The Variability of Performance

Occasionally a student’s SAT or ACT scores will stay the same or, in rarer cases, decrease from one test to the next.  Why?  And how can we avoid flat or lower scores?

In some cases, low quality prep is to blame for a lack of score increase.  For our students, however, who have an average score increase of 180 points on the SAT and 6 points on the ACT and literally the most well-trained tutors, that possibility is impossible.  Here are the other reasons a lack of increase or a decrease can occur:

A bad day:

We all know that sometimes athletes have good and bad days.  Even performance on very straight-forward sports with no influence from factors of direct competition varies from one day to the next.  For example, one could presume that runners would have the exact same time every race (except maybe with gradual improvement over time) when controlling for racing conditions.  Yet even the top runners vary roughly 2% in performance from one race to the next (on the ACT, a 2% variance would equate to almost a full composite point difference on each test).  Male, younger, and slower runners vary the most in performance from one race to the next.¹

We also know from our personal experience that some days we are just mentally quicker than others.  The same is true for students on standardized tests.  Some days they will do better than others (and some days will be really good days on which a student performs better than usual).

A bad test:

By “bad” test, I simply mean a test that does not fit a student’s knowledge base as well.  Unlike in running in which all tracks are the same, on the SAT and ACT there is also variance in content from one test to the next (if there wasn’t, each test would be so predictable that students could prep so easily for them that everyone would get a perfect score).  To avoid complete predictability, there are 140 different topics tested just on the Math section of the ACT.  Some topics, such as exponents and percentages, are tested on every exam; but, after students have learned the frequently tested topics, they will be forced to learn increasingly infrequent (and difficult) topics if they want to increase their score.  Thus, they will have to learn topics tested on only 1 in 2 tests, then those tested on 1 in 4 tests, then those on 1 in 10 tests, etc.  Because of this variance in content from one test to the next, some tests may have content that suits a student significantly better or worse than other tests and lead to unexpectedly large increases or lack thereof.

Taking Breaks:

As we wrote about here, the detriment of taking breaks is surprisingly large.  Students who do not take breaks achieve 50% higher score increases (6 points as opposed to 4 points on the ACT) than those who do take breaks.  Thus, breaks in-between tests can cause students to yo-yo: they improve but then regress back to where they were originally, improve and then regress, etc, which makes it look like they were not improving.

The solution:

Most problems in life have the same solution: hard-work.  The SAT and ACT are no exception.  The more students practice, the less variance there is in their scores.  In foot races, the experienced runners have more predictable times.  The same holds true on the SAT and ACT: the more experienced test takers are less likely to panic and more likely, because of practice, to execute with consistency.  Additionally, the more topics a student learns, the less variance in scores because they know more and more of even the infrequently tested topics.  For example, the Math Level 2 SAT subject test assesses students from a pool of 200 different Math topics.  But there are only 50 questions on the exam.  Thus, one test looks very different from the next, and I have seen students have 100 point swings in score from one test to the next at the beginning of their prep.  However, as they learn more and more topics, their scores rise and become more consistent as their knowledge base rises and eliminates more and more unknown topics.

The key to success in life is hard-work.  The same is true on standardized tests.  With practice and quality prep, students can mitigate the likelihood of bad days and bad tests.  And, even if they have one of the latter, quality prep is guaranteed to pay off in the long-term.

  1. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2001/09000/Variability_of_competitive_performance_of_distance.23.aspx
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