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By Dan Marlin

One of the most important implements in our tutoring toolbox is our practice tests. As families who have worked with us can attest, we aggressively push students to take practice tests consistently. The benefits are twofold: they are the best way to both improve student performance and measure progress and growth. 

Before we even start, though, it is helpful for students to take a diagnostic practice test, for several reasons.

Number of sessions needed

Based on years of data, there are certain score cut-offs we use to determine the optimal number of sessions each student should complete to reach their goals. Lower scoring students often require more sessions to improve than students with higher scores. Of course, students can always extend beyond our standard packages – in general, our data have shown that the more sessions students complete, the more they grow. But we also have had students attain their desired score before finishing all the lessons we initially recommended.

ACT vs. SAT

Sometimes, students aren’t sure whether they should focus on the ACT or SAT. Based on a student’s strengths, we may be able to make an educated guess about which test would be better, but we won’t know for certain unless they take a diagnostic of both. The scales of the two tests aren’t directly comparable (the ACT is out of 36 and the SAT is out of 1600), but there are “concordance” resources that allow us to align the scores and recommend one test over the other.

Lesson planning

While the top-line composite score is what most people pay closest attention to, section subscores are absolutely crucial for our lesson planning. Most students do not score evenly across the board, but rather have strengths and weaknesses. That is, some students are more math/science oriented; others may struggle on math but excel in English and Reading. Moreover, the specific range of scores will determine where tutors spend their time and how much remediation they should expect their students to need. For example, there’s a big difference in approach for a student who scores highly on ACT English, Reading, and Science and has a Math score of 24 compared to a similar student with a Math score of 19. 

Test-optional

As we’ve detailed in several blog posts over the last couple of years, nearly every college in the country now offers test-optional admission. If a student takes a diagnostic and gets a low score, we can counsel them not to spend time on test prep. If we don’t have a diagnostic test, though, a student could go through several sessions of prep before realizing they probably shouldn’t have signed up for test prep to begin with. That would be both frustrating for the student and family and a drain on the student’s time, which otherwise might be used to participate in activities that could bolster their college application.

Using official tests as diagnostics

Sometimes, we use official tests students have taken as diagnostics, as they can be just as useful as taking a diagnostic with us. However, the ACT and SAT only release three test booklets per year. If a student has taken one of the tests the ACT/SAT doesn’t release, we’ll only have the section scores and maybe a broad overview of the types of problems they’ve missed. On the other hand, if they take a diagnostic with us, we can create more tailored plans based on the specific problems and concepts they had trouble with; our internal tests break down the problems by question type.

Taking a diagnostic test is a crucial first step in a student’s journey on the road of test prep. Diagnostic tests give us tutors a sense of what to expect and what we’ll need to work on. In fact, because diagnostics are so important, when juniors statewide take the ACT on Tuesday, March 8, we are offering diagnostic tests to sophomores at several locations in the Madison area. See the details here!

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