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While there remains a strong correlation between high grades and high ACT/SAT scores, it is especially exasperating for parents to see their diligent, competent seniors failing to complement their high grades with high ACT or SAT scores. Since explanations may lead to solutions, allow us to hypothesize based on our experience with high school test-takers.

Correlation does not equal causation

Though the correlation between high grades and ACT/SAT scores is strong, it is wrong to say that mastering a school’s English and Math curricula will result in 1300+ SAT scores. Any causation is better attributable to work ethic by the student than to a transfer of skills in traditional curricula, especially in the English section. Since the ACT and SAT test very coachable skills, a student’s desire to master those skills plays a large role in her/his performance.

The correlation that we believe has the highest elements of causation is parental expectations. It is no secret that the children of doctors, engineers, lawyers, and professors garner a huge share of the highest SAT scores. Though some attribute “test smarts” to genetics, we feel differently. Most children of well-educated professionals have high standards that they are 1) exposed to and 2) motivated to meet.

Exposure and motivation

For students at a strong public school or even a mediocre prep school, exposure to the college admissions process and standards comes almost automatically. For motivated students in schools that send few kids to competitive colleges, I recommend that their parents stay in touch with parents who chose a college preparatory school for their kids. If they do not know such parents, consult with a college placement counselor. Form a posse to seek out the information that many other kids are exposed to beginning in 9th grade. Ivy Bound held its first SAT class in south central Los Angeles. The four kids who chose to be in the class were daughters and sons of working class Mexican Americans. Three of them are among Ivy Bound’s top improvers and one set her school’s record for highest-ever SAT score. As far as exposure to the SAT itself, that’s easy –$19.95 at Barnes & Noble buys any student The Official SAT Study Guide, which contains simulated SATs.

How does a student get the desire to master the SAT? There are many answers. Fear of not keeping up with peers who are bound for competitive colleges is a good motivator for some. Fear of failing their parents’ expectations is a motivator for others, but a dangerous one. (The reward for meeting such expectations is probably a more positive motivator.) Though far from a scientific survey, we find that many students improved  greatly just wanted to meet a certain number for the sake of meeting that number. They are not saying “I just have to get in to __________ university,” or “I have to meet the score my dad expects,” but “I want a 1500.”

Here’s one reason why “I want a 1500” is a good attitude and can lead to success: it divorces the consequences of the test from the studying and doing of the test. Consequences are the things we both aspire to and fear. Unfortunately fear too often takes over. In the process a student’s mental energies along with emotional energies are distracted. When the student can remind himself “here’s how I’m supposed to do this test,” instead of “here’s what happens to me if I don’t get into Stanford,” the anxiety is reduced.

One thing that dampens desire is the attitude that “the ACT/SAT is a stupid test.” A test that helps evaluate grammar, science reasoning, reading comprehension, math, and logical reasoning is not a stupid test. Anyone in your child’s midst who is purveying that attitude should be quarantined, teachers included. The current ACT is a decent test of skills and knowledge that are important in higher education, if not everyday life. It could be a broader, less coachable and thus fairer test, and many would like to see it untimed, but on the whole it is a well-crafted test.  The current SAT, though a bit less pragmatic, is also a decent test of broad skills for college success.

Read more on this subject: Why ACT and SAT Scores May Not Meet Expectations