When to take the SAT?

As adults we often think of the SAT as a rite of passage for 11th graders.  Likewise, schools and school counselors often present a pretty natural test progression: PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of 11th grade, SAT in May of 11th grade, SAT Subject Tests in June of 11th grade.  Want to raise a score?  Retake a test in the fall of 12th grade.

At EdBoost, we've long pushed back against this particular progression: Who wants to still be taking SAT in senior year?  Who wants to be doing SAT prep over the summer after 11th grade? (And, if you don't prep, you probably will not improve your scores by much... they may even go down due to summer brain drain!) And, perhaps most importantly: that summer before senior year is the best time to start writing college application essays, but who can think of essays if they're still thinking about SAT?

We encourage our juniors to have SAT completely done by the end of 11th grade, which means, at the latest, taking SAT in March of 11th grade, with a plan to retake in June if the scores are not ideal.  That leaves May of 11th grade for SAT Subject Tests, which is perfect because students are studying for AP tests -- often in the same subjects -- in the first weeks of May. 

But even this system, which has served us well for about a decade, has been turned upside down by a variety of accelerated math programs. (*Jump down* for a longer history on math paths in California.)

For the impact of accelerated math on SAT taking to make sense, you should know that the majority of the math on the SAT is algebra.  And, it's an type of algebra that is not difficult in terms of the skills it requires (most of the content is covered in Algebra I and reviewed in Algebra II), but demands a high degree of knowledge and algebra "fluidity" from students.  A single SAT problem can require students to rewrite equations in slope-intercept form, use coordinates to find constants, know the meaning of "slope" and "origin," know how the slopes of perpendicular lines are related, be able to solve a system of equations, and perform substitution of a variable into another equation.  All of these skills are cornerstones of Algebra I -- but putting them all together is challenging.  Just figuring out what skills to start with is very often a stumbling block for students. 

This stumbling block often becomes insurmountable when we work with students who are taking calculus.  How is it possible, you ask, that a student who is getting an A in calculus, can't execute a problem requiring algebra? The answer is simple: by the time students have gotten to calculus, they have forgotten their algebra. 

A student on Los Angeles Unified School District's "highly accelerated math pathway" will take Algebra I in 7th grade.  By 11th grade, this material is ancient history. Algebra II should be a review, but these accelerated students take Algebra II in 9th grade, and most of the SAT material is reviewed quickly in the first semester. When these students take an SAT at the end of 11th grade, they face a mountain of algebra to review and practice, just to regain the skills and fluidity they likely had (or were close to having) years before. 

There are many forms of accelerated math.  LAUSD calls one path the "accelerated math pathway" (Algebra I in 8th grade, Algebra II in 10th grade) and the other the "highly accelerated math pathway) (Algebra I in 7th grade, Algebra II in 9th grade), and we find that public schools, charter schools, and private schools outside LAUSD all offer some form of an accelerated pathway.  The pathways vary, for instance some students take Algebra I and II back to back, but the impact on SAT taking is the same: many students have lots of time to forget algebra before they take the SAT.

Our new rule: Take the SAT in March (with a possible retake in June) of the year you take Algebra II

If you prep, that means you prep in the fall of Algebra II, a perfect overlap of reviewing Algebra I and doing SAT prep that is algebra heavy. 

That means that students who take Algebra I in 7th grade may be best served (in terms of math) by taking the SAT in March of 9th grade.  That will seem early.  But, in terms of math scores -- and limiting the amount of prep time dedicated to reviewing algebra-- it's the smartest way to go. 

Of course, there are other things to consider:

-Reading skills.  Some students are not ready to take the reading portion of the SAT in 9th grade. But, don't imagine that those skills will magically increase as the school years pass. Most students' reading skills are fairly stable. Nationally normed test percentiles are typically quite close to nationally normed percentiles on the PSAT (8/9, 10, or 11), and the SAT.  If your scores on these tests are below where you want them to be (and if you are striving for very competitive colleges, they need to be in the 90s at least), you want to start working to build reading skills early (and no, upper elementary and middle school is not too early!).  If you are a good student, and on an accelerated path, starting early is even more urgent.  You don't want to have to waste SAT prep time reviewing math when you can be working on verbal skills instead (although, in truth, the mission to improve SAT reading skills is a years-long project, start now, no matter what your math track is!).

-Maturity.  The SAT requires a lot of mental flexibility. We find that that flexibility is a gift some kids have and others need to build. A student who is very strong in math but struggles to think out of the box (for instance, does not like puzzles or brain teasers) will struggle with the SAT.  One problem with taking the SAT early is that some students will still be a bit immature -- lacking the mental flexibility they may have in a year or two (and gaining that flexibility may be worth doing math review for!).  Another possibility, for these students, is taking a practice ACT as well as a practice SAT.  ACT has a more straightforward math section that might be a better fit. ACT has a bit more Algebra II and Trigonometry content on it, but is still heavily weighted toward pre-algebra and algebra content. 

-PSAT.  People hate taking the SAT before the PSAT.  It makes everything feel out of order.  But, PSAT really only serves two purposes: 1) Gives you a formal practice test (you can get this at any center that provides test prep, or online on College Board's website); 2) Qualifies students who score in about the top three percentiles for National Merit Scholarship eligibility.  If you think about it, for students on the verge of qualifying for National Merit Scholarships, a bit of prep before they take the test isn't a bad thing. Don't don't let out-dated PSAT/NMSQT timing mess up your SAT timing.

Overall, this is a big question -- one that is worth a lot of consideration.  But, if you come into EdBoost and ask when you should take the SAT, we'll tell you to take it in March of the year you take Algebra II.  If you ask when you should start prepping, we'll recommend taking a practice SAT in the spring of the year you are taking Geometry (or whatever course you are taking before Algebra II) and then starting prep either that summer or fall (depending on your starting scores and what colleges you are shooting for). Everyone should take a practice test early. If you have enough time, you can always improve SAT scores.  If you don't have time... it's very hard to make them budge.  (And, this is a topic for another post, but, when in doubt, take a practice SAT and a practice ACT -- the only way to know which one you're better at is to take both). 

For many of our most ambitious students, who are often on accelerated math pathways, this information comes too late.  They are already in pre-calculus by the time they ask when to start prepping.  For others, it just seems overwhelming to start SAT prep when they are barely out of 9th grade.  But, after several years of this new SAT, we're convinced that this is the smartest, most efficient way to prep.  And, the beauty of it is that when your peers are starting to stress about SAT, you can say that you're already done! So, there's no harm in taking an early SAT practice test.  Think about it!

And, this should go without saying, but pay attention in Algebra I and Algebra II.  Don't learn and dump.  Don't try to get by without doing the word problems or without figuring out the hardest skills. You will need these skills.  You will need systems of equations word problems and mixture problems.  You will need to be able to fully factor a quadratic equation.  Learn them, practice them, keep them -- you'll need all of theses skills later. 


*Math Pathways: A Brief History* Historically, most students in California (and many other states as well) took Algebra I in 9th grade, Geometry in 10th grade, Algebra II in 11th grade, and if they wanted to go further, chose Math Analysis, Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus, or Statistics for their final year of math (this was optional for many students as Algebra II fulfills graduation requirements and college entrance requirements for most students).  Most junior highs and middle schools also had an advanced or honors track in which 8th graders took Algebra I.  These students then started geometry in 9th grade and were one year ahead of the above schedule throughout high school (leaving room for Calculus in senior year).  At that time, Geometry was only offered in high schools so the very few students who were "highly accelerated" went to the local high school to take geometry while still in middle school (my class of 500 students had one such wunderkid).

Over time, more and more students started taking Algebra I in 8th grade. In the late 90s and early 00s as colleges got more competitive and more and more students started shooting for college, many middle schools made algebra the core 8th grade class, taken by all but the students who struggled the most in math. 

In 2006, the California high school landscape changed. California introduced the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) and required students to pass the exam in order to receive a diploma.  The CAHSEE was very algebra heavy and pass rates at many schools were very low. High schools started making students take placement tests in order to route 9th graders back into Algebra I if they did not have sufficient algebra skills. For a few years, many students took Algebra I in both 8th and 9th grade (often retaking the same exact course from the same exact textbook). This system wasn't working, and schools tried to adjust. Many offered Algebra Readiness as an 8th grade course to prepare students for Algebra I in 9th grade.  Other schools offered Algebra I in 9th grade and Algebra II in 10th grade (most students took their first shot at the CAHSEE in 10th grade). Many high schools had to add additional "CAHSEE Math" classes, that also focused on Algebra, just to try to get students through the exam. Suddenly the push was to slow down and intensify algebra instruction, rather than rushing students through. 

In 2010, California adopted Common Core standards, which also changed the curriculum, eventually creating a Common Core 6, Common Core 7, and Common Core 8 sequence for middle schoolers, leading up to Algebra I in 9th grade.  The CAHSEE and Common Core trends, together, significantly lowered 8th grade enrollment in Algebra I. But, once this curriculum got established, students and parents started to worry that starting Algebra I in 9th grade did not give students (especially advanced students) time to take AP Calculus, which was becoming more and more critical for admission to selective colleges (especially in math, science, and technology fields). The accelerated pathways were born, giving students several means of taking algebra and all of their other math courses early.

In 2016, after a fairly unsuccessful run that saw diploma receipt fall, California lifted the CAHSEE requirement. Schools no longer had any strong impetus to make sure that algebra stayed fresh in students' minds. And until 2016, the SAT math section had a fairly equal mix of algebra and geometry, and none of the algebra problems required a really deep dive. Students needed a fairly wide swath of math knowledge to do well. That knowledge, more breadth than depth, could be provided fairly easily in Prep.

The new SAT, released in 2016, changed all that.  Gone is almost all of the geometry (and in its place is a strong sprinkle of statistics, which almost no students take in high school -- we need time in prep to teach that).  And the depth of algebra knowledge needed is intense.  It's work that is so much more easily completed while in the throes of an algebra class.