Lynn Scully, LLC

Standardized Tests

copyright © 2003-2010 by Lynn Scully, LLC.

Standardized Tests

Standardized tests determine the effectiveness of an education.  Parents may use standardized tests to ensure that a student is at an age-appropriate grade level.  Standardized testing is also a necessity for college admission officials to be sure that a prospective student has the skills necessary to succeed at the college level. As a parent, it may be useful to view standardized testing as an opportunity to better serve your student’s needs and to tailor your student’s education based on present abilities and future aspirations.

Continue reading to learn about the most common standardized tests.  Which subjects do they cover, when to prepare for them, when to take them, how to register for them, and the roles that each test plays.  To ensure that a student’s ability is accurately represented, provide the opportunity to learn each test format.  Visit the appropriate web sites with your student to become knowledgeable and comfortable with the style of the test to be taken.

Elementary and Junior High School Tests

The SSAT Test

The SSAT is a test designed for students between the ages of 10 and 14.  It is a test traditionally used by private elementary and secondary schools to determine the skill level, educational level, and aptitude of applicants.  There are two grading scales, one for grades 5 through 7, and another for grades 8 through 11.  The test focuses heavily on vocabulary in the form of synonyms and analogies, and reading comprehension.  The math requires arithmetic skills including fractions and decimals, percents, basic word problems, basic algebra including simple solving and ratios, and basic geometry.  The 30 minute essay, which is not scored, is forwarded to the admissions office of the schools identified by the test taker.  Visit to become familiar with the test format, to register, and to find a nearby test center.  The SSAT is offered seven times a year.  Although usually administered at private schools, it can also be administered by an independent educational consultant.

High School Tests

All of the following tests, with the exception of the ACT can be researched by visiting the college board website.
Information for home-schoolers for registering and preparing for these tests is also provided.

The PSAT Test

The PSAT is a pre SAT.  PSAT scores are not sent to colleges and so the PSAT provides an opportunity for a student to become familiar with the SAT format. Differences between the SAT and PSAT are the PSAT is slightly shorter and does not include the 25 minute essay.  Because sources are not sent to colleges, there is no need to worry about colleges seeing your "first time taking this kind of test".  In addition, the corrected answers sheet and test booklet are returned to the student through the guidance office of the school administering the test.  This allows for a more complete preparation for taking the SAT.  The PSAT is given once a year, usually on either the second Wednesday or Saturday of October.  You must contact your nearest high school in early September to register for the test.  You will register at the school and pay a fee.  This is the only high school level test that requires registration through a local guidance office.  Take advantage of this great opportunity both sophomore and junior year to become familiar with the test format and the testing situation.

The SAT Test

The SAT test, also more formally referred to as the SAT I, is a reasoning test.  This test is designed to evaluate a student's logic and reasoning skills.
A student's knowledge gained from a classical education is tested.  The SAT combines testing for reading comprehension, vocabulary recognition, grammar and editing skills, persuasive essay writing, Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry.  The SAT may be taken at any age.  It is the cornerstone of the John Hopkins Talent Search program for Junior High School students.  It is usually challenging for students below age 14.

The SAT II Tests

The SAT II tests are a family of subject tests, which means it is not logic-based (the aspect of the SAT I that people consider "tricky").  There are multiple 1-hour subject tests available in many high school level topics such as math, sciences, languages, literature, US History and more.  As many as three subject tests may be taken on the same day.  The appropriate subject test should be taken when study in a subject is complete, regardless of age.  Many colleges require at least one SAT II score as part of its application process, but the SAT II also provides a great opportunity to demonstrate subject knowledge.  For instance, a student may have completed Hebrew studies and, while not having received a grade, the student may wish to demonstrate proficiency in Hebrew on an SAT II subject test.  Subject tests are especially valuable for home-schoolers who wish to demonstrate knowledge of a subject to a board of college admissions, or to provide an objective "final exam" for personal reasons.

The ACT Test

The ACT is a four-section test which includes a grammar section, a vocabulary and reading comprehension section, a math section, and a science section.  An optional essay is included.  The ACT is like the SAT in that it is also a standardized test which is nationally administered and accepted by college admissions officials as part of a complete college application.  The ACT differs from the SAT in that the Math section is less of a reasoning test and more of a subject knowledge test.  The Science section is not based on a previously learned science; it is the "reasoning" section of the test that combines critical reading skills and graph interpretation skills to determine answers.  The best way to prepare for the Science section is to increase reading comprehension and become familiar with the test format.  The Math section focuses more on knowledge than reasoning skills, no formulas are provided and basic function calculators are permitted.  The SAT provides many basic formulas and allows advanced function calculators. The format of the ACT is preferred by some students for the following reasons.

  • The answer numbering system makes errors on the answer sheet less likely.
  • Time management is more flexible.  For instance, there is a 60 minute Math section instead of two 30 minute or three 20 minute sections.  Although this makes pacing more flexible, it may prove more difficult for students with problems focusing.
  • The essay is optional.

To find out more or to register for the ACT, visit

The AP Tests

AP tests provide proof of advanced proficiency in a subject beyond those associated with a standard high school education.  AP test scores range between 1 and 5.  A score of 5 is the highest score.  Scores may be accepted by a college to provide credit for a college level course or to allow a student to skip beginning level courses.  However, not all colleges provide credit for a high AP test score.  Why?  The school’s name is on the diploma.  They want to be sure that your education represents the education they provide.  It is best to check with the college if you plan on taking the AP test to apply it toward college credit.  Taking an AP test may be valuable to the home-schooler as a gauge of advanced proficiency.  Also, the preparation program can provide guidelines and goals for a course of study.

College Tests

The CLEP Test

The CLEP test is designed to provide college credit for "information mastered" in order to speed up the college process, reduce college education costs, or more quickly move a student into advanced courses.  The CLEP test is accepted by many colleges (check first!) and is most commonly used by adults re-entering college after a long break, or those entering college for the first time but who have practical (work-related) experience in a subject.  For instance, a person who has been doing basic accounting on the job may take a CLEP to avoid beginning accounting courses and gain credit toward a degree in accounting, Thus, the future accountant may work college into a busy schedule (night or weekend only classes) and decrease the financial burden of earning a degree.

The home-schooler may wish to take a CLEP to demonstrate advanced proficiency, but should exercise caution when looking to drastically shortcut the college education process.  After all, there is more to the acquisition of knowledge than what a paper and pencil test can demonstrate:  class discussion, labs, peer interaction, professor feedback, and more are provided in the college education process.

National Percentages

Because the scoring of tests varies, look at national percentages to gauge your student’s progress and ability.  Ideally, the student’s average will remain the same or increase with each testing opportunity, regardless of the test type.  If the percentage on any section decreases drastically, you may need to re-evaluate your education program to ensure alignment with national standards.  These standards are designed to represent a college preparatory, science base, classical education.

copyright © 2003-2010 by Lynn Scully, LLC.
I was ready for the SAT,
Lynn Scully has been tutoring and guiding high school students through their college admission process for the past 21 years.  She is the author and host of the get IT SAT Preparation Program.
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