by Susan Henninger
If your son or daughter plans to attend college there’s no escaping standardized testing. However, families do have some control over which test the teen takes, how often they decide to take it, and how they choose to prepare for it. All American colleges and universities now accept scores from either the SAT or ACT which places the burden of choice squarely on the families and your teen. We asked three experts in the education field to share their valuable perspectives about this “hot topic.”
Stephanie Dana is the Department Chair of the Counseling Office at Penfield High School and works with a number of teens each year, helping them prepare for this milestone.
Colin Gruenwald, Director of the Kaplan Test Prep Program, oversees Kaplan programs all over the world, including in upstate New York. In this role, he also writes program curriculum, trains Kaplan teachers, and has coached numerous high school students.
Theresa Yin Michna is a private educational coach who has worked with hundreds of teens in New York and Connecticut, helping them prepare for both the SAT and the ACT.
What’s the Difference?
Parents frequently want to know if one test is better than the other for certain types of teens. Stephanie describes the ACT as being more achievement-based, with the questions tending to be more like what the teens are used to seeing on their high school exams and the SAT as more of an aptitude test, stronger in measuring reasoning skills and basic abilities.
In Colin’s experience assuming that one test will be better than another isn’t advisable. “The only predictor is taking the test,” he asserts. Where a student’s temperament can definitely influence scores, he says, is in the subtle differences in timing and content in each test. The SAT is composed of ten sections and students are given 10-25 minutes to complete each one. “You never know what you’ll see next when you turn the page,” Colin explains. “Kids who fluster easily and have trouble transitioning quickly may not like the SAT as much.” The ACT has four core sections, all longer than the SAT’s. These always appear in the same order and are the same length and style. “You need more endurance for the ACT but it’s very predictable,” he says.
There are two common misperceptions about the tests that Theresa hears over and over again. People tend to believe that the Math Section will be easier on the SAT because the ACT has trigonometry questions. This isn’t true, she stresses because the SAT math questions are logic and aptitude based, making them much trickier than those on the ACT. The second erroneous belief is that, if a student is good at science, they will do better on the ACT. Also false says Theresa. The science section on the ACT actually requires less scientific knowledge and more of an ability to read quickly and be able to interpret data, charts, or graphs.
What About Pre-testing?
Teens have the option of taking the PSAT and/or the PLAN to see how their scores compare before signing up for the SAT or ACT. Stephanie encourages all of Penfield’s eleventh graders to take the PSAT, which Penfield offers. “It’s very helpful,” she asserts. “It gives them a sense of what the exam will be like and pinpoints where they need to prepare more and where they’ll need to improve their score.” She adds, “It can be very hard for the kids when their first test score comes back, but we remind them that practice makes perfect.”
According to Colin, it’s imperative that students take a practice test so they’ll know exactly how much studying they’ll need to do to get into the college of their choice. “It’s like running a marathon,” he explains. “You don’t just show up and run it, you need to know what doing well means for you and how much work that will involve on your part.” Theresa adds that families also have the option of taking a pre-diagnostic test. These timed tests encompass three sections of the SAT and four of the ACT and are designed to determine which standardized test would be a better fit for a student’s testing ability. “The families I work with are 100% behind this idea,” she says. “It’s a real time-saver that provides valuable information.”
What’s the Magic Number?
Stephanie recommends that Penfield teens take the SAT or the ACT in the spring of their junior year and retake it in the fall of their senior year. She encourages students to take both tests, if they have the time and resources to do so, to see if one feels like a better fit. According to Colin, there is no right or wrong number of times to take the exam but he strongly suggests that students not enter the testing process with the mindset, “I’ll take the exam six times if I need to because I can.” Rather, he recommends that the teen determine the score they need to get into the colleges of their choice, come up with a plan as to how they’ll achieve this, and then “Just do it!”
The Parent’s Role
According to Theresa, parents are much more involved with their teens’ test performance than in the past. “There’s a strong belief among parents that how their child does on the standardized test will have a major impact on how they apply to college, so the stakes are high,” she explains. With this mindset, achieving a high score on the ACT and SAT can become prohibitively expensive and diagnostic testing, private tutoring, group classes, and the fees for the actual exams can quickly add up to thousands of dollars. When there’s a large sum of money involved, most parents want to be very clear on the cost and benefits of the coaching/tutoring service which Theresa feels is reasonable. “They’re the client and they’re paying for the educational services so they need to understand exactly what they’ll be getting and then you need to deliver it,” she says.
Colin’s view is that parents should be like a coach, creating a positive and encouraging study environment for the student rather than hovering over or pressuring them. “You’ll notice that the coach isn’t on the field running or throwing the ball,” he elaborates. “Parents can find other ways to help in the college admission process; they don’t need to focus on the test.” Teens need to take the initiative from the start and accept ownership for how they perform on the test, he concludes.
Three Simple Ways to Improve Test Scores
There are a few easy things parents can implement from day one that will help their kids do better on the standardized tests in high school.
Read, read, and read some more!
Kids who are proficient readers tend to score much higher on both the SAT and the ACT. Any reading material will do but if there’s a specific area your teen is interested in, tempt them away from their iPhone or iPad with at subscription to magazines like “The Economist,” “Scientific America,” or “National Geographic.” All three professionals emphasize that strong reading skills and reading fluency are highly correlated with successfully mastering problem-solving skills found on the standardized tests.
Play more board games
Strategy games like chess, checkers, backgammon, and cards encourage teens to think in different ways and to approach hypothetical situations and questions in different ways instead of just relying on a single way of doing things.
Practice realistic problem-solving
Fixing and repairing things at home is a great way to develop reasoning skills. Sewing and cooking projects also require certain abilities like ratios, measurements, and fractions, as do science fairs and community activities like the Boy Scout’s Pinewood Derby.
Preparing for the SAT and ACT
Study independently. The three experts agree that there are plenty of free resources on both the SAT and ACT websites for students to access. Teens can also buy exam study guides at a local bookstore or get study materials from their high school. If the teen wants a little more structure, low-cost review sessions may be offered at local community centers or libraries. With a little planning, self-motivated students can prepare for either test on their own and score well if they are able to set aside time to study and take practice tests each night and on the weekends prior to the exam.
Enroll in a group program such as Kaplan, Sylvan Learning Center, or Huntington Learning Center. These courses are run by trained instructors, are priced differently, and call for specific time commitments on the students’ part. Colin clarifies that there are certain resources, strategies, and study drills that testing centers like Kaplan offer that a student won’t find on their own or online. “We created the test prep industry seventy years ago,” he explains. Kaplan also provides its students with a detailed report and score analysis designed to help them see what they got wrong and why. Based on this, the instructors work with the teen to create a study plan that will help them achieve the score they want and use their study time efficiently and effectively.
Hire a private educational coach or tutor. These professionals teach test-taking strategy and their cost will vary, depending on the number of sessions a family decides on. Theresa begins with a brief, one-session pre-diagnostic, asking the student to answer some sample questions she’s drawn from actual exams, questions she believes assess certain skills that each test requires. “This gives me clues to what the student can and can’t do,” she explains. “Then I ask them how they came up with the answer because the way they reason is actually the most important factor.” She also asks her student clients about their class likes and dislikes and study habits. “Having a professional educator sit down with you and provide you with a personal evaluation based on their experience and expertise can make a real difference for some teens."
Sue Henninger is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. She lives in the Upstate New York area. Her oldest son is a junior in college, her middle son is a college freshman, and her youngest son is in the middle of his college search process. Contact her at www.fingerlakeswriter.com