College Entrance Exams: Freshmen

LkKGInAPrepping students for PSAT 10 or SAT as Freshman? Cheers to you!

Some things you should be doing to increase your students’ future SAT (11th grade) and PSAT (10th grade) scores:
—  Know why you should care about it!
—  Encourage students to stay on track with rigorous courses: it all starts in school!
—  Tell them to read, read, read. And then read.
—  Address anxiety
—  Give a practice SAT or PSAT test! (A full-length one…)
—  Speaking of school – what are they learning in class that they’ll see on the ACT?

We teach Freshmen – why should we care about the test?
This test will be as important to most colleges as students’ GPAs. Think about how much time we work on their GPAs – and then how much time we spend on the SAT. A few months their sophomore or junior year with few practice problems sprinkled here and there isn’t going to cut it. And you know this is a test kids care about. It might be the one they care the most about, actually – so starting now doesn’t actually seem all that early when you’re talking about rigor, reading skills, and problem solving.

It’s easy to be passionate about this test. Sure, there are some strategies that help to know, but largely you’ll find that by working on the skills this test measures, you’re working on the skills you care about and want them to have. Like critical reading, science literacy, translating word problems and problem solving, and writing clearly and concisely.

Furthermore, SAT actually compares student performance their freshman year in college to SAT scores. We’re talking about your students’ ability to access text in college – and setting them up for that success is our responsibility. One of the most important things we can do as educators is help students independently access information when we’re not there. That’s what the SAT is measuring, so by working on these skills, you’re addressing some deeper issues that will have multiple, positive returns. The SAT is measuring independent efficiency when addressing writing, math, reading passages, and graphic information. Isn’t our ultimate goal that students be proficient in these skills?

If you’re helping a student comprehend 70% of what she reads in 35 minutes rather than 55%, isn’t that a great service? Won’t that help her in other areas in your class? In life? It’s a practical and meaningful assessment.

Stay on Track with Rigorous Courses: Physics, anyone?
This is no anecdotal advice. From our district, state, and national results, students’ scores vary dramatically when they’re taking core (or more) and embracing rigor.
PhysicsHere’s just one example of what I’m talking about. The chart above (taken from, displays a dramatic difference in student scores when they’ve taken Physics. The end goal here is not just to get students the highest score possible – taking rigorous courses prepares them for level of scientific rigor needed to show efficiency with the material. Sorry, but grades in class alone won’t cut it. Schools want to know that students can do this independently and efficiently. AP classes, honors classes, concurrent enrollment programs – the district offers tremendous resources for those who wish to take advantage of them.

I’m not sure if it’s totally because of the content; it’s about the ability to break down complex passages with little to no assistance. Are you giving students that opportunity? Are you showing – and then removing – scaffolds to help the access that text?

Read, Read, Read!
It’s awesome to hear that kids want a high ACT score. We love that! But – if they’re shooting for a high score without reading, then they’re not being realistic. I have the potential to be a great tennis player – but only if I practice. And the odd thing about sports is that the better people get, the more help they get. You don’t get a tennis coach for a chicken, for example. There’s no hope. It’d be like getting me singing lessons – a total waste of money.

(For an awesome read, check this article out: the author asks, “Athletes have coaches: Why don’t doctors?”)

Yet in education, we often miss two main lessons from that sports analogy: one, that struggle is what makes you strong, and two, that the best of the best are the ones who practice the most. Michael Jordan was the best in the world – he had a coach AND he practiced more than you or me. Do you think the better he got, the less he practiced? I doubt it.

So let’s be honest with our kids. They might struggle in reading. That’s okay – they know they do. But get them practicing. And once they do well enough, get them to practice even more! This idea that “They’re done,” or “They’re proficient,” wouldn’t stand in other settings – developing a growth mindset with your students is one of the best ways you can help them!


This image is adapted from the Yale Center for Learning to Study (and, if you’re interested in how we learned to read, check out the book this came from, “Overcoming Dyslexia” by Sally Shaywitz; it’s an exciting read for dyslexics and non-dyslexics alike).

 If one child reads 20 minutes a night, and another only reads 5 (or none), which would you expect to do better? Which student would be better at writing? Which student would be more confident and patient when dealing with reading passages? (And though I love Lightning Thief and think it has its place, help students find variety in their reading list and exposure to various levels and forms of text. A student who “reads a lot” because he’s read Twilight seven times probably isn’t getting the full benefit.)

It’s not a matter of intelligence – it’s a matter of practice. We need to have honest communication about this with students.

My test anxiety is freaking me out! 
TheScreamAnxiety is no laughing matter, so don’t think I’m taking it lightly. It can freeze students to the point they’re white-knuckling their pencils during the test, or silently weeping during the math section. My heart breaks when I see that. However – familiarity with the test, its contents, and having a plan for dealing with anxiety will take kids much further than just acknowledging that the test stresses them out and calling it anxiety without any real help. Practicing these strategies sophomore year is critical, as you’re trying to break habits. Talking to students about anxiety junior year three weeks before the test doesn’t give them any time to address these issues.

Start this year having students recognize stress or nerves, and talk them through how to relax. A few ideas I’ve had success with are embracing the struggle and knowing your goals.

Recognize and embrace the struggle: I had one sweet student who would cry when she’d think about tests. Super bright girl in class, but her independent reading level wasn’t that great. So she’d study and study and then I’d hear, “What was on the study guide wasn’t what was on the test.” Well, it often was – she just couldn’t recognize the questions and themes. We worked on a quote – “No pressure, No diamonds.” She’d repeat this mantra during volleyball, where she was much more comfortable with – and expected – stress. By the time she got to class, that attitude started to transfer. We spoke about other areas in her life where she dealt with stress, then actively transferred those techniques to testing.

Knowing your goals: If I told you to run, you’d probably first ask, “What?” But then we might get around to, “How far?” and “When?”. Great questions. But when kids read or test, they only know the goal is to do their best without really asking how. How many do I need to get right to get an A? That’s a great question – and it also answers how many you can MISS! Same student above would sit down to a Spanish test and the first thing she would do is calculate how many questions she could miss and still get an A. If it was seven, then she’d know there were 7 questions she didn’t have to fret over. PRACTICE this!

On the SAT, that’s a very practical skill! Knowing how many you can miss or have to answer to get your goal score is one of the best strategies. If I say I want to gain weight but don’t break it down into the steps I need to take to get there, chances are I won’t meet any special goal. In fact, I’m thinking of about eight different ways I could gain weight right now.

So the lesson is, make your students tell you their SAT goal. An actual number, a college, or a career can help you find the right goal. Then help them determine how to get there. (What percent do I need right? Are there skills I need to practice? Have I taken a practice test yet so I know my starting point?) We’ll find out more after the test in April 2016. We’ll keep you posted. However – to know you want to improve by 5 or 6 questions, or to know you want to improve by 20, is a very powerful piece of information.

Take a full-length practice SAT or PSAT
Tell your student to go to a library or somewhere public and yet quiet, and time herself while she takes a full length practice test. I’ll even put it right here for you. Once she sees what’s on the test and how it feels, she’ll be better calibrated to ask questions, set goals, and focus in school on things she saw on the test.

I say somewhere public because I think a) you need to be near someone sniffling. Maybe it’s just me, but I get seated next to the kid with allergies so bad he could keep Kleenex in business for years to come. And I get annoyed, and angry, and then I’m thinking more about Sniffly Bob than I am about the test. Reason #2) their rooms are too cozy. Kids won’t be hard enough on themselves there. A hard chair, a solid table, and Sniffly Bob. Set the stage.

Have you taken a test?

What can you teach this year that will be on the ACT Aspire and the ACT?
Telling a junior that what she learned last year will be on this year’s test seems kinda cruel. Knowing ahead of time what’s going to be on the test sounds much better.