Do 30 extra points really pay off on the SAT?
Help your child decide if retaking a test is necessary
If your son or daughter is entering 11th grade, this will be their year of taking the SAT or ACT. But the question is, will they be taking it just once, or should they retake it several times, maybe even helped by a test prep class? According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, the average student who retests increases his or her score by approximately 40 points, statistically a fairly small amount. Is it worth the effort?
ACT vs SAT
Before exploring this question, you might like to know which test your high schooler should be taking. The ACT is favored by local and Midwestern schools, whereas East and West Coast institutions typically prefer the SAT. However, most schools accept both. The University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC), for instance, converts all SAT scores into an ACT equivalent. The ACT is cheaper and shorter than the SAT, and the SAT is said to focus on reasoning skills versus a heavier emphasis on high school content for the ACT. In the end, considering the huge investment a college education represents, it may be best to simply take both.
But does retaking either test for minor score improvements make sense? Opinions vary. “It’s not necessary to retake the test,” says Sandi Inman of Overland Park, whose son scored lower after retaking the ACT, then the same again on the third try. “It was a waste of money and his time.” But others swear by retesting. David Lowe, whose two daughters attend Blue Valley North High School, was quite pleased when his older daughter increased her ACT score by 2 points upon retaking the test. His younger daughter scored well on her first try, but plans to retest all the same.
College admission requirements
A recent study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that an improvement as small as 30 points on the SAT did have a significant impact on a student’s chance of admission. “A single point on the ACT can make a big difference,” says Amber Daugherty, enrollment services coordinator at UMKC. Test results are heavily weighted at UMKC, where an ACT score of 24 (1100 math and verbal equivalent on the SAT) will automatically get you in. Any lower score must be matched by a correspondingly higher graduating class rank. “I have seen ACT scores jump a couple of points from 18 to 20; I do think retaking the test is very important,” says Daugherty.
At the University of Kansas (KU), test results are only one of three paths to admission. In-state students must either achieve a 2.0 GPA, rank in the top third of their graduating class, or score 21 on the ACT (980 on the SAT). But according to Lisa Pinamonti Kress, director of admissions and scholarship at KU, many students retake the test even if they meet the initial requirement. “The test score makes a huge difference when it comes to scholarships,” says Kress. “One of the most frequently asked questions is how late students can retake the test for scholarship consideration.” (The answer is December of their senior year.)
For Missouri residents, the stakes are even higher. Students who score 31 or higher (the actual score is newly determined each year) on the ACT automatically qualify for a “Bright Flight” $2,000/year scholarship toward an in-state university. For anyone close to that score, retaking the test makes good economic sense.
In the case of Lowe’s daughter, it also was the prospect of a scholarship that encouraged her to retake the ACT. “With her two-point jump, she received $5000 per year of scholarship money at Colorado State,” says Lowe.
Are prep courses worth the price?
Even if retaking the test is a good idea, is it worth spending additional money on expensive preparatory courses or personal coaching? If one is to believe the claims of Kaplan or Princeton Review, two large test-prep companies offering a flurry of services such as study materials, classes, private tutoring, iPod and iPhone games and quiz banks, the scoring gain can be several hundred points on the SAT. The lure of a scholarship can make the $350 to $3,600 for such services look like a good investment.
However, the aforementioned NACAC study reveals much lower scoring gains as a result of commercial test preparation. The discrepancy could be blamed on the frequent use of mock SAT tests, which can be devised to inflate score gains when students take the actual SAT.
According to Stephen Heiner, President of Get Smarter Prep, a local test prep company that prides itself in its small classes and attention to the individual student, test preparation works well for the over 600 families using his services in the Kansas City Metro area. “But it only works for kids who already have a good academic foundation,” says Heiner. “I can’t increase the math score for a student who doesn’t know algebra.”
How to prepare
A rigorous high school curriculum is probably a student’s best ticket to a high test score. “Blue Valley North does a phenomenal job in educating our kids,” says Lowe, whose daughters did not participate in any preparation course. But prep work probably helps students to familiarize themselves with the material, something that can be achieved at a low cost. Both the ACT and College Board websites feature free practice questions and offer affordable study materials. Most high schools and colleges give out free ACT practice booklets, and your local library is also a good source for study guides and practice exams. Checking with your school district for any prep courses in their curriculum is also a good idea. For instance, Pembroke Hill High School in Kansas City offers a summer ACT/SAT prep class. Inman attributes a similar class to her son’s feeling more comfortable when taking the actual test, even if it did not help to improve his score.
If money is less of a concern, commercial prep classes might be the easiest route. Maggie Park, a 2008 graduate of Lee’s Summit Community Christian High School swears by the help she got from Get Smarter Prep, which she says enabled her to increase her ACT score by five points.
Whatever strategy your student employs to prepare for the ACT or SAT, make sure you are aware of upcoming test and registration dates (see sidebar).
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Eva Melusine Thieme is a freelance writer and lives in Overland Park with her husband and four children.