I will keep tutoring as long as I am able. The reason is I believe it is important and getting good test scores can make a substantial difference in the life of a high school kid soon to be in college and to the lives of their parents. I love seeing my students confidence and test scores rise. I love watching them achieve their short term goals with the understanding that it is a first step to helping them achieve their long term goals. I love knowing that together we have opened a door for their future that might have otherwise been closed to them.
Why Testing Matters
For better or worse testing has become extremely important in our country. Your college entrance standardized test score will make the difference between what college you get accepted to and how much financial aid you will receive. The test becomes that much more important for home educated students as colleges will put more weight on these scores and sometimes ignore all together the transcript grades of the home educated believing they could be inflated or fabricated if they come from mom and dad. In addition often home school students have little testing experience under their belt and are used to knowledge being tested in different ways than by the bubbles they must rush to fill in. Home school students also rarely have experience with the time crunch of these standardized tests and can feel more anxious about them.
If I can communicate one thing to home school parents with kids in the junior and senior high age group it would be START PRACTICING for these tests with your students NOW. They are not too young to start gaining the skills they need to beat this test and secure a better college future for themselves. The first thing I tell my tutor students is: the ACT and SAT are not truly a test of your knowledge or intelligence, they are a test of how well you can take their particular test. They are not a test you can "study" for but they are a test you can and should practice for. Together we work to develop a strategy that is unique to them to help them maximize their score working from their strengths and not fighting their weaknesses. You can do this with your own child at home as well.
Junior High Strategies
Practice Bubble Tests
There are hundreds of standardized test practice books on the market. There are many free tests you can find and print online now. There are computer programs that give you multiple choice options. The resources are there, use them. From about second grade on I make my kids go through a grade appropriate test review book filled with bubble questions. We use the Spectrum series and that has worked nicely for us. This serves two purposes. It acts as a catch all review for things most schools are teaching at their grade level and it helps my kids get acquainted with the style of bubble testing of their knowledge. They get practice in these types of questions in a low pressure scenario and I get a general review of their knowledge each year. Win. Win.
Practice Time Crunch Situations
Every once in awhile set a timer while your student works. Give them five minutes to finish a math page or one minute to do a math problem. Make it a game if you want, challenge them to see how fast they can do a page while still getting everything accurate. As they get older do it more often. Make them practice moving quickly through a math page or seeing how fast they can read a passage and still understand it. While in general I don't believe busy or fast work is the key to knowledge and understanding I do think it is an important skill to learn so long as standardized testing has so much weight in our children's future. Set a timer, don't tell them why, don't make it stressful but get them used to occasional time crunches so they are not facing it for the first time as a junior in high school!
Good vocabulary is very important on these tests. The avid reader will just naturally have a good vocabulary if they read good books. Other students will have to work harder at it and should. The SAT will test it more directly than the ACT but having a good vocabulary will improve your score on both. It will also help your student feel more confident in all sections of the test if big words do not scare them or they understand how to decode unfamiliar words using context, roots, or other work a rounds. The stronger their vocabulary the stronger their test results. Build vocabulary skills by talking to them as you would talk to other adults from a young age. Challenge yourself to use better words. Make friends with Google Define and never say "I don't know" to what does a word mean. Play synonym and antonym games, use vocab workbooks. Occasionally assign reading from a dictionary during reading time. Get out 1000 best word books from the library. Keep a vocab list. Build your students vocabulary. This can only help them in life and translates to a life long skill not just a test prep one.
Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
Too often in home school situations the uncomfortable gets pushed aside or worked around. Challenge yourself and your kids to work through the uncomfortable testing, vocabulary, or math situation. Face the challenge head on together to demonstrate and build the skill they will need in the test when faced with a topic they are unfamiliar with. Practice reading really hard science or literature textbooks. Read something translated from a different language. Look for the hard and uncomfortable every once in awhile and teach your kids to embrace and work through it. Then when they see it on a test they will have built the skills up to deal with it. Science tends to be a test section that scare many on the ACT until they realize it truly is a reading comprehension section with charts and graphs and data. All the information they need to answer the question is in front of them they just need to decode it as uncomfortable as it feels. Practice this type of skill whenever you have the opportunity and create the opportunities from time to time.
Make sure your math program teaches what is on this test
I am not at all a fan of "teach to the test" but I am also not an ostrich. Your kid does need a substantial amount of math knowledge to do well on this test and they need particular knowledge, make sure they will have it. Not all math programs are created alike in the home school world. If you love your math program and it has holes in it when it comes to standardized test material fill the holes with other material. Make sure by the time they are a junior they are going to have all the math they need down. Math is the one test you can't really get around having outside knowledge in. No matter the tips and tricks you learn you need the math knowledge to do well on this part of the test. Kaplan has a 100 Math Key Concepts that is worth looking over in junior and senior high to be sure your student understands what they will need.
Practice writing 20 minute essays often
For some reason the time crunch in the essay part always seems to surprise people even though they know it is coming. This is a skill you can work on from the time your kids are young. Make them write 20 minute essays on various topics from older elementary years on. I start with creative writing and my expectation of my third grader is substantially different than my expectation of my 6th grader or it will be of my junior in high school. As they get older transition them to non-creative topics where they must take a position on a controversial or two sided issue. The point is they have to get used to writing fast, neat and complete in a short amount of time. Their brain practices organizing thoughts and getting them down on paper in a quick amount of time. They are training themselves in an unnatural skill as most people like to take their time to write, which in general is preferable. It is still important to learn how to organize and communicate thoughts in a quick amount of time.
Read. Read. Read
Well it is me writing this post so you knew this was coming :) I honestly believe the amount of time a student spends reading throughout their life will increase their scores overall. If you are a good reader you have a higher vocabulary, you can read a variety of topics and subjects and language arts does not scare you. The Reading and English sections will likely go well for you if you have always been an avid reader or even forced to read and retain. There are time crunch and test strategies you will need to work on later for these sections but if you start with a good reading base all of it will come easier. I have always made my kids read an hour a day since they were independent readers and I always will. Some of my kids choose to read more than that in a day. In the end I honestly believe there is no better preparation for college, for testing, and for life than a solid reading foundation. Make your kids read!
Advanced Testing for the Gifted
This last recommendation is not for everyone but it is important to consider for some. If your kid is truly gifted they could qualify for early advanced grade testing through an organization like NUMATS out of Northwestern University. Programs like this allow advanced students to take the ACT and SAT as early as 6th grade and see how they compare to other advanced students their age as well as the college juniors and seniors who typically take the exams. This experience can be very helpful for the gifted student and gives them early testing experience that will help them years later. It also allows them to compare their skills with other advanced students. It is not for everyone as the student goes to an area high school or college testing center and takes the test along with the seniors and juniors taking it, no exceptions. For some students the experience may be anxiety increasing and I would not recommend it for them. For others it is not stressful but rather rewarding and some even say fun! Our oldest tried this year and enjoyed her experience and was glad she did it.
When to Start
Everything I wrote above is appropriate to do and should be done with kids from sixth grade on. I have done these things naturally with my kids since about second or third grade so they have no idea I am giving them test prep skills, it is just another "weird" thing they accept about the way they are educated :) We don't do all of this daily or even weekly. It is rather peppered throughout their education from time to time. In this way I believe it is building natural habits that will serve them well later on. If you have not started these types of things I encourage you to do so in junior high.
Read the followup post. Preparing for the ACT or SAT in high school.