Testing season: what tests really count

Kristin Lam, Editor in Chief

Summer seems within reach for many once March, April, and May roll around. For college-bound juniors, however, spring brings a seemingly unending stream of standardized test stress.

Depending on students’ plans, the testing season can be overwhelming. Junior Jennifer Gonzalez has the ACT, four California state tests, the SAT and five AP tests all within three weeks.  With so much on her plate, Gonzalez said she feels that the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) testing, including the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium assessments, is unnecessary.

“My goal was to just tackle those AP tests but now I have to take another four tests,” Gonzalez said.  “And at the same time we have to take the ACT and SAT. It’s so much stress not because we’re taking them, but because we know that those tests are basically our future into college.”

All these important tests lead to a burning question: how can a student prioritize preparation time and focus on the exams that matter the most?

Counselor Ren Pham-Peck says that SAT and ACT scores are a significant component of increasingly competitive college admission considerations.  It is recommended that juniors take both before the summer so that they can plan which score they will have a better chance of improving in the fall.  The weight of the SAT or ACT varies with different schools’ admission requirements as some look at a broader sense and range of scores, have a general GPA threshold, or use a holistic review — but high SAT or ACT scores can give students an edge.

“If you’re looking at UCs, the bottom line is going to be your essays and test scores,” Pham-Peck said. “Because everyone is going to have the same [level of] grades, there’s going to be an emphasis on test scores.”

College and Career Center advisor Janet Hobart said that although the SAT and ACT have the most immediate impact in college applications, the others are still significant.  The Academic Performance Index (API) is suspended until the 2015-2016 school year due to the

integration of the common core Smarter Balanced tests, but state tests this spring will determine the base API.  The 2016 state testing, which will take place after the class of 2016 will have received their admission decisions, will then determine the growth API that is the basis for calculating the API scores that influence college admissions.

“Colleges will look at the school’s API,” Hobart said. “If the school has a low API, it makes your 4.5 or whatever less impactful coming from a school that’s below par, so it really is important to do well on the state tests.”

Performing at Achievement Level 4 on the CAASPP tests — the Smarter Balanced assessment of which determines the Early Assessment Program (EAP) predicted readiness for college-level English and mathematics courses — can furthermore satisfy CSU English Placement Test (EPT) and Entry Level Mathematics (ELM) exam requirements if juniors choose to release their results or later provide a copy of their score report.  The English and math placement tests can also be taken at CSU campuses in April or May before freshman orientation.

Students should also note that SAT, ACT, and even AP test scores can also earn exemption from the CSU and participating California Community College placement tests. AP tests are often promoted as a way to get general education units and pre-requisites done, but Hobart said that students need to research their intended college program’s policies as well.

“There are some programs, like in the nursing field especially, where if you have an AP math or AP Biology test and score high enough to get college credit, they’ll count that as a C,” Hobart said.  “So if you’re going to go into a field where your GPA is going to count on whether you get into a program or not, having the AP test to have the courses out of your way isn’t necessarily going to be beneficial.”

Junior AVID and math teacher Tammy Naylor similarly encourages students to evaluate which tests they have the best motives for personally and whether they are long term or short term motives. Naylor said that none of the tests can be crammed for, which is why she prepares and pushes her AP Statistics students with cumulative tests throughout the year, and also suggests scheduling the more curriculum-based ACT and strategy-based SAT away from the APs in May.

“You have to look at all of them as being tests that you’re preparing for all year long,” Naylor said. “AP tests, SAT Tests, ACT tests, all of them are things that you’re going to accumulate over time. So practice them over the whole year, purchase the apps, spread it out.”

Learning the strategies, taking practice tests to get accustomed to the pacing, understanding the directions on how incorrect answers are scored and spacing out the tests are all steps students can take to prevent feeling overwhelmed.

Overall, Pham-Peck said that it is important for students to know themselves in terms of how much of a mental breather they need to rest and regroup before taking another test.

“The beautiful part about it is there are so many different schools out there that have a good fit for students,” Pham-Peck said. “It goes back to being a good planner, and if you’re planning well, following the guide and your counselor’s suggestions, you will get through your 11th grade testing not too stressed.”