By Diana Simeon
It’s not the most fun part of adolescence, but one thing’s for sure: our teenagers will be required to take some standardized tests in middle and high school. For private high school-bound teens, that includes the ISEE or SSAT admissions tests—and, for everyone heading to college, there are also the more familiar SAT and ACT.
Standardized Test Taking
How to approach these tests? Here are four ideas to get you started.
1. Schools require standardized tests because they have value.
Standardized testing tends to get a bad rap with both parents and students, but the tests have value when used appropriately, explains Christina Townsend-Hartz, director of admissions for grades 9-12 and financial aid at University School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
University School recently evaluated 10 years of ISEE data and found a “modest correlation” between a student’s ISEE score and his English and math grades. Studies have shown a similar correlation between the SAT and ACT and a student’s grades in the freshman year of college, which is part of the reason most colleges continue to require them.
“A test doesn’t tell you everything, but it certainly can provide insight,” explains Townsend-Hartz. She notes that at University School, an applicant’s test score is just a part of the picture they use to evaluate candidates, but a low score can be a red flag that a student may not be able to handle the school’s rigorous curriculum. Likewise, while no college relies solely on the ACT or SAT score for admissions decisions, it’s still an important factor, especially at competitive colleges.
2. Promoting a love of reading pays off.
“The best advice I really give to parents is, in general, to encourage their kids to read more,” says Townsend-Hartz. Even in high school, it’s not too late.
Avid readers tend to perform better on standardized test taking than non-readers: they will be more familiar with the vocabulary and better able to handle the reading and writing sections.
Confident readers are often faster test-takers, too. Emily Levitt, vice president of communications at Sylvan Learning, says, “A student might be a solid reader and be able to comprehend well, but they also need the reading fluency to be able to get through the test before the time is up.”
Readers are also at an advantage on science and math questions: quantitative reasoning questions on math tests require careful attention to language, and the ACT science section largely tests a student’s ability to read and answer questions about dense scientific passages.
3. Practice tests are a good idea.
Students can do a lot to prepare for an admissions test, ranging from hiring a tutor to studying on their own at home.
At minimum, they should sit for one practice test—these are available online—in the weeks leading up to the real test.
“One of the biggest advantages to taking a practice test is to become familiar with the format,” says Levitt. For example, if the test is administered online, students should know how to navigate from question to question so they don’t waste precious time clicking around. Students should also know whether the questions will be multiple choice, open-ended, or a combination of both.
Also, these tests are typically three to four hours long. Most students have no experience taking a test for this amount of time, so it’s helpful to do it at least once before it matters. Plus, a practice test can also help pinpoint where a student may need extra help.
4. Scoring well pays off.
“Many private schools will give students who score in the top 90 percent of the admissions test a merit award,” notes Townsend-Hartz. The same is true for many colleges, which use merit awards to lure top students to their campuses, typically using test scores and grades to identify those students.
However, avoid the pressure of talking about what’s at stake with standardized test taking. If you don’t do well on the SAT, then you can’t go to your dream school.
Instead, when you talk about standardized test taking, focus on encouraging your students to do their best. When the test date is finally at hand, that means returning to the comforting basics: make sure your teenagers get lots of sleep the week of the test, and that they eat a healthy breakfast the morning of the test.
Diana Simeon is editorial consultant for Your Teen.