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Standardized College Tests and my Homeschooled Kid

Part of my homeschool journey with my children has involved some trial and error when it comes to meshing without outside expectations. One of those expectations is the need for the SAT or ACT test for college admissions.

Last fall we took the PLAN test, which is a "practice" test for the ACT exam. Sam did very well on it and we were very happy and excited about it. The PLAN test was also very easy to administer. Our homeschool group arranged to have the test delivered and supervised so we were very comfortable with the actual process of taking the test.

Somewhere along the line I got the idea that Sam should also take the PSAT test. First of all the National Merit Scholarships are awarded based on the results of this test. Secondly, I thought that Sam would do very well on this test because he had done so well with the PLAN test. But problems ensued from the beginning. First of all, the College Board people that administer the PSAT test only allow it to be given for two dates in the fall and to be able to take the test, I had to find a local high school that would allow Sam to come in and be tested. As always my local public school could be counted on to disappoint. They said they did not allow students that are not their students to come in to the facility for tests. Of course, that's a lie. Those high schools are open for the SAT tests and all you have to do is sign up on line to get in. Nonetheless I tried a few other places (Catholic high schools) and eventually got him in at a Christian High School.

We got the test results back last week and they were disappointing. How is it a possible that a kid that did so well, in fact above college readiness in reading and reading, on one test totally bomb on another?

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So I started to do some research. First, I spoke to some of the kids who attend local Catholic schools in this area. It seems that at least the Catholic schools spend a lot of time practicing test taking! Sam's girlfriend said that in eighth grade they were taking some sort of practice test every week. Indeed, her 8th grade class sat for the actual SAT test and she did very well. So that is sort of one strike against us. I have been concentrating on content and real learning instead of testing skills.

Secondly there are some differences in the SAT and the ACT tests themselves. 
Emphasis mine. 


Admissions officers and educators often describe the difference between SAT and ACT in these terms: the ACT is a content-based test, whereas the SAT tests critical thinking and problem solving. This perception is one reason many educators (off the record) express a preference for the ACT--because they believe that the ACT is closer to testing the "core curriculum" taught in most school classrooms. In fact, this contrast isn't exactly watertight. Many questions on the ACT test critical thinking, and there is a predictable range of material that's tested on the SAT. But the SAT and ACT reward different attributes, so performing well on each test can boil down to what kind of test taker you are.

Here are some of the factors that make the SAT and ACT very different breeds:

* The ACT includes a science reasoning test; the SAT does not.
* The ACT math section includes trigonometry.
* The SAT tests vocabulary much more than the ACT.
* The SAT is not entirely multiple choice.
* The SAT has a guessing penalty; the ACT does not.
* The ACT tests English grammar; the SAT does not.



The Peterson's site states:
About the ACT
The ACT sports four trademark
multiple-choice subject tests covering English, Math, Reading, and Science. These are designed to evaluate your overall educational development and your ability to complete college-level work. You’ll have 2 hours and 55 minutes of dedicated test time to complete the subject tests, not including breaks.
As far as scoring goes, your subject test scores (ranging from 1 to 36) are determined after throwing out any incorrect answers — only correct responses count! The four areas are then averaged together to come up with your overall, or composite, score.
The ACT also includes an optional 30-minute writing test designed to measure your skill in planning and writing a short essay. This segment is your chance to highlight your writing skills! If you opt to take it, the additional scores will be reported, along with comments about your essay. These scores are reported separately.
So, if writing is a weak area, you might want to take the ACT and skip the writing section, since it’s currently optional (although some schools require it). If writing is your strength, having extra kudos passed on to your choice schools may benefit you.
About the SAT
When looking at the SAT in comparison to the ACT, a clear difference is that the SAT is designed to evaluate your general thinking and problem-solving abilities. It kicks things off with a required 25-minute essay. This is the start to the Writing section, which you’ll complete in addition to the Critical Reading and Math sections. The SAT differs from the ACT in terms of the amount of time you’ll have to complete it (3 hours and 5 minutes) and the format in which you provide your answers.

Similar to the ACT, the SAT has multiple-choice areas, but it also has a part in the Math section where you’ll be required produce your answers — no chance of guessing from a set of choices here! And unlike the ACT, the SAT doles out a slight penalty for wrong answers on the multiple choice questions (but not on the student-produced ones).
When considering the ACT vs. the SAT, keep in mind that both tests allot ample time for completion, but the SAT has fewer questions — 140 compared to the 215 on the ACT. The SAT also focuses heavily on vocabulary, while the ACT hones in on grammar and punctuation.
Sam would like to study business and music.  I have looked at the requirements of several colleges around here and so far they seem to accept the SAT and the ACT. So I am pretty sure we are going to concentrate our efforts in preparing for the ACT since Sam did so well on their practice test.

In retrospect now, I wish I hadn't let myself be persuaded that he had to take the PSAT test. It undermined his confidence and it was a hassle to try and coordinate. Since only the top 1% of students in each state are awarded scholarships via the PSAT test, I'm not sure it was worth the the price.




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