Theoretically, if a test is designed to measure what a student has learned, then there should be no such thing as “preparing” for the test. This is why I believe that the best “test prep” method is to focus on learning what is taught in school, and ignoring the test itself until the day of. This philosophy may go against the grain of the conventional wisdom perpetuated by test prep companies and anxious parents, but it got me a full-ride scholarship to the college of my choice based on my ACT score, so I know there is something to it.
In general, with the prevalence of test-prep courses, software, and services, what standardized tests really measure is not how effective a student’s overall education has been, but rather how well the student has prepared for the test. This goes to show that sometimes what you focus on doesn’t expand, it actually shrinks.
One of the most common complaints students have about learning math is, “I’ll never use this”, and, when it comes to math as it is usually taught and measured on standardized exams, they are right. Math professor Sanjoy Mahajan writes on the Freakonomics blog about how the math questions on standardized exams are unrealistic, and how they could be written to reflect the ways that people actually use math in real life. I especially enjoyed reading this article because Sanjoy’s methods reflect the ways that I teach students to think about computations: using their brains in natural, intuitive ways, rather than like a fleshy digital calculator.