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ACT Averages Dropped (Again)

2020 continues to be the year of chaos. From COVID-19 to the politicizing of masks to a hotly contested election, upheaval continues to be the norm. It’s no surprise then that the ACT national average has also experienced negativity. For the third year in a row, the national ACT averages dropped. It now stands at 20.6 (out of 36), the lowest national average in 10 years. The ACT’s national average generally hovers around 21, so the downward trend, while concerning, isn’t precipitous. So what does this mean for you and your student?

The more disturbing trend

The larger issue with the declining averages is what that decline truly indicates. The ACT averages have dropped; what does that actually mean? The ACT is, at its core, a college readiness test. The English section tests on the basics of editing, including punctuation, grammar, and structure, all handy skills for term paper and essay writing in high school and college. The math section ensures that a student has gotten the basic skills s/he needs to be successful, and it also tests–as does the rest of the test–a student’s critical thinking skills.

The reading section tests a student’s ability to read through unfamiliar information and quickly process through what’s important. And the science section evaluates a student’s ability to analyze graphical information quickly and find patterns.

Which leads to the bigger problem with the declining ACT scores–they represent a decline in students’ core skills. Students in today’s high schools have more opportunity to specialize and diversify their educations than ever. They can take dual credit courses at local colleges, dig deeper into specific areas of broader fields, and individualize their educational experiences. This is a good thing. But with that diversification has come an erosion of core skills.

GPA vs. ACT score

Many students who are looking to improve their ACT scores are high GPA students. “Why did my son/daughter get a 21? They get straight As!” is a comment I hear often. The answer is pretty simple: the student can have simple conversations in Mandarin or parrot back information from a study guide on the Gilded Age, but they haven’t mastered the core skills–including critical thinking–that success on the test demands.

Critics of the ACT and other standardized tests point blame at the test. It is demographically biased, they say. Or it tests on irrelevant information. These criticisms, however, come from a position of ignorance about the test. It’s not designed to test on everything a student knows. It’s goal is to test a student’s ability to do something with given information.

What do you need to succeed?

Many students’ reaction to the test after taking their first one is, “I didn’t understand the questions.” This is natural, given that students aren’t taught to think through and pay attention to questions in school. NOT and EXCEPT questions are good examples of this. The ACT will often ask ‘Which of the following is NOT…” or “All of the following are acceptable EXCEPT…” Students often struggle with these types of questions because they miss the NOT or EXCEPT–even though the test capitalizes those words!

On the English section of the test, students very often struggle with basic punctuation and grammar skills. This comes directly from the trend of English classes to only grade the content of a student’s work and to ignore the syntax. If you read most students’ essays or papers, you’ll find run-on sentences, fragments, and punctuation errors that tests (and college professors) expect students to know. Even using digital add-ons, like Grammarly, don’t ensure that a paper is correctly constructed. Over my years as an exam prep tutor, I’ve seen students ACT English scores increase 10 points or more once they learn the basics of grammar and punctuation.

How does exam prep fill the gap?

In sum, the fact that ACT averages dropped is troubling. But the concern should be directed less against the test and more about students’ need to build a foundational skill set. This puts the spotlight directly on exam prep and what it does to fill the gap in a student’s educational experience. While our short term goal is for a student to be successful on the ACT, the additional benefits of critical thinking expertise and a solidification of basic skills will stay with that student through college and beyond.

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Educational Benefits of ACT/SAT

In ten years teaching in the classroom and another nine helping students with exam preparation, I feel like I understand both worlds. Criticism of the tests abounds, particularly this year with the additional stress of COVID cancellations and online school. One complaint is that the ACT and SAT don’t test what a student has learned in school. This is at least partially correct, but it ignores a major premise of the exams. They aren’t designed to test what a student knows. But because this is an oft-argued point, I wanted to delve into the educational benefits of the ACT and SAT.

One of the biggest misconceptions of the ACT and SAT is that they’re designed to test knowledge. They are not. Does it help to have knowledge of punctuation and grammar, algebra, and the like? Of course. But the tests generally test on what students can do with their knowledge, not just the knowledge itself.

Why doesn’t 4.0 mean 1600?

In our grade-inflated academic world, many students take their first SAT or ACT thinking that their high GPA will translate into a high score. In a sliver of cases, this is true. But the vast majority of 4.0+ GPA students struggle on these tests. Why? In my experience, the reason is simple. While a straight-A student has learned to play the school game–they’ve turned in their work, used their teacher-provided study guides, participated in class, and, in some cases, taken advantage of second chance tests to improve their scores–they haven’t developed critical thinking skills centered around those concepts. A student may know how to factor a quadratic equation, for example. But s/he may not be comfortable enough with that process to recognize that it’s needed.

A critical thinking example

An example of this appeared on the March 2020 SAT.

In this problem, the student is presented with a fairly complex question, or so it appears. But the crux of the question really comes in the last sentence: put speed in terms of the other quantities. What the questions is actually asking is to use algebra to isolate the v (speed).

Many students who’ve gone through Algebra II have the skills needed to solve this correctly. But many of them are distracted by the details of the question and don’t break down what it actually wants. So, while the SAT is testing on the student’s algebra knowledge, it’s also requiring her/him to understand the question. And, sadly, critical thinking isn’t universally taught in schools, leaving students underprepared to deal with this sort of questioning.

Educational value of the SAT and ACT

And this brings me to why the ACT and SAT are educationally valuable, across the socioeconomic scale. In a recent article on the Fordham Institute website, Travis Koutsoubos-Miles dove into the reasons for the value of the tests to education. In his experience as an English teacher, Koutsoubos-Miles found that the ACT pushed his urban-centered students to improve their overall writing skills.

Both the ACT and SAT test explicitly on grammar and punctuation principles, but most students stop learning those basic skills by the 6th or 7th grade. So for high school students, comma usage, for example, is a forgotten ghost. Preparing to take the ACT or SAT gives students a refresher on those essential rules and how to use them, which can be an invaluable skill for college. The same applies to reading unfamiliar material, inferencing, and other college-necessary skills.

Realigning the focus

What’s the solution? While a few schools are publicly distancing themselves from the ACT and SAT and pushing the idea of “test optional,” Koutsoubos-Miles contends that schools should be even more focused on the tests, using the study of reading, writing, and math on the tests to drive students’ overall understanding and critical thinking skills.

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

Pragmatically, standardized tests are a convenient tool colleges and universities can use to award scholarships and admit students, but the process of preparation for the ACT and SAT is educationally valuable even above this. By training students to use what they’ve learned and apply it more practically, the tests can help to fill in the gaps left by school systems across the country. Instead of shying away from the ACT and SAT and decrying them as unfair or inaccurate, schools, parents, and students should be more interested than ever in prepping and succeeding at the exams.

As Koutsoubos-Miles says in his piece,

…instead of eliminating high-quality tests, we could develop programs that incentivize teachers to embed their standards into curricula that are written to engage students’ real-life concerns. Blaming tests won’t help. The ACT and SAT reveal competency gaps we cannot afford to ignore. My students and I contend that smart application of these tests plays a key role in closing them.

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SAT ACT Cancellations in the Age of COVID

At this point, no one can deny that the COVID-19 outbreak has changed our way of life forever. College admissions haven’t escaped this paradigm shift, with some schools even moving to a “test optional” admissions process. Still, the SAT and the ACT will continue to be important benchmarks for students to use to set themselves apart. The biggest issue in the short term has been ensuring that your testing center will actually give the test. SAT and ACT cancellations have been a huge issue in the age of COVID. Because the SAT and ACT use high schools and colleges as testing centers, and because many of these high schools and colleges remain closed to students due to COVID, we’ve seen many students have their test delayed or canceled. This has led to student and parent frustration and despair. Some wonder if they’ll even get the chance to take the test.

You’ve got plenty of chances!

First things first, if you’ve gotten that email from the ACT or from College Board that says your testing site has been canceled, don’t despair! The best next step is to sign up for the next available test. The SAT is giving tests every month from August to December, so there will definitely be a spot for you! Seniors have the added advantage of a school-administered test on October 14 (to replace the canceled April test). The ACT has added dates in both September and October to try to accommodate as many students as possible. As the curve continues to flatten, students will continue to return to in-school instruction. This will increase the likelihood that schools will administer the tests. So if you’ve been bumped from one of the test dates, you have a great chance of making that test up in the fall.

Stay on top of things!

If you’re already signed up to take the test in September or beyond, be vigilant! Be sure to check back on the website of either the SAT or ACT often. Look for announcements about testing centers being added or canceled. If you stay proactive, you’ll be better equipped to react when necessary. Some of our students have been able to change their testing centers when others canceled, preserving their opportunity to take the test on their chosen date. One things that’s proved true about this era of COVID is that things can change quickly. Stay on top of the latest information–it could mean the difference between taking the test when you want or being forced to wait weeks or months.

Stay positive!

As the best selling book in the universe advises, Don’t Panic! Even if your testing center is canceled and you’re pushed back a month or more, it’s not the end of the world. Keep working, keep taking practice tests, and keep your chin up! Nearly every college and university has altered its normal admission deadlines to reflect the difficulties of COVID and standardized tests. If you’re looking to apply for an early decision or early action, there’s a good chance you’ll still be able to get test scores submitted. Many schools are allowing students to submit their scores later than usual. So don’t despair! Keep working and stay positive! You’ve got this! You can navigate through the SAT or ACT cancellations in the age of COVID!

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Weighing in on “Test Optional”

One of the most common questions I hear from students and parents involves that idea of “test optional” schools. As a result of the COVID-19 dilemma, some colleges and universities have seemingly relaxed their admission requirements in order to accommodate those students who weren’t able to take the SAT or ACT due to cancellations. It’s a great gesture by those schools, but it’s been confusing for students. Does it mean you don’t even need to take an SAT? If you already have an ok score, does it mean there’s no need to push for more? Is everyone just getting admitted based on GPA?

No, no, and no.

What does “test optional” mean?

In a June 9 web article, Forbes Magazine took a look at the top schools who’ve gone “test optional” and dug in to what that actually means. Forbes maintains a ranked list of the top colleges and universities, and author Christopher Rim used that list to see which elite schools have switched to “test optional.” Of the top 20 on the Forbes list, only six had made the decision to make the SAT or ACT optional. Four of those schools were Ivy League institutions: University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Cornell. The other two schools to offer test optional application were Cal Tech and Pomona College.

The key, however, isn’t that some schools are “test optional.” The real key is to understand what that actually means. As Rim writes in his Forbes piece, “test optional” isn’t the same as “test blind.” The schools who aren’t requiring an SAT or ACT score aren’t trying to discourage students from taking the exams. On the contrary, other than Cal Tech, the “test optional” schools on the Forbes list are all still considering test scores for admission, placement, and merit scholarships. The schools are still accepting scores and are still using them. Students applying this year simply have the option to submit their applications without accompanying test scores.

Is “test optional” the new normal?

And this brings up a secondary point. Of the “test optional” schools, most of them are instituting this policy for this application year only. The anticipation is that students who apply next year–those who are about to enter their junior year this fall–will still need competitive test scores to gain entrance.

The “test optional” disadvantage

Additionally, Rim writes that this “test optional” policy could actually create a disadvantage for those students who apply without a test score. This would serve to single out students who hadn’t prepared for and taken an official exam early enough to have a score to submit.

Most students aiming for some of the top schools in the country prepare and sit for these tests early in their high school career. Omitting test scores on a college application to a competitive school indicates a failure to prepare as early as students can.

So as we enter the fall season and school begins to come into view, it’s as important as ever to begin preparation for the SAT or ACT as soon as possible! The next SAT dates are August 29 and September 26, and the ACT will offer several test dates in September (9/12, 9/13, and 9/24) and October (10/10, 10/17, 10/24, and 10/25).

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Surveys and Polls on the SAT

2020 has been an interesting year, to say the least. COVID-19, earthquakes, murder hornets, and a rejuvenated civil rights movement have all hit the headlines in the first half of the year. As we enter the summer, however, the drama dial will be turned up to 11 as the next wave of chaos rolls in: the 2020 presidential election. And as part of that process, Americans will be inundated with surveys and polls. Even standardized test takers aren’t immune! Understanding surveys and polls on the SAT is an integral part of success on the math sections.

We’ll take a look at a couple of examples of polling and survey questions on the test and talk you through the strategy behind them.

Question 1: How to create a successful poll

A political scientist wants to predict how the residents of New Jersey will react to a new bill proposed in the state senate. Which of the following study designs is most likely to provide reliable results for the political scientist?

A) Mailing a questionnaire to each of 300 randomly selected residents of New Jersey

B) Surveying a group of 200 randomly selected New Jersey residents

C) Interviewing a group of students randomly selected from a large public university in New Jersey

D) Surveying a group of 1,500 randomly selected US residents

Any ideas? This is a fairly straightforward question that tests students on what makes a survey valid. Students can usually eliminate choices C) and D) because they don’t involve New Jersey residents directly.

But A) and B) can be a little more tricky. A) seems like the right choice at first glance because the survey involves more respondents–if it weren’t for the fact that the success of a questionnaire is dependent on a person returning it. Would all 300 residents return the survey? And, as I often ask my students, who returns a mailed questionnaire? A person who has a more pressing or direct interest in the issue! So while the political scientist may get some data from the questionnaire, a far more reliable method would be to directly survey a random group of state residents.

Question 2: What do the poll results mean?

A city with 120,000 residents is voting on a proposal that would eliminate overnight parking of vehicles on the city’s streets. An independent company randomly surveys 1,200 residents to see whether or not residents would support this proposal. The outcome of the survey shows that 60% of the residents surveyed approve of the proposal with a margin of error of 2%. Which of the following statements is a plausible conclusion from the outcome of the study?

A) Exactly 60% of city residents approve eliminating overnight parking.

B) There are 72,000 city residents who approve eliminating overnight parking.

C) About 2% of the city residents do not approve eliminating overnight parking.

D) Between 58% and 62% of the city residents approve eliminating overnight parking.

In this question, the survey has already been completed and the results are in: 60% of people approved eliminating overnight parking with a margin of error of 2%. This question is focused on just what that result means.

We can eliminate choice A) because of one word: exactly. While a well-done poll can give a predicted result that is very close to reality, it’s still just that–a prediction. Even under the best of conditions, it’s not an exact science. One only needs to look at predictions surrounding recent elections to see how unscientific polls can be.

B) is an attractive choice because it looks like it might require some math. Surely the SAT would want us to calculate something in a math question! And, in fact, 60% of 120,000 is 72,000. The problem, however, comes back to the exactness of that result. A poll is always a prediction. So to say that 72,000 people would approve is far too precise for any poll. If the answer had said, “Around 72,000 city residents will likely approve…”, it would be far closer to the truth.

That leaves us with C) or D), and the choice between the two comes down to an understanding of the term “margin of error.” Because polls are only predictors, polls are often presented with a bit of wiggle room. Our poll said that 60% of people approved eliminating overnight parking. That 2% margin of error is just that: a range in which the truth might actually lie. And choice D) reflects that idea. According to the poll results, the correct percentage that approves could be anywhere between 58% and 62%, given the margin of error.

Takeaways

The most important strategy to use with questions about surveys and polls on the SAT is an important strategy for every question on the test: read carefully. The test writers aren’t doing you any favors, and they’ll word things in convoluted ways just to make it tougher on you. If you’re working too quickly, it can be easy to overlook words like “exactly” or “likely,” and those types of words can be incredibly important. So take a breath and read that question carefully.

Practicing on actual SATs is also helpful. Poll and survey questions appear in the no-calculator and/or calculator sections of nearly every SAT, and the more of them you see and work through, the less likely that you’ll be duped by a trick. So putting in the time to practice is essential to be successful on these questions, as well as all the other types you’ll see on a typical SAT.