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While the stereotype that all Asian students are good at math may not be true, the average math standardized test scores for Chinese students are usually higher than the scores of Western students. Further, Chinese high school students will typically study higher levels of math before completing school than students in Western countries. Yet, many Chinese students or other ESL students may have great difficulty with the math sections of standardized tests such as the SAT, due to these tests presenting some or all of their math sections in word problem format. Word problems require vocabulary, reasoning, and in some cases specialized test taking skills to navigate and answer correctly.
Tip #1 - Scan for key words
Building the vocabulary necessary for word problems starts with effective study techniques. Math related vocabulary should be studied, not memorized. Put words for the same function into word lists, for example a word list for the function of “addition” could be: add, plus, combined, increased by, and sum. Word lists should be made as practice tests are done.
During the test, scan the problem first for key words, then read it completely. Some vocabulary may not be essential for answering the question, for example one does not need to know what a tennis court is if given a length and width and asked to find an area. Students often waste valuable test time trying to guess the meanings of words such as names or the names of places which are never necessary to answer math questions. Try to use the key words and information in the question to find the underlying math in the problem, and write an equation using numbers and variables to find a solution.
Tip #2 - Be sure you are giving the answer the question asks for
While most standardized math tests are straightforward, some such as the ACT are designed to trick students. One of the most common tricks these tests use is providing an answer in the multiple choices which is correct if the problem is not completed, or is a correct answer for one variable but the question asks for the answer to a different variable.
Relative age type questions are a common example of this trick and appear on almost every test. For example: Bob is older than Jill, who in turn is older than Amy. The sum of their three ages is 43 and the product is 2640. How old is Jill? The first answer one finds may be Amy's age or Bob's age, but these answers would be incorrect as the question specifically asks for Jill's age. Yet, all three answers may be included as a possible choice.
Tip #3 - Use test taking skills specific to math questions for increased speed
Math questions are unique in that they allow for unique test taking skills. These skills apply to both word problems and equations. Process of elimination and reasoning skills can help eliminate impossible answers. For example, questions about a person's age can never be a negative number and are not likely to be over 100. Eliminating these choices first can help narrow down possible answers and make better use of limited time.
Further, tests differ on whether the test taker is penalized for incorrect guesses. If there is no penalty for wrong answers, it is a better use of time to guess on questions which one completely does not understand. Process of elimination can help make these guesses more likely to be correct.
Solid math skills are not always enough to score highly on a standardized math test in English. Vocabulary, reasoning, and test taking skills are all important tools to be successful.