De-Mystifying Test Prep

Educational testing has overtaken every student’s life and is a source of immense anxiety and confusion. Whereas the College Board used to command significant market share with the SAT Test, increased competition due to the rising popularity of the ACT Test has created two dueling yet equally flawed college entrance exams. Rising from the chaos are several national and regional tutoring companies that promise to teach “content” and effective test-taking strategies. However, the methodologies and the foundational underpinnings of their educational programs are just as flawed as the tests they claim to understand.

The familiar narrative—and I remember this way back when I was in high school—runs that the ACT and SAT are objective reflections “of what you’ve learned in high school.” With the teach-to-the-test movement that’s overtaken American schools, this narrative has an even stronger grip on the school consciousness: how often do we hear, “but my son has such good grades; how are his ACT scores so low!?”

The problem is that they measure a set of skills rarely taught in traditional American high schools. On the ACT, the English section is plainly a test of grammar and English usage, subjects generally perceived as antiquated or irrelevant by most high schools. The Reading section is not a test of comprehension or interpretation or of excavating beneath the surface, but rather of speed and efficiency, getting the gist, and locating words quickly. Science on the ACT presupposes almost no knowledge of actual science subjects. Only 1-3 Science questions require coursework in biology, chemistry, and physics; the other 90-95% of the test is about pattern recognition and graph interpretation.

Test-prep companies are dimly aware of this disconnect, but their solution is to apply the same kinds of methods teachers use in high school. Treating the ACT as an adjunct to academic coursework, they throw grammar textbooks at students for the English, encourage close and deep comprehension for Reading, and review 1,001 formulas for Science–in spite of the fact that such mastery would take years and that most of these things are not even tested on the actual ACT or SAT. Perhaps even worse, most test-prep companies do not give students actual tests to prepare with. If you are taking practice tests with simulations from Academic Approach or Princeton Review, you are trying to learn how to play the piano with broken keys.

The only way to learn the strategies and rules for the ACT is to practice with real ACTs. We have and use all actual and distributed ACTs since 1996. Our researchers have derived rules and strategies of the ACT from rigorous question-by-question, passage-by-passage, answer-by-answer analysis of more than 20,00 questions. It turns out that there are remarkable consistencies and patterns that emerge on test after test. It turns out that you don’t need to memorize 1,001 science formulas. You only need to learn a few dozen rules. The trick, of course, is understanding and applying these rules. But with expert support, your student can make 6+ point gains on the ACT and 250+ point gains on the SAT in less than 4 months.

One day, American educators will finally realize that the ACT is not testing what they have so long assumed. In the meantime, we can de-mystify this test and help students reach their target scores, get top college scholarships and acceptances, and hold onto their sanity in the process.

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