Parents often ask me for “strategies” that their child can learn, in order to score higher on a high school admissions test. What I’m really being asked for is a list of high school placement test “tricks and tips” to game the admissions test.
Schools use the SSAT (Secondary School Admission Test), HSPT (High School Placement Test) and ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) tests as a major metric in both admissions decisions, course level placement and scholarship competitions.
I appreciate where they are coming from: it’s an ultra competitive world out there, and admissions to prestigious high schools, as well as competition for limited scholarships, is getting harder to garner with each passing year.
So, is it all about “tips and tricks?” Can it be that simple, as we see championed on so many websites?
I want to disclaim right away that I am an educator. I get frustrated when instructors use valuable instructional time to teach our students purported ways to game a test, in an attempt to get a higher score. We do every student a dangerous disservice playing Vegas odds, to say nothing about failing to educate our kids with solid academic skills and knowledge.
So, what should a family do, if it’s not about “tricks and tips?”
- Evaluation. A family needs to know where their student stands.
- Are there academic content areas, such as working with fractions or grammar rules, which a student needs to work on?
- How are the student’s test-taking skills, like pacing, time management, and stress management?
- What’s a reasonable score goal with good preparation, and how much work will a student need to do to each that score goal?
- Understand the Test. The HSPT and the SSAT are not designed the same. Students need to know the timing, format/scoring, and question types on each test. For example:
- A wrong answer on the SSAT is penalized a quarter point; not so on the HSPT.
- Many students find the HSPT “easier,” in terms of the questions asked and the academic skills needed, but the HSPT is very stringent with timing, and has unique questions not asked on any other admissions test.
- Remediate the academic content areas. How does a student learn “tricks and tips” if, for example, they struggle to add fractions together? Or have difficulty stating the main point of a reading passage? Students need to be solid in academic skills to be able to decipher test questions, and successfully exercise good test taking strategies.
- Master Test Taking Strategies. Armed with both an understanding of the test structure and test specific quirks, alongside good academic skills, a student should work on how to
- approach the various question types on the test,
- manage the clock,
- how to spot distractors in answer choices, and use the answer choices to help select the correct answer, when appropriate, and
- how to read efficiently and effectively.
On the official SSAT website, the folks that write, administer, and score the SSAT published a “Statement About Test Prep Companies.” They write:
“Studying before you take a test is never a bad idea. Indeed, the best way to prepare for the SSAT is to become familiar with the content, format, timing, and scoring of the test. That said, unrealistic expectations are often created for families when they engage in test-preparation for their children, expecting to see dramatic gains on their child’s results…
…Further, we’d suggest to families that they stay away from any group … promising guaranteed score increases through use of their prep services.”
The bottom line: Students must prepare for any standardized test. Just as with any exam in a class, a student needs to know what kinds of questions will be asked, and in what format, how much time they will have to complete the exam, and how will their work be evaluated.
Asking for just the “tricks and tips” or falling for “point guarantees”, like those advertised by dozens of so-called “professional” tutoring and test prep organizations, does a disservice to a student that could negatively impact their entire academic career.
Families should engage a qualified test prep instructor, specifically, one who is licensed and has actual classroom teaching experience. A real teacher who will provide critical initial feedback, remediate weak academic areas, identify realistic and attainable goals, prepare an actual learning plan and then help that student reach those goals.
In short, look for a test preparation professional who will deliver the kind of confidence through success that will make a positive impact on a student’s entire academic career.