his department is trying to convince the department to accept a student with mediocre grades, a poorly-written personal statement and low GREs.

And I realized, with some sadness and some glee, that my job was sneaking guys like this past Linguist Friend, coaching these people into getting scores high enough to get them in.

This is not to say that there is not some nobility in test prep. The SAT, after all, was originally concieved as a "test of innate ability." In the 1950's, the large number of Jewish immigrants created a "Jewish problem" at Harvard. Much the way Asian students are sometimes (and wrongly, of course) viewed today, Jewish students were considered ridiculously hard workers who made the most of what intelligence they had. Surely it couldn't be that working class Jews were just as intelligent as the more typical Harvard man?

So the Ivy Leagues (it started at Columbia) used tests with lots of logic problems that theoretically couldn't be studied for. By no coincidence, these tests often used words like "regatta" in the verbal questions that would be far more familiar to the sort of student they wanted.

And then the founder of my company, working out of a basment office in Flatbush, showed the world that they could indeed by studied for.

Like anything else, standardized tests are like a game. As you practice, you get better at them. The SAT ended up doing the opposite of what it was supposed to, becoming a tool for overcoming discrimination. Though there were still, and are still today, some biases in the test, they don't ask kids about regattas anymore.

Anyone who wants to can pay my company an expensive but not completely ridiculous given what they've paid for college sum and learn where and how one works backwards on math problems, the six types of analogies questions and our strategy for figuring out which answer choices have to be wrong in a vocabulary question where they don't know enough vocabularly to be confident of which answer choice is right.

Whether this is a good thing all depends on what sort of discrimination you're worried about.



Kim said...

Perhaps I am misreading the problem, but I didn't get any of those answers, and I was pretty good at word problems. Did you mean that the insurance company pays 80% of the first thousand dollars and then 100% of all subsequent expenses? That's what I read. That means the customer pays $200. Period.
You've embarassed everyone so much they won't admit that they didn't get it, or I'm reading it wrong. Which is it?

TheCSO said...

The customer also pays $800 as an insurance premium, even before they have any medical expenses.

Chalicechick said...

Bingo. I was jsut about to type that myself.


Kim said...

OK, my bad.