Grades in school are often not indicative of how a student will do on the ACT or SAT.
This is unfortunate but true. A lot of tutoring starts with something along the lines of “I just don’t understand! Her grades in school are so good. She has a 4.2 and is multiple advanced courses; we just don’t understand why her ACT isn’t at least a 28.” There are a few issues with this mindset. The biggest issue is that the ACT isn’t a test over what the student has learned in school: it’s a test of critical thinking.
School grades, for the most part, are a reflection of how well a student can memorize things and understand concepts. The ACT tests how students can apply those concepts in new situations. This is something that is rarely practiced in school. In addition, there are almost unlimited opportunities for grade improvement at school. Teachers offer test corrections, extra credit, and close to unlimited time to finish work. Teachers want students who show up and work hard to succeed and to have good grades. The pressure on teachers not to fail students is immense. This leads to grade inflation. For all these reasons, a good GPA often does not translate to good ACT scores even though it seems like, reasonably, it would.
Getting tutoring or working hard does not guarantee large improvements.
Because of the school system just described, students and parents alike are conditioned to believe that if a student simply works hard and seeks the appropriate help their scores will reach the level they would like. This is, unfortunately, not the case. Tutoring and hard work will help a student learn how to think through the questions on the test; critical thinking can indeed be improved. However, most students will eventually hit their natural limit. It would be cruel to put the expectation on any high school runner that they could turn into a 21st century Jesse Owens through just hard work in high school.
In the same way that physical limitations will always exist for athletes, mental limitations exist for students. The ACT and SAT are both designed to find these natural limitations, whether they be high, low, or, like most, in the middle. The good news is that this will generally not prevent a student from continuing their education after high school. On the contrary, the United States has a very wide range of colleges, universities, and trade schools that cater to students at all levels, and using standardized tests to discover a student’s abilities and limitations allows students to attend a school where they can be successful!
Set reasonable expectations.
Because of points 1 and 2 students and parents alike need to set reasonable expectations. It is wonderful when expectations are surpassed, but there is nothing quite so heartbreaking as when a student improves through hard work and the result is disappointment on the side of the student and/or parent. To set reasonable expectations, let’s talk about percentiles on the ACT.
The ACT is designed on a curve. The 50th percentile is a score that tends to hovers between 19 and 20 nationally. This will not change. No matter how much students across the nation study, the test will be adjusted so that 50% of students fall below the 20 mark and 50% rise above it. When a student gets a 20 they are often disappointed, they think that is a terrible score. Parents, peers, and teachers often agree. None of them realize that this is actually just about the national average!
Now, let’s talk about goal scores. Those who start at 20 often set their hearts on 25, 28, or 30. In this situation, a 25 on the ACT would be in the 78th percentile or a 28 percentile point increase over a 20. A 28 would be in the 88th percentile or a 38 percentile point increase. A 30 would be in the 93rd percentile and a 43 percentile point increase. What this means is that a student would have to, between one test and the next, leap frog over 43% of his or her peers (most of whom are also studying) in order to move from a 20 to a 30. This would be not a leap of knowledge but of critical thinking. This is not a reasonable goal. Such goals put undue pressure on the student and in ninety-nine percent of cases lead to dashed hopes no matter how much hard work is done. A reasonable goal will depend on what score the student starts at and what their natural abilities are, and no matter what the score is, there will be colleges that are open to them. A good tutor will be able to help you set those reasonable goals, work toward achieving them, and reach your potential.
If you have questions or comments about the ACT or SAT, how to prepare for the tests, or what reasonable goals might look like please get in touch! Helping students reach their potential is our number one goal.
Statistics source: https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/MultipleChoiceStemComposite.pdf