Recently, I talked with a student on how he sought ACT help at school. He went to his English teacher, who pulled out a list of vocabulary words and some grammar exercises. He went to his Math teacher who gave him some practice sheets of decimals, fractions, and percentages.
I asked him how it helped him. He said, “None of that stuff was on the test,” which was why he was seeking my help.
Most Schools are Uninformed on the Importance of Testing
Most teachers have no clue what is on the new SAT and ACT. They remember what they did 20-30 years ago and what they did to help students in the last century, but have little knowledge of what is on the tests today, few have seen a recent SAT or ACT, and, much less, know how to help a student prepare for them.
Even fewer appreciate how important test scores are today compared to when they were in college. Twenty years ago, a middle class family could send their kids to college on their income. In 1999, a student with a Pell Grant and a Stafford loan could pay for a state college and pay off the debt in five years. College costs have increased as almost three times the inflation rate. Scholarships are crucial to pursuing a college education without encumbering a huge debt.
Today, admissions have grown more competitive and scholarships require higher test scores. Students often need to test several times. Most school teachers, administrators, coaches, band directors, etc., do not realize this, because they schedule school activities like band competitions, track meets, and basketball tournaments on SAT and ACT test dates.
In addition, most of these people give very bad advice, like: “You only need to take it once,” “You can only take it your senior year,” and “Colleges will not consider you if you take it more than once.” All of these are patently false, grossly inaccurate, and extremely detrimental to student opportunities for admissions and scholarships – but these people don’t know that.
Reality Check on Bogus and Worthless Test “Prep” Strategies
Most of what presents itself as test “prep” is just test practice. Often a high school will administer a practice test before the actual test and call it test “prep.” This is like letting a person drive a car once before they take the driver’s test. Some schools may even have a “test prep” class student attend as part of their curriculum. One parent shared “The ACT class at school is known to be a blow-off class.”
However, once you look into people and organizations that provide “test prep,” you venture into an entire new universe of prospects that are bogus, worthless, and some even harmful to student opportunities for admissions and scholarships.
One Size Fits All Strategy
If you are in a classroom with several other students and one instructor going over the same material with everybody, you have a “one-size-fits-all” prep program. The individual needs of the student are not taken into consideration, so the students act like they do in English or Math class, and, daydream and doodle. There may be some good general information, but rarely are there Tactics, Techniques, and Rules taught, much less practiced, and even less, mastered to the point of making an impact of scores.
Parents seem to like this because it’s is similar to classroom teaching and they assume it will do the same as an English or Math class. In addition, many parents chose this route so students can “be with their friends,” as if test prep is a social activity.
Sage on Stage Strategy
Often schools will bring in an “expert” who gathers students in a large room and entertains them with some test tricks, plus a long list of things they should do. The administration is satisfied that they did something to help students.
A lot of money is spent on this. I never could understand how watching some tutor work out the problem on the board helps a student on the SAT or ACT. In a school math class or a science class, this is works because the teacher is addressing the specific subject matter and explaining it to the students. Regular school classrooms treat concrete content material (history, math, etc.) that have definitive or interpretive answers that can be later expressed on a test. Tutors can be great supplements to enhance the student’s understanding of such concrete material.
However, the SAT & ACT are a different situation altogether. You are not dealing with specific subject matter. You are dealing with conceptual questions, not content information. There are no topical questions like “Who was the first President?” that can be taught to prepare for these tests. There are no specific literature passages that can be taught that will later appear on a test like in English class.
So students watch a tutor solve problems or answer questions. Well, the tutor is not going to be at the test with the student and won’t be able to take the test for the student. Watching a tutor answer solve problems and questions is like watching someone doing push-ups. No matter how long or how much you watch, you are not going to get any stronger.
Buy the Book
Book stores are lined with prep manuals. Many parents think simply buying the book will help the student. Maybe… but not much. You are buying “hope.” These books are larger than most textbooks; so you hand the kid this thick manual and expect him or her to do something with it. These books are great resources and tools, but without some sort of guidance on how to use them, they are pretty much worthless. Only a small fraction of students can use these on their own. In our program, we use only the Official SAT and ACT manuals, and we have a process on how they are used as resources.
The best way to learn how to score higher on the tests is exactly the same as learning how to score points on the basketball court. You watch others do it, you learn the fundamentals, you try a few times, a coach comes over to help you with your technique, and you keep shooting until you get it down. After that, you perfect your shot. Then you begin to learn how to take other shots using the same or similar techniques, but from different points and different situations. Continual practice of the right fundamentals and techniques, combined with observation and intervention by a coach, help the person gain mastery.
The ball needs to be in the shooter’s hands, not the coach’s. The shooter scores the points, not the coach.
In our program, we provide training on the fundamentals with our strategies, tactics, and techniques; demonstrate them, then coach the student as they apply these strategies, tactics, and techniques to master the craft of taking these tests.
Any prep strategy that does not keep the ball – the means of scoring – in the student’s hands, is just a show… and bogus and, in the long term, worthless.