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Score Fluctuations in SAT and ACT

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By Paul Lim | Kaplan SAT & ACT Trainer

With the December 2019 SAT and ACT tests just behind us, some students (and parents in particular) are surprised that their scores not only have shown no improvement, but also have shown various degrees of deterioration.  This by itself is not a surprising phenomenon and I believe that this will continue for the rest of the year of 2020 for both SAT and ACT.

SAT on the one hand is trying to “tighten” up their scores gradually because they have been a bit lax in their scaling since 2017.  This is the kind of normal “adjustments” that SAT does from time to time.  Other than that, there is another common reason for students to score lower in subsequent tests: their fundamentals are not “solid” enough so that when SAT changes their question distribution slightly, they find that they have not seen these questions before and therefore are unable to answer the questions.  This is most evident in the math sections.  Unlike the verbal sections, the math sections have a syllabus, from which they test the students on.  And within that syllabus, there are core areas that they test you on in every test, with multiple questions per test.  Other than the core areas, there are other areas (peripheral areas) that they test you on selectively, with one to two questions per test.  Since they cannot test you on ALL the peripheral areas, they choose a few peripheral areas to test you on in each test.  However, from time to time, they change these peripheral areas.  So, if students only practice on the same type of questions in previous tests, once they change the questions on the peripheral areas, some students may find themselves at a loss.  Thus, they end up with lower scores than their previous tests.

As for ACT, I believe the major reason is due to changing from a paper-based test to a computer-based test.  If a student can be cloned so that one of the clones take the paper-based test and the other clone takes the computer-based test, I firmly believe that the clone with the paper-based test is going to have a higher score.  These 2 test platforms are not a level playing field, even though ACT wants you to believe that it is.

Unfortunately, this is something that we can do nothing about: there are just many inherent disadvantages in a computer-based test.  Therefore, if you score 30 on the official ACT paper-based practice tests, expect to score slightly lower in the real ACT computer-based test.  So, for this year’s coming ACT tests, I think students and parents alike will have to live with this fact and adjust their expectations accordingly.

But the good thing is that there are ways to overcome some of these score fluctuations.  One of them is to practice all the subject areas and question types that are included in the syllabus.  That way the students can thoroughly master the subject areas and score a “solid” performance.  This is also what we are trying to accomplish in the exam drills and my continual focus on understanding of concepts rather than rote memorization and blind practices.

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Mr. Paul Lim
Kaplan SAT and ACT Trainer
MBA, National University of Singapore
B.Sc., Harvey Mudd College
TBE
TESOL

• Over 15+ years of experience in teaching SAT and ACT
• Graduated from a prestigious U.S. college
• Proven record in helping students achieve a perfect subject section score of 800
• Author of a book on effective learning strategies for mastering vocabulary

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