Why Do Unreasonable Expectations Seem Reasonable?

Grades in school are often not indicative of how a student will do on the ACT or SAT.

This is unfortunate but true. A lot of tutoring starts with something along the lines of “I just don’t understand! Her grades in school are so good. She has a 4.2 and is multiple advanced courses; we just don’t understand why her ACT isn’t at least a 28.” There are a few issues with this mindset. The biggest issue is that the ACT isn’t a test over what the student has learned in school: it’s a test of critical thinking.

School grades, for the most part, are a reflection of how well a student can memorize things and understand concepts. The ACT tests how students can apply those concepts in new situations. This is something that is rarely practiced in school. In addition, there are almost unlimited opportunities for grade improvement at school. Teachers offer test corrections, extra credit, and close to unlimited time to finish work. Teachers want students who show up and work hard to succeed and to have good grades. The pressure on teachers not to fail students is immense. This leads to grade inflation. For all these reasons, a good GPA often does not translate to good ACT scores even though it seems like, reasonably, it would.

Getting tutoring or working hard does not guarantee large improvements.

Because of the school system just described, students and parents alike are conditioned to believe that if a student simply works hard and seeks the appropriate help their scores will reach the level they would like. This is, unfortunately, not the case. Tutoring and hard work will help a student learn how to think through the questions on the test; critical thinking can indeed be improved. However, most students will eventually hit their natural limit. It would be cruel to put the expectation on any high school runner that they could turn into a 21st century Jesse Owens through just hard work in high school.

 In the same way that physical limitations will always exist for athletes, mental limitations exist for students. The ACT and SAT are both designed to find these natural limitations, whether they be high, low, or, like most, in the middle. The good news is that this will generally not prevent a student from continuing their education after high school. On the contrary, the United States has a very wide range of colleges, universities, and trade schools that cater to students at all levels, and using standardized tests to discover a student’s abilities and limitations allows students to attend a school where they can be successful!

Set reasonable expectations.

Because of points 1 and 2 students and parents alike need to set reasonable expectations. It is wonderful when expectations are surpassed, but there is nothing quite so heartbreaking as when a student improves through hard work and the result is disappointment on the side of the student and/or parent. To set reasonable expectations, let’s talk about percentiles on the ACT.

The ACT is designed on a curve. The 50th percentile is a score that tends to hovers between 19 and 20 nationally. This will not change. No matter how much students across the nation study, the test will be adjusted so that 50% of students fall below the 20 mark and 50% rise above it. When a student gets a 20 they are often disappointed, they think that is a terrible score. Parents, peers, and teachers often agree. None of them realize that this is actually just about the national average!

Now, let’s talk about goal scores. Those who start at 20 often set their hearts on 25, 28, or 30. In this situation, a 25 on the ACT would be in the 78th percentile or a 28 percentile point increase over a 20. A 28 would be in the 88th percentile or a 38 percentile point increase. A 30 would be in the 93rd percentile and a 43 percentile point increase. What this means is that a student would have to, between one test and the next, leap frog over 43% of his or her peers (most of whom are also studying) in order to move from a 20 to a 30. This would be not a leap of knowledge but of critical thinking. This is not a reasonable goal. Such goals put undue pressure on the student and in ninety-nine percent of cases lead to dashed hopes no matter how much hard work is done. A reasonable goal will depend on what score the student starts at and what their natural abilities are, and no matter what the score is, there will be colleges that are open to them. A good tutor will be able to help you set those reasonable goals, work toward achieving them, and reach your potential.

If you have questions or comments about the ACT or SAT, how to prepare for the tests, or what reasonable goals might look like please get in touch! Helping students reach their potential is our number one goal.


Statistics source: https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/MultipleChoiceStemComposite.pdf

ACT and SAT Similarities and Differences

Should a student take the ACT, SAT, or both? In general, it is advisable for students to try each test at least once to see how it goes. This table outlines the most important similarities and differences between the ACT and SAT so you know which might end up being a better fit.

ACTSimilaritiesSAT
FormatFour Sections: English, Math, Reading, Science

Optional Section: Writing
Both take about 4 hours to complete Four Sections: Reading, Writing & Language, Math Without Calculator, Math With Calculator

No Essay Section
ScoringScored between 1-36. Composite score is an average of the four individual sections.Both tests are graded on a curve.Reading and Writing & Language Section is half the score, and Math is the other half. Each section is scored between 200-800, with a total composite score between 400-1600.
TimingNeed to read about 200-250 words per minute to complete Reading section. Need to do each math question in about a minute. Both tests offer extended time accommodations to students who qualify. Need to read about 100-150 words per minute to complete Reading section. Need about 1-1.5 minutes to complete each math question.
ContentHas a stand-alone science section. Important to memorize math formulas, and from a broader array of topics, like matrices and logarithms. Both test reading and grammar skills, math through pre-calculus, and graph analysis skills. Has evidence-based questions on the reading. Some math formulas are provided. Math focuses more in-depth on the fundamentals of algebra and problem solving. No science section, but graph and data analysis throughout the test sections.
Who Prefers?Students who are able to complete the ACT typically prefer it. Also students who have extended time are usually able to comfortably read all the material. Students who have performed well on the Pre-ACT.Students who have good reading comprehension, grammar knowledge, and math skills tend to do well on both tests. Colleges throughout the United States will accept either the ACT or SAT. Students who like more time to complete their work. Also, students who prefer more in-depth analysis questions (like word problems and evidence-based questions on the reading). Students who have performed well on the PSAT.

Mini Blog FAQ: Why Do I Have to Take the ACT?

The ACT is a test that is currently used by colleges and universities across the United States to judge students’ college readiness. It is one of many criteria used by admissions officers to decide who will be admitted. It is also a graduation requirement in some states and school districts. The SAT is a similar test that is used in a similar way. Colleges and universities that require an admissions test will accept either the ACT or the SAT so students can choose which one is the better fit for their skills.

Read more on figuring out which test is a better fit for you.

What to Expect on Test Day

So you’ve practiced, registered, and driven to the test site. But what actually happens behind those closed doors?  It’s nearly impossible to create a practice environment that will mimic the environment of the test. However, knowing what to expect on test day can help calm nerves and improve scores. It’s important to stay flexible as your experience can vary from one site to another and one proctor to another. However, here is a little bit of what you can expect on test day.

Before you get to the test you should know what to bring with you and where to drive and park. If you don’t know these things about your testing site do some research so that you are well prepared on test day. When you first arrive, you’ll see a check in table. Take your ID and your entrance ticket to the table to check in. They’ll compare the picture on your ID and your ticket to your face, check your information, and give you directions to your testing room. They may also check you for non-allowed items. There is often a long line to check in. Arrive early to avoid having to wait and worry! Once you arrive at the test room the proctor should again check your face to either your ticket or ID. Generally, the proctor will then direct you to a specific seat, though some allow seat choice.

From the time you check in until you walk out the door after the test is totally over, you may NOT touch any electronic devices. The best option is to leave them at home or in the glove compartment of your car. If you choose to take it into the test it should be completely powered down. Not on silent, not on airplane mode, but OFF. If your phone goes off during the test you will be excused and your test will not be scored. In addition, the other students in your room may also be excused as well. Nothing is worth that. Don’t touch any electronic devices!

Before the test, you should hear the same instructions regardless of what site you’re at. The proctor will tell you exactly what to do, what to fill in, and any other pertinent information. Then, you begin the test.

Timing is standard across the board. Make sure you know how much time you get for each section of the test. The tests companies do not require that there be a clock in the room where you test, so make sure that you take your own watch. The proctor is required to give you a five-minute warning. Some proctors may be nice and give you more updates- I know of one site  that even starts a giant countdown on the whiteboard- but the five-minute warning is the only one that you can count on receiving.

You entitled to a 15 minute break halfway through the test. During this break the proctor may make you all get up and leave the room or he or she may allow you to stay, but this break is mandated by the test company. Make use of it. Even if the proctor allows you to remain in the room, get up and leave. You should eat a snack, stretch your legs, drink some water, and use the restroom. Do not sit in your seat and stare at the wall for 15 minutes. That is just enough time for your brain to shut off!

The environment of the room should be comfortable. There shouldn’t be noise, and it shouldn’t be freezing cold or boiling hot. You shouldn’t be easily distracted by anything going on within the room or nearby. In short, there should be no distractions that would continually take your attention away from the test.

If any of these things go wrong. If the proctor messes up the timing, if the fluorescent light above you is strobing throughout the test, if you don’t get your break, or if anything else is done that is not according to the testing guidelines, you should report it to the testing company. Testing companies work very hard to ensure that the tests are administered under fair and uniform conditions. If it is found that a mistake or disturbance did occur, the testing companies will to their best to make it right, from a refund to a free re-take.

Finally, if you’re taking the ACT you may encounter a section of the test that you’re not expecting. Sometimes, the ACT will have a 5th section after the final normal test. This section DOES NOT affect your score in any way. The ACT is merely using you as a guinea pig to test out some new passages and questions that they may use in the future. Everyone may have different questions, and some students may not get a 5th section at all. Do your best on this section to help future students have a fair test, but don’t let it stress you out in any way!

I hope you have found this information helpful in preparing for your test!

Taking the Online Version of the ACT—Pros and Cons

For the past few years, the state of Ohio has paid for all juniors to take one standardized test for free in the spring. Generally, schools in Ohio (with a few exceptions) have chosen the ACT as it is the student-preferred test in Ohio.  Over the past few years, an increasing number of schools have been offering this test only through an online portal.  With this trend increasing every year, it is a good idea to understand the pros and cons for online tests.

Pros:

The first advantage to the online test is that there is a timer on the screen. Since time management is such an issue for many students who take the ACT this is very nice.  However, timing is manageable by any student with a watch, so this is not a huge advantage. Similarly, there is a built-in calculator if a student doesn’t have one of his or her own. However, if the student is unfamiliar with the layout of this calculator, it can be as much a hindrance as a help.

A second advantage can be that many students might prefer working through a test on a screen if that is the format with which they are most familiar from school. Many schools now use tablets instead of paper versions of textbooks. For students who go to a school like this, an online version of the ACT may be more familiar.

The third and biggest pro for the online test is the speed with which test results come back. With online grading, it is just a matter of a few days before students can access their results. However, even with paper tests, ten to fifteen days is the most the majority of the students wait. I don’t think that is a big enough difference to justify switching to online tests.

 

Cons:

The cons are far more numerous. The biggest con that I see is the inability to write on the test. Many of the strategies that students find the most helpful involve interacting with the test instead of just looking at it. On the science and reading especially, circling, underlining, and writing on the test are enormously helpful. When schools decide to do online tests, they are taking away this resource from the students. When students are exhausted from this test, being able to write on the test so that they don’t have to remember everything can give their brains a bit of a break! While the online test does have some resources to cross out answers and highlight text, this is not going to be as quick or as natural as a paper test and does have limitations. In addition, students can expect a learning curve on the first part of the test until they are comfortable with the tools in the online portal. The best way to address this is to become familiar with the online portal prior to the test. We’ve included a link below that contains more information form the ACT.

Another big strategy that helps students maximize their scores is being able to do the easy questions first or skip questions and go back to them later. While the ACT online does all it can to make this easy, it still is tougher than with a paper test, which means that many students won’t focus on getting all the easy points first. Instead, they’ll do the questions in the order they are presented, often resulting in wasted time. Students may need to be reminded that the best strategy is to skip to the easy questions to start out with. They should practice doing this so that it feels more natural on the test.

The screen itself can also cause issues. Many students associate screens with entertainment. When students study with screens in front of them they are often flipping between what they should be doing and Instagram, Youtube, Reddit, music, and other distractions. While this certainly won’t be possible on the ACT, students have come to associate screens with distractions. Because of this, many students have concentration issues when they are looking at screens.

In addition, technical issues may be an issue for select students. Paper and pencil are fairly impervious to technical issues. In a school where every student is issued a computer, there is going to be a good handful of students who may not have their computer fully charged on test day. There can also be issues with internet connection, power supply, software etc. While some of these issues can be easily resolved, others can’t. Keep in mind that an easily solved issue is still going to cause stress for the student—something that should be avoided at all costs. Students who are bringing their own computer to the  test should do all they can the day before to make sure it is in good working order- an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Another issue with screens is that many school issued computers are chrome books or other similar computers that have tiny screens. This can lead to issues with being able to see all the information at once (on the reading and science) and just overall makes it more difficult to interact with the test. If possible, request to take the test on a laptop brought from home or in a computer lab. The worst that can happen is that they say no!

Finally, as any optometrist will tell you, staring at a screen for three and half hours can cause physical issues. While students may say that “they’re used to it,” they probably don’t often stare at screen for that long. Even if they don’t realize it, they likely look up and around quite often to rest their eyes. On the ACT, all these mini-breaks can really add up to time lost.

In short, if your school is considering an online test you should, if possible, request a paper test. If you absolutely can’t get a paper test, prepare for the difficulties of online testing by using this resource given by the ACT

https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/Preparing-for-Online.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0e78F_CW6MhyIFX3835GZf1XWQ1QBt7brJTTc7L4aSeJVMeCVagIJfiP0

 

This will allow you, at the very least, to become comfortable with the program prior to test day!

Best of luck!

Michal Strawn

Don’t Try Too Hard to Justify your Answers on Standardized Tests

When we take major tests like the SAT and ACT, we often expect WAY too much of ourselves by thinking that we should be able to clearly explain why we picked the answer we did. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Being able to explain why you picked the answer is a great thing.  The problem is when you feel you must spend too much time on a question because you cannot give a detailed justification to yourself as to why you picked what it is.

If you are teaching a class on test preparation, then you should definitely be able to explain and justify why a particular answer is correct.  I know that if I attempted to explain a question by simply telling a student, “well that’s just the obvious answer!”, they would ask for a refund.  If, on the other hand, you are simply taking the test, then you only need to have a good sense of what is correct.  This is a significant issue for test takers in the following situations:

  • On vocabulary questions where they hesitate to trust their intuition and instincts as to what a word might mean.
  • On math questions where they might be afraid to use unconventional methods, like plugging numbers in, because they are not what they have been taught as a “proper” method in school.
  • On grammar questions, they will know that something is incorrect, but because they can’t think of exactly what would replace it, they just leave it as is.
  • On science questions, they think they need to recall in-depth facts from school when what they actually need is just a bit of common-sense problem solving.

The SAT, ACT, and other major standardized tests are not long short answer and essay tests:  they are predominantly multiple choice.  You will not need to give extended explanations as to why an answer is correct – you simply must know that it is correct.  Do your best on these tests by letting your instincts and intuition guide you when it is called for.

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!

 

 

 

What if You are a Bad Test Taker?

Having worked with thousands of students over the years, I’ve come to realize that some students, no matter how much content and strategy help they receive, are simply not very good test-takers.  What can you do with respect to college admissions if no matter how hard you work, you can only make miniscule improvements in your test performance?  Here are six ideas:

  1. Look into extended time.  Maybe your issues with timing and test anxiety are due to an underlying learning disability that only manifests when you are doing a major test like the ACT or SAT.  If you have never been tested for a learning disability and you find that you have serious issues with attention, reading, and problem solving, it may be worth checking out.  Typically, a school psychologist will do it at no cost.  If you want to move the process along, you may need to have a private psychologist conduct some testing.  If you end up finding that you have a learning disability, you would then need to get an IEP or 504 plan through your school.  After that, you could apply for extended time for the ACT and SAT.
  2. Know it’s only part of the process. In my reading of the blogosphere and my discussions with college admissions counselors, the consensus seems to be that about ¼ of the college admissions decision is based on your standardized test performance.  If you know that tests are not your thing, be sure to make your extracurricular activities and grades as good as they can possibly be.
  3. Check out Test Optional Schools.  Many colleges are now test-optional, making it possible to gain admission to a great college while having poor performance on the ACT or SAT.  You can find a complete list on the website Fairtest.org.
  4. Submit a Portfolio. If your true intellectual talents cannot be demonstrated with a test, take the initiative to demonstrate them in a different way.  If you are a great artist, send in a portfolio of your creations.  If you excel at music, submit a CD of your recorded work.  If you are an excellent writer, direct the admissions officers to your blog or novel.  Admissions officers will only know that you have non-testable talents if you show them – the application gets accepted, not the person.
  5. Have a personal meeting with someone on the admissions staff. Schedule an in-person meeting with someone who works in the admission office at the school.  This will give you the opportunity to explain your unique situation or share accomplishments that cannot be easily presented in an application.  Most colleges will be more than happy to do this with you, provided you give them sufficient notice.
  6. Evaluate if college is really the best choice for you.  So many recent college graduates find themselves with tens of thousands in debt and only able to find jobs that they could have gotten with a high school diploma.  If you feel that you are likely to end up with a degree that won’t really help you find work, perhaps you should look into an associate’s degree in a field that is more to your liking.  There are tons of people who have made great livings starting plumbing, electrical, and web design companies, just to name a few. Check out your options!

How Going to a Great High School can Negatively Affect your SAT and ACT Performance

You would think that going to a top-notch public or private high school could only help your performance on major tests like the ACT or SAT. Although having a top-notch high school education is indeed helpful for one’s performance on these tests, I have found that it occasionally can harm students as well!

The problem is that students from top notch schools expect that they should KNOW how to do all the problems. Why wouldn’t they? After all, they have excellent teachers and great academic resources. Many elite private school students with whom I have worked become easily frustrated when they don’t see how to solve things right away. What they need to realize is that the SAT and ACT do not test your knowledge – they test your critical thinking ability. If they tested your knowledge, they would be much more like the SAT Subject Tests or the AP tests. Colleges use the SAT and ACT to see how well students can problem solve with things they haven’t seen before. Having it set up this way gives students who do not attend really good high schools the potential to demonstrate that they have room for academic growth, given the right academic environment.

If you attend a great high school, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t immediately understand a problem or a passage – in your thought process you need to let things happen, not force them to happen. If you do not attend a great high school, know that the SAT and ACT will give you the opportunity to show your intellectual potential. I hope you found this discussion helpful. If so, I would invite you to share it with your friends.

Thanks, Brian Stewart

Questions on the ACT, SAT, GED, and other Major Tests have only One Definitive Answer

One of the most helpful things for students taking the ACT, SAT, GED, or other major tests is to know that there is one definitive answer for every question.  This can be quite a change if you are used to coming across rather vague questions on school-based tests that indeed could have a couple of correct answers.  The ACT and SAT take significant steps to ensure that they do indeed only have one correct answer for each question.

They do this by testing the questions before they are given on scored tests.  The SAT does this on every test.  Each SAT has 10 sections, only 9 of which are scored.  The 10th section is an experimental section which they use to test out questions for future tests. They want to be certain that the questions are not biased towards any gender or ethnic group, and that the questions are of appropriate difficulty.  The ACT does not test its questions as frequently as does the SAT, but they seem to pick the June test date to add in an experimental 10 minute section for test-takers to do at the end of the test.  In order for these experimental sections to be valid, the test-takers cannot be aware that they are experimental.  Otherwise, students would simply go to sleep and save their energy for the questions that actually impact their score.  The test-makers are quite good at this question experimentation – the last time I took the SAT I thought I had determined which section was the experimental, but when I received my answers and test booklet in the mail, I realized I had been mistaken.
How good are the SAT and ACT at making sure there is only one definitive answer to each and every question?  Very, very good, and if they do mess up, they fix it.  Check out this great New York Times article on the appeals process for questions on the ACT and SAT:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/education/edlife/strategy.html

What struck me is that in a 22 year period, no ACT questions were thrown out.  Between 2005 and 2008, only 3 questions on the SAT were deemed to be flawed.  If and when the SAT and ACT do find that they have made an error in a question, be assured that they will take care of it and omit it from scoring.  This is one reason why it takes time for your scores to come back – ACT and SAT need time to make sure that they have not made any errors on the test, and need the opportunity to find any questions they might have to omit.

One potential reason that the ACT has a more of a spotless record is the strong possibility that the test makers repeat some questions.  I do not know this for a fact, but I do know that the ACT limits you to taking the test 12 times in your life while the SAT allows you to take the test as many times as you would like.  (I try to take the tests regularly, and I am spreading out my ACT test taking experiences so that I don’t run out!)  I can see no reason other than the possible repetition of questions as to why they would place these limits on test takers.  Once the ACT knows they have a perfectly worded question, they are in the clear and can use the questions on subsequent tests.  Since the SAT is starting fresh each time, they have more room for error.  Keep in mind that this is all just an educated conjecture on my part.

How does knowing that there is one definitive answer help in your test-taking and your test preparation?  Two ways:

 1.       Don’t waste time looking for games or tricks on the test.  Spend your time thinking instead.  There is no point in overanalyzing a question to see if there could be two correct answers; this simply isn’t going to happen on the SAT or ACT and if it does, they will omit it from scoring.

2.       Make sure you prepare with practice tests that have definitive answers.  If you are prepping with practice questions that in fact have 2 correct answers on occasion, you will drive yourself insane in overanalyzing the questions.  As a result, you will have a flawed strategy when it comes time to take the test.  So, be sure the materials you are using are high quality.  One great place you can go for solid questions is the website of the test you are taking. You can also purchase actual materials from ACT and SAT.

I hope you found this discussion helpful.  If so, I would greatly appreciate it if you passed it along to your friends.  Thanks so much.