Should I Take the Actual SAT or ACT for Practice?
Are the nationally administered tests the best way to get a baseline score?
Although I could stop there and have this be the shortest article I’ve ever written, let me explain why there are many, many reasons NOT to burn through a national SAT or ACT to establish a baseline score (throughout this article, a national SAT or ACT refers to a nationally administered test that students would need to register with either the College Board or ACT to take). Before I get into those, let me indulge thee with an analogy.
Besides the SAT or ACT, what’s the most important test most teenagers take? Bingo! A driving test. Now, I don’t think any sane person would let his or her teen say, “I’m just going to sign up for this driving test and see how I do. You know, work out my strengths and weaknesses before taking driver’s ed, reading the book, or practicing with you.”
However, in essence, this is exactly what students are doing when they sit for the SAT or ACT without any true preparation. The chances a student hits (or even approaches) his or her target score on the first attempt—with no preparation—is remarkably close to zero.
Let’s throw some shade at some reasons people have given me for testing prior to test preparation.
“How else will I get a test score?”
I know some people have so much disposable income that $46 for an ACT or $49.50 for an SAT is what they light their cigars with, but there are many free and lower-cost options for getting a baseline score. We’ve written about why students should only take tests that follow the three Rs—real, released, and recent—and both SAT and ACT have these tests available on their websites as free downloads. Additionally, Khan Academy has many more practice SATs that follow the three Rs.
Here are the Released Tests That Satisfy the 3 Rs
Now, somewhat ironically, the score reports for national SATs and ACTs offer remarkably little guidance to help students improve their score—other than saying, “Sign up for Khan Academy or ACT Academy!”, respectively. I mean, if I told you your child was lacking in Passport to Advanced Math or Heart of Algebra (those are real categories on an SAT score report!), you’re probably going to ask if Heart of Algebra is taken before or after the Lung of Algebra. The only meaningful reports that SAT or ACT provide come from College Board’s Question and Answer Service (QAS) reports or ACT’s Test Information Reports (TIR) because those tests give students a new, blank copy of their test questions and a report outlining which questions that student missed or left blank. There’s a catch though. QAS reports are mailed out 8 to 10 weeks after SAT scores are released and TIRs are mailed out around 4 weeks after ACT scores are released. This means that a student doesn’t even see those helpful reports until months have passed from the test date!
An easy solution is to use low-cost test grading services like Test Prep Wizards to get test scores and see testing trends for ANY released SAT or ACT. This way, you almost instantaneously get results and can get to work on improving areas of need.
“Taking a test at home isn’t like taking the real-deal!”
Can’t dispute that. Maybe it’s the old infantryman in me, but I’m a big fan of “Train as you fight.” However, in my experience, replicating the experience of test-day is what is most important, not paying the ACT or College Board to do that for you.
The ideal way to take a practice test is proctored and in an “uncomfortable” place. By uncomfortable, I don’t mean sit on a cactus or set up a desk in a dark alley, but take it some place that physically makes a student leave the house. Print out a test from either SAT or ACT, wake her up on Saturday morning (or Sunday if you’re a Sunday tester) around the time she would if taking the actual test, have her eat breakfast, prepare snacks, and then make her go to a place like a library where isolation is possible. Now—this is important—time her as if it were the actual test. If you can bribe someone to “play proctor,” that’s even better. Don’t cheat and let her move ahead if she finishes early or go back to a previous section; force her to sit there like her scores are going to be cancelled if she breaks any rules. Give breaks as she would see on test day. Make sure she eats those snacks and stays hydrated the same way she would if it were the “real -deal.”
If you know you can’t trust yourself to follow the testing policies, or that sounds like too much work, search out the many test preparation companies that offer cheap (or free) full-length, proctored mock tests. Some have free-test days. The benefit of these tests is that a student is able to deal with the idiosyncrasies that happen only in a live test. That kid tapping his pencil on the desk? That girl flipping through the test book as if she drank three Red Bulls and chased them down with an espresso? That boy directly behind your son sniffling every two minutes? Your son’s fellow testers may do all this and more. Give him a chance to practice dealing with these behaviors.
If a company says they give anything other than a test created by the College Board or ACT, politely hang up the phone and find a new place to test.
Ready to Take a Full Proctored Practice Test?
“I can use Score Choice so colleges never see this test.”
Touche. However, some colleges require that students send all test scores. This means that the college wants to know about every single time you sat for an ACT or SAT. In our experience, it hurts students more than helps them to have a lower score on their record. Sure, if the world were all rainbows, unicorns, and Skittles, a college would look at a lower score and a later higher score and say, “Wowsers! Look at the work this kid put in! This is the tenacity we want to see in our students! Where did we put that full scholarship?” In reality, if two twins had the exact same academic profile and ACT score, but one twin took the test once and one took it twice, the twin who took the ACT once looks better.
Here’s a list of schools that require students to send in all SAT scores:
Sadly, ACT does not publish a list of schools that require students to send all scores (get with the program, ACT!).
When I was taking my SAT back when it was presented on a stone tablet (okay, I’m not that old), there was the idea that you only took a standardized once or twice. That idea has permeated its way into some of the literature today, To the best of my knowledge, no college has a cut-off for too many tests.
Test Prep Wizards’ official line is “Take the test until you get the score you realistically need.” We do not recommend taking national tests until you have prepared and gotten the score you are looking for on practice tests that follow the three Rs. In our experience, students only take standardized tests some crazy number of times because they were unprepared for the test. If you take a test, do nothing, and then take another test, you’re probably not going to see much growth. Taking a standardized test many times broadcasts that you have the means to test that many times Why let a college believe you wouldn’t appreciate financial help?
There are more than enough high-quality practice tests that follow the three Rs such that students never need to sit for the real test until they are ready. Come on students, we know you know how to use Google to find released practice tests.
“What harm can it do?”
Well, it’s rare, but if a student takes a test for the first time and bombs it, then works really hard to improve and crushes the test next time, that actually can get a student’s test scores red-flagged for potential cheating—especially if that happens in a short time frame.
Now, SAT and ACT say that flagging only happens for “testing irregularities” like answers similar to someone else’s, but it’s not hard to find students who said they were flagged after going up a lot of points. The College Board and ACT can take MONTHS to tell a student he or she has been flagged. In fact, sometimes students are already in college—which can jeopardize enrollment or scholarships. Usually, the student has to retest to unsully the good family name, but that student has probably long stopped preparing for the SAT or ACT at that point. A great resource on red-flagging is the Tests and the Rest podcast.
So, to sum it all up nicely and put a bow on it, DON’T TAKE A REAL SAT OR ACT FOR PRACTICE! Sorry to yell.
For home scoring, the answer keys and scoring scales are included with the ACT and offered as an additional link for the SATs listed above. If you want a more detailed breakdown of your test, use our test submittal forms.