Group of Multiethnic Diverse Hands Raised

requirements-for-high-test-scoresPiqosity’s SAT and ACT preparation resources enable students to practice for these standardized tests in accordance with their unique needs, pace, and style.

However, Piqosity and other well-meaning tools are merely one piece of a very complicated challenge in ensuring students are prepared for college.

We examined the extant research to formulate recommendations to schools preparing to deploy Piqosity in their holistic efforts to ensure college and career readiness. This white paper seeks to address many common hurdles administrators and educators must overcome not only with their students but also with colleagues and families.

(Download this report in printable PDF format)

Test Prep Program Summary Findings

  1. Importance of College – For every year of college education, graduates earn 10% more, plus they’re better socially adjusted.
  2. College Value Equation – Although college debt is increasing and some wages are stagnating, college remains a quantifiably good return on investment.
  3. Affording College – Two thirds of full-time college students receive some form of financial aid, and the majority of this aid is free money.
  4. Role of Standardized Tests in College Admissions – Most schools require the SAT or ACT, and it’s generally 1 of the top 3 most important application factors.
  5. Comparing the SAT and ACT – The SAT and ACT similarly test core concepts in English and math and how well students apply that knowledge to new and novel problems.
  6. Strategies for Improving Test Scores – Students need to improve their critical thinking skills, know the test format and content, and address weak areas.
  7. Preparing Students Early – The tested skills are formed beginning in middle school; cramming even for a few months before the test during junior year is insufficient.
  8. Leveraging Peer Tutoring – Peer tutoring programs provide a safe environment for both the tutor and tutee to increase their level of understanding.
  9. Engendering a Culture of Success – Students must buy into the value of both college and testing before they will exert the effort necessary to do well.
  10. Incentivizing Success – Tangible and immediate rewards like small cash prizes can improve short term test scores.

Why College is Important

earnings-trajectories-by-educational-attainmentThe SAT and ACT are college admissions tests predicated on the idea that students taking them are doing so in the process of applying to a four-year college. However, statistically, most students will not even earn a college degree. According to the National Center for Education Statistics for 2015 in the United States:

  • 91% of 25-29 year olds had a high school diploma
  • 46% had an associate’s degree or higher
  • 44% had no college education
  • 36% had a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • 9% had a master’s degree or higher

Given these statistics, it’s unrealistic to assume that 100% of a school’s tested population will matriculate to college, excel, and graduate with a degree; however, the current thinking remains to nevertheless ensure that all students are at least prepared for meaningful careers or preferably have the opportunity to attend college.

According to the Brookings Institute, the most tangible result of earning a bachelor’s degree is money.

For every year that a student completes of college education, they will earn 10% more than their non-college educated peers, and the earnings gap increases over time. The average earning difference between a high school graduate and bachelor’s holder at age 20 averages $15,000 per year but grows to over $45,000 by age 50.

Over the course of an entire career, the average premium earned by the bachelor’s degree is $570,000 and $170,000 for an associate’s degree.

But there are also less tangible benefits for going to college. Research suggests that higher education increases job satisfaction, overall health, and marriage happiness. A college degree is also associated with improving parenting skills, trust levels, and political participation. Additionally, the more educated someone is, the less likely they are to commit a crime. In short, more education makes students better members of society.

How to Afford College

College today is more affordable than most people believe, according to the College Board, the non-profit that administers the SAT and the Advanced Placement pre-college programs. Public, in-state tuition at a four-year college averaged $9,410 per year in 2015; however, private college was more than 3x as more expensive at $32,410.


The often-overlooked news however is that fewer than one-third of students pay the sticker price. Most colleges offer an online tool that calculates an estimated “net-price,” which takes into account financial aid. The annual net price of an in-state public school falls 58% to just $3,980 and 54% for private schools to $14,890.

The difference between the list and net prices is financial aid, of which two-thirds of full-time college students benefitted in the 2014-2015 school year. There are three types of aid:

  1. Grants and Scholarships are “gift aid” that does not have to be paid back. Grants are typically need-based while scholarships are primarily awarded because of academic or athletic ability. Scholarships are also awarded for any number of other reasons including volunteering excellence, being part of a religious or ethnic group, or just being the child of an employee of a certain scholarship-awarding company.
  2. Federal and Private Loans are borrowed money from the federal government or a bank and must be paid back with interest. Government loans are much cheaper and flexible than private loans but are capped at $31,000 for students who remain dependent on their parents or $57,500 for independents.
  3. Work-Study is a federally funded program that guarantees (low paying) jobs for currently enrolled students to help them pay for college.

Given their “gift” nature, grants and scholarships are the most desirable, and a full 57% of awarded aid in 2014-2015 was in this form. Federal loans comprised 34% of aid, and 9% was in the form of work-study, tax credits, or tax deductions.

most-valuable-degrees-in-americaElite colleges are possibly the best financial deal for academically gifted students. Analysis conducted by the Atlantic points to computer science degrees at Stanford, Columbia, and UC-Berkeley as the most valuable in the nation.

At America’s top-tier academic colleges, even children of middle-class families can attend for free or very cheaply according to Bloomberg.

For the 2015-2016 academic year, students at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford whose families earned less than $65,000 could attend for absolutely free ($0 tuition, $0 room and board). At Stanford, families can even earn up to $125,000 a year while still qualifying for free tuition but paying for room and board.

College Value Equation

Analysis published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that college remains a good return on investment regardless of college major. However, the bank does acknowledge that recent data shows college graduates paying more tuition and earning less than in the past.

Additionally, choosing a college major wisely can improve a student’s chance of economic success thereby decreasing the risk of the upfront investment. According to data by human capital firm Payscale, there’s a big difference between the highest and lowest earning bachelor’s degrees.

The table below is a sample of salaries for bachelor’s degrees at early career and mid-career. The last column, “Impact %,” shows the percentage of alumni with that degree who say, “their work makes the world a better place.” The list includes 336 degrees.

Rank Major Early Career Mid-Career Impact %
1 Petroleum Engineering $96,700 $172,000 56%
2 Systems Engineering $66,400 $121,000 50%
3 Accounting $60,800 $119,000 43%
3 Chemical Engineering $69,800 $119,000 56%
3 Computer Science & Engineering $71,200 $116,000 45%
24 Government $49,600 $105,000 48%
32 Economics $53,900 $100,000 41%
147 English Literature $41,100 $74,300 46%
241 Art & Design $39,500 $62,600 44%
321 Theology $37,600 $51,200 68%

Role of ACT and SAT in College Admissions 

Like them or not, standardized test scores are vitally important. While about 20% of colleges are now “test-optional,” according to FairTest, 80% of colleges still require the ACT or SAT. Furthermore, these tests are often additionally mandatory for students to qualify for some academic scholarships.

High school grades, coursework, and ACT/ SAT test scores are the three most important factors in college admissions according to the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC). The NACAC states that these considerations haven’t changed in decades.

After the big three, colleges told the NACAC that the next most important items were those detailing personal qualities such as essays, recommendations, demonstrated interest in the college, class rank, and extracurricular activities.

Factors like AP/ IB scores, portfolio, SAT II scores, interviews and state exam scores were less important because only a small subset of schools required, offered, or accepted these items. 


Comparing the ACT and SAT

The ACT and SAT are the two de-facto college admissions exams in the United States; their non-profit owners say they are designed to measure student college preparedness. Since 2012, more students have taken the ACT (2.1 million in 2016) than the SAT (1.6 million). 20 states mandate that all public-school juniors take the ACT versus just a couple for the SAT; however, both exams are almost universally accepted at US colleges.

The SAT unveiled an entirely new format in 2016, which is scored out of a 1600-point scale. The ACT has made only small changes to its format since it added an optional writing test in 2005 and is scored on a 36-point scale. Both tests are between 3 and 4 hours in length depending on whether students take the optional essay. Furthermore, they both require students to have a fundamental knowledge in English, writing, math, and data analysis.

Both the ACT and SAT offer an optional writing/ essay test. These writing tests are supposed to demonstrate how well students can formulate and articulate a point of view under constraints. Versus the essays that most colleges already require as part of the admissions process, the ACT and SAT writing samples are raw and unfiltered as they won’t have been edited by third parties. However, students only need to worry about taking these optional tests if their desired colleges require it, which is the minority.

When students take both the ACT and the SAT, they generally score equivalently such that the test makers publish concordance table to compare scores. For the 2015-2016 academic year, the average ACT score was a 20.8, and the average SAT score was a 1002.

Format of the ACT (per ACT)
Section Questions Minutes Max Score Content Measured
English 75 45 36 Standard English written & rhetorical skills
Mathematics 60 60 36 Math skills typically acquired up to 12th grade
Reading 40 35 36 Passage-based reading comprehension
Science 40 35 36 Interpretation, analysis, & problem-solving skills
Writing (optional) 1 40 36 Perspective-based analysis and writing skills
Total 216 3:35 36  
Format of the SAT (per College Board)
Section Questions Minutes Max Score Content Measured
Reading 52 65 800 Passage-based reading comprehension
Writing & Language 44 35 Rhetorical skills and English usage & mechanics
Math – No Calculator 20 25 800 Math skills typically acquired up to 12th grade with & without calculator
Math – Calculator 38 55
Essay (optional) 1 50 24 Perspective-based analysis and writing skills
Total 155 3:50 1600
ACT & SAT Concordance + National Percentile Ranks (per College Board & ACT)
ACT Composite SAT Total National Rank
36 1600 99%
32 1470 98%
30 1400 95%
28 1320 90%
25 1220 79%
24 1180 74%
21 1070 56%
20 1030 50%
18 950 36%
16 870 24%

How to Prepare for College Admissions Exams

“The best way to prepare for the SAT is to work hard in school and practice as much as possible” says the College Board. ACT advises students of three strategies to prepare for their exam:

  1. Be familiar with the content of the test
  2. Identify the content areas that are weak
  3. Refresh or learn the deficit content

Not only do the test makers advise that students practice for these exams, they also provide their own free and for-fee materials. Therefore, it seems obvious that students can and should practice for these important tests.

However, the research isn’t clear on the best path to high scores according to Derek Briggs at the University of Colorado. In his report prepared for the NACAC on the effect of private coaching for the SAT and ACT, he summarizes that there’s just not good, recent scientific data proving that test preparation works.

From the limited data that was available, test prep usually only led to nominal score increases and mostly in mathematics. However, he concludes that “if money and time are no object, commercial coaching or private tutoring may well be worth the cost” particularly for high-achieving students applying to very selective schools.

Researchers at University of Chicago looking at district-wide test preparation at Chicago Public Schools were equally if not more skeptical. Their findings strongly supported the test-makers’ assertion that grades are the best indicator of success on the ACT, “[Succeeding on the] ACT requires years of hard work developing college-level skills.”

Further, the Chicago researchers advise against spending core-curriculum class time preparing for the ACT, and they found that cramming in the spring months of junior year were too late and ineffective. Rather, it was critical thinking skills, which were developed since at least the beginning of high school that were most important for success:

“Research has found that cognitive and metacognitive abilities— skills in analysis, interpretation, precision and accuracy, problem solving and reasoning—are considered much more important by college instructors than content knowledge in specific courses.”

With regards to specific academic areas, they highlighted three disconnects between high school education and college-level and ACT expectations:

  1. In writing, college instructors think grammar and mechanics are very important in clearly and concisely expressing ideas.
  2. In math, it’s more important for successful college students to have a strong grasp of fundamentals rather than a weak understanding across a broad area of topics.
  3. In the social sciences, college and the ACT value process and inquiry skills versus the ability to regurgitate facts and figures.

The ACT and SAT test makers and academic researchers agree that there is no substitute for consistent, strong performance in rigorous academic course work. Furthermore, they agree that the needed skills should be fostered beginning a middle school. However, in that many students lack that prerequisite, here’s what students can do with their educators in order from most to least likely to help:

  1. Practice critical thinking skills. Students need to be able to leverage what they do know in order to figure their way through new and novel problems.
  2. Identify what content will be tested and how well they know it. While the SAT and ACT are ultimately reasoning tests, they do require a certain level of academic attainment.
  3. Refresh what material may have been forgotten but don’t waste time attempting to cram content that has never been studied.

Simply taking the SAT or ACT more than once may be the single easiest way to improve student scores. According to the ACT, 41% of ACT-tested students took the exam more than once, and this percentage increased to 49% by 2015. Of these re-testers, 57% improved their scores, and on average, all students improved 2.9 points out of 36. On average, students consistently improved their score with multiple retesting until they reached a ceiling by the tenth retest.

Peer Tutoring Programs

A school’s own group of talented students are often a valuable resource when tapped for peer tutoring programs. Reed College states that peer tutoring programs provide benefits to both the tutor and the tutee.

For the student tutor, participating in peer tutoring enables them to reinforce their existing knowledge, feel good about themselves, gain an appreciation for teaching, and discover useful applications for the material they’re learning in school.

For the student tutee, the biggest benefit is that they get more instructional support. Furthermore, students tend to find the peer relationship to be a less threatening way to discuss the material and ask questions. Peer tutoring also fosters student bonding.

Researchers at Duke University measured meaningful improvement in both math and reading scores at a peer tutoring program in Durham Public Schools. They also remarked that the peer tutoring program seemed to have a positive benefit on classroom orderliness by limiting disruptions.

To successfully implement peer tutoring programs, the Duke researchers advise educators to first ensure that students participate by offering them incentives and then to properly train the student tutors in confidentiality, positive reinforcement, and patience.

Engendering a Culture of Success

Vanderbilt University describes the psychology of student motivation as either intrinsic of extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from within the student and is generally described as a love of learning for the sake of learning. Conversely, extrinsic motivation comes from external forces such as parents or educators most often as rewards or punishments.

Intrinsic motivation is most desirable because its effects “can be long-lasting and self-sustaining.” However, the process of inculcating intrinsic motivation is generally a lengthy, multi-year one that requires a significant investment in understanding what motivates the student.

Extrinsic motivation can show very quick results; however, unlike intrinsic motivation, these results tend to be short-lasting and can require ever escalating incentives to be maintained.

The students who consistently score the highest on standardized tests like the ACT and SAT are those who see the value of pursuing a college education and understand the connection between college admissions and doing well in both core academics and standardized tests.

These highly motivated students are who form a culture of success or have bought into a college-going culture. The College Board defines a “college-going culture” as driven by these student values:

  1. Appreciation of academics
  2. Desire to succeed
  3. Drive to attend college and become a lifelong learner

Conversely, these students are statistically less likely to exhibit strong college-going motivation:

  • Low-achieving students
  • Low and middle income families
  • Underrepresented minorities
  • Students from families with no college education

The College Board advises college counselors to take charge of fostering this college-going culture. They define college and career readiness counseling as comprising eight core activities:

  1. Fostering college aspirations
  2. Aligning a student’s academic course selection for college readiness
  3. Encouraging extracurricular and enrichment activities
  4. Helping students explore college and career possibilities
  5. Promoting standardized testing
  6. Talking about tuition and financial aid
  7. Walking through the admissions process
  8. Counseling on the transition from high school to college

Incentivizing Short Term Success

A systemic effort to foster intrinsic motivation and a college-going culture is a costly investment of time and effort, which many administrators and educators find themselves severely lacking especially for students who need immediate interventional help. As such, short-term extrinsic motivators can serve as a bridge until more long-term reforms begin to take effect.

Researchers from the University of Chicago in 2012 found that giving students immediate cash incentives significantly improved standardized test scores, because it caused students to take the tests more seriously.

At one Chicago-area school, high school students who were given $10 to $20 depending on performance showed a 0.12 to 0.20 standard deviation improvement equivalent to nearly six-months of classwork.

Researchers surmised that students performed better simply because they tried – they were not informed ahead of time about the incentives, as such, they could not study to improve their scores.

A more recent study, also with Chicago students, showed an improvement as high as 0.5 standard deviation when students were informed of the potential rewards ahead of testing and had time to study. However, even with the additional study time, students still did best on easy questions once again reinforcing the idea of more exerted effort versus higher knowledge.

A Harvard Study found that rewarding students for the act of studying versus high score outcomes may in fact yield better results. Researchers working with middle school students saw a significant score improvement when incentivizing them to undertake activities that would improve their score versus simply giving rewards based on certain scores.

The researchers believe this result is because most students simply don’t know what they need to do in order to improve their scores. Almost as important, the study did not find that the extrinsic incentives negatively affected intrinsic motivation.


Administrators and educators are tasked with the tremendous challenge of developing the next generation. Such a monumental undertaking is neither easy nor quickly achieved, but the potential – the human potential of a child – is surely limitless.

The extant research shows that the best way to prepare students for standardized college-admissions tests is to prepare them for college. This type of preparation realistically spans the entire K-12 time period, but gains more focus beginning in middle school.

However, the reality is that most teachers and administrators do not have the luxury of time; this year’s current juniors and seniors need immediate intervention. As such, educators should focus on the easy wins like enabling students to take the test more than once, coaching them on the format of the exam, and providing a refresher of basic, tested academic skills.

Test Prep Program Recommendations

Short-term recommendations for current juniors and seniors.

  1. Remind students of the link between college, core academics, and standardized testing
  2. Ensure they know the format of the exam including what content will be tested and how
  3. Preferably assign teachers to help students who themselves scored highly
  4. Understand reservations and secure buy-in from both applicable faculty and students
  5. Identify students’ individual strengths and weaknesses
  6. Work to refresh fundamental skills in English, writing, math, and data analysis
  7. Ensure practice simulates testing requirements and focuses on critical thinking
  8. Consider incentivizing students to take the exam more seriously
  9. Enable students to take the ACT or SAT at least twice
  10. Pay special attention to intrinsically motivated students who want help

Additional long-term recommendations beginning in ninth grade.

  1. Engender a culture of academic and college-going success
  2. Ensure that core academic coursework aligns with college level expectations
  3. Consider implementing a peer-tutoring program