The Fat Envelope
A Discussion Of All Things College Admissions and Test Prep
I came across the Study Music Project a while ago.  It's an interesting idea for those of us (like myself) that need to have some tunes on in the background when we're working/studying.  

The founders state that their purpose it to develop ideal study music, and they've created a YouTube channel devoted to their work.  It's not exactly scintillating stuff (a little New Age, a little piano, a little rushing streams), and it will fade into the background of your attention quickly. But that might be the point.  The comments on YouTube seem to be generally positive, and some claim it helped them receive good grades on a test or paper.  

Unfortunately, the creators don't offer much to explain WHY it might work, or why they're writing the music they are.  So you'll have to take their word for it, and just try it out for yourself.  I would love to know if it helps anyone with their SAT prep!
On this blog, I try to instill some reason in a process that's so fraught with anxiety.  But I'm pretty peeved by the College Board's latest testing product.  Read on.

This article in The New York Times was the tinderbox that set me off.  The College Board has developed a new test with a cute name: Readistep.  A better name would be the pre-pre-SAT.  Readistep, designed for 8th graders, is intended to prepare kids for the SAT.  But wait, isn't the PSAT already supposed to do that?  I thought so, too, but apparently the College Board thinks students should be preparing for the PSAT in 8th grade.  It's a practice test for a practice test.

This is total lunacy, right?  Apparently not according to the questionable educational leadership in my home state of Texas.  It goes without saying that these folks (who regularly choose religion over science in textbooks) are not elected for their eruditeness.  At a time when teachers are losing their jobs and arts programs are getting the axe, the Texas Education Agency decided it was worthwhile to spend $8 a student for any 8th grader in the state to take the Readistep.  This makes me so angry I can't see straight, but there are plenty of other reasons to hate Readistep.

There is extensive documentation regarding how well the Readistep lines up with the requirements for the TEKS assessment tests already given to all students in the state.  In one way, this is great, in that Texas schools are already teaching the concepts needed to do well on the Readistep, and by extension, the SAT.  In another way, it just points out that the Readistep is an enormous waste of time and money.  Students get a "skills report" with their Readistep score pointing out areas they need to work on.  Aren't the TEKS results already doing this?  What additional information does Readistep really provide?  I can't see anything.  And per the NYT article, an expert went over the psychometrics with a fine-toothed comb and came to the conclusion that the Readistep didn't provide sufficient items to say much of anything about a student's skills with certainty.

Since we've established that it really doesn't provide much useful information, what does the Readistep do?  It essentially makes it OK for students to start SAT prep in 8th grade, or earlier.  The NYT articles points out that "some schools" have already been giving old PSATs to 8th graders.  No word on which schools those are, but I'd bet the farm that they're pressure cooker private New York City schools, the secondary school versions of the preschools that require 3-year-olds to take IQ tests for admission.  This tiny, but financially flush, population is assuredly the demographic that the College Board really designed the Readistep for.  The fact that the Texas schools want to give it to everyone is gravy, since I doubt (hopefully) other states will be so foolish.  The CB can now publish a lot of Readistep prep books, online courses, etc.  It's a goldmine.  And it's also a goldmine for a lot of anxiety-mongering college counselors and test prep companies

I found it heartbreaking that the Fort Worth 8th grader mentioned in the article came home feeling that "she didn't do well."  It turns out she actually did score high on the test, but think about the anxiety she felt after test day.  Do you think she's going to be anxious when she takes the real thing?  No doubt.  Do you think she'll spend a lot of money on prep materials and classes before then?  Probably.  The Readistep doesn't provide useful diagnostic information, and it costs schools and/or parents on tight budgets money.  For what?  To generate anxiety. 

I'm also seriously disturbed that the school district administrator quoted in the NYT article seems to have no idea why students actually do better on the SAT after taking the PSAT.  She attributes the higher SAT scores achieved by students that took the PSAT twice to the fact that they took the PSAT twice.  I'm flummoxed by the fact that anyone in education believes that taking the PSAT alone will boost a student's SAT score!  The real reason is that the kids who take the PSAT twice are more likely high achievers already, take the test seriously, and have probably invested a lot of effort in preparing for the test.  If they're showing up on test day wearing gear from their first choice college, these kids have already identified themselves as college bound.  She opines that practice is the key to success on the SAT, and it is, but an "official" practice test like the Readistep or the PSAT isn't really providing practice beyond experiencing a relatively realistic test day situation. 

I'm going to be watching the progress of Readistep to see whether it's going to infiltrate schools across the country.  I hope that parents, teachers and school boards opt not to subject their students to this useless test.  The only "SAT prep" 8th graders should be doing is reading as much as possible and taking their school work seriously.  Save the SAT for later!
The New York Times' education blog The Choice has a nice chart up showing 2011 acceptance rates and numbers at a whole host of colleges. The chart also shows the numbers and rates for 2010, and virtually across the board acceptance rates are lower for 2011 than they were for 2010.  With students applying to more and more schools each year, acceptance rates have been trending down for years.  You can see the hard numbers for yourself by comparing the Total Applicants columns for 2010 and 2011.

Unfortunately, the Times' acceptance rate chart does not reveal waitlist numbers. Anecdotal evidence indicates that waitlist numbers are up this year, although I haven't yet seen the numbers for many schools. Last year we discussed the increased use of college waitlists, all of which holds true for 2011. Being placed in waitlist limbo isn't much fun, and here is some advice in the event you are waitlisted.
The nice folks over at StudentAdvisor.com were nice enough to ask me to guest post for them.  Check out my tips on how not to prep!
If you've taken the SAT, you know time is at a premium.  Twenty-five minutes is an eternity when you're waiting in line for concert tickets, but it's over in a flash on test day.  While there is value in allowing yourself all the time you need in figuring out the answer while you're prepping, it's also essential to complete practice test sections under timed conditions, too, especially as test day is looming. 

So grab your mom's kitchen timer, download a timer app to your phone, or set a bomb to detonate.  This one functions as both a timer and a stopwatch, so you can also time yourself to see how long it's taking you to read passages.  These are also very useful tools to make sure you don't spend an hour on Facebook when you intended to allow yourself a ten minute break!
With many top colleges releasing their admissions decisions this week, current juniors may be thinking about what it takes to be admitted into a top school. Here is a guest post we did for myUsearch.com discussing tips for getting into the top U.S. colleges.