When to start ACT/SAT testing?

October 5, 2009

Recently the topic of College Board testing came up on my Raising Self-learners 4 Life yahoo group. I was asked about a timetable for testing. When should students start taking the tests? How early is too early? Since I am asked these questions frequently at this time of year, I thought I would address the topic here as well.


Let’s start with the SAT timetable.  My general rule of thumb is to allow students to take their first SAT after they have completed Algebra 1. If the student has that much math under their proverbial belt AND he/she is a very good reader, they are cleared for takeoff. That means kids as young as 8th grade (or have just completed 8th grade) sometimes take the test. I have an 8th grader this year, and she is looking forward to matching wits with the SAT at the end of this year. I am comfortable with her readiness level, and I think she will do very well.

Keep in mind I am looking for just a baseline score. They are not trying to knock one out of the park. (Although that may happen…) I like my kids to take the SAT early, and then they have a whole lot of confidence from seeing how well they do at just an 8th grade level. Even if they bomb, which they most likely won’t, you can say, “Look, you are only in 8th grade! This is a great score for your age!” There simply is no pressure to perform.

(Note, do not have the score auto-sent to ANYBODY but you. Do not send the score to your umbrella school. This is just practice.)

If the student does not WANT to take the test yet, that is perfectly fine, but for the ones who do, I encourage it. There is absolutely NO PRESSURE to perform at this age. I mean, come on! They are only in 8th grade! The expectation to ace the test is just not there. The exercise in test-taking is extremely valuable, and the lack of pressure and element of fun makes it a great learning opportunity.

Taking the SAT early (8th, 9th grade) provides the student with their baseline score, and this is their score to beat. I remind my kids that they are only competing with themselves when they take the college boards. They are not competing against their siblings’ scores; they are aiming to better their *OWN* score. So by taking the test early, they have a great opportunity to increase their own score as they learn and grow each year of high school.


Now the ACT is another animal altogether. I do not encourage the ACT after 8th grade. Why? Because the ACT is a subject area test. The SAT tests *how* a student thinks, and the ACT tests *what* the student knows. It is difficult for an 8th grader who hasn’t had any high school science to do well on the ACT’s science section when they haven’t had biology of basic chemistry.

With that said, Nick took the ACT after 9th grade for fun, (and this was the first college board test he had ever taken), and he scored a 35/36. Highly strange considering he had only had physical science. I asked him how he could do so well when he didn’t have the actual experience with the subject matter he was tested on, and he gave me the most profound answer of all time:

“Mom, the answers were right there.”

Isn’t that true? Each question on a college board exam, be it SAT, ACT, PSAT or what have you, has the correct answer given right there below it. You just have to know how to use deductive reasoning to pick it out. Self-learners develop high-level ability in deductive reasoning because they are not spoon fed by teachers! They learn to think a problem through.

It helped that Nick was a fast reader though; otherwise he would not have had time to logically think out the answers to the questions he didn’t know right off.

If your student has strong logic skills, the ACT can be taken early in high school; otherwise, I recommend tenth grade as a starting point for taking the ACT.


A note about the PSAT: this exam is meant for juniors to qualify them for the National Merit Scholarship competition, but it is also good practice for taking the other college boards. If you have a student needing to get his feet wet with exams, I recommend having him/her take the PSAT as a sophomore…for fun. There is no pressure at this point either, as only the scores of juniors “count.”

Ultimately, a parent should use his/her own judgment on the readiness of the child for the SAT or ACT, but the earlier the student takes it, the less pressure there is on the student. Research has shown that scores increase with practice, and my own experience has shown that to be the case as well.

The college boards are a necessary evil for college-bound students, but we can up our students’ chances for success on the tests by giving them plenty of opportunities to do well.


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