When Taking the ACT or SAT “Just For Practice” Can Hurt You

I’m a big fan of practice when it comes to standardized tests, but not all practice is beneficial. In fact, there are times when a “practice” test can hurt you.

Good Practice

I’ll start with the positive. Taking an official practice test under test-like conditions is the best way to gauge a student’s current abilities. I often recommend families use these practice tests to:

  • Identify strengths and weaknesses. My clients take a few practice tests to measure their own progress and adjust strategy prior to taking the real test.
  • Decide if a student would be better off taking the ACT or SAT. You can take both in the comfort of your own home and compare results.
  • Guide the college / scholarship search process. Test scores aren’t everything, but it helps to know if you have a high scoring, average, or struggling test taker.

Notice, these “good” tests are diagnostic in nature and used to guide further action. They are not used as a means to achieve mastery. In other words, making your child take an SAT every week for her entire sophomore year is NOT what I would consider good practice.

Only Official Practice Material

The key to the good type of practice I outlined above is the use of official materials. This means tests written by College Board (SAT) and ACT.

Anyone who does serious work in test prep will tell you that these exams rely on precise language and the difference between a right or wrong answer can be a matter of a single word. So there is no such thing as close enough.

You can obtain full-length official tests from the SAT and ACT websites.

I do not recommend students take the test by viewing the exam on a screen. Currently the SAT and ACT are paper and pencil tests and students should practice in the manner of the actual exam. I will warn you that the exams are lengthy, so prepare to print about 60 pages per test.

Do not settle for used tests or imitations. It may be tempting to use the older brother’s “Official SAT Study Guide.” I mean, he only wrote a little on many of the pages. But trying to ignore someone else’s writing and not be swayed by circled answers is an unnecessary distraction and may skew results.

The same warning holds for imitation tests (think of them as the fake Gucci handbags of the testing world.) These “lookalike tests” may fool the casual observer, but they aren’t the same as the real deal. “Lookalike exams” are published by the big-box educational companies—Princeton Review, Kaplan, McGraw Hill, Barron’s, etc. Recycle these books. They aren’t worth the time you’d spend on the questions—not even for practice. (A lot like trying to practice for the important basketball tournament by using one of those bouncy red gym balls—you can run a lot of the same plays, but it just isn’t the same and can throw off your game.)

What else should you watch out for?

Taking the Real SAT or ACT for Practice

I hear it all the time. “We’re just signing him up to take the December test for practice.” While these parents have good intentions and are trying to use real materials and testing conditions, there are DANGERS in this approach.

  1. “Practice” results are official and may be used for admission. Some colleges and universities require students to send ALL test scores, not just the best ones. This means that “practice” test is now sitting in front of the admissions or scholarship committee when you just wanted it to serve as a trial run.
  2. SAT and ACT have been known to question results for students who improve significantly from one exam to the next. So the low “practice” test can raise a red flag when the student studies, retakes the test, and improves.

I’ve had students in these situations.

I had a senior last fall who took the SAT in November. It wasn’t intended to be a practice, but there was a death in the family the day before and Dad thought it best to send “James” to take the SAT as planned on Saturday morning while funeral arrangements were made. As you can imagine, James didn’t do well because his mind was elsewhere. James and I were already working on test taking strategies and he took the December SAT as planned —a little late in the year for a senior, but he could still meet the January application deadlines for his schools.

Usually SAT scores are available for students to view within 3 weeks. James kept checking for scores. He needed them sent to his colleges and he was curious to see how much he was able to improve. January came and deadlines passed and James still had no scores. When he called College Board, he kept getting vague answers of “soon.” In February James found that his exam was referred to the office of testing integrity (think “office of cheating and questionable behaviors”). College Board found similarities between his answers and another student in his testing room and because James’s scores on the November SAT were considerably lower, his test was flagged for irregularities. He was given three options:

  • Appeal. He did, but nothing happened. Dad wrote a letter explaining the November circumstances and I wrote a letter saying James studied with me and I would expect scores within a particular range. (I can’t find anyone who has successfully appealed this type of case.)
  • Withdraw his December exam and they would refund his money.
  • Retake the SAT in March. If his March results confirmed his December score, they would release it. James was already past most application deadlines at this point and didn’t want to go through all the preparation again to take the March exam.

I wasn’t in the test room with James in December, but he didn’t seem like the type of kid who was desperate enough to cheat. He had been doing the work and had seen improvement.

The problem is that whether guilty or not, students’ scores can be questioned by College Board at any time. Your “practice” test results will be used as evidence against you and there is very little recourse once your scores are questioned.

James is not alone. I have heard from many tutors and counselors nationwide about similar situations. College Board got dragged through the national media a few years ago with cheating scandals and now they seem ready to err on the other extreme in identifying potential irregularities. No one that my colleagues or I know has successfully been able to appeal. Once College Board flags your exam for irregularities, you will find yourself fighting a losing battle.

Action Items

Practice is good, but keep your practice to tests you take at home. Paying the money and signing up to take the real test may sound like a good idea, but there are some significant harm that can result from this approach. Next week… Why you don’t want to take the free or low cost “practice test” offered at school or by the test prep company. For a previous article with some additional thoughts on the harms of taking a real test to practice, read here.

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