(Lohud) By Alfred S. Posamenier—

During the summer, many parents concerned about their child’s ascendance to college are providing them with support as they prepare for the upcoming SAT exams. I have been a strong advocate for preparing students for the SATs, having written support books on the topic for both teachers and students.

But a recent overhaul of the SAT tests has raised concerns that questions are very heavily embedded in a student’s reading ability and possibly cultural acquaintance. The question arises as to how to prepare for the math section of the SAT, when considerable reading skills take on a larger significance.

If we agree that the test items are to assess the students’ quantitative thinking, mathematical skills, and problem-solving ability, then the items presented should be geared appropriately. I believe the math section of the new SAT exam is wrongly constructed, since it is too dependent on reading comprehension and cultural competence. This is coming under the guise of presenting “real-world” experiences. Just looking at the sample tests provided online — seen through the eyes of a student who may have challenges in reading, or a student whose native language is not English — one will see that they are at a definite disadvantage. After all, the SATs already have a reading test, and a test of writing and language. We don’t need to “pollute” the math test with a significant degree of reading competence and cultural awareness.

In previous decades, the mathematics section of the SAT focused exclusively on mathematics skills with a minimum amount of reading required. The uncluttered math items presented an advantage as evidenced by an experience I had during my years in the 1960s as a math teacher (and math team coach) at a Bronx high school. I remember an extraordinarily brilliant student, who emigrated from Hong Kong, demonstrated his brilliance in mathematics, but was rather weak with his English skills. His score on the verbal SAT was very low, but he got an 800, the top score, on the mathematics test. He was subsequently accepted to MIT with a scholarship! This was when the math questions were far less verbal than they are on today’s exam — testing math alone without requiring language competence.

Reading competence is not the only distractor from this assessment of mathematics skills. There is also the cultural factor that could put immigrant students at a disadvantage when they do not understand the topic being described. Whenever math test questions are put into “a real world context,” there is always the concern about what is “real-world” for urban students may not be in the real-world of a rural students. Therefore, the less verbiage used in presenting a mathematics question, the more accurate the mathematics assessment would be.

So let’s focus on the problem-solving skills in mathematics without the distraction from other skill sets. We would be equally displeased if a reading question on the verbal section of the SAT were to be engrossed in scientific or mathematical themes, which would discriminate against those unfamiliar with the topic. So let’s keep the mathematics section purely mathematical. After all, isn’t that what we are trying to assess?