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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Quick and Dirty Guide to Raising PSAE Scores

Charlie is napping so I have had some time to think about the things I used to do to raise test scores. Test scores are not about play, so let's put down the crayons and get down to business. In my former incarnation I worked on improving student test scores on the PSAE. Over the years those scores increased, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. If your school needs an edge—a few points here or there—then this will serve as a good quick and dirty guide. Remember that this is about raising test scores and only that. It does not reflect my belief in education. It is simply a means to an end. As for test prep, I have very specific ideas on that but they are outside the scope of this piece.

1) Do not invest in a test prep program with the idea that it will “fix” the problem. In Illinois, the ACT is administered to juniors statewide. It is a demanding, text heavy test. Students need to be able to read demanding passages and decode difficult questions in order to be successful. Test prep programs assume that the students can read these passages with a degree of fluency that is simply not the case in many schools. Don’t assume that a test prep program will do this. Most programs will tout that they can raise the bottom quartile, but the real movement under state accountability is from the second to third quartile—or roughly the difference between a 16 and an 18 on the ACT. Remember at the end of the day, test prep companies do not face NCLB sanctions, the school does.

2) Take an initial practice tests early and a second practice test after explicitly teaching students how to take the test, and hold them to the strategies that you are pushing. Go on a special schedule that mirrors testing conditions for both exams. You can purchase practice ACT exams from…the ACT. Score them and report the scores to students and faculty. Invest some time in item analysis, but not too much. Some companies provide these services. If I were to take anything from a test prep company it would be their score reports; as for their intervention strategies, no way.

3) Have kids paraphrase question stems that appear in practice tests and classroom assignments. It is amazing how many kids are unfamiliar with what the questions are asking. Like one teacher pointed out, "If they don't know what the question is asking, how can they possibly know the answer?"

4) There are numerous ways to administer the PSAE. It may be a shock, but why not use data driven decision making here? Why not group students according to score ranges on the practice test? For example, you could group students according to a cut score of 16. Goup studnets who score below 16 together and students who score 16 and above together. Adjust these cut scores according to your situation. Don’t tell students that you are doing this. The easiest way to get around this is to group the under 16’s by division for testing. Those that score 16 and above are pulled out. The benefit and justification is that all students area being provided a smaller testing environment in which to do their best. Note, students who score higher on the ACT tend to try harder on the test and take the whole thing a lot more serious then those who do not.

5) Many schools provide students with show up prizes on testing days--BIG MISTAKE. Instead of having “show up” prizes have all incentives tied to a measurable attitude and behavior rubric. I had proctors score each student that was testing according to such a rubric and attached a cut score to be eligible for prizes. Of course, this rubric was shared with all students and faculty prior to testing. Yes, there was a strong correlation between high rubric scores and high test scores on the PSAE. The beauty of it is that any student who took the test seriously was rewarded for their efforts. High scoring students on the ACT were also rewarded with still more special incentives.

6) If your school is struggling with the PSAE then a schoolwide focus on vocabulary pulled from the academic word list, and nonfiction EPAS aligned reading assessments both weekly and quarterly may be necessary. These programs should be continuous from 9th grade through 12th grade. I found that the longer students worked these programs the better their test scores. Nonfiction readings should be selected by the content area teachers and they should both relate to what is being studied in the class and be of an appropriate length and complexity. I suggest looking to the Explore, PLAN, and ACT to guide the length and complexity of readings for 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students accordingly. These programs require buy in and monitoring, but in the long run they can improve student achievement.

7) Always keep the students and teachers in the loop regarding the testing plan. Small group forums work best for this. In my experience when more than 60 kids were present for a presentation it was a waste of time. The same goes for teachers—the smaller the group the more profound the impact.

8) Always stay on point—if your goal is to increase test scores then don’t let anything detract from that—this includes initiating or implementing school policies that distract the faculty or students from the goal. A good rule of thumb is to keep everything stable except for the test push.


In the meantime, take a look at my test prep posts. They are free, and they have worked with city kids. If you have any questions drop me a comment. All comments are posted to my email first. I will never post any email addresses in the comment section. So if you want to contact me, drop me your email and I’ll get back with you. It is my hope that my expertise in this field will help someone out there. Let me know.

Posts Concerning Test Prep

Quick and Dirty Guide to Raising PSAE Scores
PSAE Test Prep Strategies that Work
ACT Reading Prep and the Two-Point Conversion
Maximizing Brain Power on the ACT Reading Test
Realizing Focused Active Reading During the ACT

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