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Precision Teaching: The Easy Way to Measure Academic Progress

By Vicki Wood, PowerScore SAT Instructor

Last month, I discussed the importance of preparing for the SAT or the ACT. These test scores are considered the “great equalizer” for homeschooled students, allowing an admissions board to compare a homeschooler’s academic abilities with those of traditional high school students. While admissions officers have access to in-depth and long-term curriculum records from both public and private high schools, they are less familiar with homeschool curriculums. SAT or ACT scores level the playing field, allowing colleges to compare applicants from a variety of academic backgrounds.

This article led to dozens of emails from parents inquiring a+out the choice of tests for their homeschoolers. Which test—the SAT or the ACT—would give their child the competitive edge for admissions? I wish I could say one was easier than the other, or that one is looked upon more favorably by college admissions departments. I can’t. Instead, I can explain the structure and content of both tests and discuss current national testing trends, and recommend that you and your child look closely at each test before making your decision.

The SAT – The Ultimate Reasoning Test
The new SAT is not the same exam that parents remember from high school. Relatively unchanged for 53 years, the SAT underwent a major facelift in March of 2005. The most noticeable revision was the addition of a writing component—students must now produce an essay and answer multiple choice grammar questions. Improvements were also made in the math and reading sections. In the math section, Quantitative Comparison questions were removed and basic Algebra II content was added. In the reading section, the much-dreaded analogies were replaced with short reading passages. The College Board, the makers of the SAT, insist that the test remains the same difficulty level as the old SAT, but any student who has just taken the 3 hour and 45 minute test will tell you that the added length makes it harder to maintain focus and concentration.

The SAT is a ten-section test with three sections each of writing, reading, and mathematics, plus one experimental section. The experimental section is not scored and is used solely for research purposes by the College Board. It can be a reading, writing, or math section, but the student will not know which section is experimental. They must complete every section of the test with the belief that the section will count toward their scores.

Each portion of the SAT—writing, reading, and math—receives a score from 200 to 800. A perfect SAT score is now 2400 (3 sections x 800 points). These scores are calculated from a raw score; one point is awarded for each correct answer, a quarter of a point is subtracted for each wrong answer, and no points are assigned for an omitted answer.
The writing portion of the test involves one twenty-five-minute essay, one twenty-five- minute multiple choice section, and one ten-minute multiple choice question. The essay asks students to voice an opinion by composing a response to an opinion prompt, such as “Does financial wealth guarantee happiness?” The essay is judged on mastery of the English language and the ability to explain and support a point of view.

The two writing multiple-choice sections make up a total of 49 questions, presented in three different formats. In one type of question, students must simply determine if there is a grammatical error in a sentence, and if so, identify where in the sentence the error occurs. These questions are appropriately called “Identifying Sentence Errors.” For “Improving Sentences,” the test-taker is given a sentence in which a portion of the sentence is underlined. Again, it must be determined if the underlined portion contains an error, but this time the student must select the answer choice that best corrects the underlined portion. The final format, called “Improving Paragraphs,” requires students to read a short essay (14 to 18 sentences) in rough draft form. The essay is followed by six questions which ask the student to choose the best corrections for specific lines of the essay. Most students report that these six questions are the easiest of the grammar questions.

The writing portion of the SAT is easily taught in the months leading up to the test. In fact, the highest score increases from test to test are often found in the writing sections. Although the essay requires higher-level thinking, the grammar multiple-choice questions use little reasoning ability, and instead test a student’s ability to recognize and correct approximately twenty characteristic usage and construction errors. Examples of typical errors include subject and verb agreement, pronoun choice, modifier placement, and correct idiom. A quality test preparation company will have categorized these errors in their courses and books so that they are easily learned by the student.

The reading portion of the test contains two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section, for a total of 67 multiple choice questions. Nineteen of these questions are in the “Sentence Completion” format. Students are given a sentence in which one or two words are removed; using context clues, the test-taker must choose the words that best complete the blanks.

The remainder of the questions in the reading sections assesses a student’s comprehension skills. After reading a passage in humanities, social science, natural science, or literature, students must answer a series of questions about the passage. Passages may be a short paragraph or a longer article comprising two columns on the page. In addition, test-takers will be asked to read two related passages and then answer questions that compare and contrast the main ideas and authors’ points of view. For the majority of former SAT students, reading comprehension passages have proved the most challenging of all the questions on the test.

These reading sections rely heavily on a student’s vocabulary skills and reading comprehension level. Because these skills are developed over long periods of time, reading is the hardest portion of the SAT to improve upon. There are many patterns, however, that can help a student identify correct answers. Certain vocabulary words are tested more frequently than others, and reading comprehension questions follow specific templates. Logic and reasoning also play a key role in many reading comprehension questions. The ability to eliminate easier answer choices can help pinpoint the correct answer, even if the student doesn’t understand why it is correct. Most test preparation books and courses will discuss these reasoning processes in addition to the test patterns and trends.

Mathematics is tested in three sections on the SAT. Two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section comprise 54 questions in two formats. Important formulas and relationships are given at the beginning of each math section. Forty-four questions have standard multiple-choice answers, while ten questions require a student to find the answer on his or her own. These “Student-Produced Response” questions must be “bubbled in” on a grid system in order to earn credit, yet they are the only ones on the test in which students are not penalized for a wrong answer.

The math portion of the test is heavily-reliant on higher-order thinking skills. Test-takers are expected to have a working knowledge of arithmetic, geometry, Algebra I, and Algebra II, but nearly half of the questions ask students to apply this knowledge to logical tasks. Calculators are permitted, but are rarely required. The average student will use the calculator on the majority of questions, looking for tried-and-true formulas and solutions, while the perceptive student will look for the analytical shortcut involving deductive reasoning. Tips, tricks, and logical connections are a part of the curriculum of quality test preparation materials or courses.

Although the SAT requires an understanding of the core concepts from college-preparatory classes, it truly is an intelligence test. Some questions are straight-forward assessments of high school course content, but many questions ask readers to make inferences, find logical connections, and use deductive reasoning.

PowerScore offers two types of nationwide SAT classes to review test content and foster problem-solving skills. At 46 hours of class time, our Full Length courses last for five weeks, and take an in-depth look at the test structure and curriculum. Convenient evening schedules allow students to prepare for the SAT while maintaining their current academic and extracurricular activities. Our Weekend Course occurs over twelve hours on one weekend, offering a condensed version of our longer course. For more information about the SAT or test preparation, please visit our website at www.powerscore.com.

If a class is not offered in your area, we can set up a special class for a group of 10 or more homeschooled students, an excellent choice if you are looking for a course with a specific schedule and location. We also have 99th percentile instructors available for tutoring in most major cities.

The ACT – A True Test of Curriculum
Although the two tests share some similarities, the ACT is a very different assessment of academic abilities than the SAT. The SAT relies on problem-solving and critical thinking skills, while the ACT requires much more content-based knowledge in a wider scope of subject areas.

The ACT contains four subjects—English, reading, math, and science—in four sections. Each section receives a scaled score of 1 to 36, and the average score of the four sections serves as a composite score. Unlike the SAT, there is no penalty for guessing on the ACT and the entire test is multiple-choice.

The English test on the ACT requires 75 questions to be answered in 45 minutes. Students are presented with five prose passages and each passage has underlined portions which correspond to a multiple choice question about that specific line or section. If we combined all three multiple choice formats on the writing section of the SAT, it would look very similar to the English portion of the ACT. However, the ACT assesses a much broader range of language skills; in addition to grammar and usage, it tests punctuation, sentence structure, organization, and style.

The reading section format of the ACT is nearly identical to the long, single passages used on the SAT. The ACT presents four passages, also in humanities, social science, natural science, and literature, with ten multiple-choice questions following each passage. Students have 35 minutes to answer all 40 questions. The questions are similar to those used on the SAT, asking students to identify the main idea, the author’s tone, and the function of specific lines. However, the questions on the ACT do not use overly- complicated vocabulary as the SAT might use in an occasional question. This eliminates the use of extensive analytical reasoning and puts the focus on reading comprehension.

The ACT math test gives students 60 minutes to complete 60 questions. Formulas are not provided, as they are on the SAT, but the questions are much more straight-forward. Where the SAT might use complicated wording to ask a student to find the value of x, the ACT will simply write x = ?. Or where the SAT will disguise a right triangle question with use of other angles and shapes, the ACT will simply ask for the hypotenuse of the right triangle. The lack of such tasks involving critical thinking may appeal to some students, but they should be warned that the content of the ACT math portion is much more comprehensive. Not only does it cover arithmetic, geometry, and Algebra I, but it also encompasses Algebra II—including trigonometry—in much more depth than the SAT.
The final portion of the ACT is a science test, the only component that is completely omitted from the SAT. The science section is composed of 40 questions tested in 35 minutes. Seven reports, which may include reading passages, charts, graphs, and diagrams, are each followed by five or six multiple-choice questions about that report. The reports may present information from biology, chemistry, physics, Earth science, or space science, but previous knowledge of the content is not required. Some questions require students to make comparisons between data sets and to use minimal critical thinking skills, but for the most part the science portion of the ACT assesses reading and math skills far more than it tests a student’s knowledge of the natural sciences.
Whereas the SAT is an exercise in problem-solving, the ACT more clearly measures a student’s understanding of the core high school curriculum. The test assumes that the student has taken, or is in the process of taking, the essential college-preparatory courses in English, mathematics, and natural sciences.

Which Test Is Best?
While the SAT has always held the title of the most prominent college-admissions test, the ACT has made substantial gains toward the crown in the last few years. Students once chose their test based on geographical borders; Midwestern students took the ACT, while teenagers in the South and on the coasts concentrated on the SAT. Most colleges, however, have started accepting either test as a means for admission; so many students are taking both tests in order to submit the test results with the more flattering scores. Taking both tests—multiple times, no less—solves the dilemma of which test to take. However, if you would rather your homeschooler only concentrate on one or the other, there are several points to consider before making your decision.

The most important factor is the requirements of the colleges to which your child plans to apply. There are still a few that prefer a specific test. Check with the admissions department of each college to learn which tests are requested for admission. Make sure that there aren’t any special testing requirements for homeschoolers, too, as some of the more prestigious colleges expect SAT Subject Tests, as well. You should also ask if there are special scholarships at the school or in your state based on either test.
If the intended colleges and universities accept either the SAT or the ACT, we suggest you analyze both tests again. By now, you can probably predict which test will play to your child’s individual strengths. Students strong in language and writing, typically perform better on the SAT, just as those adept at math and science often prefer the ACT. Since both tests cover English and math, students cannot escape either section but they can choose the test that will highlight their outstanding subject areas.

Finally, have your child take a practice SAT and a practice ACT under timed conditions. The College Board and the ACT both provide a free downloadable test on their websites (www.collegeboard.com and www.act.org). The tests come with specific instructions for computing scores, as well score percentile charts that allow you to compare your child’s results with the results of other students. By taking both tests, your teenager will develop not only an understanding of the tests’ structure and content, but also a preference based on each test’s benefits and disadvantages. By discussing the arrangement and content of the tests, as well as the practice results, you and your child should be able to come to an easy conclusion about the most suitable test for college admissions.
For more information about PowerScore, please visit www.powerscore.com or email vwood@powerscore.com for questions about the article. ■