Treat testing season like a marathon, not a sprint

Friday, April 14, 2017 5:13 PM
Gisele Pansze

For school-age students, it’s that time of year again ... testing season. Seemingly every other week in the spring, high-schoolers in Durango and across the country are sitting down for another test.

And it’s such an alphabet soup; keeping them all straight is challenging: AP, PSAT, CMAS, ACT, SAT and even SAT subject tests. But knowing each test’s objectives can be helpful for students and parents alike.

In May, Advanced Placement (AP) exams are offered. Depending on each college’s policy, students can earn credits or placement with exam scores of 3, 4 or 5. These scores can potentially save students thousands of dollars in tuition costs (which are usually calculated by credit hour) and help them graduate early from college. Though enrollment in a specific AP class is helpful preparation, it is not a requirement for taking AP exams. For information about how to register for AP tests, contact the guidance office at any local high school that offers AP classes.

In Colorado, state-mandated assessments like the PSAT-10 (for 10th-graders) and the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) are administered in the spring. The purposes of state-mandated testing are two-fold: to measure student growth on an individual level and to assess schoolwide and district-level academic performance for grade-level and sub-groups.

In particular, the nomenclature of the PSAT-10, a newer entry into the testing alphabet, can be confusing to people. The PSAT-10 content was developed with sophomores in mind, as a way for students to practice for the PSAT and SAT. The PSAT is offered in the fall of junior year, and only scores on the PSAT qualify students for such prestigious scholarships like the National Merit Scholarship and the Hispanic Recognition Program.

For typical students, neither the PSAT-10 nor the PSAT has much bearing on the college admissions process. But results can supply specific data to help both students and teachers understand and address the relative strengths and gaps in a student’s academic profile.

Finally, the SAT and the ACT are the two college entrance exams that increase anxiety for college-bound students and their parents. Universities equally accept either the SAT or the ACT, so students should pick whichever test best suits their strengths. Additionally, select universities require achievement tests called the SAT Subject Tests, which are shorter and measure content-area knowledge.

Some students view the SAT/ACT as measures of intelligence, and lower-than-anticipated scores send some into a tailspin of self-doubt. Other students, and indeed the testing companies themselves, view the scores as predictive of “college success.” In reality, these tests generate a lot of money for the testing companies, and measure how well-prepared a student is at retaining and applying information in a test environment on a given Saturday morning.

Admissions offices at colleges and universities use student scores in varying ways. Elite universities (with about 15 percent or lower admittance rates) use standardized test results to closely differentiate candidates and assess the strength of high school curricula.

For most public universities, GPA and test scores serve as quantitative measures in the admissions process. In Colorado, in-state students can determine their admissibility on the Colorado Commission on Higher Education’s website at

A student’s position on the matrix can influence scholarship opportunities and honors college options as well.

Private colleges tend to use “holistic admissions,” meaning test scores represent one factor considered alongside GPA, leadership, activities, employment, etc. However, even selective private universities use scores in determining discretionary merit aid.

And some colleges and universities, recognizing the limitations of standardized tests, have dropped all testing requirements or become test-optional, meaning they don’t consider scores in the admissions process unless the student chooses to submit scores. A list is available at

In general, it benefits college-bound students to maximize their scores on standardized tests. Preparation is key. These tests are like running a marathon ... without practice, students won’t be training appropriately to recognize obstacles or to pace themselves to finish strong.

Effective preparation not only can enhance admissibility, it also increases potential for significant scholarships.

Preparation options for these tests vary from local in-person tutoring such that the Durango Academic Coaching Center provides, to videoconferencing sessions such as, to self-study like Khan Academy’s online resources or the Princeton Review’s printed guides.

After all this springtime prepping and testing, juniors and seniors have earned a well-deserved summer break! But wait ... this year, the SAT inaugurates an August test date; the cycle begins even earlier.

Gisele Pansze is a founder of Animas High School and an independent educational consultant. She can be reached at