Standardized tests are a hassle. No matter where you want to go in your education it seems like at every level you face another all important test that will have significant bearing on your future. You’ve been through three years of highschool or college and you’ve made great grades but still you have to take one of these tests. You’re forced to recall vocabulary words that you never hear in everyday life. Or maybe you’ve pursued a liberal arts degree and haven’t seen a math class in years but you’re now expected to know your arithmetic, algebra and geometry (and they’re not even giving you a calculator). So why do we take these exams? Or more importantly, why are we required to take them for admission to the next level in your academic career? In this article we will examine the nuisance that are standardized tests.
So why does anyone want these tests? Well let’s say you’re a member of the admissions board of prestigious college from the midwest. Each year thousands of application flood your office from places all across the country and every corner of the globe. You might know the reputations of some of these schools. You might understand what the curriculum at Phillips Exeter or Andover or any Manhattan prep school is like. You may even know the reputation of some public high schools. There is no way, however, that you can know all of the schools from which your applicants come. You don’t know the difference between an A in biology at P.S. 135 and at Thomas Alva Edison High School. That’s where standardized tests come in. They are the great leveler, an academic requirement that is universal to all applicants providing some guage to the abilities of the people who want to attend your school.
Standardized tests are designed to measure the reasoning ability of the test takers. They are not an IQ tests and they are not a math quizes or vocabulary assignments. They use writing skills, math ability, reading comprehension ability and vocabulary knowledge as a way to measure critical thinking ability. These tests assess one’s ability to innovate solutions to unfamiliar situations.
Standardized tests are also percentile tests. Rather than a measure of one’s success as performance out of 100% like most tests in school, a standardized test guages success based on how everyone else performs on the same test. So like a heavily curved physics exam one’s performance on a standardized test is based highly how everyone else does on the same test. Do well on a test where everyone else scores poorly and you will see higher results than on a test where everyone else scores well. Imagine a bell curve in which a small fraction scores poorly, an evern smaller fraction scores very well and the overwhelming majority of everyone else scores in the middle. For this reason, any score increase is important. To increase an SAT score by 50 points when you are jumping from 550 to 600 (550 being the statistical average) is to leap-frog hundreds of thousands of other test takers. Some of these applicants will be applying to your school.
So how do you go about gaining these score increases? Here’s some advice. First understand how your test is scored. With the exception of essay sections, the overwhelming majority of standardized tests are taken using electronic grids. They are graded by computers that do not check each step of your work. They don’t care how you get the correct answer-just that you do. This fact opens the test up to many alternative methods of solving problems that are not acceptable to your average math teacher. While the straightforward method of just knowing the textbook way to answer a question is almost always the best. You should be open, however, to using process of elimination, plugging answer choices back into a problem, choosing your own numbers for unknown values, estimating diagrams and guessing an answer based on common sense. There is no partial credit and the computer doesn’t care how you arrive at an answer so use whatever method answers the question correctly and whichever method does it quickly.
Another important standardized test fact is that easy questions are worth the same amount of points as harder questions. This should really allow you to prioritize where you will focus your efforts. Most people when taking a standardized test attempt to answer every question on the test and spend the most time on the hardest questions. The result of this strategy is that there is less time for each question and you tend to rush through the easiest questions, getting some of them wrong due to misreading or faulty arithmetic, and then you still get a decent portion of the harder questions wrong. This is tantamount to a basketball coach instructing his players to not put as much effort into free throws and easy lay ups for the sake of three pointers and outside shots. If you get every easy question right then chances are you are going to have a good score and what you get on the hardest questions will be simply gravy. Since some tests like the SAT have a wrong answer penalty, a wise strategy is to answer carefully the easy questions-which tend to come early in a section-and leave blank the questions where the answer is not immediately obvious. You can always go back and answer the ones you left blank after you have answered everything else. If you have no clue what to do and can’t eliminate any answers on a particular question, no big deal, just leave it blank and avoid the wrong answer penalty.
A great piece of standardized test advice is to get to understand the reasoning required by most tests. For the most part standardized tests-at any level-require a lot of the same basic skills. The most common tested skill is reading comprehension. Each academic level from high school to college to graduate school require larger amounts of reading. School rewards the ability to read and synthesize large amounts of unfamiliar material in a short period of time. This is an important skill to any academic institution. That is why reading comprehension always appears on standardized tests. It’s important to understand the reasoning that is expected in a reading comprehension sections. First, the test never requires you to know anything about what is in the passage. This is actually an advantage because any answer that includes information not listed in the passage is going to be wrong. In addition, pay attention to the author’s tone when they talk about a particular subject-correct answers will contain the same tone. The most important skill when reading is interpretation. Do not take a passage at face value but rather get the gist of what it is saying. This helps because the answers are usually worded differently than the information in the passage.
Standardized tests use math in the same way that they use reading comprehension passages. On most standardized tests the math content level does not go above the level of a high school junior. There is elementary algebra, geometry and arithmetic as well as graphs and charts. That does not mean, however, that the test is easy. The test make uses many methods to disguise what is being tested, mislead the test taker as to what is being asked and trap unwary takers by including trap answers that reflect common errors of reasoning. The easiest way to accomplish all this is to put a math question into a word problem. Word problems hide the equations of algebra questions and the figures of geometry questions. The key advice when working with word problems is to stay organized. First discover what, exactly, the question is asking and in what format will be the answer. Then inventory the information given and write down any relevant formulas. At that point you can see for yourself what you have and where you need to go. Often this is a simple logical jump but if its not immediately apparent, you should ask yourself what you can do with the information you have. If a geometry problem gives you the radius of a circle, try finding the diameter, circumference and area and see where that takes you.
The same reasoning applies to essays on standardized tests. The best advice is for you to understand what the test is asking for. Realize that the average standardized test essay grader is only going to give your essay a minute or two of his time. After that he will write a number signifying your score and throw it on the pile. The grading method is that cut and dried so its important to know what they want to see. First of all they don’t actually care what you think about anything and they are not interested in your previous knowledge of the prompt. That is why essay prompts are always so general-anyone can write about them. The grader wants to see that you answered the question so be clear about your thesis-be explicit. Secondly, the essay needs to be supported. Use concrete examples. An essay is like a brick wall: the examples are the bricks and the opinion is the mortar spread lightly to connect everything. Good strong examples from your life, books, history, pop culture or current events should make up the bulk of your essay and do arguing for you. Just make sure your examples are relevant and that you prove it. Thirdly, make sure your essay is organized. Most disorganized essays come from writing without a plan so make sure you take a few moments before your pencil touches the paper to plan and organize what you will write. Include an introduction, body paragraphs made from each example and a conclusion. If you follow this advice the actual writing phase will merely be choosing the words to flesh out the already composed argument. The grader is looking for a well organized argument, so give them just that. One last piece of advice is to use your words and grammar properly. Use the best vocabulary that you are comfortable using. Don’t use words or grammatical structures if your are not sure how to use them correctly.
As you can see thus far, stadardized tests all employ a common reasoning. As I have already said, this reasoning is usually the same at each level of the test-they just use harder words, tougher passages and more advanced math topics. It is important to learn standardized taking as a seperate skills. Test prep companies earn substantial amounts of money by preparing students well in advance how to take particular tests. These programs work for those students who are willing to work hard and practice. Its important to learn these skills early. For those youngsters looking to go to private high schools and needing to take an SSAT or ISEE, learning at this age how to take a standardized test can be a huge asset for the PSAT and SAT. Its never too early to start working on the SAT. Vocabulary practice is a long term strategy that should be introduced into a child’s life at a young age to build a big vocab by the time of the big test. Young people should also be encourage to read unfamiliar material as might be found in a newspaper like the New York Times. This regular practice which can be done with a parent can seriously boost a child’s reading comprehension skills and instill confidence in their interpretive ability. The PSAT is often overlooked as a practice test. Few people prep seriously for the PSAT and miss the opportunity to earn a National Merit Scholarship Award. The scholarships are small at best but they are a major gem on any resume. Beyond the PSAT the reasoning for the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT and MCAT are all pretty similar. Lessons learned on one standardized test can so often be carried over to another.
Many people claim to be bad test takers. They say that when it is time to take the test they just freeze up and lose the ability to focus. There are two pieces of standardized test advice to remember to combat this. First is preparation, if a student can be taught to really know the test, they will not be surprised at any point. They will know what to do in each different situation. They should be taught that standardized tests are different from regular school tests and should be taught how to exploit those differences. Secondly, the student needs understand that taking a test is a performance. They need to have a game plan and stick to it. A game plan requires visualization as to how the test is going to proceed and what they are going to do and when. They also need to have confidence. Interpreting a word problem, a reading comprehension passage or writing an essay all require confidence. If you know that you are truly prepared and know what to do and when, then you can succeed at standardized tests. Remember that a standardized test can be a opportunity to make that resume really shine and make up for whatever may be lacking in a grade point average. So dive into that opportunity and turn your standardized test into an exclamation point on your application.