kitchen table math, the sequel: death by calculator

Monday, October 3, 2011

death by calculator

So on Saturday I took the SAT, all 4 hours of it: another supposedly fun thing I'll never do again!

Over on College Confidential there are, currently, 65 pages of my fellow test-takers debriefing each other re: the Critical Reading passages.

How is management different from handling? jpegslayer wants to know. I don't recall management being a choice on the Ella Baker passage,* but I do recall, dimly, selecting handling.

Also, there's a protracted debate over vehement vs caustic and emphatic vs disparaging. I have no memory of vehement vs caustic appearing anywhere on the test (apparently I was in a trance for parts of it), and I chose emphatic over disparaging.

People thought the Fleece passage was HARRRRDD (Akil found it here), which it was. Hard and odd...pretty much hard because it was odd. Odd and truncated, which made the thing odder still.

Question: was Fleece urbane or eccentric?

Answer: he was eccentric. I say he was paranoid, too, but the College Board and I may not see eye to eye on that one.

As to the rest of the test, C. and I both had math calamities, sad to say. C. choked on the one hard section of the three: got stuck on an early problem, lost track of time, and ran out the clock without even having read 5 of the problems, let alone tried to answer them. Classic, and so frustrating.

My own difficulties were self-inflicted.

I started down the path to ruin on Tuesday, when Debbie told me about the math frac function on the TI-83: PWN says you have to have it! Well, if PWN says you have to have it, then you have to have it because PWN knows everything about the SAT. (Really. He does.)

Trouble was: I didn't have it. A TI-83, that is. I have a lowly TI-36 I've been using for years and know so well I can practically touch-type the thing.

So I called Ed at NYU and asked him to pick me up a TI-83 on the way home. He said he would, but for some reason or other he didn't, which meant one less day to get up to speed on the TI-83 assuming he managed to get one on Wednesday.

He did, but it was sealed inside one of those monster pressure-sealed jobs that are impossible to open, and I didn't get around to dealing with it 'til the next night - Thursday - when the plastic proved so tough I actually cut myself with the scissors I was trying to jam through the packaging. In hindsight, that was a sign.

By the time the TI-83 was finally liberated from its packing and I had staunched the bleeding, it was 8:30 or so, and I was in no mood. At which point it emerged that C. didn't know anything about the math frac button(s) and couldn't show me how to use Debbie stopped over on the way home from her daughter's back to school night and spent 10 minutes explaining the thing.

That left one day - Friday - to practice.

In my defense, I did try reminding myself that one day of practice on a calculator with a different keyboard, different functions, and different locations for the same old functions (different notations, too) was not going to overwrite 5 years of practice with my trusty TI-83: I know this! I am a science writer, for god's sake! I write stuff about the brain! Stuff about the brain and learning and memory!

But I just kept thinking: math frac. Got to, got to, got to have math frac.

Oh, man.

Long story short, I got to the test, took the first math section, the hardest of the three (well, four in my case since my experimental section was also math) and stumbled and tripped over one problem after another when I couldn't remember where the Enter key was (or even that there was an Enter key), or which side the Power key was on, or how you do square roots on the TI-83 (hit the 2nd key; square root key is on the left, not the right) or exponents (use parentheses), etc., etc., etc. And since working memory can hold only 3 or 4 things at a time, plus or minus two, and "where's the Enter button?" counts as one (at least), I'd have to forget some key part of the problem I was trying to solve in order to clear enough mental space to remember how to work the calculator, so then I'd have to re-read the problem to re-remember whatever I was remembering before I had to forget that to remember the calculator, and then when I was done re-reading and re-remembering the problem, I might discover I had now re-forgotten how to work the damn calculator, which meant I would have to re-forget the problem to clear space to re-re-remember the workings of the TI-83 ----- aaaaaauuuugggh! Stuck in an infinite forgetting and remembering loop! Help! Help!

I switched back to my old calculator for the other three sections, and things went much better.

Later, hearing the story, Ed said, "I was afraid of that."

* The Ella Baker passage made my eyes bleed.


Catherine Johnson said...

How many years have we spent lamenting over-reliance on calculators here at kitchen table math?

Catherine Johnson said...

Stare into the abyss, and the abyss stares back!

Debbie Stier said...

I feeeeeeeeel your pain. And I had my own calculator disaster last May (remember when I was trying out the TI-87 -- is that what it's called?).

I just wrote my own post-mortem. Will post here too.

Fleece was definitely eccentric!

I'm dying to know which was the Experimental Reading section.

SteveH said...

When my son once took an important math test, I warned him to use his own calculator. He told me that the school had the same ones. During the test, he found that he had trouble with some problems. He finally figured out (before it was too late) that the calculator was set to radians.

Catherine, you simulated taking a lot of tests. What was different about the real thing.

Catherine Johnson said...

Taking a brand-new, complicated calculator to the SAT is the kind of boneheaded stunt a boneheaded kid would pull.

Catherine Johnson said...

Steve H and all - this is an important question: simulated tests.

I did **not** do a single simulated test, which is to say I did only simulated math sections.

I never did the whole thing in one fell swoop. In fact, many months ago I stopped doing reading or writing sections altogether because they're too 'easy' for me - by which I mean they're easy in the sense that I know the vocabulary and the answers, not that I instantly know the answer the College Board wants me to know -- and not in the sense that reading a very long, and in some cases very boring (or very offputting) passage in tiny little print is easy.

In fact, for me, the reading & writing passages are both easy **and** mentally fatiguing.

(I was exhausted after the test -- absolutely spent. So spent that I was afraid I'd hit someone behind me trying to back out of my space in the jam-packed parking lot.)

So --- number one: I didn't simulate the test, and I now think that's important (though I'm not going to do it even if I do take the test again).

Also - and I think Debbie is going to write about this - the "CHOKE" book is absolutely right: you need to practice under the most stressful conditions you can manage precisely because the test is stressful.

Chris choked, and that's what people do under pressure, especially high-working memory people, which he is.

I tend not to choke per se because the testing conditions are somewhat soothing to me: there's no Andrew shrieking out suddenly; there's no Andrew respite caregiver suddenly coming into the room while I'm taking a timed math test to ask for the library card; there's no phone ringing - and I'm also not devoting one-half of what's left of my brain anticipating these interruptions.

In short, the real testing conditions are a case of Peace and Quiet at last; I feel somewhat the way I felt when I was hospitalized for the final month of my pregnancy with the twins: Finally, I can relax!

Nevertheless, my cognitive capacity narrowed quite considerably during the real thing: for instance, I didn't see, INSTANTLY, that I needed to bend down, pick up my scientific calculator, and use it for the test. Debbie had told me the proctors won't let you swap calculators in the middle of a section, and although my proctor clearly would have, I simply did not have the mental wherewithal to 'break' from the advice Debbie had given me. (Debbie! If you're reading - not blaming you! Just describing 'cognitive narrowing' under pressure.)

Anyway....this is my advice for you and your kids.

ABSOLUTELY have them take the full test - all 9 or 10 sections (the BB practice tests have only 9) UNDER THE MOST INTENSE PRESSURE YOU CAN ARRANGE.

I would strongly consider making them leave the house to take the practice test: maybe even find a way to have them take the full thing in a classroom at a school.

For people like me, who aren't 'naturals' at math (I think there **are** naturals - and I think there are naturals in reading and writing in some way - ) - there's a mode of practice that I'm mulling over and semi-understand.

I'll write some posts about that -

Catherine Johnson said...


Debbie Stier said...

I had a long conversation with "Advantage" the other day (I can't even type the name without snobby accent in my head) and one of the things that I can't stop thinking about (besides the fact that tutors range from $390-$950 per 100 minute session and average kids spend a year) is that the average "Advantage" student takes 10 to 15 FULL TIMED PROCTORED "Practice SATs" BEFORE they take a real one.

I will be taking at least two more before my next SAT. The One I did (reluctantly) helped.

My son takes PSAT next week and he will be taking his first full timed practice test this weekend.

SteveH said...

"My son takes PSAT next week and he will be taking his first full timed practice test this weekend."

My son is taking that PSAT too as a sophomore. We haven't even cracked open the practice test booklet! Time is running out and I have to force the issue.