Monday, October 14, 2013

Computer based practice tests for the SAT and ACT exams

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Are computer based practice tests good training for the SAT?  

I’m about to answer this question with another question: Do you still need to bring two No. 2 pencils to the SAT? 

The SAT is still a paper test.  We have a test booklet in front of us and we use it, crossing out eliminated answer choices, outlining the essay, labeling angles, etc.  We also have to fill in a little, annoying bubble for each question on the answer sheet with our infamous No. 2 pencil.  And even though most of you have been able to color inside the lines for quite a few years now (good job with that, by the way), many of you will still manage to mess up those bubbles, like everyone’s nightmare of skipping question #8 but forgetting to leave the bubble line blank for #8 and ending up with the rest of your section shifted up one row of bubbles.

So until the day the SAT changes to a computer based test, your practice tests should be on paper.  Simulate testing conditions for yourself: wake up early on a Saturday morning, eat breakfast, and sit down to a full length paper practice SAT so you get used to making 8 am feel like noon on test day.  That paper practice test will simulate the layout of the real SAT where the computer test will not, and being used to layout is important!  For example, we approach easy, medium, and hard Sentence Completions with different mindsets, so determining the difficulty level of questions is important.  In a Critical Reading section of the real SAT, the Sentence Completions are always all on one page together in 2 columns; at a glance we can see how many easy Sentence Completions we have before us because whatever falls in the left-hand column is an easy question.   Getting yourself used to the real SAT layout is important for pacing and skipping across all sections, and this contextual layout is totally left out of computer practice tests.

Another benefit of a paper practice test is that you score it yourself.  What may at first seem like a nuisance is actually an important lesson.  Scoring the test yourself is a backstage pass to the grading and conversion from raw score to scaled score on the SAT.  You’ll also get a feel for the value of getting even just one more right and you’ll directly observe the benefits of skipping more to keep your number wrong low or getting it down to two and blind guessing.  A computer generated score leaves you out of that whole important process.

So go get yourself a good old, low-tech retired SAT from your guidance counselor or the College Board blue book, a four hour block of time, and, of course, a No. 2 pencil.  If that practice test is not on paper, it’s just not like the real thing. 

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