FairTest vs College Board: Why Neither is Totally Right

I’ve been teaching students how to beat standardized tests like the SAT and ACT for over a decade now. Invariably, I start tutoring with those students by pointing out what should be obvious: these exams measure how well you take exams, not your aptitude or your ability to do college work.  In some cases there may be a direct correspondence: students who have excellent grades have correspondingly excellent scores.  And yet, there is a not-insignificant group of students with outstanding grades and poor scores.  Does this mean standardized testing is unreliable?  Or that it fails to consistently predict student success?  Not exactly, and yes, respectively.

Let’s back up for a moment and talk about the single best input for determining college success: the high school GPA.  Time and time again a high correlation has been shown between success and engagement in academics in high school (as represented by an unweighted GPA) and performance in college.  That’s because the GPA is a many-faceted thing.  It samples various different types of classes according to how often you took them.  Classes that meet every day are weighted more than classes that meet once a week, and yet should you take French 5 times a week and Physics 5 times a week, the GPA agnostically weights them equally.  The grades for these classes themselves are multi-faceted.  Those grades represent tests, homework, class participation, quizzes, and possibly group work and projects.  Hardly one-dimensional, the GPA is an accurate and balanced reflection of a student’s aptitude and work ethic.

A three-hour test on a given Saturday morning, on the other hand, is very much a one-dimensional thing.  Neither the SAT nor the ACT tests math levels above Trigonometry, meaning that juniors in Precalculus and beyond will need to pull out old notes to prep for the Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra 2 which are heavily featured in the math section of both of these tests.

There’s also the alleged “Science” section on the ACT, which is nothing but a glorified “interpreting charts and graphs” section which features tricky questions and purposely distorted graphics much more than legitimate science questions.

There are some useful sections to these tests.  Reading comprehension is a lifelong skill – and a skill in even greater refinement in our age of information overload.  Most students take comfort in the familiarity of the question type, even if they are cowed or bewildered by the wording of the questions or the time constraints (students are typically not given adequate time to answer the questions).

I could go on, but at this point you might (rightly) ask how I can in good conscience uphold such flawed testing by doing test prep?  Fair enough.

These exams are accepted by the overwhelming majority of universities, for better or worse, as an additional – sometimes coequal – criteria for admission.  My mission has always been to help my students get into the school they want to get into.  If the hurdle is this or that specific test, I want to help them beat that test.  I have no power to change a system deep within the bowels of an institution (academia) which is defined by inertia.  So I do what’s possible: help my students beat the obstacles in place.  For those who can’t afford test prep or who simply struggle with testing, FairTest has compiled a list of schools that don’t use testing as a deciding factor in admissions.

In the challenging world of college admissions, FairTest can rightly claim that standardized testing isn’t holistic, while College Board (the writer of the SAT) can claim that while not holistic, standardized testing still has correlations with college success, while we at Get Smarter Prep can claim that we are among your best options to improve on these tests, should you choose to apply to a school that uses them.  We hope you take this article as an encouragement to be proactive instead of letting this overwhelming process “happen” to you.  As always, we are here to help anytime.

Test Anxiety Clinic

Molly Pierce, a licensed Professional Counselor, sat down with Ben Hartman of Blogger Local to answer questions about Molly’s Practice, True Self Counseling.During their conversation, Molly talked about Get Smarter Prep’s Test Anxiety Clinic, which she leads.

Here is an excerpt of their discussion:

 

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Molly: I started True Self Counseling in 2010.  I really have a passion to help people deal with common everyday problems, such as anxiety, depression, and communication/relationship problems.

Ben: You have a test anxiety clinic going on over at Get Smarter Prep.  Tell us about it.

Molly: It’s a one hour clinic in the evening to help students prepare to manage their anxiety, to get the best score that they can on their ACT or SAT.  With the ACT test coming up, we actually just did a test anxiety clinic last week.

Ben: Is it open to only people that go to Get Smarter Prep already or is it open to the general public?

Molly: This was the first one we did, and it was just Get Smarter Prep students, but I’m sure that outside people would be welcome to come.  There’s just a $25 fee.

Ben: Okay, so this is something that you guys are developing and working on, and it seemed successful this time?  There was a good turnout?

Molly: It did seem successful.  It seemed like the students really benefited from it.

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Standardized Tests: A Conversation Between Two Tutors

Zach: So, standardized tests.  Scary stuff, right?

Joe: They’re always a scary proposition, walking into some random classroom, sitting for 4 to 5 hours as you stare at a test booklet, and trying to solve problem after problem. On the math section especially, it always seems like there are so many intense problems that you have no idea how to even begin.

Zach: But Joe… that’s what they want you to think.  That’s how they’re designed.  And yes, I know that you’re playing along with my prompt for this blog post, but this is one thing about the ACT and SAT that really bugs me.  Students get so wound up on these problems that they psyche themselves out before they even take a shot on the problem.

Joe: That’s the truth. Students skip over a problem because it looks like a wall of words or a really difficult-looking equation attached to it. Test takers assume that this means it must be way over their head, they won’t be able to solve it, and they miss out on those points. So what’s a student to do?

Zach: Joe, I’m so darn glad you asked that question.  So darn glad.  Have you ever heard the quote, “You miss all of the shots that you don’t take?”

Joe: I’m familiar with that one.

Zach: Fantastic.  I have no idea who said that, nor do I have inclination to find out, but I do think that it’s an especially pertinent adage in this case.  Why just give up so easily?  I tell students that if they’re ever staring at one of those dinosaurs of a question, just try the first thing you see to do.  Oh, you see a square root sign?  Square that bad boy.  You see two x plus something terms in parentheses?  Foil that sucker.

Joe: It could even be as simple as flipping the equation, distributing a number, or factoring out a number. Then, all of a sudden, inspiration strikes! You get a flash of brilliance, and you know how to solve the problem!

Zach: A good time to test this strategy is on a free practice test! We offer them every Saturday at 8:45 at our office.

Joe: Good idea! I’ll look at my Saturday schedule. Once you have a baseline score, you can decide which tutoring option is best for you!

 
Zach Buckner and Joe Roh are Tutors at Get Smarter Prep.

Springtime for Sophomores

Seniors have heard back from their schools and are finalizing their college choice in preparation for the May 1 deadline. Juniors are taking the ACT or SAT, SAT subject tests, and AP exams. Those two grades have clearly defined paths to college, but what about Sophomores? While spring of sophomore year seems far away from applying to college, there are three things you can do to strengthen your future college applications.

1. Take an ACT and SAT practice test and determine which test is a better test for you.

We recommend that the students take both an ACT and an SAT practice test near the end or just after their sophomore year. That way, you go into fall of junior year with a plan. Are you in range to be a National Merit scholar? If so, you can sign up for one of our summer classes in preparation for the PSAT. Do you play a winter sport and a spring sport? Another great reason to prepare in the summer and take one of the fall tests! Every student is different. Taking a practice test at the beginning of the summer ensures your student has time to decide which test and test date is best!

2. Finish the year with your highest possible grades.

Yes, this seems like an obvious one, but it really is important! If you have a bad test day, you can retake your SAT or ACT or driver’s license test, but once sophomore year is over, you are locked into those grades. Grades are a key piece of college admissions puzzle, so it is crucial to do your best.

3. Take advantage of the summer.

While it is tempting to spend the summer relaxing before the stress of junior year, you post-sophomore year summer is a great time to get a jump start on college. You are interested in botany but your high school doesn’t offer it? Take a course at a local college or community college. Not only will it look great on your resume, but it will be really interesting! Want to start saving money for college? Get a job! Jobs look great on your resume and give you a great opportunity to make business connections. An anecdotal example: my grandfather worked as a delivery runner for a law firm one summer; after graduating law school, he was hired by that same law firm! Too busy to have the set schedule of a job or class? You can always volunteer, write a paper to submit to your favorite magazine, research colleges, or take test prep!

Most sophomores have no idea where they might want to attend college, and that is perfectly okay! Following these three steps will ensure that when they do choose where to apply, they will have the highest amount of possibilities.

Linden Schult is a Master Level Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Changes Coming to the SAT

Earlier this year, College Board President (yes, there is such a thing) David Coleman announced in a letter to College Board members that it was time to update the SAT. As Coleman wrote in his letter, “the College Board has a responsibility to the millions of students we serve each year to ensure that our programs are continuously evaluated and enhanced, and most importantly respond to the emerging needs of those we serve”. Although it does emphasize that the SAT should stay current, this cryptic (a great SAT vocabulary word!) message does not foreshadow what those changes might be.

The SAT was first administered in 1926 (check out this website for sample questions from the 1926 test!). Since then, there have been many changes to the test. Most recently, in 2005, the Writing section was added and analogies were removed from the Critical Reading section. With the Writing section, consisting of an essay and questions about grammar, came an additional 800 points, boosting a perfect score to 2400 from 1600. In the Critical Reading section, the College Board removed the analogies, opting to test vocabulary with fill-in-the-blank sentences. After years of WordMasters analogy practice, I was sad to see the analogies go, but at least I learned some great words (my favorite- jalopy)!

What will these changes mean for GSP students? While we cannot predict what they will be, we can ensure you that we will help your students achieve their goals!

Linden Schult is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

4 Myths about the ACT and SAT

Periodically we hear myths circulating around the Kansas City area, some related to us by parents, others related to us by our students. We’ve collected a few of them here – some to roast, some to verify as truth, but mostly to inform about disinformation. We hope it is helpful!

1. Isn’t the SAT for East and West Coast schools only?

Ah, one of the most popular and longest-lasting myths. Absolutely not.

One of the first items of research for us was actual verification of the fact that not one of the schools in the top 100 of US News and World Report had a preference for a particular test. My staff has personally called every single one of their admissions offices and the answer remains the same: We have no preference.

2. Don’t they take my best scores from various tests and create a “best score” for me?

Depends on the test and depends on the school. For example:

University of Southern California – takes your best per section on the SAT. So, for example, if I got a 610 Writing, 660 Reading, and 540 Math on one test, and a 550 Writing, 660 Reading, and 700 Math on another, USC would pick your 610 Writing, 660 Reading, and 700 Math to give you a score of 1970. A mythical score based on two different tests, but hey, we’ll take it!

University of California, Los Angeles – only takes your best composite. So, here score choice works well because you can send them your best score after you’re done testing for the last time.

3. Shouldn’t I just take the test over and over and keep trying to do better? I’ve got nothing to lose.

These tests are torture. I can’t begin to imagine the stress of taking them 2-3-4-5 times in the hopes of getting higher scores. Our philosophy is and remains, prep using us or some other prep program, take it once, maybe one more if you want AND need a higher score. Maybe a third time if we are one point away from a scholarship or an athletic spot.

It’s not like students have a bunch of time to study for these tests over and over, or a surfeit of Saturday mornings to spend in a classroom for 3.5 hours testing. Three or fewer. That’s our general rule.

Sign up for a free practice test to find out where you stand!

4. Shouldn’t I just take this at the end of my junior year so I don’t stress about it? Junior year is supposed to be the most important year academically, and I don’t want to get distracted.

Right motivation, wrong strategy. Absolutely junior year is the year. It’s the toughest, most grueling, most relevant for college admissions. Oh, and yes, you have to take an ACT or SAT.

The answer to this question is not cookie cutter. I can rephrase it to read: “When should we take the test for the first time?”

I would answer that by asking: “When are you most available to prep?”

Some people play sports year round and so summer is a great time for them to prep leading into a September or October test date.

Others prefer to prep in Fall or Spring. The answer depends on your child’s time resources to dedicate to prep. And, if you’re like some of my students, there is never any extra time, so the sooner we start, the better.

As far as prep goes, my only recommendation is to prep towards a given test date. It makes sense to go to summer clinics for sports because you might be competing in tournaments throughout the summer or because you want to keep your skills up for when the season restarts. But to do a test prep class and then not take the real test for months? What can be retained for all those months without constant practice? That’s why we never have classes at Get Smarter Prep without a test date that we are working towards.

I hope these “mythbusters” have been helpful for you. Remember, if you ever have any questions about anything regarding standardized testing, feel free to call us at 913-322-3400!

Author Stephen Heiner is a Premier Level Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

The Super Bowl and Test Prep

The Huffington Post Blog had an interesting post by Nancy Berk, Ph. D., titled “College Admission Tips to Learn From the Super Bowl.” It is a terrific, and timely, read, and we hope everyone gets a chance to check it out.  While all ten of her lessons apply to college admissions, a two of them apply to test prep as well.

Lesson 4: Have a strategic game plan.

Should you take the ACT or the SAT? The GRE or the GMAT? Is a standardized test required for entrance at the school(s) you are interested in? We strongly recommend you take a practice test before starting so that you can see which test fits your strengths. We offer free ACT and SAT practice tests every Saturday at our office – sign up here! For other testing, give us a call!

Lesson 2: Know the rules of the game. Do your research. Ask questions. Talk to those who’ve been there including college students, their parents, teachers and coaches.

Is there a guessing penalty on your test? How much time do you have for each section? Familiarizing yourself with the structure, timing, and scoring of your standardized test will help you feel more comfortable and confident.

Do your research, take a practice test, and learn the rules of the game!

One more important lesson: don’t wait until the last minute!

Author Linden Schult is a Master Level Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Standardized Testing

Standardized testing is a blight on our educational system. It exists simply because of the overwhelming number of applications to undergraduate and graduate programs. When grades, personal statements, portfolios, and letters of recommendation fail to winnow, admissions committees look to a timed multiple-choice exam. They need a tiebreaker and this is the “best” the system has come up with. It’s deplorable, but I’m here to offer you advice about how to do better, not to complain about things we can’t change.

Before you start worrying about this test, make sure the schools you are looking at actually require it. Equally important, look at the average and middle 50% of scores for the accepted students. It is important to have a goal score before starting test preparation. If you already have your goal score, congratulations! Also, make sure that you ask about the relationship of those scores for admission as well as scholarships. Even a small increase can make a big difference for scholarships!

Want to find out where you stand? Sign up to take a free practice test at our office!

Author Stephen Heiner is a Premier Level Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

ACT or SAT?

Which test should I take?

Well, it’s not in the interest of the two national tests to conduct a scientific poll on whether students “do better” on one test or the other, so an agreed silence has been the status quo.  Anecdotally, across the thousands of students we’ve seen, I can attest to the fact that 80% of students get nearly the exact same score on both tests, meaning a student who gets a 21 on the ACT gets a 1500 on the SAT (on the 2400 scale).  One in five will do significantly better on one of the tests, and in that circumstance, they should absolutely focus on that test.  Taking both tests will cost more money to prep for, more time away from studies and normal high school life, and ultimately not matter because schools only make their decision on one test, so pick one and go with it.  The best way to find out how you’ll do is to actually take both and measure the scores against each other.  Many test prep companies, including ours, offer free practice tests (we offer them every Saturday), so check around and take advantage – then you’ll be prepared.

The question is also always asked: “Isn’t the SAT preferred by the coastal schools?”  The answer, which comes as a huge shock to most is, “No.”  The SAT is the test preferred by high school students on the coast, who comprise the majority of applicants to coastal schools.  Hence coastal schools often have more SAT scores on file than ACT scores, but not one admissions counselor I have ever talked to from any Ivy League school has ever expressed an official (or unofficial) preference for the SAT.  Simply put, the ACT and the SAT are accepted at all colleges and universities in the United States.

PSAT?

This is the time of year that parents come back from vacation to the reality of standardized tests.  Many have just received their child’s PSAT scores.  Here’s one Rockhurst parent’s email to us: “My son, a junior, just got his PSAT scores and is pretty heartbroken about his 210.  Great score, but most likely a point or two below what the cut-off will be.”  Cut-off?  Heartbroken?  I know, it takes some explanation.

Some parents start dealing with these tests as early 7th grade.  Participation in the Duke TIP program (in which students are asked to take an SAT before ever having covered the subjects that it touches on, furthering the myth that it is some version of an IQ test) seems to be a high water mark among some competitive parents, but I’ve always maintained that the advantage in participation is not in getting into a great college (I had students go to Dartmouth and Princeton last year who never even knew about the program) but in the really innovative and interesting programs that you can participate in (and subsequently add to your resume) as a result of being in TIP.

Wait a minute, the SAT isn’t a test of how smart you are?

As heartbreaking as this may be for those who did well on their entrance exams years ago, and carved out a life of success for themselves based on these scores, these exams have nothing to do with academics.  It doesn’t even have anything to do with test taking.  It has everything to do with understanding how this particular test is constructed and attacking it accordingly.  Sure, there are plenty of “A” students who do well on this test, but there are also plenty of “A” students who test fine in school who don’t do so well on this test.  What does this mean?  Well, either it means that they’ve fooled teachers and parents for years, and are really not intelligent, or that this test is not about intelligence.  All the SAT (or the ACT) provides is another method colleges can use to eliminate candidates in an ever-competitive pool of high school students.

When do I get started?

For 98% of the country, the race really starts junior year.  No matter how high a student scores as a sophomore on a PSAT, he/she cannot qualify for the National Merit Scholarship competition until junior Year.  During the Fall of junior year, students compete against every single other junior in the country to earn a “selection index”.  This selection index is simply the sum of all three of your 2 digit scores (example, a student scores a 62 Reading, 60 Math, and 71 Writing, that’s a 193 index).  This not only tilts towards a student’s verbal skills, is not an entirely accurate predictor of SAT performance.  The conventional wisdom is simply to “add a zero” to the 2 digit PSAT scores, but while this helps give a general idea of scores, it is far from accurate for two reasons:  1) The PSAT is 1 hour and 15 minutes shorter than the real exam, has easier questions than the real SAT, and brings none of the real life actual pressures that that test brings, 2) The scores are set as curved against every single other Junior in the country taking the test that day, making an enormous curve that never occurs on any one of the individual 6 SAT national dates.  This explains how a student can miss one question on a PSAT and lose as much as 5 points – the curve is very steep.

While being a National Merit Scholar brings some cachet to any college application, it also (more importantly) brings cash – be it as far away as USC (a half-tuition scholarship for any Finalist who designates USC as their first choice school) or as close as KU ($10,000/year for the same conditions).  Will prepping for the PSAT help?  If you are a serious contender for a top-tier school, yes.  The reason is that the test is not the only determinant of Semi-Finalist or Finalist status.  If the grades and resume aren’t there (and believe me, they are there for the tens of thousands of other students vying for the title) your time is better spent improving the resume you do have and doing well in the classes you are taking.