Some valuable advice about standardized college testing

After many years of having taught SAT and ACT prep to students in classes and/or individually, here is the valuable advice which I have for both students and parents.

Step 1: The PSAT

Most students start their college prep standardized testing experience with the PSAT.
This test is always administered in October.
It is strictly a practice test-PSAT scores are not sent to colleges-
and also acts as a promotional tool for the Educational Testing Service which markets the SAT.

The PSAT is given to 11th graders.
Many schools are also now offering it to 10th graders as well.
Should you take the PSAT? Yes.

What about if it’s offered in both grades at your school? Yes, again.
There’s no such thing as too much practice.

The PSAT given to 11th graders also acts as a qualifying test for high achieving students whose scores may make them eligible for National Merit Scholarships.
Applying for these scholarships is a rather arduous process and only about 8000 students nationally will actually receive scholarship money.
Do some research if you think you might qualify.

Step 2: The SAT/ACT

The majority of students will take the SAT or ACT in the second half of their junior year.

You may start taking these tests sooner if you want additional experience with standardized testing. You may also take the tests as often and as many times as you wish.

The SAT is given in October, November, December, January, March, May and June
The ACT is given in September, October, December, February, April and June.

First and foremost, test taking at this level must be thought of as a process-not a series of independent events.

Which test you take is a matter of personal preference.

Colleges will accept scores from either or both tests.

There is no penalty for repeated test taking.

You do not have to submit your score to colleges every time you take one of these tests.

Do some research about how these tests differ. Rely on teachers and guidance counselors for advice.
Or take both tests before deciding on which test you’ll actually concentrate on.

Students taking the SAT in January or the ACT in February should make sure that math classes in their schools will have covered the skills that will be tested on these “earlier” tests.

For juniors interested in the SAT, I would suggest taking the test in January, March and May.

The SAT has available a special feedback service for the January and May tests called the Question and Answer Service. It provides you with a good amount of feedback regarding your performance . With this information, you can identify areas of weakness and act to strengthen them before retaking the test later in the junior year or in the Fall of the senior year.

This is what I mean when I say that test taking at this level needs to be thought of as a process.

Here’s how it should work:

Take the test. SAT and/or ACT
Get the feedback. Q & A Service and/or TIR Service
Identify weaknesses.
Strengthen weaknesses.
Take the test again.
Rinse and repeat.

The March SAT offers the Student Answer Service. It’s not as thorough as the Q & A Service but it’s better than nothing.

For students interested in the ACT, I would suggest taking the test in December, April and June.
The ACT offers the TIR (Test Information Release) for these three test dates.
The TIR Service is to the ACT what the Q & A Service is to the SAT.

Last, but not least, Seniors should participate in Fall testing.

Those who favor the SAT should take the test in October and may wish to also take it again in November-the November test is usually not too late for students applying for Early Action or Early Decision but best to check with colleges to be sure.

Those who favor the ACT should take it in September and may wish to take it again in October.

2016-17 Test Dates

SAT and ACT Test Dates for 2016-2017

Date of Test Test Register by Get Scores By †
Web Mail
Sep. 10, 2016 ACT Aug. 5
(8/19 with late fee)
Sep. 26 Oct. 1
Oct. 1 SAT & SAT Subject Sep. 1
(9/20 with late fee)
Oct. 20 Oct. 29
Oct. 22 ACT Sep. 16
(9/30 with late fee)
Nov. 7 Nov. 12
Nov. 5 SAT & SAT Subject Oct. 7
(10/25 with late fee)
Nov. 22 Dec. 3
Dec. 3 SAT & SAT Subject Nov. 3
(11/22 with late fee)
Dec. 10 Dec. 31
Dec. 10 ACT Nov. 4
(11/18 with late fee)
Dec. 26 Dec. 31
Jan. 21, 2017 SAT & SAT Subject Dec. 21
(1/10 with late fee)
Feb. 9 Feb. 18
Feb. 11 ACT Jan. 13
(1/20 with late fee)
Feb. 27 Mar. 4
Mar. 11 SAT only Feb. 10
(2/28 with late fee)
Apr. 1 Apr. 8
Apr. 8 ACT Mar. 3
(3/17 with late fee)
Apr. 24 Apr. 29
May 6 SAT & SAT Subject Apr. 7
(4/25 with late fee)
May 25 Apr. 3
June 3 SAT & SAT Subject May 9
(5/24 with late fee)
June 22 July 1
June 10 ACT May 5
(5/19 with late fee)
June 26 July 1
Aug. 26* SAT & SAT Subject July 26
(8/16 with late fee)
Sep. 14 Sep. 23
Sep. 9, 2017 ACT Aug. 4
(8/18 with late fee)
Sep. 25 Sep. 30
Oct. 7* SAT & SAT Subject Sep. 7
(9/27 with late fee)
Oct. 26 Nov. 4
Oct. 28 ACT Sep. 15
(9/29 with late fee)
Nov. 6 Nov. 11
Nov. 4* SAT & SAT Subject Oct. 6
(10/24 with late fee)
Nov. 21 Dec. 2
Dec. 9* SAT & SAT Subject Nov. 2
(11/20 with late fee)
Dec. 21 Dec. 30
Dec. 9 ACT Nov. 3
(11/17 with late fee)
Dec. 25 Dec. 30

PreACT is new this Fall; equivalent to the PSAT

 ACT Launches New PreACT Test for 10th Graders
New Assessment Will Help Prepare Students for ACT Testing Experience, Predict ACT Score

ACT today announces the launch of PreACT™, a 10th grade multiple-choice assessment that helps students prepare for the experience of taking the ACT® test and provides information regarding their future performance on the exam. The new test will be available to schools, districts and states starting in the fall.

“PreACT will provide valuable insights on college and career readiness to students, educators and schools while students still have time to make adjustments and improve,” said ACT Chief Executive Officer Marten Roorda. “It’s an affordable tool to help empower students and educators with information they can use to better prepare for the ACT and the future.”

The paper-based PreACT is patterned after the ACT, using the same types of test questions, same score scale, and same format. It is designed to model the ACT test experience, providing students with the ultimate preparation and practice.

PreACT includes exams in English, mathematics, reading and science, just like the ACT test, but does not have a writing test. Scores will be reported on the same 1-36 scale as the ACT, but PreACT includes fewer questions and will take less time to administer than the ACT.

Through the free ACT Interest Inventory, PreACT will also provide insights to help students explore college major and career options and start planning for their future.

“We developed PreACT to meet a need for a 10th grade measurement and guidance tool that can be administered easily and affordably and that offers fast, helpful results,” said Suzana Delanghe, ACT chief commercial officer. “The introduction of this new assessment is a direct result of ACT listening to what our customers are telling us and taking action on their feedback.”

PreACT score reports will offer a broad view of students’ college and career readiness, identifying academic strengths and areas for improvement and providing information about careers that match students interests. School score reports will provide data to help teachers and counselors target interventions, inform classroom instruction and guide students in course selection.

PreACT, ACT Online Prep and the ACT test form a sequence of college and career readiness solutions for students from grade 10 through graduation. The sequence joins ACT Aspire Early High School in ACT’s menu of offerings for the high school level.

Schools, districts and states can begin ordering PreACT in May. The cost will be $12 per student tested.

Curriculum Revision

After many hours of hard work I have completed my SAT prep curriculum revision. I have also revised the ACT essay prep to reflect that test’s recent changes. Both curricula are now divided into four sections.

Section One, entitled “What We Know”, provides the student with basic information about the test’s overall structure, numbers of questions, types of questions, which each type is designed to measure, how the test is scored, how much time is allocated for each section, etc.

Section Two presents a choice of strategies the student can employ. Each strategy is broken down into numbered steps in order to ease a student’s understanding and to facilitate application.

Section Three consists of moderately difficult exercises where the student practices applying his strategy of choice to representative questions. Answers to these exercises are provided along with explanations of what makes each correct choice correct. The student completes these exercises on his own time and highlights any incorrect response. He and the instructor review the incorrect responses where the student doesn’t understand the explanation provided for the correct choice.

Section 4 consists of more challenging exercises where answers are not provided. These exercises are completed by the student but reviewed in company with the instructor.

The highlight of my curriculum revision is a new methodology for reading which will apply to both SAT and ACT tests. I call it “The SST Approach”-See it. Say it. Touch it. This methodology uses three of our five senses to improve our reading comprehension.   More to come…

SAT Revision Info.

SAT Redesign

Length           2 sections:  Math and English  –  3 hours

Optional Essay-additional 50 minutes


Scoring         200-800 pts for each section of Math and English

Essay is scored 2-8 in each of 3 areas

(understanding, analysis, composition) length=750 words

Essay scores are reported separately


Reading and Writing         No sentence completions

Emphasis is on evidence-based interpretation of texts

Vocabulary is more familiar, but definitions  are based on context

Writing skills  (grammar, punctuation, usage) are all passage–based


Math               More emphasis on word problems and less on equations

Student should be familiar with the quadratic equation,

linear inequalities, and inequalities with variables

More algebra and less geometry – some trig.

More emphasis on interpreting graphs

Calculators are not allowed for one section


Essay                        Student must write an analysis of a provided text

3 areas of scoring:  (reading skills, analytical skills, writing skills)


Other Changes       In general, more reading-including Math

No penalty for guessing

Answer choices reduced from 5 to 4


Critical Reading:  65 minutes    52 questions

Written Language:  35 minutes    44 questions

Math:   80 minutes   57 questions



Revised SAT vs. ACT

13 and a half minutes per 10-11 SAT questions (more time per question) 8 and a half minutes per 10 ACT questions (less time per  question)
There are 6 questions with geometry and trigonometry More emphasis on geometry and trigonometry, approximately 30%
Calculator is permitted for one out of the 2 sections Calculator is permitted throughout the test.
Writing – Essay – 50 minutes, separate essay score 2-8 Writing – Essay – 30 minutes, separate essay score 2- 12
Total score of 400- 1600 consists of two parts, math, reading and writing Composite score- 1-36. Individual scores (math, reading, English, and science)
Formulas are provided Formulas are not provided
Reading – answers come in order within the passage Reading – answers come in random order within the passage
Science- included in math, and verbal sections Science – separate section

Letter of Recommendation: What Teens Need to Know

Senior year means a lot of stress for twelfth graders. These stressors all revolve around the college application, of course, or the application to a gap year program, or for a job or internship. All of these options require at least two recommendations from teachers. One of the problems with this process, however, is that a teacher’s letter of recommendation is based on your past performance, and not your present status. Therefore, you really have to start thinking about this as a junior.

The questions a high school teacher asks herself before she writes a letter of recommendation for college.

The tough thing about this part of the application lies in the fact that it is dependent upon someone other than you, the student. This is not a place where you can brag about your awards, or tell stories about your most daring feats of helpfulness in the face of a crisis. This is where the admissions officer gets to hear another point of view.

  • Are you the kid you profess to be?
  • Is there more to you than grades?
  • Do your teachers sing your singular praises, or write generic descriptions of their classes because they don’t know quite what to say about you?
  • Is there a mutual respect here, a relationship created through the give and take of class discussion and effort?
  • These questions will be answered through the language of a teacher’s recommendation, and that is why the letter is so important.

This is yet one more reason that your junior year is so important. Because, getting your teacher to write you a good recommendation doesn’t begin in the late spring of Junior year or the early fall of senior year. It begins the moment you step into that teacher’s classroom in the fall of 11th grade.

When I am asked to write a recommendation, these are the questions I ask myself:

1. Did you make an impression on me in a positive way?

This could happen in various ways:

  1. You might have a strong personality, which came through in our class discussions.
  2. You might have asked important or delving questions that helped others to understand more deeply the issues of the day.
  3. You might have come to me for help when you didn’t understand an issue.
  4. You might have provided help to your classmates when they didn’t understand something, or asked a shy classmate to join your group throughout the year (being inclusive is something that often stands out in my memory)

2. Did you put in effort throughout the year? 

This means lots of things to a teacher:

  1. Did you do the work assigned?
  2. When you didn’t, were you honest about why?
  3. Did you participate in class?
  4. Did you ask for help?
  5. Did you come on time for class and help sessions?
  6. Did you earn a grade, or expect a grade?

3. Most importantly, the question I ask is this: Do I know you as a person?

This sounds nebulous, but means:

  1. Did you give me an honest impression of what is important to you?
  2. Did you talk to me about what you wanted to learn, and push yourself to learn more about what is important to you?
  3. Did you delve deeply into topics, or only do exactly what I asked?
  4. Did you find a way to make an assignment yours, by adding your voice, when appropriate?
  5. Did you make the effort to make the class meaningful for you?

These are all difficult questions to answer. I don’t expect to be able to answer every one of them positively for every student. I will certainly write recommendations for most who ask, but my best recommendations will be written for the students who stand out to me.

So, my advice to juniors is to create a strong bond with a few teachers. When you are ready to ask them for a recommendation, think about the kind of impression you made on them, and make sure to ask them in person. No matter how strong our relationship, respect is shown through eye-to-eye communication, not through the pressing of a send button. I very rarely say no to requests, but the better I know you, the better my letter will be, and the more your application will stand out.

This is the only part of your application when someone else speaks for you. Make sure the right person is doing the talking.

Emily GenserEmily Genser is the mother of Abigail (5) and Josh (2 1/2) and a high school English teacher in West Hartford, Connecticut. She is passionate about both jobs and spends most of her time laughing. You can find her blogging away her few free moments of the day at Exhausted but Smiling.

The “New” SAT

With a new school year upon us, high school juniors and seniors will undoubtedly have questions about changes in the SAT format.


The first thing you should know is that these changes are taking place in reaction to the fact that more students took the ACT last year than the SAT. The SAT is changing in order to compete with the growing popularity of the ACT in the hope that the SAT will reclaim its traditional target market. How? You may ask.  Put simply, the revised SAT is becoming more like the existing ACT in form- similar length, optional essay, greater reliance on reading analysis and writing techniques, no loss of credit for incorrect answers, more advanced math content, etc. Detailed comparative studies are easily accessible online and are not the purpose of this essay.

With format changes that result in greater similarity between the two tests, the SAT will not be as skilled based as it has been up to now. Like the ACT, it will put more emphasis on retention and recall of factual information.


Let’s start with the PSAT. It will be given on Sat. Oct 14 or Sat Oct 28. Most schools are opting for the 14th and the College Board is pushing for the earlier date. This October’s PSAT will prepare students for the revised SAT which will be administered starting in March, 2016.


The “old”, unrevised SAT will be given on Oct. 3, Nov.7, Dec3, and Jan.23.


The “new’ revised SAT will be given on March 5, May 7, and June 4.


What should rising juniors do? Obviously they will take the PSAT in October even if they’ve already taken it as sophomores. Next, they should take the Nov. 7 SAT. This is particularly true for students who may have already taken the PSAT as sophomores as they’re already familiar with the “old” SAT format. It’s also true for those who might struggle with the more advanced math of the revised version, and for those who may find it difficult to analyze written passages and/or recognize writing techniques. Don’t let the fact that the essay will become optional on the revised SAT become a determining factor. Students taking the revised SAT should opt for the essay anyway as they will find it good practice for college application essays.


Take the revised or “new” SAT in the Spring, March 5, May 7, or June 4. This way, you will have taken two different versions of the SAT, and you can send out whichever set of scores proves to be your better showcase. Colleges will accept scores from both the “old” SAT and the “new.” Remember, also, that you can always retake the SAT in the fall of the senior year. However, scoring well enough on either version in the 11th grade might make retaking the test unnecessary. That’s a definite “plus” for seniors who are busy enough in the fall with campus visitations, writing application essays, collecting letters of recommendation, etc.


The Big Problem With the New SAT

The Big Problem With the New SAT
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AT first glance, the College Board’s revised SAT seems a radical departure from the test’s original focus on students’ general ability or aptitude. Set to debut a year from now, in the spring of 2016, the exam will require students to demonstrate in-depth knowledge of subjects they study in school.

The revised SAT takes some important, if partial, steps toward becoming a test of curriculum mastery. In place of the infamously tricky, puzzle-type items, the exam will be a more straightforward test of material that students encounter in the classroom. The essay, rather than rewarding sheer verbosity, will require students to provide evidence in support of their arguments and will be graded on both analysis and writing. Vocabulary will move away from the obscure language for which the SAT is noted, instead emphasizing words commonly used in college and the workplace.

While a clear improvement, the revised SAT remains problematic. It will still emphasize speed — quick recall and time management — over subject knowledge. Despite evidence that writing is the single most important skill for success in college, the essay will be optional. (Reading and math will still be required.)

And the biggest problem is this: While the content will be new, the underlying design will not change. The SAT will remain a “norm-referenced” exam, designed primarily to rank students rather than measure what they actually know. Such exams compare students to other test takers, rather than measure their performance against a fixed standard. They are designed to produce a “bell curve” distribution among examinees, with most scoring in the middle and with sharply descending numbers at the top and bottom. Test designers accomplish this, among other ways, by using plausible-sounding “distractors” to make multiple-choice items more difficult, requiring students to respond to a large number of items in a short space of time, and by dropping questions that too many students can answer correctly.

“Criterion-referenced” tests, on the other hand, measure how much students know about a given subject. Performance is not assessed in relation to how others perform but in relation to fixed academic standards. Assuming they have mastered the material, it is possible for a large proportion, even a majority, of examinees to score well; this is not possible on a norm-referenced test.

K-12 schools increasingly employ criterion-referenced tests for this reason. That approach reflects the movement during the past two decades in all of the states — those that have adopted their own standards, as well as those that have adopted the Common Core — to set explicit learning standards and assess achievement against them.

Norm-referenced tests like the SAT and the ACT have contributed enormously to the “educational arms race” — the ferocious competition for admission at top colleges and universities. They do so by exaggerating the importance of small differences in test scores that have only marginal relevance for later success in college. Because of the way such tests are designed, answering even a few more questions correctly can substantially raise students’ scores and thereby their rankings. This creates great pressure on students and their parents to avail themselves of expensive test-prep services in search of any edge. It is also unfair to those who cannot afford such services. Yet research on college admissions has repeatedly confirmed that test scores, as compared to high school grades, are relatively weak predictors of how students actually perform in college.

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By design, norm-referenced tests reproduce the same bell-curve distribution of scores from one year to the next, with only minor differences. This makes it difficult to gauge progress accurately.

Rather than impose higher education’s antiquated regime of norm-referenced tests on K-12 schools, American education would be better served if the kind of criterion-referenced tests now increasingly employed in K-12 schools flowed upward, to our colleges and universities.

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Jeffrey B. 18 minutes ago
S.A.T. – Scholastic Aptitude Test.More accurately, a test to determine how much money you have, as evidenced by your success on this test…
steve 19 minutes ago
Where did the idea that speed is important arise? We’ve all heard the starting command, “Pick up your pencils!” and the more troubling,…
PJ 20 minutes ago
Given the increasing availability of online courses, will the SAT even be relevant for admission to universities in ten tears? And what does…
Two objections to such tests are that they presuppose a national curriculum and that they might produce the same disparities as norm-referenced exams.

However, experience with the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that, even without a national curriculum, there is enough similarity across the states to permit development of nationally representative, criterion-referenced exams.

And by rewarding students’ efforts in the regular classroom, criterion-referenced exams reduce the importance of test-prep services, thus helping to level the playing field. They signal to students and teachers that persistence and hard work, not just native intelligence or family income, can bring college within reach. They are better suited to reinforce the learning of a rigorous curriculum in our poorest schools.

College admissions will never be perfectly fair and rational; the disparities are too deep for that. Yet the process can be fairer and more rational if we rethink the purposes of college-entrance exams.

The revised SAT takes promising steps away from its provenance as a test of general ability or aptitude — a job it never did well — and toward a test of what students are expected to learn in school. But the College Board should abandon the design that holds it back from fulfilling that promise.

Richard C. Atkinson is president emeritus of the University of California. Saul Geiser is a research associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on May 5, 2015, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: The Big Problem With the New SAT. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe


Summer Reading Lists

High school students who are thinking ahead to the college admissions process should consider taking advantage of vacation time to get some help with summer reading lists. Tutoring assistance can pay big dividends in both high school classes and in college admissions offices.