Navigating Through Standardized Tests in HS

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Important date or meeting appointment reminder concept thumbtack on calendarStudents and parents are overwhelmed with a deluge of standardized tests in high school. Which ones should the students take? Which ones are important? What is a good timeline for taking these tests?

WHY Standardized Tests?

Before delving further into these questions, we need to answer the “why” question. Many students and parents feel dread when these tests are seen as a summative assessment (an evaluative test usually given at the end of instruction, such as final exams, which tend to be high stakes). However, standardized tests should be used as a way to see a student’s strengths and weaknesses, especially as it pertains to college readiness: a formative assessment (a monitoring test to provide ongoing feedback with the goal of improving learning as well as teaching).

While there are many, many other factors to consider for college, this post will focus on the test taking timelines.

[See our previous post – Aargh!!! The ACT Exam is torturing me: Three ways to keep your sanity and actually benefit from the ACT.]

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Freshman & Sophomore Years (9th & 10th Grades)

SAT and ACT tests are the two major college admissions standardized tests, usually taken during the junior and senior years of high school. Freshmen and sophomores will usually take some form of PSAT and/or PLAN tests. PSAT is a “pre-SAT” and PLAN is a “pre-ACT” test. Starting this year in many states, ASPIRE test will replace PLAN and EXPLORE.

By taking these tests during the freshman and sophomore years, students should be able to gain three things:

  1. Test familiarity to prepare for the upcoming tests;
  2. Knowing which test, if any, is a better “fit: for them (the idea is to “pick one and stick with it”);
  3. Areas of strengths and weaknesses to build on and work on.

Some sophomores who score in the top 5-10% will have a strong chance of qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship. For those students, it would be time well spent to prepare for the October PSAT in their junior year.

Lastly, if a freshman or sophomore is taking any AP (“Advanced Placement,” or college-level) classes or excel in some subjects, they should take the AP Exams given at the end of the school year in May, as well as SAT Subject Tests for which they feel prepared (also should be taken in May or June). AP Exams allow students to earn college credits, while SAT Subject Tests may be required as part of admissions requirements for some colleges, or it may be used in lieu of placement tests in college.
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While many students wait until the second semester of junior year to start preparing for the SAT or ACT, we believe that the best time to prepare for these tests is during the summer between sophomore and junior years. This is when students can devote a good chunk of time assessing and addressing their strengths and weaknesses in targeted areas without the pressures of schoolwork.
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If a student is well prepared, taking SAT or ACT during early fall is a good idea. This will establish a baseline score that can be used to narrow down a college search and to leave time to improve further during the school year through their school classes. Also, some students should consider the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test as mentioned in the previous tab.

In March, many states offer a statewide ACT (or SAT) tests. This is a good time for a prepared student to have another round of formative assessment and perhaps even take the spring tests if needed. Most students who are not prepared wait until the statewide test to start preparing for their standardized tests. Unfortunately, they will become overwhelmed with all the challenges of the end-of-year commitments by the time April and May comes around:

  • AP tests during the first two weeks of May
  • Final exams and other end-of-school-year busyness
  • SAT subject tests that should also be taken in May or June
  • And of course, proms, concerts, sporting events, and other various social commitments.

Students taking foreign languages in high school who want to take a foreign language SAT Subject Test Languages with Listening will need to take them in November of their junior year (in order for it to count for college admissions). While the SAT Subject Test for many (not all) languages without listening are offered throughout the year, November is the only time they are offered with listening, and November is the one and only time Chinese, Japanese, and Korean tests (all with listening) are offered.

May or June is the best time to take SAT Subject Tests & AP Tests if the students are taking AP classes while the material is still fresh in your mind.
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If students have not done well on their ACT they will have last chance to take it in September (for early decision or early admissions applications) and October (for regular decision admission applications). Unfortunately, SAT does not offer a September test, so SAT test takers will need to take the October test for regular decisions only.

If applicable, take the SAT Subject Test in foreign languages with listening in November again. And of course, make sure students cap off their high school testing with good showing on AP and SAT Subject Tests in May and June.

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More Than SAT

Whether the students have a good lead on these tests or are scrambling for last minute testing, we can help students and their families come up with a personalized timeline of tests (along with all the other preparation for college). We can help students make the most out of their time in high school, so that families could better enjoy their time together.


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