How Do You Talk About the Problem with Khan Academy's SAT Prep Without Sounding Like a Jerk?

Ans: You make it clear that the only reason that the flaws matter is that they effect negatively effect students. 

Otherwise? I cannot figure out how to write this article without sounding like a major curmudgeon, but I'm deeply concerned that so many people have embraced the intention and mechanism behind the Khan Academy's free SAT prep, which is wonderful, and have overlooked the most important part: its content. 

Anyone that knows anything about my prep method knows two things: 

  1. I believe that test prep should be based on fundamentals taught in school in preparation for college. The SAT and ACT both truly test concepts and rules we learn in high school. Prep should reinforce those.
  2. I'm convinced that the idea that the SAT and ACT require a primarily strategy-based approach has terrified students by tacitly communicating that they aren't intelligent and educated enough to just take the test. The more familiar and grounded the prep, the less anxiety students experience approaching the tests. 

Keeping these two things in mind, the Khan Academy's program content is deeply disappointing. I hate to say it, but there's no getting around it. 

The easiest way to illustrate this is to actually look at a practice problem and explanation from the KA site, so let's do that. 


Question 3, below, shows an inequality that asks students to solve for a variable c. This is not a trick question; in fact, this question reflects a problem that looks exactly like something a student would see in Algebra I. Anyone who successfully passed Algebra I should be able to answer this question, and the fastest way to answer--and to confidently reach the correct answer-- is to isolate and solve for the variable just like you would in class. 

That's it. Solve for c

GUYS, it is not at all unreasonable to expect any student applying to college to know how to successfully perform the appropriate mathematical operations to solve this problem. 

Not only that, a student who has not been exposed to any kind of alternative prep "strategy" would only be familiar with the algebraic process s/he learned in school, so his/her intuition should dictate that the solution lies in simply solving the problem.

Let's look at the question and the Khan "solutions."  

  1. So, of course we entered an incorrect answer here to see what happened. You'll see that all the incorrect answer choices address mistakes a student might have made in solving the inequality as if they were in Algebra class, which is exactly the right thing to do. If a student cannot perform those operations, s/he needs to review the appropriate way to solve an inequality, to reinforce what s/he learned in school
  2. The most bizarre thing here is the explanation of how to solve the problem if you answer incorrectly doesn't offer the algebraic method! The method offered presumes the student can't perform the inequality steps correctly but then suggests the student use higher order mathematical analysis to solve the problem instead. Not to be ridiculous, but a student who is so insecure about algebraic basics is unlikely to be the kind of student who should (or could) confidently resort to higher order thinking that relies on mathematical rationale borne of a real understanding of number behavior. This is what happens when particularly gifted mathematicians building prep websites try to imagine what it's like to not be strong at mathematics and recommend "easy" solutions. 
  3. It's also terrifying to be told not to solve a problem the way you were originally taught, the way your instinct says you should, but rather to use some swift thinking. You want to know why students are afraid of standardized tests? This is why. Tutors and companies that hawk these strategies don't just tell kids to solve the problems and get on with their lives. 
  4. Not only that, it's incredibly poor advice to ask any student who will be taking a standardized test in a heightened state of stress to "think about" the answers instead of performing more reflexive mathematical operations that will lead them confidently to a correct--and check-able--answer. 


So maybe you do need that reinforcement about algebraic skills. Maybe you're a few years out of Algebra I. Maybe you didn't do so well in that class or had a lousy teacher. Unless you're going to get searchin' on the rest of the Khan site (literally exiting the SAT prep app), you're out of luck here.

It looks like there's a video explanation of every problem, but there isn't. This video above Question 1 (below) is the same exact video used in the "lessons" about math basics, and those lessons are all a 2 to 4 minute video that record Sal solving another, single problem. You wouldn't get a lesson about what inequalities are and what they mean-- you see him solve a problem. That's it. 

This is not the robust prep you're looking for. 


I know it sounds great that there's a connection between Khan and The College Board, but even that is actually not great news. 

The College Board is not going to allow the Khan Academy to "crack" their test.

They won't let Sal show patterns in questions or anything specific to the test. Frankly, I don't think Sal knows them anyway; in his defense, why would he? He isn't going to invest 10,000 hours in analyzing the metrics and composition of the test. He isn't a test prep tutor. 

So, absolutely, the Khan Academy website is the absolute best source for real practice problems, but they are in on anxiety-producing strategy game and they won't illuminate the SAT the way students are hoping they will because the College Board won't let them and because they aren't independent experts who could do so anyway. 

As a side note, this should make us all very leery of the newly forged ACT - Kaplan relationship, but that's a conversation for another day.