Schools Have Key Role Helping All Students With Exam Prep

Aug 7, 2018

“Okay class, we have a test tomorrow.”

Oh, the one word that students everywhere, no matter their age, dread: TEST. When you hear that word, what goes through your mind? 

For the average high-schooler, there is a tremendous amount of mixed emotions. After all, the average chapter or unit test presents a unique opportunity: scoring well means your grade will skyrocket, but what you need to do to make that happen is another issue. 

For a final or mid-year assessment, the stakes are even higher. Often valued at 20 percent of a student’s semester grade, many Maine high schools dedicate two full weeks of the school year to these cumulative exams. The situation is even more stressful for regularly high-achieving students who need to score well in order to solidify things such as class rank, GPA, and honor society requirements. 

For me, the stress and the angst I feel before a big test is like no other. There are both the confident “I can do this” thoughts, and the nervous “this test makes or breaks my A average.” I spend hours poring over review materials, making flashcards, and studying my notes word for word. In the end, my rigorous studying often yields a grade anywhere in the 90s. But those are for tests that students can easily study and prepare for. What about the trickier, even more important, standardized national tests all students are bound to take? 

With focusing on involvement in school and community, to ensuring that I excel in my academic courses, what’s important to college admissions is constantly on my mind. After all, I am a rising senior that really wants to be accepted into a premier school. What’s difficult about this process is that no two students are exactly alike. One may be a star athlete, and the other may be a regionally renowned composer who finds his place in the arts. That is where standardized tests like the SAT and ACT come around.

These tests allow college admission officers to find common ground between two students. Although a given group of students may not be directly compared to one another, standardized test scores help to keep track in a non-disputed, national way of student achievement. You’re likely saying, “Okay, great! I get what these tests are all about. But now, how do I perform?” Well, that is the million-dollar question.

“[G]et the sense that the questions are nothing like what you've seen in school? It's purposely designed this way. The SAT can't test difficult concepts, because this would be unfair for students who never took AP Calculus. … So it HAS to test concepts that all high school students will cover,” writes Allen Cheng. Cheng, the co-founder of PrepScholar, a website dedicated to helping students improve their SAT scores, has numerous posts about how to outsmart those pesky bubbles.

In my experience with standardized tests, the issue is timing. For example, look at the following scenario. There are two students taking a college entrance exam. The first student has double the amount of time that the second has. Who do you think is going to perform the best? Try to forget the fact that this sounds a little bit like an SAT question, and instead understand that the clock is often the limiting factor when it comes to any test. With increased time comes a more complete thought process, a deeper understanding, and a reduced amount of stress. In turn, this yields a higher score.

Unfortunately, for all of us, the absolute time on the tests is limited. However, we can learn to move faster with practice. When we recognize a question or a pattern, we don’t have to stop and spend time. So we must resort to thinking smarter, studying harder, and most importantly, practicing and preparing for test-day conditions. Through personal experience, I have found official practice tests to be the best way to prepare. They are made by the same people who design and administer the actual exam and they are no easier or harder than what you will experience on test day. Further, the practice test booklets often include detailed explanations that allow for academic growth anytime you fill in the incorrect bubble.

It is my belief that the burden of standardized test practice not only falls on students, but their schools too. This past year I took my first Advanced Placement (AP) course—English Language and Composition. Depending on the college or university, AP classes may allow a student to fulfill a specified requirement before he even sets foot on campus. The catch? The student must score well (typically a 4 or a 5; with 5 being the best) on a standardized test that directly relates to the class. 

The AP test for “English 3” consists of a one-hour, 52-55 questions segment, and a two hour and fifteen-minute segment that calls for the writing of three essays on various topics provided. In my case, I had a superb teacher who, from day one, assigned various practice questions and essays. As the year progressed our teacher would assign pop essays that were timed and completed that day in class. This was a tremendous help. Further, instead of having chapter tests over the books we read, we would have an in-class timed essay in which we argued a theme, symbol, etc., when we completed reading the given text.

When it came to AP test day, May 16, our entire class was well prepared for the exam. Why? Because the practice was not optional. The practice was required if we wanted to pass the class. There was no “on your own time” practice, but preparation that was integrated into our course from day one. Even when we were not specifically talking about the AP exam, our assignments prepared us. Speaking for myself, when I got to test day I finished my essays with nearly 30 minutes left on the clock; a feat perfected by practice. The extra time allowed me to revise and in one case even add an entire paragraph to an essay. In the end, my score already fulfills a course requirement at a college I’m highly interested in. 

Instead of contributing to the divide, schools must realize that not all high school students have the time to attend readiness programs. Why? We are busy competing in events and/or working on homework. Not only do kids not have time, but not all of us have the means to hire a private tutor. Since we all have to take the exam, why don’t schools prepare us just like they do for college-level workloads? As much as the College Board says the SAT “is modeled on the work [we] are already doing in school,” I can say that we need help.

Apply my teacher’s concept to the SAT or ACT. What if your high school had a class that was focused entirely on standardized test prep? Would that help? I sure think so. Now, imagine if your school mandated that teachers integrate SAT and ACT topics into their curriculum. What if your next geometry test consisted of College Board published geometry questions straight from their SAT practice tests? I do not think this idea is that far-fetched. Although practice tests are great, with my approach, students prepare for these college entrance exams without an increase of in-class testing. No test anxiety, no silence, and none of those no-cheating partitions. Instead, the typical classwork that is designed to reinforce what’s learned is simultaneously preparing us for the most important tests of our high school career.

Even though colleges and universities are moving toward test-optional policies, for Maine students the SAT is still, and for the foreseeable future will be, required. So, the importance of strong results can’t be lost. In a highly competitive college admissions environment, strong ACT/SAT scores may be the tipping point for a decision in your favor—even at a test-optional school. We know that practice is everything. Given that mindset, integrating practice into the curriculum is essential. Now it is time for schools to act. 

Gabe Ferris is a regular contributor to Raise Your Voice. He is a senior at Waterville Senior High School.