Test Prep Is Different From Learning in School

Shouldn’t students know this stuff?

I get a lot of questions from parents who think that the math, reading, and grammar students learn in school should be sufficient to earn solid scores on the SAT / ACT. Essentially the parent’s question boils down to “Shouldn’t they know this already?”

No. What students learn in school is not enough.

Unfortunately, this mistaken belief leads thousands of good students to take the SAT and ACT each year without adequate preparation. (And is why we often see smart students with lower than expected test scores.)

School learning is different from test prep.

In school, students work to enhance knowledge of content and skills in an ongoing cycle. The goal is learning. In this model there is always more— more things to learn, more ways to practice, more books to read, more experiences to be had, etc. Yes, there might be tests to measure progress, but there isn’t a clear end. For example, I might have completed Algebra I and received a final course grade, but I will continue to use my Algebra I knowledge and I can continue to improve my skills.

Test prep is not learning in the same way.

Limited Content

First, the SAT and ACT test a narrow set of information.

I know students feel like these exams test everything: all high school math, reading comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, problem solving, and critical thinking, bu tif you dig into the actual content, the concepts tested are more limited.

For example, both SAT and ACT test students’ knowledge of grammar and usage. (SAT Writing and ACT English) The ACT and SAT limit what’s tested to about a dozen specific error types. You don’t need a 500 page grammar text to prep for these exams; you need to know the select grammar rules that are regularly tested.

If you try to prepare for the SAT / ACT by learning everything you possibly can, you will waste a lot of time and effort on topics that will never appear on the test. In this situation, less is more.

Limited to Specific Questions

Second, the SAT and ACT test this limited content using very specific and precise questions. This means in order to really prep for the exams, you need to use materials with the exact format and wording as the test itself. This is why many top math and science students still struggle on the math and science sections of the SAT and ACT. Classroom exercises are not the same as the test questions.

This is good and bad news for students.

On the positive side, students don’t need to study piles of books in order to prepare. The best prep will focus on a review of the limited content tested then practice with official test materials. [Learn why you don’t want to use anything but OFFICIAL practice materials here.]

The downside is that there is a limited amount of official practice material available. Right now College Board has 10 full-length SATs and two full-length PSATs available for students to practice. ACT has more limited materials available on their website, but I have compiled their previously released official practice tests HERE.

This is enough material. But if a student has worked and re-worked these tests in 9th and 10th grade, then by 11th grade when that student needs to seriously prep for the SAT or ACT, he or she has already used up the best materials. Unlike school where more materials can always be found, the world of test prep has a limited number of quality resources.

Limited Timeframe

Finally, test prep should take place in a focused timeframe.

Students can build knowledge and skills over time— learn more vocabulary, practice grammar and usage, understand the rules of geometry, etc. But preparing for a test like the SAT or ACT is more like training for a marathon or the Olympics.

Michael Phelps is the world’s most decorated swimmer. He earned eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but failed to repeat his success four years later in London. In 2012, Phelps was not at his peak. He still had incredible talent, but his training wasn’t the same. His past success and natural ability wasn’t enough; even Phelps needed focused training in a specific timeframe.

Students who spend years developing their content knowledge and skills still need to prep for the SAT or ACT. They should time their practice so they reach the peak of training right before the exam. Pacing, knowledge of tested content, familiarity with format, focus, and application of strategies should culminate on the actual exam. Maintaining this level requires effort.

Preparing for these exams over the summer or in the fall then waiting until the spring to take the test is like a runner training for an October marathon, but deciding to put it off until March. Performers don’t rehearse and practice only to wait a few extra months before the actual event.

Students need to see test prep as a limited time activity with a clear endpoint. Learning in school is an ongoing process.

What Does This Mean For Your SAT / ACT Results?

Here are some of the important takeaways:

  • Subject specific learning is not enough to earn top scores on the SAT / ACT.
  • Knowing content doesn’t mean a student will be ready to apply knowledge to a specific test format under timed conditions. (Knowing how to swim doesn’t make me ready to race the backstroke!)
  • The SAT / ACT test a very limited set of information. Don’t waste your time reviewing things that aren’t tested; focus on the most essential content instead.
  • Use only official test material for true test prep. (You wouldn’t practice for the state basketball championship with one of those bouncy red balls from PE.)
  • Because the amount of quality review material is limited, don’t waste it on unfocused practice.
  • Plan for your test prep to end right before the exam.
  • Don’t expect a student who has studied for the ACT / SAT in the past to be exam ready without additional preparation.
No one (not even Michael Phelps) can be performance ready at all times. Starting test prep too early can result in burnout. I recommend students prep in 11th grade when they are ready to take the exam of their choice.

Learning material in school is not the same as learning to take a test.

And for all the parents who ask me, “Shouldn’t our students know this material already?”, I challenge you to print out of copy of one of these SATs or ACTs and take it. You will quickly find that the questions are not easy, even if you remember the math, vocabulary, grammar, etc.   ]]>

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