The effect of test prep on SAT math scores is, on the surface anyway, relatively easy to determine. You take a student’s math score after the preparation and compare it to his or her score before the preparation. But how does a student’s choice of math classes throughout high school affect a student’s math score? This connection is not so widely understood. The test-makers claim that SAT performance is a good reflection of the rigor of the courses that one takes in high school. But is that true? I would answer with a resounding “yes.”
From my experience, I can accurately predict a student’s “maximum” math score capability as soon as I know what level of math classes that student has taken in high school. I live and work in Wellesley, MA, so I will use the public high school’s course levels as an examples. At Wellesley High, math is broken into three levels: Level 1 (Honors), Level 2 (Standard), and Level 3 (Basic). Students who take Level 3 math will rarely score above a 550, and students who take Level 2 Math will rarely score above 650. In fact, I have noticed that at all of the schools at which I work, students who never take math courses above the standard level can almost never break 650. SAT preparation can help those students get up to that level, but nothing can replicate the day-to-day challenge of doing honors-level math problems for multiple years. On another note, students in honors-level classes will often see score jumps from the mid 600’s to mid 700’s and attribute the increase solely to the tutoring. I explain to these students (and their parents) that the groundwork for such a score increase was laid by the honors math classes, and would not have been possible without them.
These facts should inform students’ and parents’ decisions about which level of math courses to take. Students are often afraid of taking honors math courses and getting B’s; instead, these students take the regular-level math courses and get A’s because they think that colleges want to see A’s. But these students are never challenged to test and expand their capabilities. And furthermore, these students don’t realize that they are probably costing themselves up to 100 points on their SAT math tests. Not to mention, the truth is, colleges would probably rather see the B in the honors course than the A in the regular course. Students really need to consider these facts when choosing math courses, even though the hardest math courses will be very frustrating at times, and will often yield some dubious test scores. Even I, who got an 800 on my math SAT twice in a row, failed an advanced Calculus test in high school.
So which course is most important to take at an honors level? Without a doubt, it is Algebra II. Courses like Pre-Calculus and Calculus require you to continue using your algebra skills in context, so these courses are also important, but strong algebra skills are the most crucial to SAT success, and the skills you learn in Algebra II will be tested directly on the SAT. Students in Wellesley are often scared to death of the honors Algebra II class, but I have seen the benefits it yields on SAT scores, and they are significant. I would advise any parent who is on the fence to have his or her child take the honors-level course, even if it means hiring a tutor.
I hope this helps clear up the connection between math courses and SAT math scores. Now that it is summer, I will have much more time to blog, so check back soon for more updates.