What do ACT/SAT scores mean? Story of two students who overcame their standardized testing hardships (Part One)
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By Jeff Lee

 Story of N.S. and J.L.

Parents and students frequently ask me questions pertaining to ACT/SAT scores such as “What does a [insert test score] on the ACT/SAT mean?” and “Is [insert test score] good enough?” This happened again recently when one of my students asked me what would be considered a “good score” for the SAT. Of course, the higher a student’s score the better; however, in truth, people often fail to realize that standardized tests like the ACT and SAT are fundamentally designed to only allow for a small handful of students to earn top scores. As a result, I frequently encounter students who are unsatisfied with their test score results and who feel constantly pressured to further increase their scores to improve their chances of gaining acceptance into their colleges of choice.

Two students whom I helped prepare for the ACT (I will refer to them by their initials N.S. and J.L.) finally managed to earn the scores they wanted after nearly two to three years of preparation. N.S. had been practicing for the ACT since he was a rising sophomore during the summer of 2015. I actually began tutoring him for English when he was a freshman who had just immigrated to the U.S. from China. As is often the case with non-native English speaking students, he struggled with all facets of English, including speaking, reading comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, and writing.

N.S. scored 18 for his composite score on his first ACT practice. Of course, the English and reading sections were where he struggled the most. He managed to raise his practice test scores to 23 during that summer and eventually 30 by January the following year. However, he unfortunately only scored 26 and 27 on the two official tests he took during his junior year. It is
always frustrating when people come up short when trying to reach their goals. Adding to this frustration is the realization that much of a high school student’s future might rest upon how well they perform on these high-stakes tests.

J.L. started his ACT preparation in the fall of 2015 as a sophomore. He and N.S. are close friends though they attend different high schools. They also share similar experiences: J.L. immigrated to the U.S. from China in 8th grade, scored 19 on his first practice test, and struggled mostly on the English and reading sections. He eventually raised his composite
scores to the mid-20’s by the spring.

N.S. and J.L. took my ACT class a total of three and two times respectively. They spent hours taking practice tests, learning strategies, and learning from their mistakes. Despite the challenges they faced, they remained undeterred. They struggled and persevered as they strove to improve their English skills. At the same time, throughout their journey, they encountered obstacles that seemed insurmountable. Up until their senior year in high school, their reading scores often remained stuck between 20 and 25. They would always run out of time on the reading section or encounter vocabulary words that they had never seen before. Although they managed to hit a composite score of 30 on several practice tests, they had yet to
achieve this feat on an official assessment. There were certainly times when they felt discouraged or that their efforts seemed in vain. For students who have been working so hard to improve their test scores for two years or longer, the realization that their score may never be considered “good enough” can be incredibly disillusioning and disheartening. To add insult to
injury, many of the test-specific strategies and concepts students have to master to perform well on the ACT/SAT arguably have little practical value beyond the test.

I’ve noticed a common pattern while spending the last five years helping students prepare for the ACT and SAT. The more a student improves, the harder it becomes for them to improve further. Often, students stumble across a roadblock when their scores can’t seem to increase any higher. I frequently see students encounter difficulties when trying to improve their scores
further after they have already improved about 4+ points on the ACT and 200+ points on the SAT. The odds were against N.S. and J.L., and they had the disadvantage of learning English as a second language. Their background and starting scores meant they had to work even harder than their American-born peers.