What to Do When Your Test Score Improvement Stalls – The Pace of Progress

March 2, 2020 

Parents FAQ 1-5

A Piece of Cake

The recipe for success on the SAT/ACT isn’t the same for everyone. Think of it as similar to baking a cake: one person can have all of the needed ingredients and baking experience; another person might have experience, too, but still need a few ingredients from the store; meanwhile, another participant without any experience could have even fewer of the necessary ingredients. All three, however, can successfully bake their cakes, but the process for each may vary. 

When students prepare for the SAT or ACT, their level and pace of score improvement can be affected by preexisting factors, such as basic knowledge and past experience, as well as new factors such as studying and tutoring. Knowing what to expect and how to handle obstacles, such as slow improvement or score plateaus, could help students rise to the occasion and taste success on test day.

The Basics

One of the most important things to know about scores that are slow or stagnant is you are not alone. Meghan Moll of US News reports that it’s “more common among prospective college students than you might think.” In addition to acknowledging how frustrating the experience can be, Moll reassures students that, with the right tools and mindset, such ruts can be overcome.

Part of finding the right mindset is understanding the learning process itself. When people learn new skills, such as playing a sport, they have worked to become conscious of smaller components within the larger task—from how to hold a baseball bat to how to hit a ball—until each part is integrated into a whole and becomes second nature. Preparing for the SAT or ACT is no different.

Suggestions for Success

Knowing the test you’re taking, knowing yourself as a test-taker, and knowing quality test preparation resources are all essential to achieving your goals.

Become Familiar with the Test

As you study and take practice tests, you not only become more comfortable with a test’s mechanical requirements, such as the dexterity needed to seamlessly shift from your test booklet to your answer sheet to bubble in answers, but also more knowledgeable about a test’s personality quirks, such as how its wrong answers tend to be worded. For example, on the verbal sections of tests, anticipating certain passage types (e.g. historical texts, science experiments), trap answers (e.g. extremes that use terms like “always” or “never”), and answer patterns (e.g. answers on an ACT English passage that differ only in their use of commas) can help you navigate a test more calmly and successfully just as you could navigate your school better the more time you spent in it.

Manage Goals and Stress

Students learn best when they’re motivated, so it’s wise to remind yourself of the potential long-term rewards for your hard work, such as pride in a job well done and access to a dream school or career. It’s also important to avoid overwhelming yourself. As Moll of Us News says, “Calm your nerves by setting attainable goals.” As you achieve short-term goals, your confidence levels, along with your skill levels, rise exponentially.

Learn from Your Mistakes and Teach 

Learning from your mistakes will help you focus on where you need the most support and help you avoid similar errors in the future. Furthermore, in Thomas Hills Ph.D.’s article “Top 10 Science-Based Study Skills for the Classroom” for Psychology Today, he advises students to also try explaining what they’ve learned to others, because doing so “encode[s] new pathways that will help [them] remember.”

Establish a Routine 

Some students who study erratically, doing homework or practice tests all in one day instead of distributing it over time, may find progress elusive. Hills adds that studying is best spaced out with short reviews and practice periods. As a result, skills will be more effectively integrated into long-term memory.

Consider a Break

Even though Chris Lele’s article, “I’ve Hit a Plateau and I Don’t Know What to Do,” refers to the GRE, its recommendations equally apply to the SAT/ACT. Lele offers several pieces of advice to students, key among which are incorporating variety and breaks into studying. So, try doing practice-work and tests in a new location or at a new time, and/or give your brain a chance to process what it’s learned and renew itself with a short break.

Benefits of Tutoring

Given that so many of the recommendations to improve scores include monitoring strengths and weaknesses and targeting those areas with instruction and practice that is regulated for and tailored to students’ unique needs and circumstances, it’s not surprising tutoring can be worthwhile. Instead of burdening yourself with identifying specific skills in need of improvement, tracking progress, and locating useful learning tools, a tutor can do that work for you, freeing you to focus on the learning process itself. 

Closing Points

Improving slowly and reaching a point where improvement stalls are not uncommon experiences for those preparing for the SAT or ACT. The key to rising above these challenges and raising scores is to persevere and seek new tactics and tutoring that, when combined, can help students achieve their goals.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware can be reached at 215-886-9188.




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