Standardized Testing: Do You Know the Exams?

A little knowledge is a great antidote to anxiety and stress. At Signet, we believe it’s far better to know what’s on the horizon than to be caught off guard and feel behind.

This is especially true when it comes to standardized testing. As of 2020, many colleges still require standardized tests.

While the movement encouraging schools to de-emphasize testing in their admissions procedures has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, test scores may still be an important part of the college application process for many students.

It’s worth taking these tests seriously and preparing accordingly, especially if your student is just starting high school and will likely be applying to college in a post-pandemic world.

Our goal is to arm you with as much information as possible, so you can guide your student on how to best engage with testing as it relates to their goals.

Why do admissions offices require standardized tests?

Admissions officers use standardized tests because they offer a standard by which to judge the abilities of students from different schools. An A in one school district may be very different from an A in another, but a 750 on the Math portion of the SAT is the same around the world.

Here’s a list of the common tests your student will encounter over the next few years:

General, Often Required, Exams:

  • PSAT: A scaled-down version of the SAT, offered from 9th through 12th grades. While the majority of schools administer the PSAT in 11th grade, some offer it in 9th and 10th grades as well. The junior-year PSAT is used as the National Merit Scholars Qualifying Test. NOTE: The PSAT has very little bearing on college applications and should be treated simply as a benchmark. It is not required, but if your child’s school offers this exam, we recommend taking it.
  • PreACT: The “pre” version of the ACT. Like the PSAT, this test is a benchmark and is not particularly important for college admissions. However, students should take both of these “pre” exams seriously, as they are strong indicators of their likely performance on the actual tests. NOTE: The PreACT isn’t offered very often in the Northeast. It is not required, but if your child’s school offers this exam, we recommend taking it.
  • SAT: An exam that covers basic reading, writing, and math skills that students are expected to acquire in high school. It is interchangeable with the ACT (see below) and is scored out of 1600. For better or worse, SAT scores can have a significant impact on a student’s college candidacy.
  • ACT: A general test that, like the SAT, covers reading, writing, and math. It is interchangeable with the SAT, since it also tests the skills that students are expected to learn in high school. The ACT is scored out of 36. For better or worse, ACT scores, like SAT scores, can have a significant impact on a student’s college candidacy.

Important note about the SAT vs ACT: While your child’s high school may have a recommended test (many schools have a contract with either the SAT or ACT governing bodies), students should consider both tests as an option. However, there is no need for students to actually take both exams.

Why? Because many students perform far better on one exam over the other based on their individual strengths. Thus, students should choose their preferred test and stick with it. This may mean going against what your school encourages, but it can lead to less stress and better scores for your student.

Subject-Specific Exams:

Students may also opt to take more targeted, subject-oriented tests. These include:

  • Advanced Placement (AP) Exams: Subject-specific exams administered by the same company that administers the SAT. They are generally taken after a year’s study in an AP-level class, though exceptionally ambitious students can choose to take the exams without enrolling in the classes (usually not recommended). AP classes are offered by a majority of high schools, generally in junior and senior years (though sometimes earlier). The exams cover content that is likely to show up in a first-year college course, and a passing score may be converted to college credits at many universities. AP exams are completely optional, but they do signal intellectual rigor in a particular area.
  • High School Examinations: Statewide or citywide examinations are required in some school districts. Examples include the MCAS in Massachusetts, Regents in New York City, or the PARCC exam (currently used by Arkansas, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, and Rhode Island). These tests have little bearing on college admissions but are indicators of your student’s overall academic performance. The range of difficulty of these exams is generally lower than the range of difficulty of standardized tests.

Believe it or not, just by reading this post, you and your student have completed the first step in formulating your “plan of attack” for testing. You know what tests your student needs to take, what they’re used for, and which tests carry the most weight in the application process.

Picture of Jay B.

Jay B.

Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. As a high schooler, Jay won awards for chemistry at the state level in his home state of Florida, and at Harvard, he initially studied physics. After graduating, Jay spent two years studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music.

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