The Savvy Guide to Test Prep
From free online self-teaching to school-based programs to companies and private tutors providing structured group or one-on-one sessions, there is no shortage of ACT prep options. However, finding the service that’s right for your student can be a lot trickier.
By Dwain Hebda
According to Kristi Frieberg of Gideon Math and Reading Center in Little Rock, the search for the right ACT prep service starts at home. “I like to talk to the parents and say, ‘What are you goals?’” she says. “Are you just trying to improve by a couple of points? Are you trying to get into a certain school? Are you looking for scholarships? Students and parents need to be on the same page going into it because sometimes the parents will tell me one thing and the student will tell me something else.
“You have to know where you’re headed. If you only need a 22 to get into ABC school and you don’t care about a scholarship, that’s a very different animal than if you need a 34 because you’re probably going to spend some money and quite a bit of time and effort getting there.”
Once that’s been established, Frieberg says a key success factor in ACT prep is time. Of all the issues parents and students go through when it comes to test prep, failing to provide enough time to adequately prepare is one of the most common mistakes they make. “I don’t think you can cram for the ACT. I mean, it just doesn’t work,” she says. “Some parents will call and say ‘Oh, my student does best cramming,’ but this is not your typical test.
“I like to see kids take their first test no later than the June administration after their sophomore year. Then, after they get those results, we like to start working with them. I like to have a minimum of four months to work with them.”
Gideon delivers one-on-one instruction, which Frieberg says allows for more targeted help, but this isn’t the only delivery method out there. Many companies, including the nation’s largest prep firms, use group instruction and these also suit some students’ learning styles. Online practice tests and other aids are also available—many for free— something Frieberg highly encourages.
“There’s always the ability to enhance your knowledge, whether you do it from a book, a teacher, another person, a classmate or online,” she says. “One of the best things a student can do is work on vocabulary. That’s a very time-consuming endeavor and to do that one- on-one is not really a beneficial use of prep time.
“Bottom line, a student is going to have to put in the time outside of Gideon to be successful. We can work with them for a year, we can work with them for two months, when they walk into that test, we aren’t there. So, they have to take responsibility for it.”
ACCOMMODATIONS FOR LEARNING DISABILITIES
But what happens when a student is hindered by a learning disability that is more than conventional effort and tutoring can overcome? Susan Jeter, owner of Educational Edge in Little Rock, says students with dyslexia, ADHD and other learning problems need help levelling the playing field with the ACT.
“It doesn’t matter how much prep work you do, if the student can only get through half of the materials, there’s no way they can score well,” she says. “If a kid is reading on a fifth-grade level, it doesn’t matter how quick they read, they can’t read a lot of the words. These kids need tools to get around their reading disability.”
The good news is the ACT recognizes students with these disabilities and has implemented accommodations to help. The bad news is many parents—and even high school administrators and counselors—don’t know such accommodations exist.
“It all depends on the school,” she says. “Our private schools in Little Rock all do it; they usually have 20 to 30 kids who are taking advantage of this every test day. But there are also really big public schools that aren’t familiar with this.”
The accommodations include extended time, which provides an extra 30 minutes per test section to students with certain conditions, administered at the regular testing site and date. More severe disabilities qualify for extended time and alternate test formats, such as DVD, reader or Braille format and may be administered over several days.
Students seeking to take advantage of these accommodations must have certain documentation of their condition, including a diagnosis and treatment history as well as other certification that such action is warranted. That’s where Jeter comes in, conducting a day of testing to establish the student’s performance capability, consulting with parents and helping with application paperwork.
The effort is worth it: Jeter estimates that by using the accommodations a student can raise their score 10 points or more and it also provides key documentation for college coursework and other tests after high school.
“I usually like to meet with parents and the student for a couple of hours to discuss college, because in college all these things can be used again. They even do this for the MCAT and LSAT level after college because they qualify for the same thing,” she says.
“There’s usually a reason if a student is struggling; it’s not that they’re not trying or not motivated,” she says. “They need to know what kinds of things they can qualify for and how to request them.”
All things ACT are available at ACT.org. Here you can find all registration forms,
testing dates and sites, plus free practice tests, an ACT question of the day and other prep materials. The ACT student page provides a test day checklist, college and career planning, a listing of the student’s scores and help streamlining the process of sending scores to colleges. It also provides a link to colleges that require the optional written component
of the ACT. Parents and students can also sign up for ACT updates and find complete information about accommodations for student with learning disabilities.