What You Need to Know about College Testing
- 2008 29 Aug
Some of you are familiar with the different tests high school students are expected to take before applying to college. However, many people are completely confused by them. All those letters can sound rather intimidating when you are new to the college application process.
Of course, not all of our homeschooled high schoolers will need to earn a college degree. Many people establish successful careers without graduating from college. Apprenticeships, on-the-job training, trade schools, and independent, at-home learning can all lead to great work situations—whether full-time, part-time, or volunteer.
In addition, students can avoid the need to take any national, standardized tests and yet still go to college if they attend a community college for two years before transferring to a four-year school. Those seeking acceptance as qualified transfer students from accredited two-year colleges often do not need to show even a high school transcript. The junior college record alone usually speaks for the student.
However, some of our teens will want to go directly to a four-year college from our homeschool high schools. Whether or not your students should go to college is not the point of this article. Whether or not they have the option to attend the college of their choosing is the point. As homeschooling parents, we want to provide our children with as many excellent options as possible. One element that can help our high school students in their quest for college admission and scholarships is strong test scores.
The most commonly taken test is the SAT I Reasoning exam. Almost every four-year college in the country requires applicants to submit scores from the SAT I exam or its lesser known counterpart, the ACT. Notice I said “almost”—inevitably, there are exceptions. The schools that do not require the SAT I usually ask students to demonstrate their academic journey through more creative means, such as comprehensive portfolios, and they still require a high level of academic performance. Unless you know for certain that your teen is going to one of these few “exception” schools, you should plan for your high school students to take the SAT I or the ACT.
The SAT I Reasoning exam is not based on specific content knowledge (with the exception of math). Rather, it claims to measure the student’s ability to think critically—hence the name. (How well the test actually accomplishes this goal has been hotly debated for years.) The entire exam takes almost four hours, but when breaks are added, the student is usually at the testing site from 7:45 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. or later.
In the spring of 2005, the SAT was thoroughly revised for the first time in many years. Some changes were made to the Math section: quantitative comparison problems were dropped and more advanced questions added. Meanwhile, the Verbal section was renamed the Critical Reading section, and the analogy questions were eliminated. Most notably, a new Writing section was added to the exam. It consists of a 25-minute timed essay that must be legibly handwritten, along with additional multiple-choice questions.
Many colleges are not yet giving the new Writing element much weight, as they prefer to wait a few more years to consider these scores in the context of more students. Finally, there is a section on the new test that is only “experimental” in nature. In other words, it doesn’t count toward the student’s final score. However, since the students have no way of knowing which section is the experimental one, they must give their best effort on every section they face.
The SAT I exam costs $43 at this time, and picture IDs are required. Students choose from a selection of nearby testing sites (usually public high schools) when they complete the online registration process. (Important: the national SAT “school” code for all independent homeschoolers is 970000.) The test is usually offered seven times annually, October through June. Registration deadlines are about a month before the test dates. The best time to take the SAT I is usually in the spring of the junior year. This choice gives the option of retaking the test for improved scores in the fall of the senior year. Check with specific schools as to their admission and scholarship deadlines.
The SAT II Subject tests are now commonly required at many colleges. Schools that do not expect these tests of all applicants often do want to see them from non-traditionally educated students (read: homeschoolers). The SAT II Subject tests are quite different from the SAT I Reasoning test. Each subject test lasts just one hour and includes 60 to 90 multiple-choice questions. (Only the Writing test has an essay component.) Questions on the SAT II tests are straightforward and directly related to content knowledge. Most colleges that require these tests want applicants to submit scores for three different subjects—usually a math test and two other subjects of the student’s choice.
Colleges use these SAT II Subject exams for several purposes. Admissions committees are aware that every high school (and certainly every homeschool) teaches subjects in various ways and to various depths. They believe the SAT II tests make a fair comparison more likely. Colleges also use these scores to determine whether or not a student has adequately met an admissions requirement, such as two or three years of laboratory science. Finally, SAT II scores are sometimes used to grant advanced placement at the college in a field such as foreign language.
The SAT II Subject tests have a basic registration fee of $20, with an additional $8 fee per subject test. (Some language tests have extra fees.) A student can take one to three tests on a single Saturday. Obviously, they cannot be taken on the same day the SAT I Reasoning exam is taken.
It is best for teens to take these exams shortly after finishing their study of the subject in question. If your daughter finishes her third year of Italian study in the spring of her junior year, that is the best time to take the SAT II Italian exam. If your son completes a thorough study of Biology as a freshman, then that is the best time to take the Biology exam. There are no specific age requirements for these tests, but students must be in the 9th to 12th grade.
Many students want to know if they have the option of canceling their SAT I or II test scores if they are not pleased with their performance. Scores can be canceled, but requests must be received within three days of the test, and the scores can never be recovered. Students and parents should realize that doing this cancels all scores from that test day. A better option is for students to retake tests if they believe they can significantly improve their scores.
The ACT test is an acceptable, even preferable, alternative to the SAT I exam for some high school students. The determining factor is where the student is applying to college. Many schools insist on the SAT I, others give a choice between the two exams, and some, especially in the South, actually prefer the ACT. The ACT is offered at least six times yearly, including a September test date in nineteen states.
My oldest child took both the SAT I and the ACT, and she scored very well on both. However, while most of the colleges where she applied said they didn’t value the ACT at all, the Southern school was so impressed with her ACT score that it offered her a full scholarship on the spot. One advantage the ACT has over the SAT I is the option students have to control which colleges see which scores when. It costs a bit more, but the choice is available.
The ACT runs 3 to 3 ½ hours. It costs $30 without the optional writing section and $44.50 with it. It is highly recommended that students take the writing portion along with the main test. The exam is described as a test that measures achievement, and it is not content-based. Most educational experts consider it much more predictable and fair than the SAT I exam. The questions require students to solve problems, interpret charts and graphs, and use their critical reasoning skills. The ACT has four main parts: English, Math, Reading, and Science.
When my daughter first saw the Science portion of the test, she doubted her ability to do well on it, as she felt she was much stronger in the areas of reading, writing, and history than in the areas of science and math. However, she discovered that her excellent reading and reasoning skills were the foundation necessary to understanding the scientific material presented. Much to her surprise, she ended up earning a perfect score on the Science section.
Two other sets of tests are the AP exams (Advanced Placement) and the CLEP exams (College Level Exam Program). AP exams are only offered once a year in May, while the CLEP exams are given much more frequently. Both sets of exams, covering dozens of specific subject areas, are much more advanced in content than the SAT II Subject tests, and they expect a much higher level of analysis (and often writing) from the students. Each test costs over $80. Colleges value strong scores on these exams because they show that the student has studied a topic seriously and has the ability to understand and work well with college-level material.
Students are often awarded college credit (one-half to two years’ worth) for earning high scores on these tests, and they are almost always granted advanced placement in their college classes in the areas where they have tested well. In addition, several solid scores on APs or CLEPs look very good on a high school student’s transcript. Selective colleges in particular are more likely to grant admission and academic scholarships to students with such a record. I will cover these exams in more detail, as well as other ways of highlighting advanced academics for college and scholarship applications, in a future column.
The College Board’s Web site thoroughly explains most of the above tests—SAT I, SAT II, AP, and CLEP—and provides many special tools for you and your high school students. These include college searches, career planning helps, scheduling charts, an SAT Question-of-the-Day email list, other test-taking advice, and much more. This website is also the place where you and your student should go to sign up for the tests. A complete testing calendar is available, and special accommodations for students with disabilities are explained fully. Upon first visiting the site, your student must register to create a profile that the College Board will keep constantly updated. This profile will keep track of the schools your teen is considering, your student’s test registration information, all test scores, and more. The College Board is found online at www.collegeboard.com/testing.
If you would like more information on the ACT exam, visit their website at www.actstudent.org.
Some of you might be wondering why I have not mentioned the PSAT exam (Preliminary SAT), otherwise known as the NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test). This test is considered a “practice” test for the SAT I exam, and students are allowed to take it only in October of their junior year. Registration is completed through a local high school. This is the test that determines which students qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. However, the amount of money awarded to National Merit Scholars by most colleges is relatively small. In addition, due to the large number of excellent test preparation books available, I believe students can gain plenty of experience taking several SAT I practice tests at home under strict, timed conditions. However, if your teen is interested in this test, details can be found at the College Board Web site.
High school homeschoolers who are thinking of applying to four-year colleges should invest in an in-depth college guide to learn the specific testing requirements along with other important details about various schools. Fiske and Princeton Review are good choices: both cover the “top” 300-366 colleges in the nation.
Remember: there are three key elements involved with scoring well on these tests. First—read! Second—practice! Third—relax! Is it really that simple? I am happy to assure you that when it comes to college testing, yes, it is.
Kim Lundberg is the busy mom of 10 great kids. She and her family have been homeschooling for 16 years, and they make their home in beautiful northern California. Kim enjoys teaching drama, writing, and world history classes, as well as reading mysteries, baking goodies, camping, and listening to her kids talk, sing, and make music. Visit her blog at www.HSEBlogs.com/kim