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No shortcuts to success on standardized tests

Gerald Bradshaw

Gerald Bradshaw

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Updated: June 3, 2014 6:14AM



Dear Mr. Bradshaw,

I am a high school sophomore concerned about studying for the ACT. I am worried that just going over the practice tests in prep books might not be enough to help improve my scores. I am not sure how you tutor, but I’d like to know more test strategy and clues.

Signed: Student

Dear Student: While the correlation between test scores and other forms of academic success isn’t perfect, I believe that there is a relationship between academic success and how your approach studying for and taking standardized tests.

The test is the primary mechanism of instruction. The practice tests span the material and thus identify what material you don’t understand. If I see a pattern of missed questions on a topic, I then take time to teach a minilecture on that material so that the student can answer future questions on that topic.

I fundamentally believe that the key to success on these tests is actually knowing how to do the problems. So to answer your question: There is no magic bullet or secret strategy that will let a student who doesn’t know the material do significantly better than they would by actually learning the material.

Furthermore, the skills that the test teaches — whether it is being able to solve the math problems, take 25 minutes to write a decent argument on a topic, correct the grammar of someone else’s written work, or identify the meaning of words and use them in an unfamiliar context — are skills that will serve the student well in their high school, collegiate and professional careers. It is for this reason that I primarily focus on the test itself.

Now, of course, there are common-sense approaches to test taking. The primary ones for standardized testing are time-management and prioritization of questions (doing the ones you know how to do first).

For students who don’t report having a time crunch during their practice tests, I don’t spend time focusing on that because I don’t see the need to teach a skill the student already has. It is important that the student be aware of the fact that all questions are worth the same number of points, and that it is not worth spending 5 minutes on one question when she could have answered five others in the same time.

In a broader sense, the best strategy for this test is to encourage a love of learning and reading in students from a young age. It is naive to expect that a student who doesn’t know the meaning of any of the words on the test will magically be able to produce a good score for themselves.

Invariably, the students who are more well-read and who bring an enthusiasm to their academic work do better on the test than those who simply see school and learning as steppingstones, or even worse, obstacles toward their desired career.

I see my role as a tutor is to maximize your performance on the test. Through my now 15 years of experience teaching the test, I have found that the students who do best are the ones who spend the most time with their nose to the paper working through problems, learning from their own mistakes, and having me here as someone who can guide them through the difficult concepts and the high-level strategy.

There aren’t any secrets, and frankly I think the people (including at times the big testing companies) who claim that they have strategy and clues are doing students a disservice by telling them that there are shortcuts that don’t really exist, which discourages students from learning the material.

Of course, it’s much easier to market “we have the secret to success” than “the secret is that you have to take a lot of practice tests and learn the material,” which is why I think this idea exists in the first place.

I hope this addresses your concerns.



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