October's College Corner from Director of College Counseling Brennan Barnard.
"Testing." This one word that has the ability to instill fear and nausea in even the most confident students. As I left for work on Wednesday, my seven year-old son asked why our students did not have to go to class that day. I explained that many of them would be taking an exam and after several minutes of trying to answer his queries about the structure and purpose of the PSAT, he simply replied, "that does not sound like much fun." I am not sure there are many students who would disagree with him, but these and other tests are a necessary evil in the college process. Though more and more colleges introduce test optional admission plans each year, the majority of institutions still require standardized tests as a way of assessing a student’s candidacy. As I did for my son, I thought it would be helpful to outline the array of tests and provide some definitions (from the tests agencies themselves) and suggestions for developing a plan of attack.
The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT):
"A program cosponsored by the College Board
and National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC)
. It's a standardized test that provides firsthand practice for the SAT®. It also gives you a chance to enter NMSC scholarship programs and gain access to college and career planning tools." It measures critical reading, math problem-solving and writing skills.
Derryfield administers this test to all sophomores and juniors on the second Wednesday of October every year. For sophomores it is truly practice and the scores have no bearing whatsoever. For juniors, the test acts as a qualifier for the National Merit Competition but is not reported to colleges and is designed to provide students with feedback on their strengths and weaknesses so that they may prepare for the SAT. The PSAT is scored on an 80 point scale and students are also given percentile figures to see where their scores range compared to all of the juniors in the nation that took the test. Scores will be sent to Derryfield in December, at which time we will schedule meetings with the two classes to distribute reports. We will also send a letter to parents outlining best uses of the score reports.
The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT I Reasoning Test): "A globally recognized college admission test that lets one show colleges what they know and how well they can apply that knowledge." This test is divided into three parts, each scored on an 800 scale. The sections are as follows:
- The critical reading section includes reading passages and sentence completions.
- The writing section includes a short essay and multiple-choice questions on identifying errors and improving grammar and usage.
- The math section includes questions on arithmetic operations, algebra, geometry, statistics and probability.
The College Counseling office recommends that students sit for this exam for the first time in the winter or spring of their junior year. It is offered in January, March, May and June. The March date often falls during school vacation when students are away on trips and therefore it is wise to plan ahead. Most Students will take the test again in the fall of their senior year (it is offered in October, November and December).
The SAT II Subject Tests: "Subject Tests are hour-long, content-based tests that allows one to showcase achievement in specific subject areas where they excel. There are 20 SAT Subject Tests in five general subject areas: English, history, languages, mathematics and science."
These tests used to be known as the Achievement Tests and are used by some colleges to further assess a student's academic potential and candidacy. Not all schools require the SAT II's (less than 10%), though the College Counseling Office does recommend that if appropriate, students take a few subject tests in the event that they do apply to a college that asks to see these results. Students should consult with their teachers about their individual preparation for different subject tests, but typically, students who have been successful in an AP or Honors course in a given area, should prepare to take an SAT II. For example, students finishing Precalculus or AP US History will often sit for the exam at the end of the year. May or June are the recommended dates to register for these tests and students may take up to three different subject tests per administration.
American College Test (ACT): "A national college admissions examination that consists of subject area tests in English, Mathematics, Reading and Science Reasoning." The test is also offered with an optional writing section. It is scored on a 36 point scale in each section, also providing an overall composite score.
The ACT is a direct competitor to the SAT and used to be more popular at high schools and colleges in the south and Midwest. It is now accepted at every four-year college and university in the country and most Derryfield students will sit for this test in the winter or spring of their junior year. This way, going into the summer, rising seniors will have results from both tests and can assess which format fits their testing style. For a more in-depth look at the differences between the two tests, please see page 21 of the College Counseling Handbook, available on the Derryfield website: (http://www.derryfield.org/ftpimages/43/download/2012-College-Planning-Handbook.pdf
Some students prefer the ACT because often colleges that require SAT II Subject Tests will accept the ACT in lieu of both the SAT I and the SAT II. I am frequently asked if colleges and universities would rather see one test or the other and I assure you that the tests are used interchangeably and there is even a simple conversion chart that allows admission officers to equate the two tests.
Advanced Placement (AP): "college-level courses and exams, where you can earn college credit and advanced placement."
AP courses and tests are offered in 34 different courses, 11 of which are available at Derryfield. The exams are administered during the first two weeks of May each year. If a student takes an AP course in a subject, they are not required to sit for the exam and likewise students are permitted to take an exam in any subject, regardless of whether or not they were enrolled in the class. The tests are scored on a 5 point scale and each college has a different policy for rewarding credit for these courses. Some schools will award credit for a score of 4 or 5 and others do not allow students to use these tests to place out of classes at all. While AP scores are not required for college admission applications, scores of 4 or 5 can strengthen a student’s overall portfolio.
As previously mentioned, there is a growing trend of colleges allowing students to apply without submitting test scores. Institutional research has shown colleges that program rigor and grades are much better predictors of success in college. Subsequent review has proved that "non-submiters" are equally as strong academically at the end of their freshman year in college as those students who were admitted using test scores. Schools differ in their test optional policies, sometimes requiring a graded writing sample or other assessments to supplement a student’s application. A list of colleges and universities that have test optional policies can be found at www.fairtest.org
This refers to the ability for a student to decide which test scores they will submit to a college. Students submitting the ACT can choose to submit any given test date or all tests dates if they would like, as all tests are not listed on one report. The College Board currently allows students to select which SAT I administration and which individual SAT II Subject tests they would like to have reported to a college. The one caveat is that students must adhere to each college's test requirements and some schools require that applicants submit all scores from tests that they have taken. The truth is, colleges and universities will select the highest scores the student has earned, so worrying too much about score choice often is done in vain.
This is most common with the ACT subject areas. A student will receive a composite score for each administration that averages the four areas tested. Superscoring is when a college looks at the highest individual subject scores from separate administrations to arrive at the best composite score.
A huge industry has evolved around preparing students for the SAT and ACT. The range of options is great and what is useful for one student, may not be for the next. Some students are comfortable just using a practice book or on-line program and reviewing on their own. Group prep classes through companies such as Kaplan, Princeton Review and Revolution Prep provide some more structure for students who might have good intentions but know that they need some accountability. Often these classes cover helpful testing strategies in addition to content review and include full length practice tests that mirror testing conditions. Still other students work best one-on-one with a tutor who can look at individual results and tailor a program to the student’s weakest areas. Derryfield has traditionally hosted a prep course or two on campus each August as a resource for our students and the hope is to continue this practice.
As always, we are happy to help you navigate this process, so do not hesitate to call or email with questions. Meanwhile, if you want to read an interesting book about admission testing and the efforts to explore new methods of assessment, check out "College Admissions for the 21st Century" by Robert Sternberg who writes about the Kaleidoscope Project at Tufts University.
Director of College Counseling