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Students everywhere will be taking the PSATs and SATs. The PSAT, which occurs in the fall, is a preparatory test for the SAT. The SAT (or another test—the ACT) is required by most colleges as part of the application process. There are some important changes this year on the PSAT and SAT that have implications for how to prepare to take them. The changes are in effect now on the new PSAT for 8th and 9th graders as well as the PSAT that 10th and 11th graders take, and begin in the spring on the SAT.

Two very positive changes affect the scores students get. On the old tests, it was not advantageous to guess at answers if you really did not know the answer. A wrong answer was penalized, so if you missed it you would lose points from the ones you got correct. Now, an incorrect answer doesn’t hurt you. You simply do not get the point for that question. Students should take a stab at every question, even if they do not know the answer. In addition, the multiple choice questions have four choices now instead of five! That means there is a greater chance of guessing correctly.

The math part of the PSAT and SAT tests changed considerably. There are a few trigonometry questions that were not asked on the old PSAT and SAT and fewer geometry questions than before. The biggest change, however, is that there are two parts of the math section. You are allowed to use a calculator in one, and you cannot use a calculator in the other. This change—not being allowed to use a calculator—may affect some students more than others.

Our upper-level math teachers frequently report to me that their students do not remember all of the basic math facts. If your child frequently uses a calculator in algebra or another higher level math class, find out whether he is relying on it for simple facts (like 8 x 9, or 56/8). If so, he will have a lot of trouble on the PSAT or SAT when he is not allowed to use a calculator. There are many apps available for drilling math facts. He should spend 10 or 15 minutes every day drilling until they are automatic. It will help him in math class as well as when taking these tests.

To learn more specific information about the PSATs and SATs, go to the ETS website. There are practice tests available there and tips for how to prepare for the tests. It is a good idea to also check out the ACT. Most colleges will accept either test, and students may submit their best score. The tests are very different, and some do better on one over the other. A final thought—students may take these tests more than once. The first time can be a learning experience to prepare for the next time!

Receiving extra time or other accommodations on the SAT can be a lifesaver for some students. Those who process more slowly than others or who have attention deficits, vision problems, or learning disabilities may get lower scores if they’re required to take these standardized tests in the same format and in the same amount of time as other students. Many of these students are perfectly capable of doing well in college, but they have limited choices for college because their SAT scores are too low. When allowed more time or given other accommodations, their scores better reflect their ability. How does a student receive the accommodations he needs?

  • First, there has to be formal documentation of a learning disability. The College Board wants to see a student’s IEP or 504 plan that addresses her disability. If the student is not attending a public school and does not have an IEP or 504 plan, the College Board will require a recent psychological evaluation completed by a licensed psychologist.
  • Second, students must be using the requested accommodations for an extended period of time before they apply for it through the Board. For the SAT, a student must have been receiving the accommodations in school for at least four months.
  • Third, students will need to have supporting documentation from their high school teachers.

There is a formal filing process through the College Board to receive accommodations, and often a student has to appeal the decision multiple times before receiving extra time. The College Board does not want anyone to have an unfair advantage over other students; they do want those who really need extra time to receive it. That explains why they require formal documentation. Accommodations such as Braille or large print may be easier to receive. Proving the need for extra time is more difficult. Once approved by the College Board, a student may receive the same accommodations for the PSAT, SAT, and AP exams. The ACT requires a similar application process.

For more information about the types of accommodations a student might receive, read ACT and SAT Accommodations: One Size Does Not Fit All.

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Students in some schools across the country will take online tests on the Common Core curriculum this spring. These tests do not actually count, and many schools are exempt from giving their normal tests in order to participate. This is part of the field testing before next spring, when almost everyone will take the new Common Core tests online (either the Smarter Balanced Assessment or another called the PARCC Assessment.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment website offers practice tests at various grade levels to help students and teachers get ready for the testing. If this is the first time your child will take standardized testing online, it is a good idea to practice taking a similar test before the testing day. This is especially true for the math tests since they require some familiarity with the software to answer certain types of questions. For example, some of the math questions require the test-taker to place points on a graph and then connect them with lines. While this is not a difficult procedure once you understand how to do it, it is much better to practice doing that ahead of time. Other questions allow the use of an online calculator. Once again, it is better to practice using it before the day of testing.

Even if your child is not taking his testing online this spring, the practice tests found at the Smarter Balanced Assessment portal should help prepare for the paper and pencil standardized tests he will be taking.

To take a practice test in either math or language arts, select “Student Interface Practice and Training Tests,” sign in as “Guest,” select the appropriate grade, select “Yes,” and then start either the math or the language arts test. Scoring rubrics and classroom activities can be found on the Resources and Documentation page on the same site.

If your child is worried about taking the tests coming up soon, read Reduce the Stress of High-Stakes Standardized Tests for helpful information.

Multiple choice and true/false tests are often evaluated using bubble-type, machine-scored forms. This is extremely helpful for teachers who have lots of papers to grade. But students who have visual-motor integration problems might have trouble using them and make errors putting answers in the correct spot on the bubble form. They might put the answer to number five on the form where number six is, or they might bubble in the letter “B” when they mean “D.” They might start bubbling in their answers in the wrong column on the form. When these errors happen, the student gets a very low grade that does not reflect how much they actually know. Here are some strategies to try if using these forms is a problem for your child.

  • Ask the teacher if it is OK for her to write answers on the test page before transferring them to the bubble sheet. This might help for two reasons. First, bubbling in the answers is a single step that does not require holding the question and answer in working memory. All your child has to remember is the question number and the answer she needs to bubble in. That reduces the likelihood of errors because of trying to hold too much information in memory at once. Second, if she does make an error transferring the answer, she can always check the answer against the actual test where she first answered. She can show her teacher that she really did know the answer but made a mistake putting it on the form.
  • If your child has a visual-motor integration problem, he might not be able to keep his eyes going in a straight line. He should use a blank index card or a ruler to keep his place on the bubble form. The index card can help make sure he does not skip down a line or number. If he lines up the card with the correct number on the form, he should make fewer errors.
  • Your child might need to cover up everything she is not currently working on with a clean sheet of notebook paper. This helps focus her eyes on what is important for the question.
  • If she makes a mistake on the form, she needs to be sure she erases completely before bubbling in the correct answer. If she does not, the machine may count the answer wrong even though she bubbled in the correct answer.

All of these strategies are easy to implement. The teacher needs to know why your child needs the strategy, though. It would be easy to think a child is planning to cheat if she comes in to take a test with a sheet of paper or index card. These strategies can be allowed as accommodations on a child’s IEP or 504 Plan, as well.

If these strategies do not help your child, she can also be exempted from using the machine-scored bubble forms. If that is the case, the teacher needs to know why it’s necessary. You can say something like, “My child makes lots of mistakes using a bubble sheet.  If you want to know how much she knows, it is better to allow her to write her answers right on the test. If she has to transfer to the bubble form, what you will find out is how well she can bubble in the answers—not what she has learned from you.”

Many schools are focusing on the standardized tests coming up soon. These tests are so important to schools because they stand to lose their accreditation if their students do not perform well enough on them. In addition, many teachers are evaluated based on how well their students do. And, students cannot graduate until they have performed well enough on specific tests. That is why these tests are called “high-stakes tests.” The result of this unfortunate situation is that children all over America are stressed out over the tests they will soon take.

A certain amount of stress is good. It is a motivator. However, too much stress is not good. Parents need to monitor how their children are managing the stress of the standardized testing. If they are complaining of headaches or stomachaches or asking if they can stay home from school, they may be under too much stress.

I have written blogs in the past about high-stakes testing. If you sense your child is under too much stress about the tests, read "Easing High Stakes Testing Stress." If your child always has test anxiety no matter what test he is taking, read "Deep Breathing To Help With Test Anxiety." This is something you will need to work on for a while before the standardized tests begin.

On the day of the tests, be sure that your child gets plenty of rest, eats a good breakfast, and comes to school with the appropriate tools requested by the teacher (such as number two pencils with erasers). As she leaves for school, say, “Relax. Do your best. I love you no matter what.” And follow that with a big hug!

Finally, if you need help interpreting the scores when you receive them, see "What Do Standardized Test Scores and Percentiles Mean?"

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Many students completely stress out when they have a test. They might be totally prepared and know everything on it, yet they are so scared and worried that they become unable to show what they know. There are some strategies that might help. Learning how to breathe deeply is a good place to start.

When a person is stressed, the body produces adrenaline which is the hormone that creates the “fight or flight” response. During this response, breathing is quick and shallow and the body’s oxygen supply is directed to the legs and arms in order to protect oneself from danger. Deep breathing can actually help reduce the level of adrenaline in the body, increase the oxygen level in the brain, and help a person relax.

If your daughter knows the material when studying at home but gets too anxious when taking the test, teach her how to do this deep breathing exercise. She can reduce her anxiety while sitting at her desk about to start the test. No one will even notice.


  • First, have her inhale slowly through her nose and hold the oxygen in her lungs for a couple of seconds.
  • Next, she should slowly exhale through pursed lips. The stomach should rise and fall as she breathes.
  • Tell her to repeat this for several minutes until she begins to relax.


She needs to practice this at home until it is easy to do and feels natural to her. At home, you can help her practice when you notice she is getting angry or worried about something. Later, on test day, she will know what she needs to do.

Deep breathing will only help her to perform better if she is prepared for the test. If not, the source of her anxiety might be that she knows she is not ready to take it. In that case, she needs to learn how to study. Check out the study skills archive of articles for ideas to help her learn how to prepare for tests. 

> More tips to overcome test anxiety


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Standardized TestChildren everywhere are in the midst of taking standardized tests to measure academic progress.  We refer to this as "high stakes testing" because so much is riding on their outcome.  Children have to pass a certain number of them before they are allowed to graduate and schools must prove their students are learning or they risk losing their accreditation.  As a result, these tests create a great deal of anxiety. For students who are struggling in school, this anxiety can affect their performance on the tests.

Headaches, stomach-aches, or begging to stay home from school, may be signs that your child is suffering from test anxiety. In worst cases, students may show signs of depression. (For more on this topic, please see Coping With School Stress at WebMD.com. See Help Your Child Reduce Test Stress for another great article.

How can you help your child do well on these tests?

Children need to be familiar with the format of the tests and have experience answering questions in that format.  Many states publish earlier versions of the tests and answer keys so children can practice taking similar tests ahead of time.

Children should learn from their teacher how the tests will be administered, how long they will have to finish, and what they need to have with them when they take the tests.  Help your child gather all the materials he will need the night before the tests and place them where they will remember to take them to school the next morning.

Children should practice reading and following the directions they are likely to see on the tests.  The released tests will be similar in nature and when they practice them, they should be encouraged to read and discuss the directions to make sure they understand them.

If your child has specific test taking strategies that work well for him, she should use the same strategies on these tests.  For example, some benefit from skimming through the test to see the format of the whole test.  For others, this may produce anxiety, and they should not do it.  Some children need to cover up all except for the one question they are working on, because knowing there are so many more questions to answer produces anxiety.

Children should get plenty of rest the night before the tests and eat a good breakfast that morning.  If a child is fighting to stay awake or her stomach is growling, she may not do her best on the tests.

It is important to stay relaxed. Too much emotion can block memory. You can practice deep breathing with your child to show them how to calm down.

My grandson, Avery, eight years old at the time, said, "I need to make a 400 out of 500 on my OAA."  My daughter, a school psychologist remarked, "What a terrible goal for him to worry himself with."  Parents should encourage their children to do their best, but they also need to assure them that no matter how well they do on the tests, they will still love them and be proud of them.

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I'm sure you've heard that our schools are failing us, that international students kick our kids' fannies on tests,and that we'll all be working for the Chinese and Indians in just a few years, right? Those assertions have always troubled me, as they just don't seem to fit with the fact that our country is still leading innovation and taking care of much of the world financially.

Finally, though, there's some sanity in the discussion. While I do know that there is plenty we can do better in our schools, Jay Matthews -- the best education columnist on the beat -- adds a much-needed dose of facts and reality to the discussion. His conclusion? The sky is not falling on our schools. I agree.

Key points from the piece:

  • If you're going to compare test scores, helpful if kids taking the tests are same age or taking test after same prep.

  • If you're going to compare career paths, helpful to check if "engineer" means same thing in both countries.

  • If one country (the US) aims for the most part to keep all of its students in traditional high schools and another siphons off (early) many of its lesser academic stars straight to career-training (and doesn't test those students), then do you have an apples-to-apples comparison on testing?

In the end it comes down to how you and your school are doing with your child? Is he or she challenged? Are you connecting and getting involved and keeping things on a good track? Or you encouraging life-long learning? That's what this site is all about, and it's important that we don't let doom-and-gloomers tell us that we can't do it well. Thanks Jay!

Do you allow your children to watch TV or play on the computer before doing their homework?