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What parents should know about pre-college tests

When it comes to getting ready for college, there is no one right road for all students to follow. "Most colleges are seeing an increase in applications and, yes, admissions are competitive," says Jon Wexler, admissions counselor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. "But I would encourage parents to avoid the U.S. News 'Top 100' trap. There's no need to keep up with the Joneses, because what's right for the Jones kid may not be right for yours."

Likewise, decisions about pre-college testing don't lend themselves to a cookie-cutter approach. Each teen needs the information and tools to showcase his particular set of strengths. And, while it's important that students do their own planning, parents will want to take "College 101" and provide guidance as needed.

First... it's not your father's SAT anymore. Today's high school students have more choices in preparing for and taking pre-college exams than their parents had. Exams available to students include: the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and 16 Subject Tests (formerly the SAT II), and the American College Testing exam (ACT) and its preliminary exam, the PLAN.

The PSAT is a shorter version of the SAT (without the essay portion). It's helpful as a practice test, and also serves to identify students who qualify for National Merit Scholarships. Offered in October, it's generally taken by high school juniors, though occasionally by sophomores. The SAT itself, usually taken the next spring or following fall, is a 10-section exam that covers math, reading and writing. In addition, the SAT offers 16 optional Achievement Tests (taken separately from the SAT) in a range of subjects that includes history, chemistry, literature and foreign language. The ACT includes four sections: math, science reasoning, reading and English. The ACT's essay portion is optional.

Though the great majority of college-bound students take either the SAT or the ACT, there are currently 752 U.S. universities that require neither. This is not a list of "lightweights;" it includes Bard, Bennington, Mount Holyoke and Pitzer, to name a few. (A complete list is available at fairtest.org.) "Actually, these schools are listed as 'testing optional,'" says Bob Dannenhold, advisor at Collegeology, a Seattle-based college counseling firm. "So if your student has taken one of the standardized tests and done well, by all means send the results!"

Schools that do require testing are nearly universal in accepting either test (and most have absolutely no preference). Of course, students will need to verify which tests are required by their schools of choice. In Washington, most students take the SAT, but nationwide the numbers are quite comparable.

Generally, the SAT and ACT are more similar than they are different. The ACT is considered more content-based, however, while the SAT emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving. "But there are nuances in both format and content that may make a difference for some students," Dannenhold says. The ACT includes science reasoning, while the SAT does not; the ACT math section includes trigonometry, while the SAT tests through Algebra II only; and the SAT puts more emphasis on writing, vocabulary and word usage. (Some counselors generalize that students who excel in math and science will perform better on the ACT, while students who are more verbally oriented will do better on the SAT.)

The tests also differ in format: The ACT is entirely multiple choice; the SAT is not. And while the SAT has a small penalty for guessing, the ACT does not. The ACT is also 45 minutes shorter, without the optional essay portion, which may be a factor for some students. Still, most counselors don't feel it's practical to try to choose the "best test." Linda Jacobs, director of college placement services and a counselor at The Northwest School in Seattle, feels that differences in test outcome may be most closely linked to learning style. "To predict which test a student will do better on, parents would have to know a lot about their student's style of learning," she says. "Most just don't have that information."

Increasingly, families feel pressured to have teens take both tests. "It isn't really necessary in most cases," says former middle school teacher Steve Lewis, who worked as a tutor at test-preparation company Princeton Review before going back to school himself. "My recommendation would be to look carefully at content and determine whether the student will gain a distinct advantage by taking one test or the other. Many students will gain an advantage by prepping exclusively for one test rather than two."

And don't forget about the SAT Subject Tests, Lewis adds. "Taking these is really important for students applying to the more competitive schools." (If you're uncertain whether your student should take the Subject Tests, check with the individual colleges your student is interested in applying to.)

"I firmly believe a student should invest extra time, or families extra money, in doing better in classes than on standardized tests," says University of Washington counselor Jim Rawlins. "And whichever test you choose, it's great to take it as early as possible so there's time to retake it, if you like, without missing application deadlines."

As with test taking, counselors advise "starting early" to prepare for standardized exams. Most recommend that students allow eight weeks to review test formats and take timed practice tests (available in test manuals or online). Some teens can tackle the preparation on their own; others will benefit from "external structure." Most school districts now offer courses to help students prepare, so ask your student's counselor.

Though more intensive preparation (through courses offered by private companies such as Kaplan and Princeton) may be beneficial to some students, others will not need the additional help. "Let the PSAT and practice test results act as your guide," Linda Jacobs says. "If the student is uncomfortable with the test format or unsatisfied with results, you may want to consider something more. Some courses address questions of test strategy as well as content, and provide a confidence boost if it's needed."

Even the best preparation can't prevent a teen from having a bad day, or being adversely affected by life events. Under extreme circumstances, the student may choose not to have his test scored, but this option must be exercised before leaving the testing room. So help your teen get ready, then send him off reciting some version of the age-old wisdom: "I have done what I can to prepare. I will take charge and have trust in the outcome."

Accommodations for students with special needs

Both companies conducting the SAT and ACT tests will make reasonable accommodations (such as extended time, larger print or written test instructions) for students with special needs. However, parents should inquire early in the process, because there is documentation involved.

For the SAT, more information is available at collegeboard.com (go to "SAT Test Preparation," then "Students with Disabilities"). For ACT, go to act.org and click on "Students with Disabilities" on the home page.

In addition, financially disadvantaged families can request that fees for testing can be waived.

Freelance writer Rose Williamson has researched and co-authored travel books for parents. She has two daughters -- a sophomore in college and a sophomore in high school.


Originally published in the November, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.

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