Collegeboard Epic Fail

I was with one of my students recently, and she asked me if I had heard.

Heard what?

I was in the middle of telling her how important it was to pay attention to her timing, especially on the ACT where even a single minute can make a 2-point difference. Timing is absolutely brutal on the ACT, so even mere moments can become make or break. That’s why I get countless students complaining to me how they just would die for 5 extra minutes on the reading or science section. That slimmest slice of extra time has tremendous impact.

Even as a tutor who’s taken these tests myself over and over, I know this to be true. I barely finish some of those sections on time myself–this is by the ACT’s design. The ACT knows even a tiny bit of extra time would be hugely advantageous to people, which is why, uncoincidentally, it is much harder to qualify for extra timing on the ACT than on the SAT.

So what was the big news my student was wondering if I had heard?

It was an epic timing failure by the Collegeboard (creators of the SAT). Now, the SAT is much less time-sensitive than the ACT, so most students can finish the SAT sections in time. Still, here’s what happened:

Normally, the SAT includes 3 graded math sections and 3 graded reading sections. The first two sections of each subject are always 25 minutes each, and the last section of each subject is 20 minutes each (with fewer and generally easier questions).

There was a misprint on the test booklets, which stated that students would get 25 minutes (not the normal 20 minutes) on that last section. Anyone who is even remotely prepared for the SAT would have noticed this timing error. While the student booklets listed the error, the proctor’s manual listed the correct 20 minutes.

The issue is that proctors across the nation did not handle the situation uniformly. Some proctors disallowed the extra time, sticking to the standard 20 minutes. Others gave their students the extra 5 minutes.

Now, I’m not saying 5 extra minutes will make or break any SAT–it really doesn’t. But I’m saying is mistakes happen, and students suffer the consequences, regardless of who’s at fault.

Clearly, this is Collegeboard’s epic failure. What’s more, its handling of the situation leaves much to be desired.

In short, Collegeboard decided to omit the entire misprinted section from all student scores and grade the rest of the test normally. While this outcome is better than cancelling scores nationwide, it is stunningly unfair to students who happened to do excellently on that now omitted section.

Collegeboard is trying to play this off by saying, “We have deliberately constructed both the Reading and the Math Tests to include three equal sections with roughly the same level of difficulty. If one of the three sections is jeopardized, the correlation among sections is sufficient to be able to deliver reliable scores.” (Here’s Collegeboard’s official statement).

Unfortunately, that statement is patently untrue, and Collegeboard has a nasty habit of spinning narratives around ulterior agendas.

For example, one of normal 25-minute math sections is partially multiple-choice, partially grid-in questions (students have to come up with their own answers with no possible answer choices to help them). Students almost invariably score MUCH lower on these grid-in questions because they are obviously harder than multiple choice problems. Without this easier 20-minute section (which is always pure multiple choice) to help buoy their scores, students will likely score much lower overall.

Similarly, one of the normal 25-minute reading sections includes something called “long combo passages” (two lengthy stories that require students to compare and contrast the two passages). These tend to be some of the hardest critical reading questions. Without the easier, more straightforward “single passage” questions on the now omitted reading section, students are robbed of their chance to help balance out their reading scores.

Collegeboard is saying that through some statistical wizardry, it can normalize these scores, but we know this workaround is a poor substitute for proper scoring. Not to mention the psychological rattling on students who ran into this botched section. The timing strategies they’ve probably spent months perfecting were ruined by Collegeboard, and who knows what havoc that wrecked on the remaining portions of the test .

So chalk it up to another Collegeboard fail. This is exactly why I highly recommend NOT taking the new SAT (coming out in March 2016) for quite some time (6 months to 1 year after its release)–no one will be surprised if (or should I say when) that roll-out is botched as well.

My heart goes out to all these students who have to endure such nonsense. In fact, my student was also telling me about another thing that happened during this past weekend’s SAT: a local San Marino, California girl was so overwhelmed by the SAT and school that she literally ran away from home. Her parents dropped her off at the test center, and she high-tailed it out of there to Northern California (supposedly). This story hits close to home for me because many of my students are from the San Marino/Arcadia area, where the academic pressure is soul-crushing.

Here’s the Los Angeles Times news article (if anyone has any information about her, please contact your local police).

The competition is unreal. I’ve been through it at my own high school, and I’ve witnessed it with hundreds of my students. Every year, it seems to get worse as we hear of record low acceptance percentages at most universities.

I believe much of this stress stems from uncertainty. I always tell my students and their parents that the best test prep removes as many factors of uncertainty as possible.

Uncertain if you can finish in time? I’ll show you the right pacing strategies, so you know exactly which questions to do or skip, and how long to spend on each question (and even what order to do them in). We’ll build up your endurance as well, since these are long, 4-hour tests.

Uncertain if you really know the academic concept? Not to fear. There are workaround ways that can bypass tough math, for example, so you can solve the questions more easily, more accurately, and faster.

I’m all about helping my students eliminate as many barriers of uncertainty as possible, which is how they enjoy multiple hundred point increases.

Currently, we’re in an interesting transition period as both the SAT and ACT are undergoing changes. Naturally, this breeds a new level of uncertainty. The SAT changes are more dramatic, but the ACT too has quietly made some unsettling changes on two recent tests in February and April 2015. The ACT Science sections were different than normal, which caught many students off guard. Now, the changes weren’t anything major, but they were enough to rattle some students.

ACT Inc. has done something similar not too long ago too when it introduced its own combo passages (similar to the long combo passages on the SAT) on the ACT Reading test. Previously, there were only single passage stories on the ACT, but now combo passages seem to be the norm. This change came completely unannounced. They just slipped it in their like a ninja.

Therefore, we must expect the unexpected. But we should prepare the best we can, which means we cannot afford haphazard studying or review. You must implement an organized SYSTEM of review to eliminate as many uncertain variables as possible. Certain things are out of our control, as was the case this weekend, but don’t let one tiny thing destroy your entire test.

Inconvenient Collegeboard failure? Absolutely. But if you’re well prepared, you can roll with the punches. Even on a highly predictable test like the ACT (and the SAT), sometimes things happened…so don’t be too shaken if something happens out of the ordinary. The vast majority of the test will still be what you expected, so just focus on that.

If you’re taking the ACT this weekend, good luck out there, valiant test taker!

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