Practice SAT / ACT or Sales Tool? Why some practice tests give bad results.

Maze of test prep options Today I’m exposing a dirty secret in the test prep industry. Those free or low cost practice tests you see advertised are not good practice; they are sales tools. Last week I told you taking the SAT or ACT for practice isn’t always smart. There are bad tests and potential consequences from using the real exams for practice. (full article here) Good practice comes from taking full-length official tests from College Board (SAT) or ACT. These tests are free and can be found online or in your high school guidance counselor’s office. So back to these bad tests…

The Facts

Every year I speak to concerned parents who think they are doing a good thing by signing their son or daughter up to take the practice test offered at school or by the big-box test prep chain. It sounds like a good deal. Students get to experience test-taking conditions, see the exam, and find out their scores. You may even get a detailed score report with suggestions for improvement and a free strategy session from the test prep company. What you don’t know is that SAT or ACT wasn’t a real exam; it didn’t come from College Board or ACT. Likely you got a Kaplan, Princeton Review, or other corporate test. This company-designed pre-test is skewed. It looks like a real test, like a fake Louis Vuitton handbag looks real to a casual observer, but these tests are worth less than that street corner knockoff. The secret in the test prep industry is that pre-tests are often designed to give low scores—not dramatically lower, but just enough to scare parents into signing up for the prep class. On the other end of the process, the post-test is designed to show improvement even for the indolent kid who barely touched the homework. “See it worked,” parents will exclaim when comparing the pre and post-test results. Instead of a useful practice test, you got a sophisticated sales pitch.

The Harm

So what’s the harm? Why is it bad to take these “practice tests” if you go in knowing the results are unreliable?
  1. It is a waste of time. High school students are busy. They don’t have a lot of time to waste. Spend the time on an official practice test instead.
  2. Students get wrong ideas about what they need to study. These company-generated tests aren’t the real deal. The wording of questions may be off. Some problems may present concepts or vocabulary that hasn’t been tested on the actual exam in recent years. Students leave the practice test thinking they need to improve on certain things that may not help on the real exam.
  3. Low scores are demoralizing. Saying you won’t put a lot of emphasis on the scores doesn’t make it so. I know too many high school students who obsess about the numbers. “Why did my scores go down from the PSAT?” “I’m never going to get into that college.” “I’m so stupid!” These are all things I’ve heard students say. Why risk more stress and anxiety on a test that is rigged to yield low scores?
So why is my school or public library promoting these tests?

The Complicit Partners

Most educators don’t know enough about the SAT or ACT (or the test prep industry) to effectively advocate for students. (It might be fun to ask when your school counselor last took a timed SAT or ACT!) They may not know there is a difference between official and knockoff tests. I’ve known a lot of teachers and counselors who thought these opportunities were good for students. They didn’t know it would be better to get the booklets from College Board or ACT and offer their own mock exam. And the test prep industry isn’t all-bad either. If you think about it, a free or low cost practice test is a great sales tool. These companies have invested so much time and money into creating books filled with “close, but not exact” questions; they view it as another tool. In America we have somehow managed to compartmentalize education outside of the rest of our free market economy. This belief perpetuates a lot of problems; a major one is the naïve belief that everything done at the school is in our children’s best interests. Too often we fail to ask critical questions— the type of questions we would ask if we were purchasing a home, a car, or new refrigerator.

Become an Educated Consumer

Now you know how important it is to use official tests when studying for the ACT and SAT, here are some questions to help you critically examine potential opportunities: Who is sponsoring this practice test? Years ago when I worked as a high school teacher, a school club could get Princeton Review to come in and administer a practice SAT. The club got to charge $5 or $10 per person (a great fund raiser) and Princeton Review got free use of the building to present to their target audience. Find out who is behind the practice test. Does a group at school sponsor it? Is a test prep company giving the exam? Or is this one of the rare cases where your school is using the official practice booklets directly from ACT or College Board? Will they be using official test materials? If a test prep company is sponsoring the test, your answer is no. There are rare cases where schools will offer mock exams for students and the guidance-counseling department uses the official practice materials. If you can’t get a straight answer to this question, assume you are NOT getting official materials from the test writers. You can create a good practice environment on your own. The simplest way is to get a practice test and administer it at your kitchen table. Mom or dad can serve as timekeeper (use the microwave timer or use an app like Proctor). If you want to get fancy, students can go to a local library. It might be helpful to find a quiet corner or use a private study room. Groups can coordinate their own practice; use a classroom at your community center or church. But what about the score report? When you get an official practice test booklet, it comes with a bubble sheet, answers, and scoring instructions. Grading it yourself is actually better than receiving a printout. In fact, it is so much better that I have all the students in my SAT and ACT classes score their own tests. Here’s what I’ve found:
  • If I did the scoring and printed a report, students focused on the number and not how or why they scored as they did.
  • Too many students don’t understand the grading scale for the SAT and ACT, but when they check their own work, they see what it takes (numerically) to improve.
  • When you check your own paper, wrong answers hurt. Students are more likely to change their approach as a result.
  • Students make connections between their results and the test taking strategies I teach. I can’t tell you how many “ah-ha” moments come when students are calculating their scores.
So be an informed consumer. Insist on official materials. And don’t be afraid to set up your own practice tests.]]>

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