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A Range of Difficulties on Standardized Tests

After taking the SAT or ACT students will often complain that the test was tougher than what they practiced for. They will also often say that it was easier than they expected. However, these observations don’t necessarily mean that student scores will go up or down. On the contrary, a test isn’t helpful to colleges trying to gauge a student’s ability if the test isn’t consistent. In order to ensure consistency in score the ACT and SAT curve scores according to the difficulty of the specific test taken.

So what does the mean for students taking the test? Well, first of all, students should do a wide range of practice from the easiest things they can find to the toughest.  Practicing a wide range of difficulties will allow students to be ready for anything.  This will hopefully allow students to remain calm on the test no matter what is thrown at them.

Second, students need to remember to stick to their strategies regardless of the difficulty. The temptation with easy tests is to zip right through it. However, this leads to simple, small mistakes; the curve on the easier tests makes those mistakes costly. Conversely, students need to make sure to stay calm on the tougher tests. Mistakes on those really difficult questions won’t count against them as much, but panicking will cause more mistakes. Having strategies in place and sticking to those strategies will help students maximize their scores on both ends of the spectrum.

In the end, students need to remember that they can’t control what is on the tests. They can only control how they react to it. Through careful and deliberate practice, students can ensure that they react in a calm manner which will allow them to live up to their potential!

State Funded Standardized Tests: SAT

Last year, the State of Ohio decided to pay for one standardized test for each junior in the state.  This decision was made after the ACT and SAT were included as pathways for graduation and, in part, to help reduce college application costs for families. Last year (as far as I know) all the schools here in central Ohio chose to have their juniors take the ACT. This year, however, one very large public district and one small private school are choosing to give their students the SAT as their free test.  Many of my students who attend these schools are curious as to why they are being forced to take the SAT: a test that is largely forgotten by most students in Ohio.  For many students who have chosen to focus on the ACT this is a nuisance. It is simply another test on their schedule that they have to study for even though they already have ACT scores that will take them to the college of their choice.  I believe that the school districts, however, have made a choice that will be good for many students.

The ACT and SAT are more similar now than they ever have been before. However, the tests still have differences that make some people more prone to succeed on one over another. For example, deep thinking and algebra strong students tend to succeed more readily on the SAT. Most students don’t realize this. They plan on taking the ACT because that’s what all their friends are taking and what (most) schools have as their standard junior test. By forcing students to try the SAT schools are helping students realize what test they are better on so that they can focus on it from there on out.

If your junior is at a school where they are offering the SAT encourage him or her to go in with an open mind and just do his or her best. Afterword, ask him or her which test felt more comfortable. Then, when scores come out see which one is better and have the student focus on that test moving forward. If your junior doesn’t go to a school where the SAT is being offered, consider signing up for a public test date. After all, you’ll never know if you don’t try!

When Should I Guess On the ACT?

The ACT is always quick to remind students that there is no guessing penalty on the test. Fill in every answer, they assert. But it’s more complicated than that. After all, every question is worth the exact same amount. It’s not like in school where a tough question might be worth four points while a simple one is worth one. On the ACT, regardless of difficulty, every question is worth the same. Given that it is a timed test, students should focus on completing the easy questions first so as to maximize their score potential.  Then, if you are running out of time, all that you have to guess on are the difficult questions, questions you might have missed anyway, questions that would have taken a lot of time. Leave no easy question on the table!  All you need to know to implement this strategy is where the easy questions are on the test!

The English section is the place where it is more difficult to tell the difference between easy and hard questions. In general, there are two types of questions: those that ask about nitpicky details and those that ask about the big picture. Do a practice test and try to see which ones you do worse on. Then, save those for the end of each passage. Fewer people run out of time on the English section than any other section of the test, so  it’s okay if you aren’t sure. There is a good chance you won’t need to use this strategy on the English.

The math section is the easiest to remember. The questions start out at a fairly easy level and get progressively more difficult throughout the test with the last ten questions being by far the most difficult.  If you routinely run out of time on the math focus on crushing 1-30, completing 30-50, and just guessing on 50-60.

On the reading, timing tends to be tough for just about everyone. The questions are in no particular order of difficulty so you need to learn what tough questions look like. Start on each passage with questions that tell you where the answer is. If a question says in line 27… then that will be a question that you likely can answer quickly and efficiently. Next, try to answer and questions that are brief and to the point or have simple answers.  At the end of every passage answer long and complex questions that ask about big picture ideas and complex feelings and emotions.  Since you get about nine minutes for each passage make sure you incorporate a few seconds at the end for guessing. Then, move on to the next passage where there are more easy questions.

Finally, the science has a fairly predictable pattern. Each individual passage starts out with simple questions and progresses to more difficult questions. The simple questions generally just ask for basic scientific knowledge or for you to read a graph or chart. The more difficult questions require you to make connections and apply scientific principles to specific scenarios. If you need more time on the science consider guessing on the last question of each passage.

Remember, while it is good to guess on questions you don’t have time for, it is even more effective if you ensure that the questions you guess on are the ones you would have struggled with anyway. Make sure that you practice this strategy before test day to ensure that you’re comfortable with it and happy testing!

State Sponsored ACT in Ohio: Pros and Cons

Starting this year, the state of Ohio is paying for every Junior in high school to take the ACT. Most schools are requiring every eligible student to take the test during the school day sometime in the next month.  The ACT is now one of the simplest ways to complete testing requirements for graduation; one path to graduation involves receiving a 22 on the math, 21 on the reading, and 18 on the English. Free testing makes things very easy for the schools.  There is no longer any excuse for students not to have an ACT score for graduation or college applications! This is great for low income students who previously might not have been able to take the test due to cost! It is also great for students who have anxiety and want to take the test in a familiar environment. However, the way the state has set up the testing, along with the choices several districts have made, may actually have negative consequences on several different groups of students.

My biggest concern is that the state has chosen not to pay for students to take the writing portion of the test.  For students who cannot afford to pay for the ACT (the students who this is supposed to be helping) this is their only chance at this test. Many universities  require the writing portion, so these students will be cut off from applying! In addition, highly exclusive schools want to see a writing score for every test that their applicants take; students from Ohio may look bad to these schools because they were required to sit for an ACT without the writing portion.

Similarly, students who are very high achieving will most likely be applying to schools that require ALL test results be submitted. These schools generally don’t want to see students taking the test more than three or four times as it can begin to look desperate. These students will have to “waste” a test sitting on the in school test on which they may not do as well.

There are two main reasons that students may not do as well on the in-school tests as on regular Saturday tests.  First, students have been trained not to prepare for in-school standardized tests. Their teachers make them do small practice tests, but generally students do not study outside the classroom. Not many students took time out of their days to study for the old OGT or the more recent PARCC tests. The preparation given by the school was really all they did. However, students can benefit greatly by preparing for the ACT outside of school, they just may not think to do so if they see it as just the next in a long line of standardized tests they  have to take for graduation.

The secondary reason students may not do as well on the in-school tests is that many schools are only offering on screen ACTs.  Tests on computers have several setbacks. It is difficult to flip through the test, to go back and answer questions you chose to leave for the end.  It is impossible to write on the test; students will not be able to circle key words in questions or underline important parts of the reading comprehension test. In addition, computers have a myriad of problems associated with them, they can get unplugged, run out of battery, go offline, or crash. Finally, students will have to stare at a screen for four hours, straining their eyes and making them even more tired than they normally would be during this test. Schools choosing the computer option aren’t doing their students any favors.

While this in-school test may be a wonderful opportunity for many students, if it’s not good for you make sure you do something about it! If you think you may be adversely affected by these tests then talk to your guidance counselor! Explain your concerns and ask if you can be exempted from the test. If you have already taken the ACT they may be willing to allow it, especially if you have legitimate concerns which you explain respectfully. If your guidance counselor tells you that he or she “can’t make that call,” ask who can make the call and get in touch with them. Remember, you are the best advocate for yourself. Stand up for your rights and for what is best for you.

 

I hope you have found this blog informational! If you enjoyed it please consider sharing it with your colleagues or friends!

Michal Strawn

New ACT Accommodations for English Language Learners

The ACT has long been a test with which English Language Learners (ELLs) struggled. The test is based largely on the English language; even the math portion requires a thorough understanding of English. However, the ACT will soon allow for accommodations for students who are still learning English.  The ACT wants to ensure that the test accurately reflects the potential of the students who take it and so they will be allowing certain aids for students who are ELLs. These accommodations include

  • Up to time and a half on the test
  • A bilingual word to word glossary (not containing definitions)
  • Test instructions in the native language of the student (limited to certain languages)
  • Separate room testing

These accommodations will be available to students starting in the fall of 2017 to students who are enrolled in their school’s English learners program!

How Many Times Should I Take the ACT or SAT?

 

How many times should you take the SAT or ACT?  Ask this question of a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen different answers.  Here are my thoughts on this, based on my tutoring experience, personal experience, and from reading everything I could find on the topic.

The Quick answer:  If you take the ACT and SAT 3 times each, you really don’t have anything to worry about.  Taking it more times than this could start to look a bit desperate, and taking it fewer times than this may not allow for the best performance.  Also, statistics from ACT and SAT indicate that test scores tend to plateau after 2 tests.  But what you should do really depends on your personal situation.  So, let’s break down some things for you to consider when deciding how many times to take the ACT or SAT.

First, here are some things everyone should do:

  1. Determine the score use policy from the college.  You can use this document from the College Board to find out more:  http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/sat-score-use-practices-list.pdf. Do this because if all the colleges to which you are applying will take the best overall score, then take the SAT or ACT as many times as you want!  If some of the colleges require all sets of past test scores¸ you may have to watch out that you don’t appear too desperate by taking it 5-6 times.  Many of the more selective schools do require that you send in all your past scores, but less selective schools generally do not require this.  (I have never come across a college that averages all past SAT or ACT test scores, so don’t be concerned about that).  Check with the individual colleges to be sure on their requirements.
  2. Practice before you take the SAT or ACT so your scores will look good.  There is no reason you can’t at least familiarize yourself with the ACT and SAT before you take them.  If you are on this website, you are already part way there!  You want to do this if for no other reason than you don’t want ACT or SAT to think that you may have cheated if you have substantially improved scores the next time (this happened to a student of mine once).

Now, let’s investigate the pros and cons of taking the ACT or SAT more than 3 times so you can make a decision for yourself:

Pros of taking the ACT or SAT more than 3 times:

  1. Most colleges superscore the SAT, and some do for the ACT.  Superscoring is taking the best score from each section of the test from multiple test dates, arriving at one “superscore”.  By taking the ACT or SAT multiple times, you can have an increased superscore even if your composite score does not improve.  Check with individual colleges on whether they superscore.
  2. You have the opportunity for more scholarship money.  Although your score may be fine to get you into a particular college, you open yourself up to many more scholarship opportunities by having a higher score.
  3. I can’t find any college that averages the SAT scores.  You don’t have to worry about a bad test date bringing down your overall score.  I’ve looked and looked, and I can’t find any college that treats test scores in this way.
  4. Score Choice for the SAT, only one set of scores for the ACT.  When you register for the SAT, you can select the “Score Choice” option that will make it so that you only send in scores from the test date you wish.  There are some colleges that will require all test scores from any date, but these are more selective institutions. The ACT only sends in one set of scores from a test date.  You can pick and choose what you want them to see, unless they require all test scores.
  5. Can simply leave the score BLANK on the application – it is not lying.  If you are applying to a school where they do not require all test scores, there is nothing wrong with omitting a bad score on your college application.  If the ACT went much better for you than the SAT, only put the ACT score down on the application.
  6. It is unlikely that the person making your admissions decisions will bother to go through all your test records.  Admission officers have to read thousands of college applications.  They will likely take any measures they can to make their jobs easier.  Often, after a secretary has entered the scores into a form for them, they will simply look at only the highest scores to make the decision.
  7. You’ll know you won’t have any regrets.  If you go ahead and give the ACT or SAT another try, you’ll at least know at the end of your senior year that you did all you could to get into the college of your choice.
  8. Your brain continues to change and you continue to learn in school, even without test prep.  The human brain continues to develop and change all the way up through age 25.  Even if you have done no test prep, giving the ACT or SAT another try after some time has passed may result in improvement because of your biological changes, and also because of your general academic progress.
  9. Cultural hostility towards doing it multiple times due to how it’s done elsewhere.  Don’t let a cultural bias prevent you from taking the SAT or ACT again.  In many countries, like China for example, there is only one opportunity to take the college entrance exam.  Students expect that they should be absolutely flawless in their preparation before giving the test a try.  That is simply not the case with the American University system.  There are many, many opportunities to give it a try.

Cons of taking the SAT or ACT more than 3 times:

  1. Will you look Desperate?  Colleges don’t want to have “grade-grubbing” desperate students – they want talented, curious, and level-headed ones.  Will your repeated test-taking attempts make it look like you have massive insecurities and that you won’t have much room for intellectual growth at the university level?
  2. Despite score choice, some colleges will require all scores anyway.  As discussed above, if you are applying to highly selective schools, they may require all scores, so you want to be sure that what they see puts you in the best possible light.
  3. Does your High School Transcript record the test scores?  Check with your guidance office to see if they will automatically send in your scores as part of your transcript.  Many high schools do, and despite all your score choice and planning, colleges may receive all your scores no matter what.  If your school does do this, consider omitting your high school code when you take the ACT or SAT and you may avoid having it show up in your school transcript.
  4. Waste of time and money, lots of frustration. It is true that students tend to plateau after a couple of tests.  It does cost a decent amount of money and takes a huge chunk of time to do the ACT and SAT, so make sure it is worth the time and money to do it.

 For most people, the pros of taking the ACT or SAT more than 3 times seem to outweigh the cons.  Think about your personal situation and figure out what makes the most sense for you.

A final word:  Are there any people who shouldn’t worry at all about taking it a bunch of times?  Absolutely!  Here are some potential situations:

  1. Athletes looking for a score for admission.  If you are being recruited by a school and they have told you will get in with a certain score, take it until you have what you need!  I can think of no downside to this.
  2. Someone already in to a school looking for a magic number for a scholarship. I have had students in my classes who have already graduated from high school, but who can earn far more in scholarship money be attaining a certain score.  I have even had students who only focused on what part of the test, like the SAT Critical Reading, when they took it because the other scores were fine for a scholarship.  Take it until you get what you need!
  3. You’re taking it as a seventh or eighth grader.  No need for concern about a college later rejecting you based on your talent search score.  Go ahead and give it a try to see if you are eligible for summer programs.
  4. You’re ONLY applying to schools that take the best score.  If you’ve done your research and you know for a fact that you are in this unusual situation, go ahead and take the ACT or SAT until you are all set.

Thanks for reading! I hope you have found this information helpful!

 

 

 

The July ACT

The ACT recently announced that they would be adding a new test date in 2018. The new date will be sometime in July. This is causing some students to ask “should I take important tests over the summer?” The answer to this question is multi-faceted.

Take a summer test if:

  1. You’re busy during the school year.

If your school year is packed full of activities, trips, homework, work, and other obligations you may not have time to properly prepare! If the summer is less stressful, the July test may be perfect for you! You would have all of June and at least part of July to prepare, free from the stress of school.

  1. You have definitive goals.

If you know exactly what score you want, then the July test might be a good idea, especially if you’re a rising senior. Rising seniors should have already taken the test once and know what score they’re shooting for. The July test allows these students an extra chance to reach those goals. Rising juniors probably don’t have to worry about these tests yet and can wait until the September or October tests to start.

  1. You are applying early action or early decision and want an extra chance.

If you will be a rising Senior next summer and you know that you’ll be applying early action or early decision you may want to take advantage of the July test as if gives you an extra opportunity to raise your scores. Before, you would have only had the September and possibly October test to reach those scores before applications were due. Now you have an extra opportunity.

Don’t take a summer test if:

  1. You tend to forget things.

If you’re a student who forgets what they studied as soon as a unit is over, this test may not be for you. The July test will take place at least a month after you’ve left school for the summer so your English and math scores may suffer if you have a “summer brain.”

  1. You aren’t self-motivated.

Yes, the July test gives you all of June and part of July to prepare. However, if you’re the type of person who can’t self-structure study time then this test might not be your best bet. During the school year, you have a definitive schedule into which you can work some ACT prep. However, during the summer you have all free time so you may not feel as motivated to get that work done! Unless you’re on top of things, leave test taking until the school year!

  1. You’re not a “morning person.”

The ACT is a morning test. This, in general, isn’t great for teenagers whose circadian rhythms make them “night owls.” However, during the school year most teens are used to getting up early, even if they don’t like it.  If, once summer rolls around, you revert to nocturnal ways, this test may not be for you. Wait until the school year when you’ll be used to waking up early. That way, your brain can be operating at full capacity.

 

I hope you have found this article to be helpful! If so, please share it with your friends!

Michal Strawn

ACT Science Content

Although many people claim that the ACT Science test does not require any background knowledge, they are incorrect.  If you examine several ACT tests, you will find that you must have basic knowledge from these two high school courses:

  • Physical Science
  • Biology

They require you to have this background knowledge because high school juniors across the country should have taken these two courses, no matter the rigor of their individual high schools.  Expect to see just a handful of questions that involve actual background knowledge from these two areas.

If you have taken advanced science, such as AP Chemistry or AP Physics, that certainly won’t hurt you.  It will help in the sense that your general ability to reason through scientific charts and graphs will be stronger, not because you need to have specific knowledge from any of those areas.

The material they present on the passages can come from all sorts of general scientific areas:  physics, chemistry, biology, botany, zoology, astronomy, geology, and so forth.

The ACT Science Section has 3 types of passages:

  • Data Representation (38%). There are three of this type of passage, and each passage has 5 questions.  You will need to evaluate information presented in graphs, tables and figures.
  • Research Summaries (45%). There are three of this type of passage, and each passage has 6 questions.  You will need to analyze 2 or more experimental summaries, thinking about the results and the experimental design.
  • Conflicting Viewpoints (17%). You will only have 1 passage of this type, and it has seven questions.  It will present viewpoints from anywhere from 2 up to several scientists.  You will need to read a good bit here, although sometimes there is a graph or two given as well.  You will need to sharpen your ability to compare and contrast differing scientific explanations.

The passages are in a random order of difficulty, so just be on your toes to think critically at any point.

I hope you found this article helpful!  If you did, please share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart

The ACT English Section

So what is on the ACT English? The ACT provides great information on what is on their test; that information is often hard to understand. I’ve broken it down for you here!

Usage/Mechanics – Half of the ACT English Test

  • Punctuation (13%).  Primarily you need to know commas.  Also, review usage of semicolons, colons, and dashes.  It is critical that you don’t just know simple punctuation rules but that you also know how proper punctuation affects the meaning of sentences.
  • Grammar and Usage (16%).  Look at subject verb agreement – words that need to agree with one another will often be separated, so you’ll really have to pay close attention to context.  Watch out for vague pronouns, idioms, and proper adjective and adverb usage.  Basically, make sure that the intended meaning matches up with the actual meaning.
  • Sentence Structure (24%).  You have to be more than a proofreader – you need to be an editor.  Be certain that individual words and longer clauses are placed in a logical order.

Rhetorical Skills – The Other Half of the ACT English Test

  • Strategy (16%). You will need to examine the intent of the author, and pick answers that do what the author actually intended to do.  You will also need to see if phrases and sentences are relevant, or if they can be removed.
  • Organization (15%).  You need to know where sentences and phrases should be placed – rearrange things until they make sense.  Also, you need to connect paragraphs, sentences and phrases with logical transitional words, like “but”, “also”, or “because”, as demanded by the situation.  You’ll  need to be able to see what a sensible introduction or a conclusion would be based on the context.
  • Style (16%). This is big picture stuff. How do you make an individual sentence have the same tone as the rest of an essay?  Depending on what the goal of the author is, how do you pick the best wording to express what is wanted?  How can you be clear with pronouns?  How can you prevent needless repetition and wordiness?

Check out our full length practice test and see how you do!

What to expect on the ACT: Timing

 

If you’re taking the ACT, you’re in for a long morning.  You should arrive at the test center before 8 AM in order to find your room and check in.  You will then have a roughly 4 hour test in front of you.

The ACT is broken up into four sections with an optional fifth section:  English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing.  To remember the order in which the test sections fall, simply remember that they go in alphabetical order!  

Here is the breakdown for timing of the test, and how you should pace yourself on the ACT:

English Test – 45 minutes, 75 questions, 5 passages.  You should take about 9 minutes per passage.

Math Test – 60 minutes, 60 questions.  Questions increase in difficulty so start out quickly and then slow down about half way through.

You then have a 10 minute break when you should have a snack!  Bring it yourself. 

Reading Tests – 35 minutes, 40 questions, 4 passages.  Take about 9 minutes per passage.

Science Test – 35 minutes, 40 questions, 6-7 passages.  Take about 5 minutes per passage.

If you are sticking around for the writing, you have a 5 minute break.  If you are not doing the ACT Writing, you can go home at this time. 

Optional ACT Essay – 40 minutes.  Spend about 5 minutes prewriting, and 30 minutes writing and 5 minutes editing.  They typically give you 4-5 pages on which to write.

 

As the tests go on, they become more difficult for most students to finish.  English is very easy to complete, and Science is quite tough.  Practice ahead of time so that you have a good internal feel for the pace at which you should go.  Also, by practicing, you will have a good idea of whether it makes sense to skip and guess on some questions.  Remember, there is no penalty for guessing on the ACT, so if you don’t complete all the questions, be sure to at least bubble something in for each question.

I hope you found this article helpful!  If you did, please share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart