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The Hazards of Anecdotal Advice

Preparing for the ACT or SAT can seem daunting. Often, people instinctively turn to friends or online articles for advice. While some guidance from these sources is helpful, it’s important to examine the limitations of students who could be referencing an outdated version of the test, whose only knowledge of the exam comes from taking it, and who may have needs that are dramatically different from your own.

Our students commonly pass along what they’ve heard from their peers, and while some of it is good, solid information, a lot of it rings completely or, at least, partially false. For instance, some students will swear that “C” is correct the majority of the time when in reality, the answers on the test are evenly distributed throughout the exam – so C is no more likely than any of the other options. Another common tip passed around among high schoolers is to take the test on a particular date – take June, for example – because it’s easier than the others. There are several issues with this. Maybe June felt easier for one particular student, but, as everyone’s strengths are different, that didn’t necessarily hold true for others. Additionally, if the June test in 2015 truly was easier for most students, that doesn’t mean that the 2016 test will follow suit. Most importantly, the curve on the ACT renders any differences in difficulty irrelevant. If the June test truly was less difficult, then the curve would just be harsher.

Additionally, we recently worked with a student who scored higher on the ACT, but was told by a friend at Harvard that she should take the SAT solely because she had already taken the ACT previously. This was amidst the new changes (which made the SAT unstable and a bad choice for the majority of students). Combine that with the fact that every college will accept either exam, and her friend’s direction amounts to some pretty rotten advice. In the end, the student remained focused on her stronger test and exceeded even her expectations.

Looking to current college students for help – particularly those who attend prestigious schools – seems intuitive on the surface. However, students who attend top schools are often scoring in the top 99th percentile of college bound students nationwide, and therefore do not reflect the reality for the majority of other students. Also, these students have a very limited experience. Scoring well on a test does not make you an expert – especially as the tests continue to evolve.

The newly revised SAT gives a perfect example of this. In this article, Business Insider presents the perspective of a “Harvard grad with a perfect score on the SAT.” In the article, Chris Ryan (the aforementioned Harvard alum) offers last minute tips to scoring well on the SAT. There’s a major problem with taking his advice: the test that Ryan took years ago hardly resembles the current SAT.

In another article, titled “College Students Share Their Best SAT, ACT Test Strategies,” students from Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard University are consulted. Their advice includes some valuable tidbits, such as beginning to study well before the test, striving to learn new strategies, realizing that these tests are “not the be-all, end-all,” and the importance of skipping questions that are sucking up all of your time. Alternatively, some of the advice falls flat and illustrates a lack of expertise. When counseling students on time management, the WashU student claims that you should skip passages on the ACT Science section that include charts if you struggle with reading them. This information is not only inaccurate, it’s potentially quite harmful. Of the six ACT Science passages, five of them will reliably have charts, while only one may not. If a student were to try to follow this advice on test day, they’d end up frantic and confused – as they’d potentially be trying to skip over all of the passages.

Overall, it’s vital to use discretion when following advice about college entrance exams that comes from friends or articles. While some of it may be valid, keep the source in mind. Just because your uncle recently had his home remodeled, that doesn’t mean you’d want him creating blueprints for yours. Instead, you’d turn to the experts.

Test-Optional Schools: Just how optional are those test scores?

Since the spring of 2015, 44 colleges have made the decision to drop the requirement of college admission test scores from their application process. According to FairTest, this brings the total number of test-optional colleges and universities to over 850. Unfortunately, it seems this growing trend in higher education holds more benefits for the schools who implement this policy than it does for their potential applicants.

Test-optional universities typically get a boost in the number of total applications received. In turn, this influx of applications results in more rejections which brings down the school’s acceptance rate, creating the illusion that the university has become more exclusive. Additionally, schools expect low scoring students to opt out of reporting test scores, which in turn could raise the average test score of the student population by removing many of the lowest scores from the equation. These statistics favorably impact college rankings for test-optional colleges.

Not all test-optional schools are created equally. The application process varies greatly from institution to institution. In fact, scores may not be optional for homeschooled students or in order to be considered for scholarships or financial aid packages. Many schools also require extra essays or minimum GPA requirements for students to forego the test scores submission process.

It is important to remember that even if you choose not to disclose your ACT/SAT scores when applying to a test-optional university, you will still be competing for admission with applicants who have submitted their scores for review. The general assumption schools make is that applicants who choose not to submit test scores do so out of fear that the score would weaken their application. Therefore, other aspects of the student’s application will be reviewed with a greater level of scrutiny. Test-optional schools are a great option for students who are otherwise well-rounded or who possess a specific skill or talent but perform poorly on test day.* The test-optional application process most certainly is not a simplified procedure but rather an alternative to the traditional path toward college acceptance.

            *It’s important to note that while many students score lower than they anticipated,
             only a very small percentage of students can’t improve their test scores in a meaningful way.

Written by Standard-Level Tutor, Jennifer Murphy

ACT Explains their Essay Scores

We’ve talked about the new ACT essay and its associated issues and confusions. ACT has released a document hoping to clear up the misconceptions, titled “ACT Research Explains New ACT Test Writing Scores and Their Relationship to Other Test Scores.”

I don’t want to ruin this delightful saga for you, but you should know going on: there is no relationship. Beyond that, ACT says there’s no relationship between individual subject scores, either.

ACT addresses the discrepancy between the Writing scores and the other scores by acknowledging that there is a difference in scores, but that concern about that fact is rooted in a lack of communication about how scores should be understood.

 

“It is true that scores on the writing test were on average 3 or more points lower than the Composite and English scores for the same percentile rank during September and October 2016. Some students may have had even larger differences between scores. This is not unexpected or an indication of a problem with the test. However, the expectation that the same or similar scores across ACT tests indicate the same or similar level of performance does signal that ACT needs to better communicate what test scores mean and how to appropriately interpret the scores.” 

Much of the article reads as an attempt by ACT to debunk the idea that their individual scores are very useful. For example, “the difference in scores across tests does not provide a basis for evaluating strengths and weaknesses….” The important thing to look at, they maintain, are the percentiles, because scores don’t really translate across subject lines. A 25 in Reading is not a 25 in Math, and you were silly to think, because they’re reported on the same scale and created by the same people, that there was any relationship between them. (OK, so they don’t actually call anyone silly. But they do say that “[t]ests are not designed to ensure that a score of 25 means the same thing on ACT Math as it does for ACT Science or Reading.” Check out that skilled usage of the passive voice there!)

There have always been some differences between the scores in different sections. Anyone who looks at a percentile chart will notice that. For the most part, they’re not huge.  But “even larger differences are found when comparing percentiles between the new ACT subject-level writing score and the other ACT scores. For example, a score of 30 on the ACT writing test places that same student at the 98th percentile, a full 9% higher than the reading score [of 30.] Similarly, an ACT subject-level writing score of 22 is over about 10 percentiles about the Composite or other ACT scores.”

Why change over to the new scale at all then? Don’t you think that the new scale might, you know, encourage those comparisons? The ACT admits the 1-36 score for the Writing “[makes] comparisons with the other scores much more tempting. Perhaps too tempting!”

ACT’s insistence on talking about the test like something that sprang into being all by itself and behaves in self-determining ways is giving me robot overlord concerns.

 

Didn’t they… design it? Didn’t they decide how the scoring would work? Unless the ACT test itself has become sentient and begun making demands, this doesn’t make any sense. Treating the scores as if they exist as something other than a product of a series of human decisions is absurd.

They put everything on the same scale. They’ve admitted that having things on an apparently identical scale invites comparison, and they’ve also said that “[c]omparisons of ACT scores across different tests should not be made on the basis of the actual score…” Oh, OK. What?

If the actual scores don’t really help in making comparisons (which is what standardized tests are for, after all – making comparisons), and everyone should just look at the percentiles, then why do we need the 1-36 scale at all?

In the document, ACT points out multiple times that this kind of variation is common on many tests. That doesn’t change the fact that they changed the Writing score to make it look like the other scores (except lower) which has caused confusion and will continue to do so. The math that turns an 8 into a 23 and a 9 into a 30 is not intuitive nor set in stone, and if they wanted to correlate a given Writing score and a Math or English score to the same percentile, they could.

Beyond that, as the ACT admits, “each test score includes some level of imprecision,” and that margin of error is considerably larger for the Writing test. They explain that “a score of 20 on ACT writing would indicate that there is a two-out-of-three chance that the student’s true score would be between 16 and 24.” (Put another way, this means there is a 33% chance that your “true score,” whatever that means, is more than 4 points away from what shows up on your report.”) The ACT cautions against using the Writing score on its own to make decisions, suggesting using the ELA score instead – an average of Reading, English and Writing. But if the Writing score on its own isn’t a useful metric, then perhaps it shouldn’t be reported?

Further complicating all of this, the ACT blames some of the low scoring on students’ unfamiliarity with the new version of the test: “students are only beginning to get experience with the new writing prompt. Research suggests that as students become increasingly familiar with the new prompt, scores may increase[.]”

The ACT claims that the essay tests “argumentative writing skills that are essential for college and career success.” If that were actually the case, familiarity with the test wouldn’t matter. Unless the ACT is arguing that as students become more familiar with this particular aspect of the test, they will also become more prepared for college. I suggest that those two factors – college readiness and ACT essay scores – don’t have a relationship, either.

Author: Audrey Hazzard, Master-Level Tutor

ACT & New SAT Compared

Section breakdown of the ACT and SAT (including breaks):

ACT

Revised SAT

English – 75 questions, 45 minutes

Reading – 52 questions, 65 minutes

Math – 60 questions, 60 minutes

Break – 10 minutes

Break – 10 minutes

Writing and Language – 44 questions, 35 minutes

Reading – 40 questions, 35 minutes

Math (no calculator) – 20 questions, 25 minutes

Science – 40 questions, 35 minutes

Break – 5 minutes

Break – 10 minutes (with writing)

Math (calculator) – 38 questions, 55 minutes

Writing – 40 minutes (optional)

 

Break – 2 minutes, can’t leave room (with writing)

Test is finished

Writing – 50 minutes (optional)

Total time (without writing): 3 hours, 5 minutes

Total time (ACT + writing): 3 hours, 55 minutes

Total time (without writing): 3 hours, 15 minutes

Total time (SAT + writing): 4 hours, 7 minutes

Many of the changes to the SAT bring it closer to the ACT: the longer sections, the switch to an optional essay, the content of the math test (pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and trig), the graph questions sprinkled throughout the test (resembling ACT Science questions), the elimination of short essay passages in the reading, the removal of archaic, obscure vocabulary questions, and the transition to four answer choices instead of five.

But while the tests look more alike than they have in the past, there are also differences between the revised SAT and the ACT. In the Reading section of the SAT, students can expect five passages instead of four. There are also questions that evaluate a student’s ability to interpret the emotions of characters within a passage, which is something that is largely absent from the ACT. There are also new, evidence-based questions that require students to answer questions that give support for previous questions they’ve answered. If they miss the first question, it will be difficult to get the second one correct.

On the Writing and Language test, the question types are almost identical to those found on the ACT English section, but on the SAT, students will have 36% more time to answer those questions. On the surface, that extra time seems advantageous. Timing on the ACT English section is not, however, usually a problem for students. With so much extra time on the SAT, they might find themselves second guessing and changing correct answers in the remaining time.

The SAT math test now focuses less on geometry and more on algebra – another point of differentiation between the two exams. The questions are generally more difficult, but students have more time to solve them. There’s also an emphasis placed on solving systems of equations. The no calculator section of the test could pose a new challenge for students who typically rely on them heavily. Student produced response questions (often referred to as “grid-in” questions by students), where students must supply their own answer to instead of choose from provided multiple choice options, are still present on the SAT and not on the ACT.

Overall, students can expect trickier wording on the SAT. The longer sections will make it difficult for some students to concentrate. The advantage of timing, however, likely still rests with the SAT: students have more time per question in each section of the exam than they do on the ACT. Some students, however, may find this more hurtful than helpful. There’s still a stronger emphasis on vocabulary than there is on the ACT, but the words being testing are not as difficult. At the end of the day, which test is “better” or “easier” is extremely subjective; different students will prefer and perform better on different things. That’s why it’s important, as always, for students to take both an ACT and a SAT practice test to see where their strengths lie.

 

ACT & SAT Concordance Controversy

Concordance, noun.

According to Oxford Dictionaries,

1 An alphabetical list of the words (especially the important ones) present in a text, usually with citations of the passages concerned: a concordance to the Bible

2 formal Agreement: the concordance between the teams’ research results [emphasis added]

The second definition is the one we’re concerned with here. “Agreement.” See also: harmony, consensus, and basically not being embroiled in debate.


On May 9th, the SAT released its promised concordance tables for the redesigned SAT, spelling out its suggested equivalencies between the new SAT, the old SAT, and the ACT. The stated goal of the concordance tables is “to help college admission officers and others compare scores” across different tests.

Seems reasonable enough, right? Similar tables existed for the old SAT and ACT, produced in collaboration between ACT and the College Board. They worked together, analyzed a year’s worth of data, and produced concordance tables considered “the gold standard in concordance.”

This time is different. The SAT produced these tables unilaterally, based on data from only one administration of their new test, using a method that the ACT finds suspicious and unreliable. The ACT is “not having it.” Really. That’s a quote from their statement, released on May 11th , making clear their objections to the tables released by the SAT:

“ACT cannot support or defend the use of any concordance produced by the College Board without our collaboration or the involvement of independent groups, and we strongly recommend against basing significant decisions—in admissions, course placement, accountability, and scholarships—on such an interim table.”

So, the College Board says the tables are intended for use in admissions, while the ACT says they are unreliable and shouldn’t be used for anything “significant.” ACT points out that a sample size of one administration is insufficient to draw statistically significant data, especially given that “students willing to take the first iteration of a test that has undergone a major overhaul are likely quite different from the typical student.”

The tables do seem quite different from what we saw with the previous concordance, with similar-looking SAT scores comparing to lower ACT scores than before. So, for example, a 25 on the ACT concorded with an 1150 (Critical Reading and Math) on the “old” SAT, but that same 25 lines up with a 1220 on the new College Board tables. To put it another way, if you got a 1200 on the old SAT (CR+M), you’d find that equivalent to about a 26-27 on the ACT. A 1200 now lines up with a 25. This may lead to confusion among students who took the old version or are familiar with the older scores, although the tests are quite different, so there’s no reason at all to compare the old and new scores – except for the fact that they’re on the same scale.

Confusion has been standard throughout the roll-out of the redesigned SAT. Attempting to draw concordance between the ACT and the new SAT without consulting ACT was an interesting choice on the part of the College Board. The ACT is firm in denouncing the new concordance tables, stating that the data falls short of “the standard you should expect from a standardized testing agency.” One can’t help but wonder why the previous, more rigorous and collaborative, approach to concordance was abandoned in this case.

GSP at Hogan Prep

We’ve been fortunate enough to partner with Hogan Preparatory Academy in Kansas City, MO to provide an ACT Clinic for their juniors. Hogan Prep is a UCM sponsored public charter school and has a total enrollment of 390 students. Approximately 80% of graduates continue on to some type of post-secondary form of education. The high school boasts a 91.43% graduation rate of its students. Hogan Prep has received the National College Board Inspiration Award on numerous occasions. 

Although Hogan Prep has demonstrated excellence in many facets – the ACT is one particular area in which its students struggle. In 2015 the students’ average ACT score was a 16.1. The students have an especially difficult time with the English portion of the exam, scoring noticeably worse in this area than the other sections of the exam. We have a goal that each student that attends the sessions will score a 20 or higher on the English portion! We’re excited to donate our time and expertise to the students that elect to attend our clinic and look forward to seeing their score improvements!

Just like all the other juniors enrolled in public high schools in the state of Missouri, Hogan Prep students will be taking the official ACT on April 19th. We wish these students well as they continue to prepare for the ACT and for college!

Class of 2018 Game Plan

As the 2016-2017 school year winds to a close, it’s time to consider a test prep plan for students in the Class of 2018. Most students do not complete the required coursework to begin successfully preparing for the ACT or SAT before the end of sophomore year. To that end, we suggest not taking your first practice test until the May or June after sophomore year. (Please note that we have suspended SAT pretesting until June.)

We offer free practice testing nearly every Saturday at both our Mission and Leawood offices. The practice test is an important first step – please don’t skip it! The earliest we suggest taking the practice test is May or June, but for the deadline-oriented people wondering how long they can wait, here’s a handy guide.

ACT deadlines

SAT deadlines

In order to use this tool, you’ll have to pick an official test date (or two – it’s not a bad idea to have a backup available) that will work well for you. Consider sports schedules, exam schedules, family or religious obligations, travel plans, etc. when deciding which test date will work best for you. Preparation schedules are targeted at a specific date; preparing for a test date you end up being unable to take can be a big setback.

The key is to take your practice test at least three full months before your selected official test date. You may or may not need three months to prep, but the sooner you (and we!) have a practice test score on file, the sooner we can work together to come up with a plan and a schedule that works for you.

If you haven’t begun visiting colleges or thinking at all about what kinds of colleges you might want to attend, this summer isn’t a bad time to start. It’s important to have a target score to work towards as you begin prep, and that target score is largely determined by the colleges and universities to which you’re applying. A college list will also help you determine whether to take the optional ACT or SAT essay portion, and whether you’ll need to take any SAT subject tests.

Here’s a suggested timeline to get your planning started.

Suggested Schedule for the Class of 2018

May 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the September ACT.
  • Plan summer college visits and begin a college list. Take notes as you research and visit!
  • Begin preliminary scholarship searches.

June 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the October ACT or SAT.
  • The October SAT may be a good date for students who also want to prepare for the PSAT. The content of the PSAT and SAT, while not identical, is similar enough that preparing once for both tests makes sense!

July 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the November SAT.
  • Think about courses and extra-curriculars for Junior year. Plan to take the most challenging courses you can be successful in, and look for opportunities to take leadership roles in activities.

August 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the December ACT or SAT.
  • If you haven’t already, make a solid timeline for Junior year with deadlines, goals, college visits, test dates, etc.

September 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the January SAT.
  • Make a good impression on your teachers. You’ll be asking them for recommendations in a few months.
  • ACT – September 10th.

October 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the February ACT.
  • SAT – October 1st.
  • PSAT – October 15th and 19th
  • ACT – October 22nd.

November 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the March SAT.
  • Plan college visits for winter break.
  • SAT – November 5th.

December 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the April ACT. All public school students in Missouri take a statewide administration of the ACT on April 19th, so begin preparing for that exam now if you attend public school in Missouri.
  • SAT – December 3rd.
  • ACT – December 10th.

January 2017

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the May SAT.
  • (Consider whether you’ll need to use the May SAT administration for Subject tests.)
  • Begin thinking about which teachers you want to ask for recommendation letters.
  • Begin thinking about summer plans, like projects, jobs or internships.
  • SAT – January 28th.

February 2017

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the June ACT or SAT or if you haven’t done so yet. If you haven’t begun preparing for the ACT or SAT yet, now is the time! You’ll have a chance to retake in the fall if necessary, but that shouldn’t be your first test.
  • Plan spring break college visits.
  • ACT – February 11th.

March 2017

  • Keep refining your college list.
  • Once you have a good idea of which teachers you need to ask (based on your college list) begin asking for recommendation letters.
  • SAT – March 11th.

April 2017

  • Missouri public school students take the ACT April 19th.
  • Review for AP Exams and SAT Subject tests if you’re taking them.
  • ACT – April 8th.

May 2017

  • AP Exams
  • SAT – May 6th. (This is a good date for Subject tests!)

New Office in Mission

Get Smarter Prep is excited to announce a brand new office located at 5920 Nall Avenue, right in the heart of Mission, KS!

The Mission Office is replacing our Overland Park Office on 87th street. We opened our doors to the new location on March 16th, 2016. Alongside our Leawood Office, Mission is now offering all of our tutoring services.

We’re happy to be part of such a vibrant neighborhood that’s full of other local businesses and attractions. While in the area, you can grab a coffee or pastry at Dips & Sips or pick up a new novel at Rainy Day Books. We are adjacent to Pearl Harbor Park and a historic site of a watering hole along the Sante Fe Trail. We’re also only 8 minutes from the Plaza!

Also, we’re excited to be in a better position for our families. We’re now just 5 minutes from both Pembroke Hill and Bishop Miege, 7 minutes from Kansas City Christian, 8 minutes from Shawnee Mission East, 10 minutes from St. Teresa’s Academy, less than 15 from Maranatha, and 15 minutes from Park Hill South.

Check out more photos on our Facebook page!

 

ACT Essay Score Issues

Have you noticed a discrepancy between your ACT multiple-choice scores and your Writing score? You’re not alone. Since the new essay debuted in September, students have been frustrated and alarmed by low essay scores. The concordance between the old and new essay scores equates an old 8/12 with a new 23/36, but an old 9/12 with a 30/36 – a huge gap. Many students who are scoring in the 30s on their multiple choice sections are seeing essay scores in the low to mid 20s, and they are understandably concerned.

The Washington Post spoke to the parents of a student who took the ACT in September. He received “a 19 on the writing section and 30s on the rest of the test.” When the student requested a rescore of his essay, the score increased – to a 31. Based on the new essay scoring, that jump – from a 19 to a 31 – represents a change from the 63rd percentile to the 98th.

Wait, you’re thinking, a 19 is the 63rd percentile? Yes, on the Writing, it is. For comparison, a 19 on English is the 45th percentile. On the Science section, a 19 is in the 40th.

Top Tier Admissions wrote of the new ACT essay scoring, “Imagine a teacher giving a test where a 70% was the highest score out of a thousand students, but then deciding not to curve the test. That is what is happening right now on this new writing section.”

Criticism of the new ACT essay has been widespread, so if you’re feeling concern or even shock about your essay score, know that you’re not alone. Resist the temptation to compare your 1-36 essay scores with the 1-36 scores in the other sections: look at the percentiles, instead. If you’re considering retaking the ACT just to boost your essay, check in with your admissions reps at your top-choice colleges first. More colleges, including Tufts, Penn, Brown, and Swarthmore, are opting not to require the essay portion of the exam at all.

Even if your college does require it, it may not be worth retaking the whole exam if you’re pleased with the rest of your scores. Talking with your admissions representative may help you determine how important that score is – or isn’t.

Tufts University – College Profile

Tufts University

Quick Facts:

Institution type: private university
Founded: 1852
Location: Medford, MA
Undergraduate students: 5131
Mascot: Jumbo (elephant)
Acceptance rate: 16%
Testing requirements: ACT or SAT (if SAT, two subject tests also required)
Middle 50% ACT score range: 30-33
Middle 50% SAT score range: CR 680-750, M 690-770
Superscore: Yes
Website: www.tufts.edu

One student’s perspective:

Name: Sally Williams

Grad year: 2019

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were in the process of applying and selecting your college or university? What surprised you?

I wish I had listened to people when they told me to look at schools without bias. I went into the college application process with an idea of the outcome I wanted and the schools I thought were a perfect fit. In the end, Tufts turned out to be the best school for me and I would never have even applied without my mother’s advice to do so. It’s the schools you least expect that end up being the perfect place.

What’s your favorite thing about your school?

I love that it’s an Ivy League education without the title. There’s no cut-throat competition here, unlike Harvard (that’s only a T-stop away and throws some great parties ;)). People are genuine and diverse. You can create the experience you want, be it with Greek life, mathletes, or a cappella groups. Everyone here is a genius, but they don’t have an ego.

What else would you like people to know about Tufts?

It is a melting pot. There are people from all around who are all talented and intelligent in their own right, but are also incredibly different. Tufts allows everyone to find their niche. I have yet to meet a person here who isn’t genuinely happy with their decision to enroll here. You’re never bored. Tufts is surrounded by (and happens to be on par with) some of the top schools in the world. You can always meet new people.

Also, the city of Boston is only 20 minutes away and such an incredible escape sometimes. Here, at Tufts, you can truly become your own person, without judgment by others. It is an inclusive and incredible atmosphere filled with thriving, ambitious people.