Maybe one in every five clients we see at my company comes through our door asking for “tips and tricks.”
“That’s all my son needs,” they’ll tell us. “He’s smart, he just needs the tricks to use on the test, you know. The tricks.” No one ever elaborates or unpacks what they mean by “tricks.” Apparently it’s a self-evident expression that a professional in the business such as myself should take for granted. Test tricks. As someone who makes a living working in the test prep industry, I honestly don’t know what an example of a “tip” or “trick” would be. The SAT isn’t a pentagon code waiting to be cracked. Short of cheating, I don’t know of any way to beat the test, other than to know the material on it. This concept seems difficult for many parents.
“You don’t get it. She’s a smart girl, alright? She knows all the material, she just needs help with multiple choice strategy. I just want you to teach her the testing tricks.” I usually respond with something about critical reasoning tactics, and yes of course we can help with that, though no, I wouldn’t call them tricks, per se. What I want to say is that if your child actually knows the material on the test, then the fact of it being in multiple choice format SHOULD NOT MATTER. If you know which century Catherine the Great reigned, then it shouldn’t matter that you’re given three wrong choices alongside the right one. If you know how to find the cosine of an adjacent angle, then it shouldn’t matter that the cosine of the opposite angle was also an answer choice. You should simply know how to find the right answer, regardless of the format.
If at any point I question this—seemingly ubiquitous—notion of “tips and tricks,” I mostly just get repetition of the same phrase. “You know, testing tricks. Like how to do multiple choice. Tips. You know.” It feels almost like we’re doing a drug deal and they think the phone might be tapped. “Sure,” I say. “Right, like critical thinking. We can help with that.” They usually check once more to make certain I understand they mean about testing, not the material itself.
I wonder if these people have any notion of what a standardized test is. Parents who come in and assure me that their child needs no work on content matter; “…it’s just timing she needs help with.” I sometimes wonder if it’s too condescending for me to mention that the number one way to pick up speed on a test is to know the material on it. If a student spends too much time agonizing over which form of “whose/who’s/who/whom” is appropriate for an ACT grammar question, it doesn’t mean they’re being gamed by the test. It means they haven’t learned the grammar rule.
Yes, students benefit from practice with the test. Yes, the format of the SAT or ACT or any of these tests may not be immediately intuitive to some students, and it make take a few tries to get the hang of it. But that does not mean that there is a suite of “testing skills” that can be taught in a vacuum, independent of content. It’s probably worth touching on the fact that we have clients clamoring for their sons and daughters to learn testing skills “independent of content.” They’re looking to pay top dollar not for content or executive functioning help or even analytical thinking skills. They’re looking to pay for “tips and tricks.”
What we have is a standardized evaluation system that has people thinking all they need is to be good at the act of taking the test. What do we presume, then, these tests to be evaluating? Aptitude? Content knowledge? Or are we coming to a consensus that these tests function largely to test who are the savviest, the most in-the-know, the ones who thought ahead to learn the code, who could pay for the tips and the tricks?
And don’t let me off the hook either. How much a right do I really have to be indignant about this misconception? I act like the notion of selling an SAT cheat code is so far beneath me, as though the business I’m actually in isn’t ugly all on its own. Yes, we’re selling education, and education—for everyone and anyone—is good. Full stop. But selling it? And selling it for the same price as lawyer’s billable hour, and diamonds? Is that not a pig with lipstick on? Is that not, in and of itself, a trick?
So no, to be clear in front of God, the universe, and everyone, we don’t sell “tips and tricks.” We don’t cheat the code, we don’t have a strategy for success that isn’t based around knowing the math, knowing the grammar, being able to read faster. We can’t improve your score without improving your understanding. There’s no getting around the material on the test, even if you get straight A’s in school. We can’t beat the test without playing by its rules.
And yet, this isn’t to say we aren’t cheating. We’re still cheating the system. We’re still the little extra that only a few can afford. Even if we’re just teaching the material, we’re still the cheat code. The very expensive, very effective cheat code.