A Closer Look at the SAT Math Section

To succeed on the SAT (or any other standardized test), one must first understand its design – what is it testing and how? Historically, the SAT has had a verbal section and a quantitative section, all multiple choice. Through most of its existence, the SAT math section focused on basic mathematics, algebra, and geometry – all without the use of a calculator. It had easy, medium and hard levels of difficulty. And it functioned not to see if a student had mastered the subject of mathematics but had the ability to apply mathematical reasoning to more abstract word problems. In today’s current format, the SAT math section still retains the core view of its origins – it wants to measure applied mathematical reasoning skills. However, today it does it by focusing on math subjects through algebra II; it allows the use of a calculator on one of its two sections; and it contains several problems that are of the free response variety. Good math students often find the SAT math challenging. And it is definitely harder today than it has been in the past. But what makes students scratch their heads is not the level of additional math topics covered, but the way the test asks its questions. In school, students learn math in units; when they test over a unit, they know what to expect and they have models from their teacher as to how the questions will be presented. Further, most math tests today have few, if any, word problems. However, the entire SAT is based on word problems. And it can be alarmingly easy to take a pre-algebra topic and make a very hard math problem on the SAT. How? By turning it into a rather unfamiliar word problem that looks more like a brain teaser and less like math. How can a student prepare for the SAT math section? A good start would be to work more of the questions in math textbooks that are tagged as “standardized prep” questions, and also to work the challenging word problems toward the end of each section or unit. These questions test not mastery of a set of formulas or principles, but a comfort level with the material in the unit and applying it to different situations. How does one beat the SAT math section? A key idea is that the answers to the questions hide in plain sight. The SAT is not actually tricking the student – it is in many ways guiding the student. Follow each sentence of the word problem. Turn the sentences into a sketch if appropriate or a series of equations. Try to visualize the problem. Work backwards from what the question seeks as an answer to what the problem actually gives you. Using this approach is the beginning of beating the SAT math section. Ultimately, success on the SAT comes from good instruction and practice. Mackler Associates provides St. Louis SAT prep tutoring to help with the math sections. Contact Mackler if you have further questions.