As expressed in our Mission Statement, the National Test Prep Association advocates for the appropriate administration and use of standardized tests for admissions and assessment purposes. We also advocate on behalf of our clients, which often include high school students and their families. We believe that college entrance exams, such as the SAT and ACT, are reliable, objective measures of college readiness. However, no test is perfect, and there is always room for improvement.
We tutors live with these tests on a daily basis. We’ve drilled down the questions to the granular level with our students. In addition, we have formed a national network of test prep professionals who share ideas, best practices, strategies, and tools and, not surprisingly, discuss and dissect the tests. Based on our collective experience with thousands of students over the years, we’d like to share some thoughts about what we think works and what doesn’t.
The College Board should maintain reasonable and consistent levels of difficulty with curves that appropriately reflect them. A student shouldn’t have to take the SAT multiple times just because of bad scaling, which can be particularly punishing. On the Math sections, three errors can yield a score as high as 790 on one test, but as low as 750 on another. On some Verbal sections (Reading and Writing and Language Tests combined), a score of 750 can be attained by making only three errors on one test but up to eleven errors on another. These are not insignificant disparities, particularly for students who have prepared for months.
The back-to-back Verbal sections at the beginning of the SAT feature two heavy doses of reading. Gone are the sentence completions, short passages, sentence errors, and improving sentences questions that measured mastery of vocabulary and grammar proficiency as well as reading skills. In their place is a series of nine passages for students to slog through: five for Reading and four for Writing and Language. Why not break up the monotony and bring back some of these other types of questions? And since the two Verbal sections are so different, why not make superscoring an option for the SAT Reading Test and Writing and Language Test just as the ACT does? Doing so would benefit students by providing additional pathways for them to improve their scores.
On the ACT, it seems like the goal in the Reading section is speed rather than comprehension. Five more minutes in the Reading and Science sections each would be greatly appreciated by most current ACT test-takers – particularly now that graphs, figures, and tables are going to be incorporated into the Reading section – and would likely attract even more. Many students who would be well-suited for the ACT opt for the SAT instead solely because they simply cannot finish these sections. If the goal of the ACT is to test reading comprehension, the test should permit students who are careful, thorough, and thoughtful readers enough time to demonstrate their proficiency, especially given that they are unlikely to have to do a lot of time-restricted reading in college and beyond.
THE SAT AND ACT
With respect to both tests, hiring better proctors and training them appropriately should be a top priority. Proctors should know how to time sections accurately, consistently give five or ten minute warnings, and be familiar with each test’s calculator policy. Students should not have to self-advocate about not having to clear their calculators. Highlighters are not permitted on the paper tests, but the digital tests planned for the near future will offer a highlight-text option. Why not align the paper test with the digital version now and distribute free highlighters on the day of the test? Surely, there are plenty of companies that would jump at such a sponsorship opportunity.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that high school students need more sleep.  Accordingly, some school districts around the country have adjusted school start times, allowing high school students to start their school day later.  Since early morning isn’t most students’ optimal test-taking time, why not move the tests to late morning or early afternoon when students will perform better?
Lastly, we need better lines of communication with the testing companies. Already existing difficulties in contacting the SAT and ACT have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. We have now endured more than a year – and counting – of parents sitting on hold for hours, students unceremoniously “downsized” out of their tests, or finding out that their test centers have been canceled. We’ve heard far too many accounts from students who arrived at their centers on test day – registrations in hand – only to discover locked doors.
Students, parents, and test prep professionals alike look forward to improved IT, better customer service, and greater accessibility for all with respect to testing in the near future.
Nick Morrison, “More Sleep Means Better Grades for Students, Forbes, “Feb 11, 2019.
David Figlil, “Start High Schools later for better academic outcomes,” Brookings, May 25, 2017.
Claudia Chesler, an attorney, former presidential appointee, and marathoner, has been helping students achieve their highest scores, cultivate meaningful college essays, and build lasting confidence with the Potomac Education Center since 2006. Claudia is a founding member of the NTPA.