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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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“Test Optional” and the SAT/ACT

As part of the academic fallout from COVID-19, several test dates for the ACT and SAT were canceled. This left many students to wait until the fall to take their exams. Some colleges and universities, to help mitigate the situation, announced that they would become “test optional” schools. The headlines emphasized the term “test optional,” but news stories rarely dug into what it means for the SAT and ACT.

What does “test optional” mean?

The true significance of “test optional” schools is that students are able, if they choose, to apply without submitting test scores. However, colleges and universities–even the ones labeling themselves as “test optional”–are still considering ACT and SAT scores for admission, class placement, and merit-based aid. In fact, in a recent survey of college admission departments, over 80% of colleges feel that ACT and SAT scores are important evaluators for prospective students.

The California conundrum

Creating even more confusion was California’s decision to drop the SAT and ACT from their university system’s evaluation process. By 2024 or 2025, the state declared, California would no longer use either test for college admission. Again, headlines touted the decision as groundbreaking and game-changing, but the fine print contained the real story. As California phases out its use of the SAT and ACT, the state will be creating its own standardized test to use for students seeking admission. So they’re simply replacing one test with another of their own creation. This isn’t surprising, considering that the UC faculty recently announced that SAT and ACT scores were far more accurate predictors of college success, even for minority groups, than were students’ GPAs.

Why is a standardized test so important?

One of the major takeaways for students and parents should be a simple one: standardized tests aren’t going anywhere. With the volume of applications that arrive at a competitive school–for example, Stanford receives over 48,000 applications, while UCLA gets over 110,000 annually–colleges and universities need to have ways to work through those applications efficiently.

Student GPAs, while incredibly important, don’t tell a student’s whole story. A 4.0 at one school might not represent the same thing as a 4.0 at another. One school might have been academically rigorous, while the other might not. Test scores provide that objective benchmark schools need to couple with the rest of a student’s academic career. And when you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of applicants, being able to get a quick snapshot is vital.

What does it all mean?

The end result is that preparing for the SAT and ACT is still vitally important, even in the post-COVID world. For juniors, the summer is the absolute best time to begin working to improve your test scores and opening the doors that a good ACT or SAT can provide!

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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.

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When Should I Start Studying for the SAT?

To a high school sophomore just finishing up their academic year, college seems a long way off. But the truth is that the summer before your junior year is the ideal time to start studying for the SAT!

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Free time

One of the most obvious reasons for beginning exam prep in the summer is the increase in free time. Especially given that many summer camps and other activities have been canceled due to COVID-19, students have quality time to spend on sharpening their standardized test skills.

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If you start studying for the SAT during the school year, as many students do, you’re then forced to juggle your academic work (including AP and IB courses!), sports, drama, other extracurriculars, and a social life with several hours per week of SAT sessions and homework. That’s a lot to keep track of! One of the SAT students I worked with in the past was taking five AP classes, participating in marching band and jazz band, playing as the starting goalie on the soccer team, and serving on the National Honor Society council for her school. No wonder she was continually exhausted!

To avoid that sort of workload and the potential for burnout during one of the most important years of high school, start that exam prep in the summer and get it done!

Flexibility

Along with avoiding a heavy workload, another great reason for studying for the SAT during the summer is flexibility. If you take your first SAT in August, you’ll have an official score you can use in the application process.

If you prep during the summer and crush the August SAT, great! You’ll never need to take that test again! If you don’t get the score you want, you have many more opportunities throughout the year to take the exam. This year, again because of COVID-19 and the March, May, and June test cancellations, College Board is offering the SAT in August, September, October, November, and December, as well as March, May, and June in 2021. That gives many opportunities to take the test and get your goal score!

By doing your preparation and studying for the SAT in the summer, you give yourself a great deal of flexibility, which, in turn, can be a great stress reducer.

Potential for National Merit

Depending on how high you’re able to push your score on the SAT with some preparation, you might want to have an eye on the PSAT in October, as well.

Many students view the PSAT as simply a free practice for the SAT, but it can be much more. If you achieve a high score on the PSAT, you can qualify as a semi-finalist for the National Merit Scholarship. A student’s National Merit Index score is calculated by doubling her/his reading and writing scaled scores, dividing the math score by 10, and adding the three scores together. For example, if a student received a 34 in reading, a 33 in writing, and a 610 in math on a PSAT, her/his National Merit Index would be calculated in this way:

(34 x 2) + (33 x 2) + (61)

So this particular student would receive an index score of 205.

Index scores that qualify a student to be a National Merit Semi-Finalist vary by state. A list of recent scores for each state can be found here. In Idaho, for example, the qualifying index score is usually 215 to 217. Achieving a National Merit qualifying score can open doors, whether or not s/he ends up winning the actual scholarship. In fact, plenty of schools offer full scholarships just for qualifying as a semi-finalist or finalist! So it’s worth it to make a good effort on the PSAT.

And that’s where summer practice comes in.

By starting in early summer to begin preparation for the SAT, you can not only prepare yourself to achieve a great score on the regular exam in August, but you’ll also be more prepared to do well on the PSAT. What a deal!

Getting Help

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Students looking to gain insight and help on the SAT have myriad resources at their disposal. College Board itself provides a self-help program on Khan Academy, and there are many companies who offer self-directed instruction online. For those who want the best help possible, there’s no substitute for meeting regularly with an expert on the test. Whatever you choose to do, if you’re a rising junior, the time is now to begin studying for the SAT!

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Five Tips for Online Learning During COVID-19

COVID-19, or the Coronavirus, has turned the world upside down, seemingly overnight. The latest change came this week, as Idaho announced that schools will remain closed through the end of the academic year. While this wasn’t a big surprise to some, it does mean that all students will now be doing their learning online, either through school programs or other resources. At Huntington Learning Center East Boise, we’ve had all of our students shifted to remote learning for over two weeks. It’s been a great experience for both our amazing teachers and our fantastic students. To help that process, we’re suggesting five useful tips for online learning during COVID-19 that will hopefully make the transition a positive one for you.

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Relax and enjoy!

Parents and students have been stressing about COVID-19, then toilet paper shortages, then home-bound boredom, and, now, online learning. I’ve taught online extensively before I came to HLC, and it can be a really rewarding experience. Our tutors are the same great teachers you would have in-center, and our digital curriculum is exactly the same as it would be if you were working in-center. Sitting in front of a computer screen with one of our educational experts will bring you the same benefit as if you were sitting at a desk with them. So come ready to work and have fun with the best online instructors around! Whether your student is prepping for the ACT or SAT, AP exams, or just everyday academic work, we can help!

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Have a good headset!

One seemingly minor detail that can make a big difference in the online learning experience is having a good headset or a good set of earbuds with a mic. Most students have these already, and using them for an online session can be incredibly helpful. Being able to hear your instructor makes it easier to focus and process through what’s being taught.

And a good webcam!

Along with a good headset, a well-functioning webcam is crucial. It makes the experience far more personal to have that face-to-face contact with your instructor. And from a teaching perspective, your teachers will be able to anticipate your questions and your focus if they can see your facial expressions and body language.

Pick an ideal study spot!

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When working through an online class or session, location is key! Be sure to pick a spot that’s quiet, that has all of your necessary materials close at hand, and that is far from potential interruptions. Sitting at the kitchen table while dinner is being made–or served!–is not an ideal spot for learning. But if you have a desk in a bedroom or home office, that generally works well.

Use the time wisely!

Finally, this crisis has given everyone a potentially golden opportunity for learning. With students essentially stuck at home, they have the time to make big gains in challenging classes. Set a schedule for the day, even if the school hasn’t done so. Have students spend time on each of their core subjects, and hold them accountable.

So there are five quick tips for your online learning during COVID-19! At HLC East Boise, we would love to partner with you to help you make the most of this time and to come out of it with the knowledge needed to succeed next school year!