Review of Chyten’s Mastering the ISEE-SSAT

General

It is extremely difficult to write a single book preparing students to take one of either set of tests that are identical but for a few, very slight differences. Here and there, the manual had to diverge: a requirement that could have left the user lost in the woods staring at the two roads with Robert Frost. However, I felt this manual did an excellent job keeping students and tutors on the course they planned to take. It was clearly delineated, the strategies were aptly applied and, where the two tests were strikingly different, the text stated such clearly. When a book works with a duo of tests like these, the danger of its becoming a choose-your-own-adventure book is high. This book did not suffer that fate. It was extremely easy to use.

The Introduction

The opening chapter is ingeniously written, just from a literary viewpoint. I love the turn of phrase and clever presentation of information. It’s humorous, yet inspiring message should be required reading by parents and students. If clients do not read this section, they are missing out on motivational speaking at its finest. I have committed one paragraph to memory because it was so well-written and poignant.

“Intention is the key to accomplishment. It is desire squared. It is the trigger that releases your personal motivation and points it in a straight line. Saying that you intend to do something is not the same as saying that you want to do something. If you want to be a professional athlete, that is a dream. If you intend to be a professional athlete, that is a goal. An intention is something you strive for, whereas a dream is something you hope for.”

It may seem silly to find inspiration in the introduction to a test preparation book, but I was struck by the power of these words. In my own work as a tutor, you never know what quotation will cause a paradigm shift and motivate a student to work harder, allowing their reach to exceed their grasp. It is clear why Neil was a first-class tutor. He could have taken his skills into the business arena as a corporate Ombudsman or life-coach. His ability with words and his passion to drive students to engage their true potential is evident in all of these books. Chyten understands how to activate abilities students have but for the lethargy and resistance to educational imposition of any kind.

The humor was also striking. I myself laughed out loud at several paragraphs. I read a couple to my husband—a government IT consultant, elected official, political strategist, and published and award-winning author—and he burst out in laughter, as well.

Again, I hope this section is required reading. It would motivate even the most tenaciously disinterested child.

I also like that the introduction and opening vocabulary section is intended to be used by the tutor and student to evaluate a student’s current knowledge and capabilities. While many other books can be used apart from the tutor, this book is rightly presented as a tool for the tutor and student. This is an excellent way to overlay the tutoring experience onto the curriculum. I know some students who complain about attending courses when the book contains all the information a tutor would give them anyway. Chyten’s design prescribes a different, and better, method.

Initial Vocabulary

This is such a fantastic unit, I can’t say enough about it. “Decipheration” is a wholly original and greatly effective lesson training students to break out the meaning of words intuitively and without forethought. The ability to see a word in its component parts and decipher its meaning quickly through instinctive dismantling gives students more than an edge in taking the ISEE/SSAT: it prepares them for a perfect score. Students need to inculcate this ability in order to be successful in any vocabulary assessment environment. This skill is not only valuable for the ISEE/SSAT; it is a life skill that will serve students in school, in college tests, and in life. These fun lessons develop vital language skills in such a surreptitious way that I doubt students realize they are learning. These exercises are really more like crossword puzzles than work.

“Building a Network”, “Graphic Exercises,” etc. are absolutely amazing. This is the sort of creative innovation that is missing in assessment exercises. They are clearly the brainchild of an ingenious tutor with a passion for marrying entertainment and education. I shook my head and beamed from ear to ear as I turned each page. I am convinced that any tutor, armed with this sort of edutainment, can raise a student’s scores and self-esteem. When a student finds the learning environment fun, a sort of magic occurs in the mind and information is melded with the thinking process.

Great educators know that play is the natural result of learning. I’m not talking about learning through play; rather, this statement refers to the ability to play with information because it is a part of your very function of life. Jargon-based entertainment between coworkers is the perfect demonstration of this principle. Lawyers tell jokes only other lawyers understand. When you know something so thoroughly that you can make a game of that knowledge and amuse yourself with it, then you have achieved a thorough synthesis of that knowledge with your mind’s normal functioning.

A student is more motivated to learn something thoroughly when the prospect of playing with it is proffered. When teaching students the old SAT, in a time when vocabulary was much more important because the dreaded analogies were still a part of the assessment, I used to dangle SAT Pictionary over the students’ heads. Work hard for 1.5 hours, get .5 hours to play for prizes (typically some treat I brought in). They had to use vocabulary words I gave them on flash cards and then get another student to guess the word. Both the artist and the correct guesser got a treat.

I did this game for 1 year. At the end of the year, not one student in my class scored below 1400 and I had three perfect scorers. It was a school record.

I tell this story not as a digressive tool to speak highly of myself. But, rather, as an illustration of the principle that students work harder, learn faster, and synthesize knowledge more effectively when the prospect of playing with the knowledge is presented. This is why these Units are so amazing to me. Only a tutor who, him/herself knew this information on an expert level could have devised a curriculum of play. I am stunned beyond words at the brilliance of these devices in both teaching and motivating students to ascent to being taught.

The Princeton Review’s Cracking the SSAT & ISEE 2013 edition had an exercise similar to “Build Your Own Network.” They had several roots and affixes at the bottom and told students to build graphs with the words. At least that’s what I thought they said. I found the instructions extremely convoluted and hard to follow. If I were a student, I would have said, “Huh. Neat,” and skipped the entire exercise. It was not presented in a fun and whimsical way. It was laid flat in front of the student and made itself harder than it should have been. Their vocabulary section was appalling small: a mere 40 pages out of 710. The main trouble with TPR is that it attempted to separate the tests. This is fine, but why not make two different books, then? This made the overlap teaching opportunities disappear in a fog of confusion. It was a strange publishing decision that I think hurt the overall functionality of the test. Like why vocabulary is 3/5 of the tests themselves, but only 5.7% of the teaching.

Kaplan’s vocabulary was appropriately emphasized, but it was not fun. Of course, test taking itself is not fun. But preparation does not have to be as dry as the paper in the book. This was.

Synonyms

The Synonym Strategies are excellent. Because they employ both “vocab sense” and the previously learned prefix/suffix/root lessons, both students who are life-long English speakers and English Language Learners can utilize the strategies in the book to equal effectiveness. The Positive/Negative strategy is always of tremendous value. Words not only often, but usually, correctly sound positive or negative in meaning. Merely knowing that a word is bad news can assist the student in locating another bad word or, at the very least, eliminate good words.

The “Spy Strategy” reinforces the roots lessons by getting students to find the word within the word. This Insider can help students get a general sense of the meaning, or at least the “charge”, of a word; and I loved the “Guess the Object” lesson. I think it really brought home the previous lessons in a powerful way. Using all of the tools now at their disposal, students should be able to instinctively grab the correct word and move along to more difficult portions of the test.

The Sentence Completion Strategies

All of the Sentence Completion Strategies were solid and pertinent to this assessment. They will certainly assist students in determining the correct answer for this section of the test. Many were, of course, familiar to anyone who has used Chyten’s Mastering the SAT. This is because a Sentence Completion is a Sentence Completion and there are absolute strategies for mastering them. All of Chyten’s strategies are solid, well-explained, and score-raising.

This is especially true of the transition word-watch. It is vital that students immediately recognize words that change the flow of the sentence—reverse second clause from the first, emphasize the second clause in relation to the first, or relate the two clauses in a cause-and-effect or an if-then statement.

Analogy Strategies

Analogies were king when I began my career writing tests. They were used on the SAT and several other high-level tests, the Miller Analogies in particular. The analogy strategies in Mastering the ISEE/SSAT were quite the flashback. These strategies are solidly effective. The note about traps, wherein a pair of words reminds the student of the words in the original analogy pair, is the most important restraint skill necessary for analogy success. Many students ignore the relationship of the stem words in favor of something that seems intuitively related to them (i.e. having stem words like swim is to pool and choosing a distractor with a water synonym in it). While the synonym sections are largely intuitive, intuition is a score-killer in an analogy test.

The Thunder Down Under Principle is fantastic and one I used myself. Many a student has been flummoxed by a question in which the relationship seems impossible to fathom. In these cases, students must be shown, step-by-step, how to think their way through the distractors and eliminate as many as possible.  In fact, my students did exercises in which they got only the answers and were required to reason down to three or fewer options. Most students chose the key without ever knowing the stem.

Reading Comprehension

The Reading Comprehension section is incredibly comprehensive. I don’t think a single detail of what to expect on either test and how to handle those items is missing. The familiar Spy and Engagement strategies were present, but are not to be confused with the commonplace. They are present in all of Chyten’s materials because they work. Period. A student must be able to engage the material actively or she will waste time reading it over again.

Students also have to look for words in the distractors that make them incorrect, which is where the Spy Strategy comes in. Distractors are written to be attractive and deceptive. Chyten’s strategies are spot on in recognizing the tricks of my trade.

In this section, I was most impressed by the practice questions. They are fantastic. Writing questions for Reading Comprehension is, in my opinion, the most difficult form of item writing in the business. This is especially true of writers who have composed both the passage and the items. Oftentimes, an author knows what they meant to say, but doesn’t realize this aspect of the passage isn’t clear or is nonexistent. These writers are also sensitive to critiques explaining problems like this.

Another troubled aspect of item writing for Reading Comprehension is the distractors. Distractors have to be plausible, but incorrect. They also must be incorrect in the correct way so that no student can argue that there was ambiguity on the test. The practice questions for this section of Mastering the ISEE/SSAT are stellar.

Math

In Math, I truly like the self-assessment. I think it’s valuable for two reasons: it requires a student to honestly look at their abilities and to admit strengths as well as weaknesses. It boosts a student’s self-esteem and lowers his test anxiety to say, “Oh. I have three or four weak spots. That’s not that bad.” So admitting troubled areas is something all students can do. Being required to look at their strengths and the capabilities they already have ready to engage is very affirming.

Students are always shocked at how many math problems require critical reading. They often groan at the mention, yet again, of reading carefully. Terms of Agreement, though widely ignored, often have catches that can mean huge problems in the future. Contracts, warranties, receipts: every paper a human being signs during the course of their lifetime has information that will invariably be important in the future (usually when things go wrong—you never know the terms of a contract until it’s broken). Teaching students the importance of reading carefully is important in school and in society. In fact, most adults could use a refresher course.

The math traps were very good. As a test development specialist, it’s often fun to read a test prep curriculum because I’m watching to see if the curriculum developer has caught on to all of my tricks. As stated earlier, there is a very specific way we have to write distractors. When training other writers, I referred to this as “The Lawsuit Threshold.”

My explanation is that you have to ask of every distractor, “Is it wrong enough?” In other words, could a student reasonably argue before a judge that this answer was biased or insensitive or had two correct answers? Because, if they can, then the test is declared invalid, all of the scores are invalid, and the test publishers loses hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on writers, editors, copy editors, project managers, illustrators, test supervisors and implementation experts, and statisticians. This makes the publishers kind of cranky. This is why, written into every TDSs contract is an indemnity clause that promises them that, if such a tragedy occurs, the TDS will be paying for it.

If you think I’m being extreme, Google lawsuits related to testing. A student who performs badly on a college entrance exam and doesn’t get into their choice school would love to prove the test was unfair or incorrect to invalidate the scores and take the test anew.

So, knowing the Lawsuit Threshold, TDSs have to utilize tricks in order to make the distractors distracting without making them correct. Reading Chyten’s materials has given me pause to giggle because all of my tricks have been listed in these materials. This is why, when I read “Math Traps,” I laughed because I’ve trained writers to do those exact three things.

The math strategies and practice questions were wonderful. I found them to be exhaustive of all math types and tightly written with perfect traps and whistleblowers. The distractors were attractive, but wrong; the stems were tight and flawless; the keys were tough to get to. The math section is perfectly attuned to this test.

Essay

I loved this section. One of the dearest things to me that I ever teach is writing. Writing is both something I do and someone I am. It is sometimes difficult for the fish to teach about water, but when he does, he learns more about himself than his students learn about the water. It is clear that this section was written by someone with a passion for writing. As I sit and imagine that my mind has regressed into the proto-student that we all are in life, I can see how I would devour these suggestions and infuse them into my own writing. How can one not read powerful and textural words and not use them instinctively on their next essay assignment? Or read examples of bold and mind-snapping introductions and not find a twist in their own life to share? How can one see transitions in action and not learn to sand down a chewed mangle of sentences into a gleaming piece of wood?

I so enjoy the power in these lessons and their relevance to a world of children who statistically text the equivalent of a novel a month (800-1200 texts per month x 10 words per text). Students text in shorthand and chat online in short-speak. Their ability to use the written word has been stunted by a world in which one must communicate knowledge at digital speed or be left behind. And yet, while students’ writing abilities have plummeted off a technological cliff, the necessity for good writing has grown exponentially.

Only twenty years ago, when I would tell people I wanted to be a writer, the image of a Ramen-noodle chomping plebian walking wearily from publisher to publisher in a quest to be heard was what sprang to their mind, along with the notion that my career would consist of repeating the phrase, “Do you want fries with that?”

In today’s Internet world, when someone says they’re a writer, it’s as normal as saying one’s an auto mechanic, and about as glamorous. Everyone writes. Blogs are free, Facebook is an addiction, news chat room brawls are common, and opinions seem more relevant than education.

Yes, everyone writes; but few write well.

Writing well now is more important than ever because everyone needs to be clearly heard and understood in a world where the human voice is no longer the primary mode of communication. Now, more than ever, one must utilize language at least effectively, if not creatively.

Chyten’s materials take this necessity further and teach students to be both effective and creative, both solid and bold, both functional and sporty. It is an excellent section, one after my own heart, and I took something away from it. No student should pass it by.

Concluding Thoughts

Neil told me, when he asked for a review of his curriculum, that this was the book he was most proud of and had the most fun writing. However, he said he was willing to take a crack to the ego and would nervously await my assessment. My honest and unpremeditated opinion is that this is a fun book that is definitely something to be proud of. It is excellent—by far the best of the Chyten materials (which I have already reviewed and found to be extremely competent and effective in their composition and purpose). I had a tremendous amount of fun reading this book. It had been a long while since I had worked with the SSAT for Riverside (Houghton—Mifflin Co.) and I had to reach deep into my files to find my tests and materials and to research and refresh myself. I was prepared for a good study session. Yet, it was such a joy to read this book and to even stop here and there and do some of the exercises for fun.

I was recently allowed to read a letter from a student who scored a 99% on the SSAT after attending a Chyten school. I am not at all surprised. With such a masterfully composed system that edu-tains students into doing well, how could she not do that well? Any student who uses this system can achieve such scores, and I’m sure many will.

The Rake Group, Inc.  Test Development Specialists

St. Charles, IL