High School Seniors Take Note: Prepare Now More than Ever for SAT and ACT

The College Board and ACT Inc. have a simple message for this year’s high school senior: Do all you can to prepare for taking the SAT and ACT. More and more students will be competing with you for better scores, and putting in the time and effort to score well will also better prepare you better for college.

Scoring well on the SAT and ACT tests has always been important for high school seniors hoping to get into their college of choice. But there is more significance to these tests. SAT and ACT scores are also fair indicators of how prepared seniors are for the rigors of college academics. And scoring will be even more competitive now. If this past year is any indication, more students will be taking these tests than in previous years.
The College Board report College-Bound Seniors Results Underscore Importance of Academic Rigor: The SAT Aligns to Common Core State Standards notes that more high school seniors in the class of 2010 took the SAT than in any other high school graduating class in history. That amounts to nearly 1.6 million students. What its research has also indicated is that what courses these students take and how much they stretch themselves academically has a major impact on their ability to score well and being prepared for college.
“Engaging students with more rigorous coursework and demanding higher standards are critical in providing America’s students with an education that will prepare them to compete in the 21st-century economy,” said College Board President Gaston Caperton. “This report confirms that there are no tricks and there are no shortcuts to college readiness. Students who take more rigorous courses in high school are more prepared to succeed in college and beyond.”

There are many courses and tutoring pro-grams to prepare for the SAT or ACT, but nothing takes the place of challenging coursework. According to the College Board, students who took four years of English, three or more years of mathematics, three or more years of natural science, and three or more years of social science and history (which constitute a “core curriculum”) scored about 150 points more on their SATs than students who did not take all of these core courses. Of course, students who took AP courses did even better on their SAT scores than other students. The College Board’s study also gives credence to the theory that better preparation for the SAT translates into academic success in college. It reports that there is a correlation between how high a student’s college GPA is and how well he or she scored on the SAT.
Of the nearly 1.6 million high school students in the class of 2010 taking the SAT, 41.5 percent were minority students, up from 40.0 percent in 2009 and 28.6 percent in 2000. This makes 2010 test takers the most diverse group of test takers in the 84-year history of the SAT. In the last decade, minority participation in the SAT grew 78.3 percent. The results are mixed. The 2010 college-bound seniors averaged 501 in critical reading, 516 in mathematics and 492 in writing. While mathematics scores are two points higher than in 2000 and 15 points higher than in 1990, critical reading scores have dropped four points in the last decade but are one point higher than in 1990. College Board officials said that even the small change was “encouraging” since average scores traditionally decrease when more students, particularly diverse students ethnically and racially, opt to take the test.
ACT Inc. has also produced studies that show how important it is for high school seniors to load their schedules with solid core subjects. The ACT report, Mind the Gaps: How College Readiness Narrows Achievement Gaps in College Success, goes one step further. It presents the conclusion that loading up on core courses narrows the college success gap between White students and students of color. According to ACT, “the gaps are significantly reduced, in some cases by two-thirds or more, for students who are college and career ready as evidenced by their meeting or exceeding all four College Readiness Benchmarks (English, math, reading and science) on the ACT exam.”
“Our country has allowed achievement gaps to exist for far too long,” said Cynthia B. Schmeiser, ACT Education Division president and chief operating officer. “The time has come to address this problem head on. The research tells us that academic preparation – taking rigorous coursework in high school – is a significant factor in eliminating these intolerable, long-standing inequities.”
According to another study, the ACT College and Career Readiness report, the gap is closing in part because of the increasing number of Hispanic high school students who are taking the ACT test. However, the report hastens to add that Hispanics need to do more to be successful in college and career choices. According to its report, “Eleven percent of ACT-tested 2010 Hispanic high school graduates met all four of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, which are linked to success in specific first-year college courses. That figure is up from 9 percent in 2006, even as the number of Hispanic students who took the exam nearly doubled since that time, increasing by almost 84 percent. Close to 158,000 Hispanic 2010 graduates took the ACT among the nearly 1.6 million high school graduates tested across the nation, compared to fewer than 86,000 Hispanic test-takers five years ago.”

In 2010, 29 percent of all high school students taking the ACT test were ethnic/racial minority students. This represents a 23 per-cent increase from 2006. Hispanic high school students registered the biggest increase among all high school graduates taking the ACT test since 2006.
“The rapidly growing number of Hispanic students taking the ACT and thinking about attending college in recent years is truly impressive,” said Schmeiser. “The finding that more Hispanic students are meeting the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks is particularly encouraging in that light. However, we can’t ignore the fact that far too many Hispanic graduates are ill-prepared to succeed in college and career academically, and that much work must be done to ensure that all students graduate from high school ready for the next step.”
The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are based on actual grades earned by students in college. It sets a minimum benchmark score on each subject area that is tested. If a student meets that benchmark, it is estimated that the student has a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in that area in college. The student also is estimated to having a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C in the first-year course in that area.
Those most proficient Hispanic test takers who met or exceeded the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in the study scored their highest in English (46 percent), followed by reading (34 percent), mathematics (27 percent) and science (14 percent). It should be noted, however, that about 50 percent of Hispanic high school test takers did not meet any of the four ACT bench-mark scores.
The study makes a strong case for advanced academic course preparation for the ACT test. “The level of academic preparation is a key element for high school graduates becoming ready for college and career. Sixty-eight percent of Hispanic ACT-tested graduates took at least the recommended minimum core curriculum in high school – four years of English and three years each of mathematics, science and social studies. Those students were approximately twice as likely as those who took less than the core curriculum to meet or surpass the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in each subject area.”
“We can’t stress strongly enough how important high school course selection is in the college- and career-readiness process,” said Schmeiser. “However, there are still far too many Hispanic students who are not taking rigorous core classes that provide the academic skills needed to succeed in college and career.”
ACT and the College Board are promoting the idea that college-readiness preparation should-n’t begin just when the student becomes a high school junior or senior; it should happen throughout the student’s academic career from grade school through high school. They also recommend that students be observed on a regular basis over the years and have adjustments made in their schedules according to their academic needs.
“Our findings show that monitoring student progress in becoming college and career ready throughout K to 12 and identifying and intervening with those students who are off target are critical steps in helping to maximize their success in all forms of postsecondary education,” Schmeiser said.

Putting Theory Into Practice

The most important X factor for students scoring high in SAT and ACT tests as well as succeeding in college is the guidance counselor. The guidance department in these lean and mean times has to redouble its efforts with fewer resources to be their students’ advocate in higher education. Here are some things to consider when a student who might have college aspirations is assigned to you:
1) Try to access the student’s potential for higher education success. Don’t just rely on the stated desires of the student. Freshmen and seniors are worlds apart in their attitudes and preferences. And the student who insists he is not interested in attending college might be doing so for a variety of rea-sons, including money concerns, family resistance or a lack of understanding of what the college experience is all about.
2) Once a student with higher education potential is identified, steer her toward taking core courses that will not only increase her chances of scoring high on the SAT or ACT, but also ensure a better chance of success academically in college. If you meet resistance from the student, enlist the help of her favorite teachers and her family to make the case.
3) Assess which test is best suited for the student in your charge. Just because your school is on the West or East coasts (where more students may take the SAT than the ACT test) doesn’t automatically mean that your student should take the SAT. Similarly, if your school is in the Midwest, you shouldn’t assume the ACT is the best choice for your student. A close examination of both the ACT and the SAT show that if your student has an above average use and understanding of vocabulary and is generally a good test taker, he might be better off taking the SAT as opposed to the ACT, where students who are quick readers with a penchant for remembering data seem to have an advantage.
4) Encourage your student to take the practice test, but don’t stop there. Make sure you are well-acquainted with all the nuances of structure of each test. Know, for instance, that SAT’s critical reading section requires students to read various short paragraphs (400-850 words) and then answer questions that refer back to these passages. Any way you can demystify these tests is a great service to your students.
5) Try to arrange for former students to come in and talk to your current crop of high school seniors about how to prepare for not only the SAT or ACT but for college life. A peer who has been there, done that could have more influence on your students than any school official or parent might.
6) Make sure that information about the ACT and SAT is posted in places that are readily accessible by students. Posting test dates and procedures on a bulletin board inside the guidance office might keep you up to speed on this, but having it also posted on your door or on the bulletin board adjacent to the cafeteria makes it much more user friendly to your students.