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4 Things Parents Should Know About the SAT and ACT

Sweaty palms, ticking clocks, and parental pressures. Throw in a reading about the artistic influence of Jan Lievens and the value of n – m, and you have a recipe for high-stakes tests like the ACT and the SAT. For the past four years, I’ve worked as both a college writing instructor and an ACT/SAT tutor for English, reading, and writing. Most importantly, though, I’m also the mom of teenagers preparing to apply for college. Here are my thoughts:

4 Things to Know About the ACT and SAT

1. First of all, let’s get this out of the way: The tests are designed to be tricky and, frankly, unfair.

The ACT reading test is not a reading comprehension test. It’s a test to see how quickly you can locate information in a text, like a more stressful game of Where’s Waldo. Even trickier, the wrong answers are intentionally misleading. I tell my students, “You don’t get partial credit, so even if an answer is 75% correct, it’s not enough.” Recently, I advised a student to write “TINY DETAILS” on a sticky note and place it somewhere prominent when he does practice tests so he remembers that every word matters. 

On top of that, many parts of the test are unfair for English language learners. Even though I have a minor in French, I can’t imagine that I would perform well on tricky grammar skills like misplaced modifiers, subject/verb agreement, and idiomatic expression. And the focus is, of course, solely on standard English. For these reasons and others, these tests have been shown to be biased and problematic.

One more thing to know about the ACT and SAT: Ultimately, there really isn’t proof that these tests predict who will be more successful in college. In fact, grades are actually a better predictor. Crazy, huh? (If you’re now wondering why I tutor for these tests, I have one reason: I am saving money for my own sons to attend college. I’m well aware of the irony. But until the tests die forever, I will continue to help students prepare.)

2. I do hope the tests die forever, but these standardized tests still matter, kind of, for now.

Because of COVID-19, the list of college and universities going test-optional has thankfully grown. That means that many schools no longer require an ACT or SAT score for the application process. (And those are the schools I’m pointing my highly-anxious test-taking son to.) However, I still have plenty of students to tutor. Why?

One of the girls I worked with this spring wisely answered that question for me: “Because my classmates are submitting scores.” Many students feel pressured to submit test scores because they realize they are competing against other students who are sending in scores as the extra-special icing on their application cake. Is this fair? Not really. But so far that still seems to be the reality.

Additionally, some merit scholarships still require test scores. So while the college or university itself might be test-optional, the score could still be required for financial aid reasons. (I really dislike this, but of course, no one is asking me.)

I like to fantasize about a day when these tests go the way of the wooly mammoth, but these money-making machines have been around for nearly 100 years and aren’t going to disappear overnight. (Imagine if they did, though. Students could accomplish amazing things with the time they invest in prepping for these tests.)

3. Many of the skills needed to do well on the tests will not serve your students well in college.

As I mentioned, I also wear the hat of a college writing professor. When I give instructions for the optional writing part of the ACT, I often tell students, “Okay, so what I will tell you now is basically the opposite of what I tell my college writing students on the first day of class.” I then proceed to describe how to write a meaningless five-paragraph essay on any topic in a short amount of time. Sure, writing-on-demand will be used again in the future, but the formulaic structure and boring content, well, not so much.

And while I definitely want my college writers to understand basic grammar and punctuation rules, I prefer they use the rules correctly in their own writing rather than perform well on a multiple choice exam.

As for the math, many of the questions on that test look like a foreign language to me now, years after I took the ACT in 1997. The only reason I can answer more than a few of them now is because the pandemic forced me to brush up on geometry to help my sons during virtual learning.

What the ACT and SAT don’t test for is grit and perseverance—qualities that many of my students have. They’re committed, eager to learn and take the lead on their academic pursuits. By asking great questions and applying knowledge to new situations with very little coaching on my end, these students solve problems, practice hard, and see results. These skills will serve them incredibly well in college and beyond.

Which leads me to my last, and most, important point:

4. Your kids are working so hard, and they truly do care about their education. Celebrate them!

If your teen is taking the ACT or SAT, encourage them and let them know that this one measure is just that—one measure, one hoop. There are so many other, better ways to measure their worth and future potential. As I tell my tutoring students at the end of our time together, “Soon you’ll be old like me, and I’m here to tell you that NO ONE is standing around at a dinner party chatting about their ACT or SAT score. Or if they are, no one else wants to be around them.” And it’s true, right? 

So the night before the test, tell your kiddo to get to bed early and get a good night’s sleep. The morning of the dreaded exam, feed them a great breakfast, make sure they’re hydrated, and fill them up with love and confidence on their way out the door. 

That’s way more important than some silly test score.

Kimberly Witt

Kimberly Witt is an Iowa transplant placing roots in St. Paul, Minnesota. With her husband of 17 years, she is raising two amazing teenage sons who were born in Ethiopia. She enjoys writing, running, and (surprisingly) helping her sons with math homework.

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