sat-exam-multiple-choice-mini-graduation-cap-47044907“Math is supposed to be math!” so some insist.

According to these “resistance forces,” integrating or “muddling” content matter results in the unnecessary pollution of an untainted or “pure” subject, and merely confuses young test takers who are muscling their way through the brawny bearers of high standards that fastidiously guard the gates of our nation’s most competitive colleges.

Despite the clamoring of these educational “purists,” the clear-cut compartmentalization of content simply isn’t the reality of life’s demands and, more importantly, is no longer the assured path to classroom or test taking success.

Common Core and the corresponding SBAC and/or CAASPP testing systems are on the move with or without the approval of students, parents and teachers, and the College Board, among other college entrance test makers, clearly understand it. The new 2016 SAT and the implementation of Common Core in school districts such as San Diego Unified School District, require the synthesis of interdisciplinary or cross curricular skills and concepts, heavily concentrated on reading, writing and listening, in order to accomplish a task or goal. Gone are the days when English was English, geometry was geometry, and arithmetic was arithmetic. The integration of reading and math has permanently arrived.

The new 2016 SAT Math No Calculator and Calculator sections are merely two illustrations of the skill-based consortium that is required of our future generations. Author Rebecca Safier of the PrepScholar’s, “What’s Tests on the SAT Math Section?” accurately portrays SAT math as a wordy hybrid of algebra and data analysis with a limited number of geometry and trigonometry questions.

Since I’ve been personally providing SAT math instruction over the course of the last year to predominantly 11th grade males who are current Calculus students, I’ve discovered that their greatest challenge is effectively reading, annotating and identifying the question. Why? The fundamental pieces of medium and difficult “math” problems are often obscured in a sea of 40 or more words per question! In layman’s terms, the new SAT is half English!

The Problem:

Let’s examine a College Board sample, shall we? Consider the following 40 word Calculator Section (this is deceiving as a calculator is not required) example:

A radioactive substance decays at an annual rate of 13 percent. If the initial amount of the substance is 325 grams, which of the following functions f models the remaining amount of the substance, in grams, t years later (t is an exponent)?

  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t

The Approach

  1. Thoroughly read the whole text first.
  2. Work backwards- Identify the question, which is not the entire 40 word text, and Underline the keywords in the quesiton only.

A radioactive substance decays at an annual rate of 13 percent. If the initial amount of the substance is 325 grams, which of the following functions f models the remaining amount of the substance, in grams, t years later (t is an exponent)?

  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t
  1. Work backwards once again- Return to the given information and identify only the most essential information.

A radioactive substance decays at an annual rate of 13 percent. If the initial amount of the substance is 325 grams, which of the following functions f models the remaining amount of the substance, in grams, t years later (t is an exponent)?

  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t
  1. Analyze (break down the text) and label its pieces, which are fundamental English Language Arts procedures.

Decays- 13% or .13

Initial Amount- 325 (will never change)

Remaining Amount- what stays each year is 100-13 or 1-.13

t years- unknown length of time in years

  1. Use the answer choices to guide you. Notice, select the accurate equation, but do not solve it. Do only what is required, nothing more!
  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t

The Solution

1.Employ the power of logic and the process of elimination.

Step 1: Since the initial amount of 325 is constant, 325 cannot be part of the exponent, t years. For instance, if t =2, then over the course of two years, the initial amount would be (325)(325) or 105625. Understanding the principle that an initial amount is fixed or unchanging allows the student to eliminate choices C and D.

  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t

Step two: Return once again to the question; what is the remaining amount, which is 100%-13% or 87% each year. This is not the decay rate of 13%. Therefore, the test-taker can eliminate B and select A.

  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t

What We’ve Learned

In this two-step, easy to medium problem, students are required to demonstrate astute reading comprehension and sound logic in combination with basic algebraic knowledge. Most notably, students must separate given or “background” information from what the question actually demands. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen even my most advanced math students select B because they assume the equation should include 13% since it’s mentioned first in the text. Hence, they select incorrectly and their score plummets!

Students often avoid a close reading and careful annotation of the text, skills that have often previously been taught in English and history courses; many have insisted over the generations that reading simply shouldn’t be categorized as a mathematical skill. However, as one 11th grade test-taker acknowledged, “The (new SAT) math problems are more wrapped in narrative” than in the previous SAT, according to the New York Times article, “New, Reading-Heavy SAT Has Students Worried.”  So, now what?

Should students and parents be worried?

Absolutely not. Read carefully, work backwards by identifying the question first, then consult the given information and answer choices. Once all the pieces are understood, then apply the math, logic and process of elimination as needed. As a veteran G.I. Joe fan, the trope, “And knowing (that an integrated approach to SAT math) is half the battle,” just might be the moral of the evolving SAT story.