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In the pantheon of test preparation gods, there are two largely unchallenged deities: benevolent Kaplan and wrathful Princeton Review. Their workbooks, though effective tools when worshiped appropriately, are mind-numbing constructions, dense hedge-mazes of unengaging analogies, circuitous reading-comprehension quizzes, iterated logarithms, lopsided algebraic equations, and a Noah’s ark of similes, metaphors, and antonyms. Sometimesafter the proper sacrifices have been offered up to the No. 2-pencil gods and time has been calledtest scores are higher, but no deeper understanding of anything besides needlessly complex sentence structures and ultimately pointless mathematical formulas has been gained.
Grounded in the Word, by educator Eugene Williams Sr. and his son, actor and author Eugene Williams Jr., is a different kind of study guide. By appealing to the highest authority possible, the father-son team hopes to not only conquer bedeviling standardized-test vocabulary, but also, perhaps, to make the Bible a more accessible and appealing read for kids.
“Because my father and I are both well educated, one of our big goals has always been trying to make sure that all students, but especially African-American and other minority students, get better scores on the standardized tests that are administered throughout the country,” says Williams Jr. (who, his father is quick to point out, was one of the first kids to appear with Bill Cosby in the Jell-O pudding commercials).
“With the resurgence of people being interested in religion and faith and going back to church and restoring morality to our young people, we started thinking up ways of killing two birds with one stone, hitting both of those goals,” Williams Jr. continues. “So we thought, ‘In terms of a book that teaches kids life lessons and morality, what better source is there than the Bible?’ And then, ‘What if we took some of the words from the Bible that are hardest, the most difficult to understand, and made an activity book out of them?’”
The fruit of their latest labors is Grounded in the Word, a collection of recurring standardized-test vocabulary words organized not alphabetically but by the biblical books in which they appear. By way of example: For the word “emasculated,” found in Deuteronomy 23:1, Williams Sr. and Jr. provide students the quote the word was taken from, its definition and synonyms, and then use it in a hipper, contemporary sentence so kids can better understand its meaning: “Sadam (sic) Hussein is effectively emasculated by the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.”
Grounded, Williams Jr. insists, helps fill a gap in the preparation of minority children for their SATs and PSATs. “With books out like The Bell Curve, everyone is so quick to believe that black children, Latino children, any children of color, can simply not do well on these tests, that it is impossible for them to do well, which we know is not true,” he says. “Then you have people on the other side of the coin who say that these tests are culturally biased. We maintain that they are not culturally biasedthey are exposure-biased. We know that because the black children who have been exposed to many of the concepts that are talked about on the SAT test do just as well asif not better thantheir white counterparts. So what we want to do is even out the playing field and get everyone on the same page.”Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa