Standardized tests are a current fixture of admissions to educational institutions and for professional licensure. Given this, students and their families need to avoid being blind-sided. There are resources and techniques to make the experience less horrific, but of course, nothing replaces personal familiarity with both the content of the test and the context as well. Let’s look at these tests and how to manage the experience.
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Standardized testing is meant to provide schools with an evaluation tool that evens out the vast heterogeneity in students’ educational backgrounds, and serve as a reliable alternative to grades and recommendations. The big standard tests such as the SATs and the GREs purport to examine the individual’s ability alone. Intense controversy roils around these tests because of consistently lower scores for persons from some demographic groups than for others. They have been accused of being racially, ethnically, economically, and linguistically biased. Resolving this painful and complex issue is way beyond the scope of this article.
However, given the ubiquity of these tests, it behooves families and students to become comfortable with the challenge. Fear and uncertainty are the enemies of clear thinking, so anything we can do to reduce them is going to help.
The most important preparation for these tests is reading; often, at length, and in the greatest possible variety. Even in the math sections of such tests, the instructions must be read and understood, especially the word problem questions. A young person who cannot read in the language in which the test is administered is going to be at a severe disadvantage in all but purely numeric calculations (and even in such questions, there are often additional instructions).
Students, who cannot read swiftly and accurately, effectively distinguishing subtleties, decoding complex sentences with multiple clauses, and not skipping crucial words, are also going to be handicapped. This is a skill that must be built up over time. No amount of tutoring or test prep is going to make up for such deficits entirely.
So read, read, read; in all genres, all formats, all the time, everywhere you go. Read recipes, computer and software manuals, and tax filing directions. Read fiction and non-fiction, non-tabloid periodicals, and every form you see in bureaucratic settings. Check your comprehension constantly by asking others whether they understood the same meaning from the material.
Experts in test-taking suggest several strategies for understanding what is being asked of you in any test, but especially those that are standardized. The most critical suggestion, and one that may go against what APPEARS on the test booklet, is to read the questions and instructions for each question FIRST.
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If presented with a passage of text, read the questions that will apply first. Considering math problems, again, read the instructions first, even if the problem is laid out as a calculation for you.
This approach has many benefits. When a passage of text is presented, knowing what is going to be asked for ahead of time will allow you to be thinking in line with the questions. First, look for word clues such as “not”, or “same”, “different”, “similar” in the question itself, and underline them if allowed. The addition of the word NOT can transform a straightforward question that you could have gotten right into a trick question that will haunt you with regret.