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Time to Think About College Board Testing...

By Howard and Susan Richman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #31, 1999.

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Howard and Susan Richman


It's that time of year - your high-schooler is now in 11th grade, and you're pretty sure there's something called the PSAT coming up this year, but you're not quite sure exactly what it is or when or how you take it. Or your son is now a senior, and you realize that with college applications looming it's time to figure out about taking the SAT I - and what in the world are the SAT II exams and who takes them? You're beginning to think that there might indeed be one advantage to being in "real" high school - they have paid guidance counselors to help students through this testing maze on the way to higher learning!

But don't worry - you can easily become your own guidance counselor, and learn all the ins and outs of the whole College Board testing service. You can start by picking up the basics right here, and then head out with a roadmap for further investigations on your own.

First some definitions and translations, so you aren't confused by the "alphabet soup" of tests pouring out from the College Board, and then there will be some general study ideas and approaches.

PSAT/NMSQT

This mouthful stands for Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. As this name implies, it has two purposes: it's a practice SAT exam for students to learn just what the SAT is all about, and it's a scholarship exam for National Merit. The PSAT/NMSQT is given only in October. This year the official dates are Tuesday, October 12, or Saturday, October 16th. The test is given in most high schools, both private and public. In fact, many more schools give the PSAT than give the SAT. To get involved, you just call up a local school, ask which day they are giving the test, say you'd like to sign up, and ask what the fee will be (generally $9). You do not need to mail any fancy computer registration form to the College Board.

Who takes the test? Typically 11th-graders take the test, and it only counts as the National Merit Qualifying Test for 11th graders. That is, if a 10th grader takes the test (which is fine, and recommended if the student is actually ready for it, and has had algebra and at least some geometry) and does really well, way up in the 99th percentile, that student will not qualify for National Merit Scholarships. The student must take it again in October of 11th grade for his score to count for this purpose.

What do scores look like? You get a two-digit score, from 20 to 80, in each of the three areas tested - verbal, math, and writing skills, and then a selection index that combines all three scores. If you just add a zero onto the end of that PSAT score, you can get a feel for what your corresponding SAT I scores would be. The PSAT has a verbal section, including questions on sentence completion, analogies, and critical reading. The math section covers problem solving, algebra, and geometry, and calculators are expected. Not all math questions are multiple choice - ten questions require the student to "grid in" their answer. Then there is a third section on writing skills, but you don't have to write anything here! Instead you are answering multiple-choice questions aimed at identifying effective written expressions, recognizing faults in usage or structure, and choosing appropriate revisions of sentences and paragraphs.

And don't miss out on one of the very neat things about the PSAT: you can actually get your own test booklet back to see exactly what those pesky questions were that you missed. Just ask the guidance counselor in charge of the testing to be sure to send you your exam booklet back once the scores are sent out in mid-December.

Where does the "National Merit" part fit in? In what must be the most drawn-out selection process anywhere, top students are notified the following September if they have been selected as Semi-Finalists in the National Merit program, based solely on their PSAT scores from the junior year. The cut-off score varies with each state, but generally you need to be in the top part of the 99th percentile. Semi-Finalists are then given more forms to fill out to complete the scholarship process. Final notification of scholarship winners comes in the early spring of the student's senior year.

SAT I

This stands for Scholastic Assessment Test I: Reasoning Test. This is the test most colleges require students to take for admissions decisions, and often even for homeschoolers planning on taking distance courses at the college level. This is basically the same as the PSAT, but longer (3 hours, instead of 2 hours and 10 minutes for the PSAT), and there's no writing skills section. You earn scores in verbal and math ranging from 200 to 800, with 500 being considered about average. This year's testing dates are Saturday mornings: October 9, November 6, December 4, January 22, April 8, May 6, and June 3. You must register beforehand through the College Board, either online (my favorite) or with a special registration form sent by mail. The cost is $23.50 (that is, if you register at least a month in advance - if you sign up late, you pay $15 more), and this includes reporting scores to up to four colleges for free.

Where do you take the SAT I? The registration booklet or the College Board website lists all the possible test sites and which month each offers the test. Test sites include both high schools and colleges.

SAT II

This stands for Scholastic Assessment Tests II: Subject Tests, and as you can probably guess, these tests cover material actually learned in different subject areas. There are lots of different SAT II tests available, covering English literature, writing (and here you really will write a brief essay), US and world history, higher math, biology, chemistry, physics, and six different foreign languages. You can take up to three SAT II subject tests on one Saturday morning, and each test is one hour long. Testing dates and locations are almost the same as the SAT I.

When is the best time in high school to take these tests? Best bet is right after you've had a good solid course in that area - which could be as early as ninth grade, or anytime later on.

Some very selective colleges require SAT II exams, but most do not. However, I encourage homeschoolers to think about these exams even if not required. They can really give your kids a reason to review coursework and pull all their knowledge together, and they also offer an opportunity to show in an objective way that they know their stuff. In talking with many college admissions folks, I've certainly found that even when these tests aren't required, they're greatly appreciated in a homeschooler's application. After all, they don't know what homeschoolers' grades really mean, but they do know what SAT II scores mean.

So now that you're through this quick intro to what the College Board offers, where do you go for more info so that you're really ready to take part? Your best bet if you have Internet access is to check out www.collegeboard.org and follow the links to the testing program you want more info about. You can even register right there with a credit card: the College Board is really trying to encourage more and more students to register online. You'll also want something to leaf through and have on hand, so try the excellent free test info booklets directly from the College Board covering the PSAT, SAT I, and SAT II exams. You can get these booklets free from your local public high school, or just send $3.20 to cover postage to PA Homeschoolers (RR 2 Box 117, Kittanning PA 16201), and we'll send you the booklets you request.

For more thorough preparation, check out the full-length books published by the College Board about these tests (Ten Real SATs and The Official Guide to SAT II: Subject Tests) which can be found at many bookstores or can be ordered over the Internet from www.pahomeschoolers.com. And do check out other practice materials you can find; many homeschoolers love the Princeton Review materials and Kaplan has lots of followers too.

Having trouble just with the math section of the SAT I? Some have found that the video course SAT Math Review published by the Chalk Dust Company (see ad on page 5 - also available from www.pahomeschoolers.com) has been very helpful. One student we know raised her score by almost 100 points on the math section after using this five-tape, 10-hour series.

And the very best bit of advice I've ever heard on doing well on the College Board exams? Know all of the directions beforehand, so that you can just hit the test running. Don't use valuable exam time to try to sort out just what an analogy question is, or what is meant by "gridding in" your answer to a math problem, or what a "quantitative comparison" is. Be ready beforehand because you're prepared.


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