Testing. The very word can strike fear into the hearts of both children and parents. On a daily basis, we homeschoolers enjoy the luxury of deciding how often we test our children. Once our children reach high school, though, a lot more is at stake—namely college admission and scholarship possibilities. Do we avoid standardized testing altogether, claiming experiential learning is what really counts, or can it be a valuable experience that provides useful information to us and others?

I lean toward the second option, and I started early. Once my children were reading, they took the Stanford test each spring with our local homeschool group. This provided a great opportunity for my son and daughters to become familiar with the format and experience of standardized testing. It also provided the proof of academic advancement required by our local school board. As my kids reached high school, they switched to the PSAT and SAT. But what should your family do? Are standardized tests like the SAT and ACT required? Which test is best for your child? Does preparation really make a difference?

How Colleges Use Test Scores

Like many things in life, the emphasis on standardized testing ebbs and flows. While most states administer some form of common core testing in their public schools, the recent trend is for higher education institutions to place less emphasis on standardized test scores and evaluate potential students more holistically, giving increased weight to high school grades, leadership roles, and extracurricular activities. The fact that more and more colleges are offering credit for life and work experience is a reflection of this trend. Some testing-optional schools do, in fact, exist, including familiar names like Bates, Bowdoin, and Smith. Still, SAT/ACT scores are required by most four-year colleges simply because of what they provide: a standard of comparison.

Besides revealing a student’s academic strengths and college readiness, SAT/ACT scores tell schools if your student is a good fit. Are his/her scores in line with that institution’s average student scores? If a range is published instead of an average score, do your student’s scores fit within that range? This comparison offers schools a good general picture of potential fit.

A more specific picture also emerges. Is your student’s math score near the top of the range? S/he’ll likely do well in the school’s engineering, applied math, or math education program. If the student’s verbal scores are excellent, s/he’d be a good fit for communication, literature, or journalism programs. Since schools consider a variety of factors in the admissions process, your student could still be accepted by a school even if their scores are below the school’s published average. (A low math score, for example, is not as significant if your child is pursuing a conservatory degree in piano performance.) But SAT/ACT scores remain a useful tool both for early screening and for later decision-making by a college admissions staff.

Deciding Which Test Is Right for Your Student

Which standardized college admissions test should your student take, the SAT or ACT? Both are good options, but a look at the history and distinctives of each offers some guidance. Long the front runner, the SAT has been around since 1926. One of many tests offered by the College Board organization, the SAT evolved from an IQ test originally used to screen US Army recruits. Through the years it was adapted to better measure the skills needed in the modern workplace, including the addition of an essay to reflect the need for concise written communication.

Newer, the ACT non-profit organization created the ACT in 1959 as an alternative to the SAT. Designed to focus more on content learned than reasoning skills, this exam was particularly embraced by educators in the Midwest and mountain states. Over the years, changes made to the ACT have made it more and more competitive with the SAT and, in 2010, the ACT surpassed the SAT to become the most taken college admissions test. But following 2016 changes made by College Board, the redesigned SAT reclaimed the title of most taken college admission test in 2018.

Similarities and differences appear as the tests are compared at the nuts-and-bolts level. Both the SAT and ACT are multiple-choice, pencil-and-paper tests which include optional essays. They both have timed content sections with calculators allowed for some of the math. SAT sections include Reading, Writing and Language, Math (no calculator), Math (calculator allowed), and the optional essay. ACT sections include English, Math, Reading, Science, and the optional essay. But helpful trends emerge upon closer study.

The SAT has fewer questions, allowing a little more time for each question to be answered. Is your student a slower processor or anxious when rushed? This test might be better for them. ACT questions go a little less deep and cover a broader content area. Does your student have a great memory for facts? The ACT might help them shine.

Another notable difference that should be mentioned is that the ACT includes a science section, seemingly a plus for STEM-inclined students. But non-science students can still do well on this section as it tests reasoning skills more than specific scientific knowledge. In the end, the best suggestion is to have your student take one practice exam of each test. All things being equal, whichever they score better on is likely the best test for them.

Boosting Test Scores Through Practice

So your student has determined which test they’re most comfortable with. Does practicing help improve scores? Yes! Standardized test taking is a skill in itself that can be honed. Broadly speaking, the more comfortable your student is with the test, the better the chance of doing well. Having them practice with multiple versions of the same test (SAT or ACT) will familiarize them with the instructions for each section. That alone can free up time for answering questions on test day.

Kids will grow more comfortable with the intense focus needed for these timed tests. They’ll develop a sense of the time allotted per section, learning to budget time per question, and more effectively stretch their energy and concentration to the three hours required for the test proper (nearly four hours with the optional essay). Both College Board and ACT publish official practice tests in thick volumes. A number of companies publish their own test prep manuals for the PSAT, SAT, and ACT. Practice problems/tests are available through online educator Khan Academy. And tutoring companies abound that can coach students in their test-taking skills.

Practicing these tests can also familiarize students with the types of questions to expect and the wording that so many kids struggle with. In the Reading sections, for example, some questions test your student’s grasp of evidence in a passage or understanding of specific words in context. Other questions require analysis of a particular text or, in the English/Writing and Language section, test the student’s knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure. Understanding the type of question helps lead the student to the correct answer.

Familiarity with the wording commonly used in the SAT and ACT can also be a great help. In a math question, your student could be asked if something “must” be true (always) or “could” be true (sometimes). The specific word is key in identifying the correct answer. Questions are sometimes worded as follows: “Which of the following is not true…?” or “All of the following apply except….” Students need to key in on the “not” or “except” and also apply the process of elimination to answer correctly. Questions that use the word “best” (e.g. “Which answer best summarizes this passage?”) appear regularly and often prove frustrating to students. Learning there is truly a “best” answer which can be explained objectively, and becoming familiar with the rationale for defining that answer, will pay dividends come testing time. While there is no substitute for a careful reading of SAT/ACT content, practice definitely helps!

In 2017 the College Board organization noted that students who spent 20 hours preparing for the SAT using a free official test available at Khan Academy increased their average score by 115 points. While I’m not aware of comparable statistics for the ACT, act.org offers multiple test prep resources as well so students can take practice tests and develop test-taking strategies.

Our Standardized Testing Experience

In my own family, my older children took the PSAT and, following an SAT prep class, the SAT just once. At the time I was unfamiliar with the ACT and unaware of the full importance of test prep. Looking back, I think my older daughter would have done better on the ACT.

A decade later, my youngest specifically chose the SAT for its longer answer time, taking both the PSAT and the SAT twice. Each time her scores increased. I’m not sure if this was a result of her practice online at Khan Academy (not the full 20 hours cited by College Board), our strategy sessions and two practice tests completed at home, or simply the additional math and language content covered as she moved from her junior to senior year of high school (homeschooled but taking some online and college classes). Most likely, her increased scores reflected all of the above.

Those higher scores offered financial savings! My youngest daughter’s second SAT scores qualified her for a larger 4-year scholarship at one of the schools she applied to, which would have saved us thousands of dollars had she chosen to attend there. High verbal or math SAT/ACT scores can also allow incoming college students to skip freshman English or math classes, saving money and potentially semesters required for graduation.

As homeschoolers we know that kids often learn best through play. While standardized tests like the SAT or ACT may never be fun, we can help our college-bound kids by demystifying this testing, replacing fear with a sense of “I can do this” or even “I can beat this.” If our sons and daughters are prepared, comfortable and motivated, we maximize their opportunities and minimize their costs. That outcome is the “best” answer no matter what the question.

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Debbie O’Brien homeschooled for 19 years in Massachusetts, teaching literature and writing to students at multiple co-ops. A mother of three and grandmother of two, she now proctors practice SATs and ACTs for a Boston-area tutoring company. When not working, she can be found reading, baking, or kayaking with her husband of 31 years.