Navigating the Test Prep Landscape

Rachel Petrella, Director of College Guidance
As a college guidance counselor, I am very familiar with the marketing messages and advice about the college process directed at parents. Of all the “noise” students and their families have to filter through, no drum beats louder or earlier than that of test prep.

From my experience working with hundreds of individual students, I believe test prep has its place and some students can benefit from it. However, I have a healthy skepticism of the way test prep is promoted as a necessity for any successful college application and the claims that many test prep companies make. For a successful outcome, I encourage families to do their research, engage the resources of the college guidance office, and talk things through before deciding whether investing in a test prep program is necessary and, if so, how to choose the format best for you.

When is the right time for test preparation, given my academic program and my commitments in and outside of school?
If you hear the test prep drum beating in the fall of 10th grade or, worse, at the end of 9th, stop and ask yourself, “Why would I start prepping for a practice test I have never seen before?” Good question! A healthy testing sequence begins with a PSAT for 10th graders in October, which we offer here at school. We also offer a free practice ACT for sophomores and juniors each December. Both these tests and the PSAT/NMSQT taken in junior year, are practice tests (read: scores not reported to colleges, ever). Yet, parents are often persuaded that their children need to practice and prep for them.

(If I were a talented visual artist, I would sketch a cart in front of a horse in this space.)

Here are some common sense things to keep in mind about timing:

  • By the end of 9th or 10th grade, most students have not yet learned in school the math concepts tested on either the ACT or SAT. Across disciplines, there is a strong connection between what the student is learning in school (and WHEN!) and the content of these tests.
  • If you feel your child needs to familiarize themselves with the test, the content of a PSAT/ACT is public information, not a secret known only to highly-compensated tutors. One can google the information and Khan Academy provides free tools.
  • If a well-meaning friend asks “You haven’t hired a tutor yet? They’re filling up!” just remind yourself that there is no shortage of tutors willing to ‘sign’ you at a later (more appropriate, if even necessary) date.

The potential toll of test prep
Each winter, we teasingly tell Pacific Ridge 9th graders that they are the envy of the entire upper school, precisely because their pre-testing status makes them so. We also open the annual Standardized Testing Primer to our entire community each January, so that you can learn from an expert in testing who presents all the knowledge of a test prep nerd without reaching into your pockets. Nonetheless, some students and families are convinced that earlier is always better. This way of thinking is understandable:

  • more time to learn the test(s) ingrains strategies and builds confidence;
  • confidence with big testing occasions betters chances of scoring to your potential or exceeding it;
  • Finishing testing by fall of junior year would clear the way to concentrate on school and all your extracurriculars.
However, standardized tests are designed for typical spring juniors. What we know about testing earlier than recommended from decades of working with overworked, test-weary students is that, for a vast majority of eager testers, testing earlier usually just means testing more.

Consider this recent profile in testing fatigue: a junior walks into his College Guidance winter meeting having taken the practice tests laid out for him (here at school) then signing on with a testing agency at the end of sophomore year. By the time he returns to my office in January, he has taken 2 SATs, an ACT and too many practice runs of each to count. We pull his PSAT/NMSQT score report from his file to revisit the predicted SAT score we discussed in his sophomore meeting last spring, only to confirm that his dedication to a 6-month hybrid prep program has produced a score essentially the same as his 10th-grade PSAT report predicted it would naturally be. And he is worn out.

Of course, there are exceptions – students accelerated in math usually will test early; students with academic programs pointing them toward SAT Subject Tests will be advised to take them. The issue is that blanket advice tends to smother sound judgment because blanket advice beyond a sensible practice test sequence is profitable for the test prep industry.

What to look for when choosing test prep
Let’s start with what to avoid. You know you are hiring the wrong tutor when:

  • The test prep company does not ask to see your child’s PSAT or P-ACT score report (RESPONSE: The PSAT and P-ACT are important baselines to work from and can be strong indicators of which test better suits an individual student.)
  • You are told that the SAT and ACT are SO much alike and you are encouraged to prep for both (RESPONSE: There is absolutely no reason why a student should prep and take both the SAT and the ACT. Colleges accept either test and a growing number of schools are test optional).
  • The same point increase is guaranteed for everyone (RESPONSE: Every tester should realize that additional points represent moves in the national percentiles for each test. Scores go up as students get older. Often, the fine print of guarantees for point increases actually states that clients can continue prepping (at no additional cost) until they hit their goal. What kind of bonus is that?)
If your child is looking to invest effort, work efficiently and save time for other pursuits they enjoy (and colleges value), you likely subscribe to our theory: s/he who tests least wins. In this vein, tutors who meet students where they are, help them focus on the segments of the test where their practice score report indicates they need the most work, and teach pacing strategies that build test-day confidence can provide structure for students intent on making a worthwhile investment of their time and money.
Final thoughts
I hope this information will help families turn down the noise, step out of the tide of blanket advice and have their student ask the following:

  • Which practice test did I like best or hate least?
  • Knowing myself as a learner, reader, test-taker, which test format presents the most of MY best points for improvement with practice?
  • Do I need someone standing over me to make sure I practice/prepare? How often?
  • If I commit hours each weekend or summer day to test prep, what am I giving up?
Testing is a part of admission review for most schools and students naturally want to do and have what colleges seek. However, testing is not an activity that leads to personal growth; it is a necessary hurdle to cross. It’s not meant to be an all-consuming extracurricular activity that depletes your love of learning. Invest in the deliberate practice it takes to have your best test day and maximize your score, but not at the expense of activities that genuinely excite you.
You are way more than your score.