In the Beginning Was Stanford-Binet
Why do some people seem to excel at all manners of standardized tests while others don’t? Is success on standardized tests the result of innate ability? Or it it achieved through practice and preparation? Are there common skills or strategies that can prepare you for different standardized tests?
These questions are the focus of intense and ongoing study and debate. If you’re interested, I suggest you start here, here, and here. The answers for which hold lifelong consequences for individuals and profound social and economic implications.
Preparing and administering standardized testing is also big business! Not only for entrance exams, but also for professional certifications. One of the most frequent topics that comes up is which school to go to. Of course with that, a top concern is how prominent and frequent standardized testing will be. But, let’s get back to the question at hand. What are the common, essential steps to preparation for standardized tests?
To answer this question, consider the origin of modern standardized testing, the Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scales. This IQ test was first introduced in 1916. Its legacy endures in the philosophy and approach of many, if not most, standardized tests.
You may recognize some of the factors used to generate the ultimate IQ score.
- Fluid Reasoning, including Verbal Absurdities and Verbal Analogies
- Knowledge, including Vocabulary
- Quantitative Reasoning, including both Verbal and Non-Verbal Quantitative Reasoning
Sound familiar? I have prepared countless students for all manners of standardized tests from the SAT to the GRE to the LSAT. To me, Stanford-Binet represents a veritable Rosetta Stone of standardized tests. Here are some commonalities I’ve observed to help you prepare a schedule, plan, and strategy for success on the GRE.
Step 1: Content Mastery
One of the most prominent criticisms of IQ testing is inability to account for the cultural milieu and opportunities afforded to different children. The 1994 book The Bell Curve argues inherited factors of intelligence derive from ethnicity. The controversy revolves around the importance of nature versus nurture for success in academics. This question remains an important factor in how these tests are developed and how you must prepare for them.
In our LSAT course, we allude to an egregious SAT problem from the retired analogies section.
RUNNER: MARATHON ::
- envoy: embassy
- martyr: massacre
- oarsman: regatta
- referee: tournament
- horse: stable
Robert Schaeffer, the policy director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, in an LA Times article said, “You don’t see a regatta in center-city L.A., you don’t see it in Appalachia, you don’t see it in New Mexico.” In my own life, I frequently remark how the influence of my father’s arcane diction makes me an easy target for jokes and an ace at vocabulary tests.
In past blogs, I discuss more time consuming and important steps for the Quant and Verbal Reasoning sections of the GRE. Mastery of math fundamentals and vocabulary are two crucial foundations of GRE success. They form part of the core content on the test. Fluency in these subjects cannot be covered adequately in any preparation course. They are the pre-work that you should tackle before you take a course. In some cases, like vocabulary, it should be an ongoing, lifelong effort to improve your range and literacy.
You would be wise to consider the basic concepts and skills the GRE addresses. Make sure you are comfortable with the tasks you will be expected to perform. To improve at writing, you must write. To improve at reading comprehension, you must read.
Step 2: Learning and Applying Test Taking Strategies
As I mentioned at the outset, there are some people who have a knack for standardized tests. Some people can take most any standardized test cold and perform at or near the highest percentile. Most of why they are successful is because of their intimate familiarity with the structure and logic of these tests. They know best how to weed out the incorrect answers. For example, let’s say you don’t know rules of exponents. It will be difficult to do well if you come to a Quant problem that explicitly tests which math operation to use when getting the power of a power. It is crucial to master some core content. Once you know the rules and how to apply them, test taking strategies become paramount. Here are some basic questions to ask yourself.
- Can you solve the problem directly or work backwards from the answers?
- What kind of language or syntax in the answer choices make them more/less likely to be a credited response?
- What is the purpose or function of a given question? Is there an implicit skill or concept that a given question is testing?
- What order should you approach questions? Which ones should you skip and when?
- Are there trap answers? Which answers were written to take advantage of your misunderstandings or careless errors?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of test-taking skills that translate across standardized tests. Some fundamental elements of standardized testing are universal. I’ve even seen “trap answers” in aptitude testing for young children. As a second step in your preparation, learning these skills and how and when to apply them should be a priority.
Step 3: Timing
A final key element to success in test preparation is to master your pacing and timing. Even if you think you have a solid grasp of the content and the strategies to tackle it! Oftentimes students reach a stage where they feel like they “get it”. Unfortunately, they’ll then take a diagnostic test and although they’re answering correctly, they run out of time. Or, they waste unneeded time on certain questions that could be better spent getting points elsewhere.
Timing is the component that pulls all the other work together. Just as content mastery takes time, so does figuring out timing and when to pick your battles. For this reason, a frustrating situation I encounter as a tutor is when students allot a month or less for test preparation. For the greatest results, developing an internal clock of sorts is crucial. When you take the actual test, checking the clock should ideally be superfluous.
In addition, many of these tests are gauntlets. The MCAT recently doubled its length to become a six-hour-long ordeal. From start to finish, the GRE and LSAT are both nearly four hours long. If you’re taking a standardized test, develop your endurance and train yourself to maintain your focus and cognitive acuity for an extended period.
How to Apply these Steps to Your Preparation
I encourage you to consider where you are in your preparation. What you have accomplished so far? What work remains for you to achieve your greatest success? All three of these steps build upon each other and are independently important to work on. Ask yourself whether you have addressed these three skills adequately. Don’t be afraid to return to the basics if need be.
If you are ready to pursue your GRE preparation with PowerScore, I encourage you to explore all the options we have available. Whether for self-study, a course, or individual instruction with one of our eminently qualified instructors, we’re here for you.