Why Some High-Achieving Students Struggle on the SAT and ACT
"My child has a 95 GPA, always aces math tests, and excels in AP English, but can't seem to figure out the SAT!"
This is something we hear from parents at least a few times a week. To them, and especially to students, the stark incongruity between a student's notable academic performance and not-so-notable SAT or ACT scores is difficult to reconcile, and can be extremely discouraging. This is especially so when there are some students in your child's peer group who seem to just "get it", barely study for the SAT or ACT, and come out with off-the-charts scores.
If the situation above sounds familiar, we're here to assure you that this is not a problem unique to you and your child. The universe is not conspiring against you; the testing gods are not spiting you with disfavor; your child isn't incapable. Understanding the major reasons why top students run into standardized testing road blocks is the first step in conquering the challenges these exams present.
The styles of the SAT and ACT deviate greatly from what students are used to seeing
Current high school curricula sometimes present information in a very cookie-cutter way. In their English classes, students are presented with fifteen vocabulary words on Monday, and told they will have a quiz on those words on Friday. They study those words, define them on the quiz (and maybe use them in sentences), and that's it. For their reading responsibilities, students might be assigned a chapter in a book and told to write a reflection focusing on the use of three specific literary elements in the text. Students read the chapter, discuss with friends and the teacher, and present their reflections. In their mathematics classes, students learn a topic, are taught how to solve two or three different sub-types of questions relevant to that topic, and see pretty much the same thing on the next exam. Topics are segregated and quizzes and tests are often not cumulative.
Now, we realize that not all material is presented in this way. By and large, however, this is how students experience education. Unfortunately, the SAT and ACT come off as entirely different. Different topics are mixed together, and it's not necessarily the case that the student will have recently reviewed the strategy needed to solve any given problem.
Much of the mathematics on the SAT and ACT is foundational
"The SAT and ACT test easy math."
For any advanced student, hearing that line from educators and fellow students is galling. But it's true! The SAT and ACT test basic mathematics concepts, the foundations of which are usually taught in the 8th and 9th grade…and this is the major problem! Because most students are exposed to many "simple" concepts tested on the SAT and ACT––ratios, fractions, proportions, patterns, strange symbols, among many others––in late
middle school or early high school, they may not recall how to deal with them by the time they're high school juniors and see these concepts again on the SAT and ACT. Furthermore, the fundamentals of these topics may never have been solidified in the first place. For example, it's often the case that more abstract concepts like fractions and percentages don't "sink in" the first time around. Unfortunately, the current system makes it difficult to fix these problems. Teachers of more advanced high school mathematics courses like Geometry, Algebra 2, Trigonometry, and Precalculus, are often bound by rigid and packed curricula, and thus have no choice but to assume their students have these fundamentals down; there isn't time for them to go back and reteach what the students are supposed to have under their belts.
All reading is not equal
The SAT and ACT emphasize reading for broad ideas and understanding the intention and direction of an author's argument. Once again, by the time they hit high school, students are presumed to have mastered these abilities, and are tasked with more intellectually advanced approaches with respect to the literature they read: providing thematic and character analyses, exposing and explaining literary elements in the texts, etc. However, many students simply don't have a strong ability to do what is assumed to be the most fundamental of reading tasks: "getting the point" of a passage. This can spell disaster on either the SAT or ACT.
What are students to do?
The most important thing for advanced students to keep in mind is this: great performance in school by no means guarantees great performance on the SAT or ACT. There are many things to know that will help you succeed on these tests, but the first step is to make sure your fundamentals are solid. Only then are you ready to learn the techniques and strategies specific to the SAT and ACT. If you have difficulties with things like fractions, percents, finding the main idea, and dealing with difficult words, consider seeking help to address these issues. In this way, you can ensure that you're putting your best effort forward on your standardized college admissions exams!
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