Beware of free practice tests offered by test-prep companies

Beware of free practice tests offered by test-prep companies

Note: I originally posted this article last summer at a colleague’s request, but I’m re-posting it again now as students and families start to look at summer test-prep options.

If you’re just beginning test-prep this summer and looking into take a class or working with a tutor affiliated with a company, please tread carefully when dealing with the free practice tests offered by these organizations.

Many of these companies do not use official material produced by either the College Board or the ACT, but rather rely on tests written in-house and used only by the company. This is always the case for national chains such as Kaplan and Princeton Review, and is common practice among other companies as well. (more…)

Yes, you can delete ACT scores; no, you shouldn’t just keep taking the test

Yes, you can delete ACT scores; no, you shouldn’t just keep taking the test

After my recent post discussing why it’s not a good idea to treat real SATs or ACTs like practice runs, a tutor wrote to ask me to weigh in on the ACT’s score-deletion option and its effect on the test-prep process. In truth, I probably should have covered it in my earlier post, but since I didn’t (mea culpa!), I’m going to discuss it here. 

So first, for those of you who aren’t familiar with ACT scoring policy, the ACT takes the concept of score choice to a level beyond that of the SAT. Most colleges will allow you to select which set(s) of scores you want to send, but a few holdouts — including several Ivy League schools — still require you to send all of your scores. If you take the SAT, you do in fact need to send everything; however, if you take the ACT, there’s still a back door into score choice. 

Basically, the ACT has a policy that allows test-takers to permanently remove a score from their record, provided that it was obtained from a paid registration (that is, not state or district-mandated testing) has not yet been sent to any colleges. All you need to do is submit a written request to the ACT (see here; click on “Scores,” then scroll down to “How do I delete a test-day record?”), and your scores will be permanently expunged. 

Obviously, this policy has some major benefits, most notably the fact that you can actually see your scores before deciding whether to delete them. If you walk out of the test thinking you nailed it and then discover that wasn’t quite the case when you get your score report a few weeks later, you won’t have to worry about colleges ever seeing them. In contrast, if you want to delete your SAT scores, you must do so without knowing what they are. (The College Board gives test-takers until 11:59pm on the Wednesday following the test to decide whether they want to cancel their scores.)

In theory, this sounds like a great deal. Take the test, see how you do, and if you don’t like the results, all you’ve lost is your registration fee.

If you want, you can sign up the next month and do it again.

And if that doesn’t work, you can sign up the following month and do it again.

And again. And again. And again.

Are you starting to see how this could be a problem?

To be clear, I am by no means suggesting that there aren’t situations in which this policy can really come in handy.

For example, if your practice test scores are inconsistent/borderline and you reallyreally want to get the test over with, then yes, you can go ahead and sign up without worrying that taking the risk will ruin you. I’ve had students in that situation who were unsure about whether they should take the test in a particular month or wait until the next administration, but they were close enough that the ACT’s policy made it worth it for them try. In their cases, it paid off.

Likewise, there are students who seriously overestimate their abilities, sign up for the test before they’re ready, and then get a very rude awakening. If these students later buckle down and end up raising their scores significantly, they won’t run the risk of having one bad decision influence their admissions prospects.

Those are best-case scenarios.

The worst-case scenario looks like the first ACT student I ever tutored. She had taken the test seven — yes, seven — times before I started working with her, in the spring of her junior year.

Why had she taken the test seven times? Because, she had been told, she could just keep deleting the scores.

Did I mention she attended one of New York City’s top prep schools and was stuck at around a 21?

As I discussed in my other post a few days back, repeated test-taking is also not a good idea from a psychological perspective. First most students will inevitably start to get discouraged when their scores remain flat from test to test. If they do eventually end up in the hands of a capable tutor, the mental stumbling blocks can pose just as big a problem as the content-based ones.

I speak from experience here: for a number of my “second-round” students, half the game just involved convincing them that yes, they were actually capable of improving. It was some of the most nerve-wracking tutoring I ever did. The kids were on edge, the parents were on edge and begging the kids to give it one more real go, and both of them just wanted the whole thing to be over with already.

There’s also the fact that students who know they can always sit for a test again tend to take each individual administration less seriously than they otherwise would. Why bother, if there’s always another chance? The result is that a process that could be gotten over with quickly ends up taking months longer than necessary. It also reinforces an attitude that is not particularly helpful for college, or life for that matter. College professors and bosses don’t necessarily accept re-takes, even when the stakes are high. It’s generally better to treat things as if they count the first time around.  

Then there’s the unfortunately reality that scores tend to stay more or less stable after the third test.

A couple of months back, I ran across a horrible article in which a supposed test-prep expert talked about how wealthy students were gaming the college admissions process by taking standardized tests over and over again, and getting tutored in between, until they hit their target scores.

The truth, however, is that while students may occasionally hit their goals after, say, test #5, those with the savviest parents (or the savviest tutors) rarely take the test for real more than three times, four at absolute most.

These students still take plenty of tests, but they’re more likely to pay for private proctored practice tests, which allow them to work out the kinks before going in for the real thing. They have people making sure they take the process seriously, and that they try their hardest when it counts.

Part of the reason that realistic adult guidance is important here, especially for lower-scoring students, is that there tends to be a correlation between students’ scores and their capacity to self-evaluate. From what l’ve observed, lower-scoring students are more likely to overestimate their abilities, and to underestimate the amount of work necessary to improve.

They are also more likely to fall prey to the “maybe I’ll luck out and do really well this time” mentality. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. For students in this category, total score choice is a curse in disguise; it gives them an excuse not to have to confront their weaknesses and allows them to indulge in wishful thinking. (I’ve witnessed this phenomenon in action as well, and it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to counteract.)

My other concern about over-relying on score choice is strictly practical. It is very easy to intend to cancel a scores but then never actually get around to doing so. People get busy, they procrastinate, they forget… These things just have a way of happening. If you’re not careful, you could easily end up unintentionally sending a score that you should have asked the ACT to delete months ago. 

So the bottom line is that if you want to take advantage of the ACT’s score choice policy to and try to get the test over with early, that’s certainly fair. 

Under almost no circumstances, however, would I recommend that someone sign up for the real test without taking at least one practice test first. Buy the Red Book (or if you don’t want to buy it, sit with it in the bookstore), block off a couple of hours, and see how you do. If you’re scoring in or close to your target range right off the bat, it’s probably worth a shot, even it’s early in the year; there’s no sense in prolonging things unnecessarily. 

But make no mistake: although ACT-style score choice can be a boon in the right situation, it is not the solution to all your test-prep woes. You still have to put in the time and study, and you still have to take the process seriously. Eventually, “one more time” runs out, and you have to accept where you are. It’s up to you to use the time you have to your own best advantage.

Seven deadly types of tutoring

As I’ve written about before, a number of students I worked with came to me after finding themselves unable to make sufficient progress with other tutors.

When I first met with one of these “second-round” students, the conversation usually went something like this:

Me: Ok, so tell me about what you did with your other tutor. I just want to get an idea where we should start.

Student: Ummm…. (S)he, like, gave me tests to do, and then we went over them.

Me: Did you go over all the questions, or just the ones you got wrong?

Students: Well, if I had a question about something, we’d go over that, but mostly (s)he’d just explain the ones I got wrong.

Me: Did you ever go over stuff before you did the tests?

Student: No, not really.

Occasionally, though, the conversation would go more like this:

Me: Ok, so tell me about what you did with your other tutor. I just want to get an idea where we should start.

Student: Ummm… So my tutor would just, like, talk at me, and I didn’t really pay attention.

When this happened, I was inevitably struck by the desire to respond with, “And your parents were paying how much for this?” but I always managed to restrain myself. 

As I’ve discovered over the course of my investigations into the world of tutoring, effective and ineffective tutoring comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Complicating the issue is the fact that what works perfectly for one student might be a train wreck for another.

I’m the first to admit that not every student I ever worked with improved. After some early successes, I found myself in a few disappointing situations that taught me some very hard yet important lessons about the limits of my abilities, and about just what is and is not subject to a quick fix.

Those experiences made me much more cautious as a tutor, much more upfront about what I likely could and could not accomplish.

They also taught me about the danger of generalizing about one’s absolute competence as a teacher based on experiences involving only one particular type of student.

Thanks to the Internet, I worked with students who attended elite boarding schools in the northeast, ones who were homeschooled in the south, and everything in between. Their SAT scores ranged from the 300s to the high 700s, and their ACT scores from the low 20s to the mid 30s. Some of them made immediate progress, while others plugged away for months.

They forced me to stop taking for granted that high school students – even high-scoring ones – had the same basic understanding of the world as adults, and to stop making assumptions about what they did and did not know.

So with that disclaimer, I’d like to outline some of the tutoring attitudes and “types” I’ve encountered that can result in less than stellar results. Some are inherently problematic, while others only become so when paired with the wrong student.

1) The Test-Giver

Aka scenario #1 from the beginning of this post. These tutors show up week after week and diligently go over homework with students, but only explain concepts in context of the questions the student answered incorrectly. They work through new material with students rarely, if ever.

To be fair, this approach can be extremely effective if students are at the point where they already know all the material well and just need to be held accountable for studying and to practice taking full-length sections/tests.

But if a student is still shaky on some of the content, or is just starting the tutoring process, then this is usually not the best approach. Students end up learning concepts only in the context of particular questions. When the concept is tested differently, in other questions – something that is almost guaranteed to happen – they might not make the connection.

Much of test prep falls into this category. If this is the kind of tutoring you need, great. If not, beware.

2) The Lecturer

Aka, scenario #2 from the beginning of this post.

I do not typically subscribe to clichés about traditional, lecture-based instruction, but the stereotypes about boring, droning professors do exist for a reason. So while I am a big fan of explicit instruction, I am also the first person to state that tutoring is usually most effective when it takes the form of a conversation. Students have to be engaged. Obviously. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work. And any tutor who sits and rambles on without recognizing that a student isn’t paying attention probably isn’t going to be much help.  

3) The Ooey-Gooey Progressive

This is the flip side of #2.

I think I’ve made my feelings about the shortcomings of progressive education crystal clear, most notably here, so I’m not going to go into too much detail. But in a nutshell, this is the tutor who has so thoroughly imbibed the kool-aid about the importance of “discovery” learning that they are hesitant to directly teach at all.

Although sessions may be fun and highly interactive, they also tend to waste lots of time and result in less learning than would occur if tutors simply explained things in clear, straightforward language. These tutors are determined to have students “discover” every process on their own, and as a result, concepts that could easily be taught in five minutes end up taking up half an hour – and still remain fuzzy.

Note that this is a particular problem with performing artists who tutor on the side. 

4) The Smarty Pants

By definition, tutors tend to be a pretty accomplished group. But here’s the problem: tutoring isn’t about how much the tutor knows, but rather whether the tutor can effectively convey that information in such a way that the student can both retain it and apply it under pressure.

Tutors who are more interested in showing off their knowledge than with trying to communicate in terms students can both comprehend and retain, tend not to be particularly successful in that regard.

The reality is that most students are less concerned with where a tutor went to college than with whether that person can make their life easier. Dumping too much advanced terminology or complex explanations on an already overwhelmed high school junior is a recipe for disaster.

The bottom line is that aiming for “deep” understanding in the short term is not always a good idea; sometimes shallow understanding is a much more practical goal. That can be a very hard pill to swallow for someone more accustomed to Ivy League seminar rooms, but a big part of teaching involves meeting people where they are and understanding the constraints of the situation at hand.

5) The Trickster

This is the flip side of #4.

These tutors have their standard set of “tricks” and strategies that they give to everyone, regardless of a particular student’s level. They may know the tests extremely well, but usually their actual subject knowledge doesn’t quite match up.

Again, these tutors can sometimes be highly effective, but usually only when working with students who are already solid on the basics and just need to learn to apply their knowledge to the test.

The problem arises that when a student’s actual knowledge is too shaky to allow them to apply those “tricks” effectively, or even to recognize when they are relevant. When a student in this category does need a more thorough review of the fundamentals, the tutor may be unable to provide what the student needs at the required level of depth. (He or she may also stick to working with the prep books they’re most comfortable/familiar with, regardless of how well they reflect the actual test.) 

In some cases, these tutors may substitute strategy for content, instructing students in the minutiae of marking answer right and wrong choices (and allowing them to hem and haw over those choices) while focusing less on more efficient/effective ways to solve the actual problems. Working through answer choices systematically is indeed important, but for a student just starting out, this probably isn’t the best thing to focus on.

And at worst, these tutors may insist that certain things that are in fact teachable “can’t really be taught,” mistaking their own lack of knowledge for an inherent limitation. 

6) The Underestimator

Tutors in this category systematically underestimate how much reinforcement students need to master new concepts (a whole lot). 

I don’t think they’re doing this intentionally, or perhaps even consciously – it’s a flaw common to the American education system as a whole, and I suspect it literally does not occur to them how much repetition is necessary.

Importantly, this is true for strategy as well as content. Some students may need to repeatedly practice how to work through questions before they can be fully trusted to go through the steps on their own during the real test.

7) The Overestimator 

This is the corollary to #6. Some tutors may underestimate the amount of repetition students require while simultaneously overestimating the amount of knowledge they 1) possess, and 2) can infer/apply. 

Such tutors may present a rule or strategy in a very general way, for instance, and assume that students can deduce all the various applications.

My best example of this came the day I looked at one particular “second-round” student’s grammar notes from his former tutor. The sum total of the instructions for subject-verb agreement read “cross out the stuff between the subject and the verb.”

What “stuff” was never specified – had anyone ever told him? Could he recognize when subjects and verbs were separated by “stuff?” Did he know what prepositions were, and could he recognize them well enough to identify prepositional phrases placed between subjects and verbs? Could he even identify subjects and verbs consistently, and was he aware of all the different parts of speech that could serve as subjects?

And those were only a sampling of the issues involved in a single type of question.



The one thing an SAT/ACT English tutor should never say

It’s back to school time… which is right about when high school juniors and their parents often start to think about prep options for the SAT or ACT. In recognition of that fact, I’m planning to devote the next few posts to issues involving tutoring and classes: what to know, what to ask, and how to decide which option is right for you.

While there are many factors to consider when choosing a tutor, there are a handful of warning signs that should cause you to run in the opposite direction. As a “second-round” tutor whose students often worked with one or more tutors before me, I had ample opportunity to learn about all manners of ineffective teaching.

I’d like to cover one of the biggest red flags here.

So, the number one thing that an SAT or ACT tutor should NOT say when teaching grammar is (drumroll, please)… “Just use your ear.”

(Or: “Just try to hear if it sounds right.” Or, when commas are involved: “Does it feel like you need a pause there?” Or any equivalent statement.)

For the record, there are exceptions, most notably idiom questions, which can only be answered by ear. In addition, some constructions, particularly on the ACT, sound so obviously and overwhelmingly wrong that parsing the exact nature of their incorrectness is a waste of time.

But as a general rule, anyone who encourages students to rely on their ears at the expense of actually learning the grammatical rules tested is not qualified to be tutoring these tests, or at least the English/Writing sections.

First, that statement is based on the assumption that students are capable of identifying correct answers by ear. If that were the case, however, those students probably wouldn’t need tutoring in the first place! 

Second, although English is obviously more subjective than math, the reality is that standardized test grammar is closer to the latter than it is to the former. The SAT and the ACT cover a specific set of grammatical concepts, which are consistently tested in more or less the same format. Some of these concepts may be more flexible in real life, but these tests are not concerned with real-world exceptions and nuances.

The exact context in which concepts are presented will of course change, and concepts might be combined in slightly novel ways, but for the most part, things are quite straightforward. If you’ve assimilated the rules thoroughly and understand how to apply them, you get the questions right; if you haven’t, you don’t.

Commas, for example, are correctly used in four primary instances: before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or but) to join two independent clauses; before an independent clause preceded by a dependent clause; to set off non-essential clauses that can be removed from a sentence without affecting its essential meaning; and between the items in a list.

Sometimes, it may seem natural to insert a pause in these situations, but that is ultimately irrelevant. The issue is not whether a pause make sense, but whether a comma is grammatically required.

Even students who are exceptionally well-read and who can rely on their ears in most situations can almost always benefit from studying the logic behind questions they understand intuitively.

It is exceedingly unlikely that any tutor would ever encourage a student to think of answers to math questions in terms of whether they seemed natural (“Does five feel like a right answer to you?”), yet this attitude is surprisingly common when grammar is concerned.

Part of the problem is that tutors who are natural high-scorers may themselves not be fully aware of why right answers are right and wrong answers are wrong. People who are able to successfully rely on their ears are often unaware of just how much understanding they take for granted. 

Regardless of the reason, this approach is also extraordinarily unhelpful and likely to result in considerable frustration, scores that improve only marginally if at all, and possibly months (and months) of wasted time and money.

So if you’re a parent considering hiring a tutoring for your child, it’s worth your while to ask one simple question: how, exactly, do you cover the English/Writing section?

The answer might be very telling. 




How progressive education drives the tutoring industry, pt. 2

How progressive education drives the tutoring industry, pt. 2

In my previous post, I outlined some of the ways in which the progressive methodologies that pervade much of the American system inadvertently fuel a reliance on the private tutoring industry.

On its surface, the tutoring model would seem to be the holy grail of progressive education. Teachers are encouraged to “personalize” their approach to fit students’ unique learning styles, “empowering” them to “find their passions” and “take ownership of the learning process.” But this perspective is based on both a simplification and a misunderstanding of how teaching and learning actually work.

Oftentimes, tutoring is assumed to be effective simply because it epitomizes personalized learning. But although personalization is a component of what makes tutoring effective, it is far from the only element – nor, I would argue, is it the most important element. (more…)

Don’t overlook the ACT

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, I’m often a tutor of last resort. That is, people find their way to me after they’ve exhausted other test-prep options (self-study, online program, private tutor) and still find themselves short of their goals. Sometimes very, very far short of their goals. When people come to me very late in the process, e.g. late spring of junior year or the summer before senior year, there’s unfortunately a limited amount that I can do. Most of it is triage at that point: finding and focusing on a handful of areas in which improvement is most likely.

Not coincidentally, many of the students in this situation who find their way to me have been cracking their heads against the SAT for months, sometimes even a year or more. Often, they’re strong math and science students whose reading and writing scores lag significantly behind their math scores, even after very substantial amounts of prep and multiple tests. They’re motivated, diligent workers, but the verbal is absolutely killing them. Basically, they’re fabulous candidates for the ACT.

When I mention the ACT to them, however, they’re usually a little surprised. First, the SAT is the default option — it’s just what high school juniors in their town do, and have always done. No one has even mentioned the ACT to them. And on the off chance that they do know something about it, they’re suspicious that colleges won’t really weigh it the same as they would the SAT. (Usually they start to reconsider when I tell them about my ACT student who was admitted to Harvard.) Second, the SAT has dominated their lives for months. Switching tests at this point seems like giving up, or at least having to start all over again. No one wants to feel like all the work they put in was a waste, even if it didn’t actually get them what they wanted.

Now, to be clear: I am not implying that the ACT is a quick fix, nor am I implying that it is the right test for everyone. I am, however, suggesting that a certain percentage of students (1/3 or so, in my experience) will naturally do better on the ACT than on the current SAT. (Of the rest, about 1/3 will score better on the SAT, and the remaining 1/3 will do about the same on both). That said, I’ve witnessed more than one student struggle with the SAT for months and see only modest improvements, then switch to the ACT and end up with perfect or near-perfect scores in only a few months.

After that happened to me for the third or so time, I started insisting that everyone who didn’t have a clear, compelling reason for taking the SAT start off by taking a full practice SAT and a full practice ACT. If they absolutely can’t stand — or, less frequently, absolutely love — one of the tests, they don’t have to finish it because, well, that’s their answer right there. But if they’re in the middle zone, they can weigh the pros and cons of each and at least know that they’re making an informed decision rather than jumping to look for a quick fix when they hit a wall a few months down the line. (By the way, I’m writing this about the move from SAT to ACT rather than ACT to SAT because, in my experience, people applying to competitive colleges who start out focusing on the ACT tend to have good reasons for doing so.)

So, if you are just starting the test-prep process, or are the parent of a student just starting the test-prep process, please, please do not simply assume that you or your child should automatically take the SAT simply because it’s the default option. It doesn’t matter if the guidance counselor has never mentioned the ACT. It doesn’t matter if everyone in your town/school is taking the SAT. It doesn’t even matter if your tutor hasn’t suggested it — tutors tend to recommend what they feel most comfortable tutoring, and tutors who know the SAT better than the ACT tend to recommend the SAT. Unless you are absolutely rocking the SAT, print out an ACT and see how you do.

And yes, it stinks to have to take not one but two diagnostic tests, but the payoff can be huge, in terms of time, stress, and results.