“My daughter Allison has always been a bad test taker on standardized tests — she never did well on her ERB’s.  She messed up on the SSAT and now on the PSAT.  She’s so anxious about the SAT!  I think her fear is making it worse. She just doesn’t get it, I don’t get it and neither do her teachers.  Ally gets “A’s” in all her class tests, but on the PSAT she got a 520.  What can she do? she’s about to give up!”

Barbara O., Parent

Barbara says that Ally “has always been a bad test taker” just the way she might say “Ally has freckles,” as though test taking ability were unchangeable.  It’s not.   Ally has spent eleven years in school learning to take tests, but she’s learned habits that are wrong for standardized tests.


Class Tests vs. SAT Tests

Class tests and SAT’s have quite different purposes, content, methods, and design.  The purpose of her classroom test is to determine whether Ally knows the vocabulary, facts, concepts, and skills related to the course, US History, for example.  The purpose of SAT’s is sorting–separating students who are likely to succeed in college from those who aren’t.

The content of Ally’s class is limited to US history; the skills emphasized are low level: understanding, remembering, and recognizing facts and ideas about US history. The SAT, however, emphasizes high-level reasoning skills such as applying and inferring, analyzing and synthesizing, evaluating and judging.

In US History, Ally learns in a variety of ways.  The teacher outlines “the consequences of Reconstruction” on the board or facilitates a class discussion.  Ally takes notes.  The textbook lists new terms and provides italics, bolds, pictures and marginal comments. The teacher gives Ally as many avenues to remember as possible.  Ally has had to pick up the skills for the SAT, however, on her own, randomly, from various educational experiences; those SAT skills have not yet been taught explicitly.

Ally’s class tests are designed as achievement tests. Her teacher wants her to score well so the teacher has provided Ally with many cues to help her remember. Maybe during the test Ally connects a question to a drawing in her notes, the movie she saw, Gone with the Wind, or a class debate with her best friend.  The SAT,  however, is created by strangers who want some people to score higher than others.  The content is college level; the reading passages are often unfamiliar in writing style and content.   Cues to the answers are intentionally removed; the questions themselves present logical challenges. All Ally has for the SAT is the text in front of her.

So what should Ally do?

  1. Stop relying on her “class-test” habits for the SAT. Ironically, those thinking habits which helped her on class tests actually hurt her on the SAT.
  2. View the SAT as a truly new intellectual venture. Her goals are quite different: to answer questions, not to learn or to remember concepts.   When she uses her prep book or goes to her tutor, she should consciously focus on her own thought processes, the critical thinking skills which will enable her to answer the questions.
  3. Remind herself, during the actual SAT, not to let her nervousness cause her to revert to old class-test habits. She should make up a ten-second speech for each section to remind herself how to think before she answers the questions in that section.
  4. Feel confident. She already knows most of what she needs. The SAT is about thinking skills, not about test tricks or content.  It’s certainly useful to know when to guess and how to recognize obvious false answers, but those “tricks” can be learned in twenty minutes.  Ally already knows most of the English and math content necessary.  In math and vocabulary, she may need to learn a little, but very little.  The test emphasizes critical thinking more than facts or computation. She has undoubtedly used those critical thinking skills in the past; she just needs to practice them explicitly and consistently for the SAT.
  5. Ally should start small–pick one thinking skill in English or math and practice it over and over. Finding the main idea and skimming the details quickly in every reading passage, or example, would instantly improve her reading score; 25% of the questions relate to main idea.
  6. She should think of the SAT as an opportunity. With her newly-honed standardized test skills, she will also be prepared for the next set of standardized tests: the GRE, the MCAT, or the LSAT.

Barbara should help Ally stop thinking she’s a bad test taker.  Class test grades just don’t necessarily correlate with standardized test grades: they test different areas of learning.  However, for Ally, they could correlate in the future — and they should.   After all, if she can learn to make “A’s” on class tests, she can learn to score as well on the SAT.


Category: High School Tests , SAT Test Preparation