Upcoming Changes to the ACT and SAT Tests

While not every college requires the submission of entrance exam outcomes from the ACT or SAT these days (see fairtest.org for a list of test optional colleges), at many schools it is still the case that test scores are a highly scrutinized component of a student’s application. Significantly, testing outcomes also serve as a leading factor in the awarding of non-need based aid at many institutions.

Last year the ACT outpaced the SAT and became the more frequently taken test for the first time in the history of the competition between the two. Predictably, the SAT folks responded by announcing sweeping changes to their exam that will take effect in 2016. Guess what? The new test will look a whole lot like the ACT. Here is a summary of what this year’s sophomores have in store when they take the test in 2016 as juniors:

  • A return to the old 1600 scoring system
  • The essay will become optional
  • There will be less emphasis on higher-level vocabulary
  • The one-quarter penalty for each wrong answer will be gone, so as with the ACT students can possibly gain some points from guessing

The ACT will be making more minor changes to their test at some point in 2015. One is that in some locations it will be possible to take the test on a computer. The other is that section outcomes will be presented in new ways. A STEM score will combine the science and math scores, and a language arts score will present combined English, reading, and essay scores.

Pinnacle helps students prepare for both the ACT and SAT tests, as well as assess which is their stronger test. Two eight-week ACT classes start in February 2015 for Colorado students testing in April. Click the test prep tab at the top for more detailed information. One-on-one tutoring is also available. No SAT classes are being offered at present, but individual tutoring can be scheduled for this test as well.

Late Spring-Early Fall ACT and SAT Testing

The end of the school year and early fall can be a great time to take or retake college admission tests to try for higher scores. When scheduled at these times there are fewer competing commitments and distractions that might interfere with solid preparation. Neither the ACT nor the SAT is administered over the summer months. The last opportunity to take the ACT at this point is June 8. The initial registration date has passed, but you may register on a late basis until May 17 and pay an additional fee. The last opportunity to take the SAT prior to the summer hiatus is June 1. Late registration for this test is by May 22, also with a late fee. The basic charge for the ACT without the optional essay is $35; with the essay the cost is $50.50. I recommend taking the test at least once with the essay, as some colleges require it. The basic SAT cost is $50. Low-income families can request to have fees waived by both companies.

The earliest fall administrations of each test are as follows: ACT September 21 (with a registration deadline of Aug. 23), and SAT October 5 (with a September 6 deadline).  Remember that you may take tests numerous times and most schools will utilize your best outcomes in their admissions decision. While it is the case that more than 850 schools are now test optional (meaning that you needn’t submit test scores), many schools still rely on testing as an aspect of admissions decisions, and especially, for awarding merit scholarships. Therefore you don’t need to overly stress about ACT and SAT testing, but you should give the tests your very best effort, including plenty of advance preparation.

The official test books from the two test companies feature actual retired ACT and SAT tests along with in-depth information about skills and strategies for each test segment. Titles and ordering information for each are:

The Real ACT Prep Guide, 3rd edition. ISBN-13: 978-0-7689-3432-8

The Official SAT Study Guide, 2nd edition. ISBN-10: 0874478529

Also both companies feature a full test with answers and preparation suggestions on their websites:

http://www.actstudent.org/sampletest/

http://sat.collegeboard.org/home

The above methods of self-preparation work well for students who are highly disciplined and self-directed. For those who work better with someone leading the way and explaining questions and answers in detail, Pinnacle Education will be offering both individual and small group test prep in advance of the June and September/October dates. Call or email for additional information:

LRansdell@comcast.net   303-635-6620

College Preparation, Year By Month

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is an independent educational consultant and college counselor who helps students and their families stay on top of college planning. Lisa’s practice is grounded in 28 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration. She constantly tours, reads, and does professional development in order to give clients the most up-to-date info.

Bodleian Library, Oxford

I have blogged about this important topic before, but just came upon a great series of guidelines for high school students on how to best plan for college: year by year and month by month. The guidelines are published by NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  Here is a nugget for each year of high school from the piece:

Freshmen: Investigate what high school courses are required by colleges and plan your enrollment accordingly.

Sophomores: Prepare for and take the PSAT in October. This test prepares you for the SAT next year, and can be repeated next fall to try for National Merit Scholarships, a significant source of scholarship money.

Juniors: Begin a preliminary list of colleges of interest, and make contact with them, either by visiting or by requesting literature.

Seniors: Keep grades strong and attend to college application deadlines. Don’t take rolling admission policies for granted at colleges that don’t specify a specific date. These schools will close down admissions once their incoming class is full.

For the full set of suggestions for each year and month, see NACAC site: http://www.nacacnet.org/studentinfo/CollegePrep/Pages/default.aspx

I also see they have a Preparing for College newsletter for high school students and families, which is also likely a good source of info.

 

One Size Doesn’t Fit All In SAT/ACT Prep

Generally, there are five broad types of preparation for the SAT/ACT college entrance tests. #1: Some high schools provide workshops led by teachers or outside consultants, with content ranging from brief overviews of test formats and sample questions to comprehensive coverage. In my opinion these are definitely worth checking out, since convenient, low-cost (or free) test prep is always a good thing. Provided they are offered sufficiently in advance of your testing dates, you should have time to pursue other strategies should that prove necessary.

#2: Another inexpensive route is to prepare on your own with the help of a guidebook. There are several out there in the $20 – $40 price range and each will help prepare you in relatively similar ways. These include official guides produced by the testing companies, such as The Official SAT Study Guide from the College Board, and The Real ACT Prep Guide. I tend to like the Barron guidebooks (How to Prepare for the SAT) for their breadth of coverage, user-friendly formats and CD-Rom inserts. Most guidebooks provide full diagnostic tests, in-depth section reviews, and plenty of sample questions, math problems and vocabulary words. They also cover test-taking strategies, which are quite different between the SAT and ACT.

I would only recommend guidebook preparation for students with solid across-the-board academic strengths, for those who scored reasonably well on the PSAT, and as an initial strategy when there is plenty of time left should more in-depth preparation prove to be necessary. Guidebooks also work best for those with the self-discipline necessary to diligently and regularly prepare in the weeks leading up to the exam date. Self-motivation would similarly be necessary for those who are attracted to the idea of using one of the national on-line test prep programs (#3), such as Kaplan Online, Princeton Review Online, and one of the newest, Encyclopedia Britannica Online. These programs are more expensive, ranging from $500 – $800.

The national companies were previously best known for comprehensive classroom-based workshop review programs (#4), and these are still popular. The workshop setting may work best for those who are more motivated by having a time and place mapped out for their review sessions. They can be pricey, however, often costing upwards of $1000. These days the range of offerings from the national companies are extensive, and make full use of learning and communication technologies.

Finally, there are local private tutors (#5), some of whom exclusively do tutoring, and others who combine tutoring with other educational consulting services, such as help with the college search and admission process. As a professional, I fall in the latter category. I am up-front with clients that I am a good test-taking strategist, and strong in the critical reading and writing categories, but far less so in mathematics. I would refer a student needing deep assistance in the math area to another tutor, and feel it would be unethical of me to do otherwise.

There are two great advantages to private tutors, once you find the right one (always check credentials and references). First, the personalized attention simply can’t be beat. Second, determining in advance the number of hours can control costs, as most tutors charge on an hourly basis. Many private tutors also utilize a guidebook and /or online materials as they work with students, so there may be positive triangulation from going this route.

Some final notes: while the college application process has become more competitive and stressful in recent years, several changes in college policies have mitigated the effects somewhat. Increasing numbers of schools have diminished the weight of standardized tests in their admission decision process, and there are now several hundred test-optional colleges, including many that are highly selective. These schools place more weight on GPAs and letters of recommendation, and may request samples of graded work from the applicant. For some time students have been able to test multiple times with the assurance that colleges will only consider their highest sets of scores, and some schools practice “superscoring,” meaning they allow students to mix the highest sub-scores from different testing sessions. Students with documented learning differences have the option of requesting testing accommodations, such as extended time, and are well advised to work with a tutor who understands their issues.

Lisa Ransdell, Ph. D., is an independent educational consultant based in Denver, CO. She is a college faculty member, former higher education administrator, and president of Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC: http://www.pinnacle-educ.com.

College Entrance Exam Preparation Strategies

One of my services to clients is help in preparing for the SAT and ACT examinations. It’s been some time since I was on the college testing scene as a test taker, but at the moment I am right in there with high school juniors, studying for the SAT myself at the age of 50 with a looming October 4, 2008 test date. I decided that prepping for and taking the test myself would be an interesting, alternative sort of professional development at this point in my career.

What does an educational consultant and former higher ed administrator recommend as the best means of preparing for college entrance exams? As with nearly every consequential thing one plans for, “one size doesn’t fit all,” and “it depends.” For myself, given that I have nothing riding on my exam scores, I am going low level. My preparation consists solely of spending time working my way through the Barron’s guidebook, “How to Prepare for the SAT,” and also receipt and completion of the SAT question of the day from the College Board (and its Educational Testing Service), the folks who created and maintain the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Generally, there are four broad types of preparation. One is to do what I’m doing, and prepare on your own with the help of a guidebook. There are several out there roughly in the $30 price range and each will help prepare you in relatively similar ways. I chose Barron’s because it is highly regarded by other tutors who are my colleagues and friends. I like it for its breadth of coverage of key test areas (critical reading, writing and mathematics), the fact that it includes a diagnostic test to help identify strengths and weaknesses, and the fact that it includes no fewer than six practice tests. It also comes packaged with a CD-Rom that I haven’t checked out yet.

I would only recommend guidebook preparation for students with solid across-the-board academic strengths, for those who scored quite well on the PSAT, and as an initial strategy when there is plenty of time left to re-test should more in-depth preparation prove to be necessary. Guidebooks also work best for those with the self-discipline and motivation necessary to devote multiple hours per week to study and review for several weeks leading up to the exam date.

Self-motivation would similarly be necessary for those who are attracted to the idea of using one of the on-line test prep programs, such as Kaplan online, Princeton Review online, and one of the newest, Encyclopedia Britannica online. These programs are more expensive, ranging in price from approximately $399 to $535. I am especially intrigued by the Encyclopedia Britannica online program given their publicized average score improvement of 300 points, and the fact that their program has multiple personalized features that are part of their basic $499 fee.

Next are the classroom based review services, including Kaplan, Princeton Review, and others. These programs offer comprehensive coverage and may work best for those who are more motivated by having a time and place all mapped out for their review sessions. They can be pricey, however, often costing upwards of $1000. I recently affirmed the choice of the Sylvan Learning program to a client in another state who had a positive experience with their services earlier in her high school career as it seemed comforting to her to return to them. If I were a parent, I would make inquiries about the background and experience of session presenters before committing to any of these programs.

Finally, there are private tutors, some of whom exclusively do tutoring, and others who combine tutoring with other educational consulting services, such as help with the college search and admission process. As a professional, I fall in the latter category. As with the classroom-based programs, parents would be wise to inquire equally about the background of private tutors. I am up-front with clients that I am a good test-taking strategist, and strong in the critical reading and writing categories, but far less so in mathematics. I would refer a student needing deep assistance in the math area to another tutor, and feel it would be dishonest of me to do otherwise.

There are two great advantages to private tutors, once you find the right one (and I note that the major test prep companies now also offer their own private tutors). First, the personalized attention simply can’t be beat. Second, the cost can be completely controlled by pre-determining the number of hours of review, as most tutors work on an hourly basis. Many private tutors also utilize a guidebook as they work with students, so there may be a positive triangulation effect from going this route.

One final observation: provided the student launches the process early enough, test-taking can be relatively non-stressful, as the test can be repeated multiple times with no need for anxiety about outcomes, as schools have long pledged to only consider one’s highest scores. Also SAT scores can be cancelled if done within published deadlines, and increasing numbers of schools have recently diminished the weight of standardized tests in their admission decision process. Happy studying, my fellow test-takers!

Lisa Ransdell is a college faculty member, former high ed administrator, and head of a Denver-based college-search consulting firm, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC, www.pinnacle-educ.com.