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What’s Going on with Testing

What’s Going on with Testing:

A Primer for Parents of (Even Rising) High School Students

When I sit down with families as part of the college counseling process, I often sense confusion about the available college entrance exams and the testing timeline. Some families want the tests “over with,” and are ready to sign up their rising seniors prematurely. Others have heard of SAT Subject Tests, but they don’t understand the benefits of taking those tests or what material they cover. Parents and students may also not be familiar with the particulars of National Merit Scholarship Program, the qualifier for which is the PSAT/NMSQT. So I find myself sketching the high-school timeline, plotting key dates, and discussing whether their teen may more likely be an “SAT kid” or an “ACT kid.”

Effective this fall, the ground rules are changing. To help you get started, here’s a primer for testing changes and some suggestions for area families.

It all starts earlier – as early as middle school. Just when parents are mastering acronyms such as PARCC, CCSS, and SBAC (which have absolutely nothing to do with the high-stakes tests discussed in this post), the College Board has introduced an SAT Suite of Assessments. Those of us in college counseling knew the PSAT™ to be a “junior SAT” with the same type of content, just shorter and without an essay. Now academic counselors are analyzing the specs for a family of leveled PSATs, preparing to brief parents and students.

First, there’s the “youngest” PSAT™: the PSAT 8/9. Debuting in October 2015, the College Board is counting on this 145-minute test to give “early feedback” and link to APⓇ testing. Schools will have the choice of administering the test in late fall or winter. Like the new SAT, it will consist of two sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (questions on Reading and Writing and Language, similar to the ACT) along with Math.

Gone are the days of administering the identical PSAT to sophomores and juniors every October. Instead, students can take the PSAT 10 in February or March of their sophomore year, but it will not count for the National Merit Scholarship program. That qualifier will be open only to juniors, who will take the PSAT/NMSQT in October. The content of the PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT, we are told, will be similar, and each will be two hours and 45 minutes long. That’s an additional 35 minutes of focusing time for students.

When the specs for the new SAT were released a year ago, we learned that scoring was going back to two subscores of up to 800 points, for a maximum of 1600. On the new tests, students will receive two scores between 160 and 760 points: one for Math and one for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. Check here for more details.

Why would College Board increase the volume of tests to an audience overly sensitive to initiatives such as CCSS? On its website, the organization cites the need to detect problems sooner rather than later. It postulates that the questions on the new tests are more closely related to what’s taught in schools and universities, implying earlier remediation. It tells us that the PSAT, SAT, and AP tests will make more sense as a cohesive package, with the exams “vertically aligned.” (This is test-prep talk for learning across grades. Horizontally aligned assessment items match the standards for a particular grade.)

Are there alternatives? Absolutely. The ACT, once seen as a Midwest test, is now universally accepted. (It tends to be the preference of my more technically inclined students, while the liberal arts types gravitate toward the SAT; I almost always insist that students sample each one.) While a few area schools offer the PLAN, the “junior ACT,” many do not. For that reason, students should be sure to get familiar with the structure and appearance of the ACT before taking it, especially if they only know College Board tests.

Regarding test-prep resources, Khan Academy will help with its June rollout of free and open SAT materials. Remember that standardized test-taking skills – test taking skills as well – are best learned early and practiced often. I cannot emphasize how difficult it is to meet a high school senior and realize that Critical Reading and writing skills are not up to par.

Primer Tips for Parents of High School Students

  1. Ask your school which of the SAT Suite of Assessments it plans to use, and when.

  2. Lobby for an administration of the “junior ACT,” known as the PLAN.

  3. Sign your student up for the SAT or ACT with Writing; don’t opt out of the essay.

  4. Be sure your student tries each test at least once; then repeat only one.

  5. If you have younger students, be sure the middle school is pounding out the fundamentals of English Language Arts and Math.

Wondering about a good side? The PSAT and SAT “guessing penalty” is finally dead. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as I profile the tests in more detail. Follow me, @nberler.


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