Empowering Student Success on College Admissions Tests

Helping students prepare to apply for college is no easy task. With the ACT making changes to its testing rules, there are steps that students, parents and educators can take to ensure positive results.

Students taking a test

In early October, ACT announced substantive changes to how students can take its college admissions test. Students will be able to retake each of the four ACT sections separately starting on the ACT national test day in September 2020. Admissions officials will also have access to a "super score" for each prospective student with his or her top scores in each section.

These changes have the potential to create a sizable shift in terms of standardized test standards and practices, according to Winward Academy founder and CEO Jennifer Winward. Winward Academy is a research-based, student-centered learning platform that focuses on helping students prep for the ACT, SAT, math classes and college applications.

Winward spoke with THE Journal on best practices for students, parents and teachers to prepare for standardized tests as college admissions procedures continue to change.

Winward's answers have been edited for length and clarity.

The College Board and ACT are continually making changes to their tests in order to meet student needs and college admissions requirements. How does the new ACT "super score" change how students need to prepare for the test?

Jennifer Winward headshot

Jennifer Winward

The biggest change the ACT or SAT has ever seen was just announced by ACT with its new policy allowing students to retake individual sections rather than requiring that they sit for the entire exam. Both exams have not changed much in the past 60 years. However, starting in September 2020, students will no longer be required to sit for all sections (English, Math, Reading and Science). Now, if they just want to retake Science, they can just take Science. If they want another chance to raise their English and Math scores, they only need to retake those two sections.

Students will now have the ability to hyper-focus their studying and review on specific sections in which they're hoping to grow their scores.

Will the changes like the ACT "super score" and the College Board's Landscape tool impact college admissions policies? Do these changes help or hurt students who come from low-income households?

It is important to note that ACT has not yet released information about how colleges have reacted to its section retesting policy. It’s not even clear yet if colleges will accept retesting scores if students do not sit for the entire test. This new policy seems student-friendly on its surface, but if colleges do not end up accepting or recognizing these scores, then the policy will not, in fact, benefit students. The section retesting policy could dramatically alter how colleges trust and evaluate standardized tests.

Furthermore, ACT has not yet released information about the costs of retaking individual sections, nor has it announced how its fee waiver policy will apply to those who qualify to take the ACT at no cost.

As a group, high-income students start testing earlier and test more frequently than low-income students. Therefore, ACT will need to be very attentive to ensuring that its new super score policy will not further disadvantage groups of underserved students.

According to Fair Test, nearly 40 percent of colleges and universities no longer required SAT or ACT scores for the high school graduating class of 2019. Do you think that these tests are accurate indicators of student success in college? If not, what are some other application requirements that higher education institutions are or should be weighting more heavily?

The rationale for standardized tests is that it's difficult to compare a student with a 3.9 GPA at School A to a student with a 4.3 GPA at School B. What if there are outside factors at the schools and the student with the 3.9 GPA is, in fact, working harder and producing better quality work? Without a standardized test given to both students, colleges lack a common metric to compare students to each other.

That being said, the ACT and SAT are just one part of a holistic college application process. Yes, the scores indicate a student's college readiness in grammar and English basics, math foundations and reading skills. However, colleges also consider rigor of coursework, demonstrated interest in the college, personal statements, letters of recommendation, activities, leadership and accolades.

How can high school teachers make changes in their classrooms to prepare students to take the ACT and SAT?

The most important study technique to improve on the ACT and SAT is to take real exams and to spend time reviewing and learning from every mistake. Taking tests over and over again, without allowing time in between to learn from mistakes, does not help students improve their knowledge or their confidence. Therefore, the best change for high school teachers to make is to encourage a growth mindset and to ensure students see the value of reviewing their mistakes.

Students should view their mistakes as an opportunity for growth, not as a reflection of a lack of intelligence. The biggest mistake students make is to get a grade back for a math test, to see they got a certain score and to then just move on to the next chapter. If students don't put in the time to learn from their mistakes — with detailed, step-by-step corrections for every question they missed — they'll just keep building a knowledge gap throughout the academic year. Therefore, teachers should and must encourage corrections as an integral part of the learning process.

Standardized tests are no different. A student who takes a 3.5-hour practice ACT and scores a 26 shouldn't just get a score and move on. The more important 3.5 hours are those during which that student reviews each and every mistake from that practice test, writes down detailed notes on how to solve each missed question and then builds a study guide with thoughtful reflections about why each question was missed and how to not miss it in the future.

What should parents know to help their children get into their top college choice?

A recent report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Making Caring Common, purports that colleges want students who care, show concern for others, promote citizenship and develop personal responsibility. While grades, course rigor and test scores matter, most student applications will look very similar with just a straight numbers comparison. Kindness allows students to stand out.

The impact of enduring kindness supersedes the name of a school on a college sweatshirt. Parents should encourage their teens to be themselves and channel their inner kindness to build character. Getting into a top-choice college should be the bonus of being kind, not the reason to be kind.

What reforms would you recommend to make the college admissions process more equitable for all students? Are any free or low-cost resources that low-income students can access easily?

For the college admissions process to be more equitable, students need to have equal access to resources that provide supportive feedback, personalize learning, organize their mistakes and encourage them to paraphrase what they learn into their own words.

Winward Academy has a proud tradition of partnering with foundations and charities to promote our philanthropic mission of filling a critical void in access to quality teaching resources. Our content is integrated into classrooms or provided as an additional resource in after school programs. We work with schools, nonprofits and foundations to maximize students' success and growth. All leading companies in the test preparation industry should actively seek out and nurture relationships with organizations that support underserved students.

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