Test takers have more ways than ever to prepare for important exams. However, if the way you are learning doesn’t involve actually taking practice tests, does it even count as prep? Amy and Mike invited educator Paul Pscolka to explain why practice tests matter so much.
Find the audio file and show notes for this episode at https://gettestbright.com/why-practice-tests-matter-so-much/.
Amy Seeley 0:04
Welcome everyone. I’m Amy Seeley, president of Seeley Test Pros, helping students to succeed at all kinds of tests from eighth grade to grad school in Cleveland, Ohio.
Mike Bergin 0:12
And I’m Mike Bergin, president of Chariot Learning, helping students with tests, school, and life, based out of Rochester, New York.
Amy Seeley 0:18
Between the two of us today, we have over 55 years of experience at the highest levels of the test preparation and supplemental education industries.
Mike Bergin 0:26
We both like to talk and learn about the latest issues in education, testing, and admissions. So let’s get down to Tests and the Rest! The fascinating topic we want to explore today is why practice tests matter so much, but first, let’s meet our special guest, Paul Pscolka.
Amy Seeley 0:42
Paul Pscolka is the founder of Ivy Masters, an organization based out of New Jersey devoted to helping students improve their SAT and ACT scores, and get accepted to their first choice University. Paul has taught SAT and ACT full time since 2003. His students have scored perfectly on the SAT and ACT, as well as countless others who have scored within 100 points of a perfect SAT. And within two points of a perfect ACT. Many of his students have received thousands of dollars in scholarship money as a direct result of their scores. Paul was a division one student athlete and earned his BA in sociology, and his MS. Ed at the University of Pennsylvania. Welcome!
Paul Pscolka 1:20
Thanks, Mike and Amy. It’s great to be here.
Mike Bergin 1:24
Paul, we are really happy to have you on the show. It’s been ages since you appeared back in a test prep profile in Episode 296. But we talk to you all the time, and we thought it was about time we brought you on to explore a topic that we all love. But before we get into that, for listeners that haven’t heard your test prep profile, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your practice?
Paul Pscolka 1:49
Sure. So I started test prep back in well, actually, I’ve been doing some capacity for the past 24 years after I finished my master’s degree. I’ve been tutoring SATs since then, and then, a little bit later, ACT. I started Ivy Masters Learning Center 20 years ago, but full time for 19 years. And it’s just really expanded, especially in the last seven years or so.
Mike Bergin 2:15
What are the focuses of Ivy Masters? What tests do you normally work with?
Paul Pscolka 2:19
So we do almost all SAT and ACT. We also do classroom, less elementary middle school than high school. But it’s just about all SAT and ACT prep.
Mike Bergin 2:32
That is where the action is.
Paul Pscolka 2:33
Yeah, yeah. And you know what, when I started, I was doing absolutely everything. But then I saw that it was just such high demand for SAT and ACT. And I found that I enjoyed it much more than having Billy sit in his seat, because he was squirming, you know, it’s little tougher with the attention spans when they’re in third grade. So I really enjoyed the SATs and ACTs and it’s just really taken off.
Amy Seeley 3:01
Well, I think you’re suggesting you like the age group. You’re working with a population, which I think probably many of us will say that, right? With test prep, this is a sweet spot: 16-17 year olds. It’s such an interesting yet exciting time and being a part of their success is pretty cool for us as tutors, right?
Paul Pscolka 3:20
100%. I remember being there myself, I remember the spot where I was opening my acceptance letter. And it was just a super, super nerve wracking experience, exciting, crazy time mixed with lots of emotions. And it’s just so amazing to be a part of that journey for so many of my students.
Mike Bergin 3:45
So when we talk about test preparation, we often have to talk about practice testing. And we’re saying why practice tests matter so much. And we’ll explore that concept. And I think we kind of give away the answer to the first question that we want to lead this conversation off with, which is, “Is it really test prep if you don’t take practice tests?” What do you think, Paul?
Paul Pscolka 4:08
I don’t think so. There are so many variables that go into test day that a student doesn’t really know how well they’re doing unless they take a full length test under time conditions, preferably in a classroom with other students, and we’re gonna get more into exactly why that’s so important.
Amy Seeley 4:31
Do you find, Paul, that a lot of students coming to you have taken a test before they launch prep with you?
Paul Pscolka 4:38
So oftentimes, this is what I’ll get. So I’m in New Jersey, and since we do primarily SATs and ACTs, I’ll get students who have never taken an ACT before at all. And they have taken a PSAT and so oftentimes a parent just wants to move forward with one or another but every university accepts both tests. They don’t favor one test over the other. And so sometimes they’re like, Yeah, okay, we’ll take a practice ACT. Can’t I use my PSAT as a baseline score, and that’s problematic for a couple of different reasons. Number one, PSAT is out of 1520, not 1600. And the other thing is, especially this time of year, their PSAT was over a year ago. So it’s just outdated. We really want an updated score of each to see which test is comparably better. And then once we establish that, we know not only which test is better to move forward with, but we also have a baseline score for that test. So we can track exactly how much improvement that student is making.
Mike Bergin 5:43
So we operate a little bit differently, in that I don’t really require students to start with a practice test. But we know that we’re going to have to take tests throughout. And that’s really essential. And I say all the time that, if you’re not taking any tests, as is the case when students take a really poorly run course or some amateur program, then it’s kind of like, as Amy says–I’ve heard you say this–is kind of like if you’re an athlete who never does scrimmages, right? If you’re a musician, getting ready for recital, but you never run through your whole piece, you just do scales, and you do little pieces of it. That’s not preparation, and there’s no coach in any sport whatsoever that would put players out to compete if they hadn’t run through actual scrimmages before if they hadn’t competed with all of the different dimensions of what the game is like. That just makes no sense. There’s no director who would ever allow the curtain to be pulled on opening night if there was not a dress rehearsal.
Amy Seeley 6:53
Or no coach who would allow his player to just show up for game day, right? And so this is all you get.
Mike Bergin 6:59
It happens all the time, right? We have students telling us, oh, I can’t do the practice test. But you know what I’m going to do–I can’t show up at your practice test, or I can’t do it timed, but I can do little pieces of it on my own. What coach would let you say, “I can’t come to practice, but I’m going to work in my backyard?”
Amy Seeley 7:17
Yeah, one of my students the other day–it was after her first session–and it was devastating when she said, “Oh, I was supposed to time this?” And you know, how you just want to bite your tongue like, “well, it is a timed test, honey.” So every little piece of it. And so right. So like, you go, okay, I’m gonna write these numbers down. But these numbers don’t mean as much to me right now, because you weren’t applying the whole full testing experience.
Of course, some of us offer tests in our offices or in places that we do monitor it all as much as we can monitor. And then other times, obviously, our students may be taking practice tests at home. But it’s so critical that they follow as many of the guidelines we know they’re going to be subjected to on test day. But the key thing is, just thinking about that situation, what could I teach my students about taking practice? So of course, the first thing in that lesson that the student learned for me was why timing is so critical, right? But I’m wondering for you guys, what are other things that you think students can learn from taking practice tests?
Paul Pscolka 8:26
So I’d say that first off, depending on the test, the students taking it are taking it relatively early in the morning. Students are typically cracking open the book to take the tests about 8:15. We have students show up for mock tests in the classroom at 7:45, just like they would for the real test.
Amy Seeley 8:47
Rough, Paul, I give them until 9am at least.
Mike Bergin 8:51
We go with 10am, because I don’t want to wake up that early!
Paul Pscolka 8:53
I was afraid at first. We had our mock tests at 10:00 in the morning because I was afraid no one would come early in the morning. But then we filled up at 10. And I remember having that conversation with my proctors. Oh yeah, I need you to come in two hours earlier. And, I was afraid that they would spook and leave. And eventually they did. But we do run them. And we do fill. We have 30 seats in the classroom and they all fall at 7:45 in the morning, because enough people recognize the importance of simulating test conditions as much as possible.
So, Johnny can be a rock star at four o’clock in the afternoon, but he’s got to perform at 7:45 in the morning. So that’s one element that they’re not going to get when they’re doing the test on their own. Another thing is that people’s attention spans typically are two hours long. That’s why they make movies two hours long. So unless a student is focusing for that, if it’s SAT or ACT, it’s a full three hours–and there are other standardized tests, ISEE, SSAT, GRE GMAT–but unless a student’s focusing for that long period of time, then they’re not getting, they’re not practicing focus, they’re gonna get better at focusing that long period of time by focusing for that long period of time. They want to be just as strong at the end of the test as they are at the beginning of the test. And then the third element that I find is that and I get these calls–I’m sure you guys do as well–Johnny’s a nervous test taker. So what that means, no mystery, is that Johnny is so nervous during the test that it hurts his performance.
I have this conversation with parents as well: there are two types of stress. There’s distress; that’s the bad stuff, that’s too nervous. But there’s also eustress. So if you’re to ask any musician and any athlete, “think about your best performance,” and then ask them now, dial it back and think about how you felt just before you went on the stage or went on the field. And they’ll tell you that they were a little nervous. That’s the good stuff. That’s the sweet spot. That’s the eustress, where if students are a little nervous, then they can have their peak performance. So for a nervous test taker, those mock tests, doing them with some consistent consistency is especially important. Because if they can bring that distress down a notch to the eustress level, then they could have their best performance.
Amy Seeley 11:20
That’s so important, too. I remember the last time I actually went personally to take an actual ACT. And I always remember that drive there. It always feels stressful. And I’m talking to myself saying, you’ve done this for over 25 years, you’re not even a student, you’ve already been to college. But I still feel like that when I go to take a real test. So I love how you sort of lay that out, Paul, because I think most people view stress as all negative or bad. And if we can recognize what that stress is, that’s a good stress, then we have this ability to harness it or use it and not fear it. So, it’s not some kind of barrier to our own success.
Paul Pscolka 12:01
100% Yeah, I couldn’t agree with that more.
Mike Bergin 12:04
I want to add to what we can learn from practice tests are what we call diagnostics. Something, Paul, that we were talking about earlier was the idea that students could learn, if maybe they have a big advantage on a particular test like SAT versus ACT, GRE versus GMAT, when you have options, you want to know if one of the tests caters to your particular strengths better than the other in a statistically significant way. Other things that we learned from practice tests is where a student’s weaknesses may be, is a student underperforming because he lacks content knowledge, is he underperforming because he can’t handle the timed component of the test. We can see if particular sections are dragging a score down or propping a score up. There’s so much that you get out of an actual practice test, whether it’s diagnostic or it’s one of the experiential milestones of a student’s preparation. Again, it’s a dashboard that I don’t know how any educator would let a student get away with not taking practice tests if that educator was really committed to the student’s success.
Amy Seeley 13:17
I would definitely agree with that. You know, we all probably know reading sections are interesting, because we’re not teaching content the same way. But It’s amazing the amount of things you can sometimes sort of suss out from the work. In my case, what I love with ACT reading, since most students don’t finish it, is trying to figure out what if you do your passages in a different order, right?
Mike Bergin 13:38
Where did you lose time? Did you spend 15 minutes on the first passage and you got no questions wrong? Then you missed all other paths, right?
Amy Seeley 13:46
Or saying, “Okay, now I see that you didn’t finish that final Natural Science passage. Let’s have you actually do that, outside of the testing experience, and see, would that have been a better choice for you.” So, sometimes, it’s how do you understand that you make decisions throughout taking a test? And which of those decisions were smart decisions that resulted in good results, versus Ooh, you made some game day calls that were not good. And how do we anticipate that and do it a different way the next time, right?
Paul Pscolka 14:23
I can even remember talking to a test prep professional who tried something different for the first time on test day, and didn’t finish the section. Right, never an issue. So that’s super important as well and to speak to what you’re talking about doing the passages out of order. That’s perfect for a student who is not doing wonderfully, let’s say in the reading section doesn’t have a super high score. Timing is an issue. It’s important to be able to assess which content in that reading is the most difficult, save that passage for last. But not only that, it’s got to be drilled in the practice. So for students who want to practice this on their own, then they want to do it out of order using the bubbles on their own. But during the mock test, same exact thing. So that there’s no surprises on test day. Know exactly what to expect.
Amy Seeley 15:24
How many of us have taught a strategy or something, and the student goes to take that practice test, and they completely disregard the instruction and the advice that you’ve tailored for them? And you go, “Wait a second, honey, we talked about this, why do I not see evidence of that?” Because a lot of times, students will nod their head in our sessions, but they will follow whatever they were doing before they showed up at your door. And that’s problematic.
Mike Bergin 15:53
So that’s exactly why practice is so essential, because when we are under stress, we abandon what we’ve most recently learned for whatever is at our foundation. And so–just like musicians or athletes will practice something new relentlessly until they’ve internalized that technique–we have to give our students the opportunity, and really drive them to practice the strategies. We’re teaching them until their natural reactions reach that uncomfortable moment when you are between initially learning and ultimately mastering a technique where it feels awkward to use it. And if you’re feeling stress, and not that positive stress but that negative stress, you’re going to resort back to what you’re used to.
I remember when I first started in test prep, and the organization I was teaching for, they had the most awkward grab bag of strategies: they had a seven-step strategy for one thing and a twelve-step strategy for another. And it was really easy to imagine that under the faintest pressure, you would abandon all of it. You wouldn’t even be able to remember all the steps. So we have to find ways to make it easy for students to learn the right way to do it. But they got to get the reps. It’s the repetition that makes that natural for you.
Paul Pscolka 17:19
Yeah, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a drill with students, I’ll assign it to a class: this is your drill. This is how you want to approach this, this, this type of problem. And then I’ll ask them, “Hey, how do you want to approach this type of problem?” And I might get a hand. And so what I will do during the lesson is I’ll say, every single student who takes a problem will say, how are you going to do this problem, and then I’ll make them send it back to me: drill it, drill it, drill it, drill it.
And to speak to what you’re talking about about stress, recently in the NTPA Book Club, we read a book, Thinking Fast and Slow, written by the Nobel Prize winning economist, Daniel Kahneman. And he talks about two systems of your brain, and one is your gut and your reaction. And the other system is you step back and you think. I tell the students, it’s fine to anticipate an answer. But you’ve got to take your system 2 brain, take yourself through and make sure that the answer that you anticipated it being is, in fact, the correct answer under the stress of a test. It’s so easy not to go back and use that system 2. Another reason why mock tests are important.
Amy Seeley 18:37
I think somebody has done this. So we talked this summer about proctoring. So you can actually use your mocks to do something where you want your students to have to respond, right, Mike? We were talking to Rob Pollak about introducing a little chaos into it.
Mike Bergin 18:50
You could not give them their five minute warning. You could make noise in the other room.
Amy Seeley 18:57
You can do everything and prepare them for situations that they might encounter that they’ve gotta realize, oh, I should speak up, or I should say something or what will I do. And that was kind of a revelation to me of running mocks, where you do present something that a student wouldn’t or should learn to speak up about.
Mike Bergin 19:15
Let’s get into some of the details of testing. First, and I think most important, is the concept of timing. Amy, you were talking about the student who took a test and didn’t time it. Are timed tests so necessary? What do you guys think?
Paul Pscolka 19:32
Oh, yeah, well, 100%. Now, there’s two things. As far as timing goes, there’s two things that I’ll do with my students which I think is just important for students, particularly one who has a time issue. So if I were to take the SAT for an example, there’s always five passages and it’s always 65 minutes. So if you divide that 65 by 5, it breaks down to 13 minutes per passage. So for a student who has a timing issue, I’ll have them at first give themselves 30 minutes for passage. So the first passage they do, and they’re like crap, I didn’t even answer that last question. And then in the next passage another 30 minutes now then there’s two questions left, they look at the clock, and they now they see, oh, I have time to answer one. And I’m gonna have to guess on this last one, but at least they put an answer. And then, maybe on the third passage, they answer every question. So now, they, you know, they’re working on the timing five times in one test, and not just once.
But what I found is, if we just do that, leading up to a test, that when students go from 30 minutes per passage to 65 minutes for five passes a full section, then they lose sight of that time. So what I like my students to do is to ramp up. So as the test approaches, now they do 30 minutes for the first passage, but then they do 26 minutes for the next two passages, 26 minutes for the last two passages. And then the week after that, they do 26 minutes for the first two, but then they do 39 for the last three weeks after that, and then they do a full length test, a full length section, 65 minutes. And you can do the same thing for the writing and language section. So that would be 8 minutes, 45 seconds per passage, because you have four passages. And you could break down the ACT the same way.
Amy Seeley 21:24
And essentially the goal is to be able to intuit it. I know I’ve heard, or we’ve talked about before, Mike, you want them to almost start to be able to intuit the time. If you’re not practicing in a way where you’re kind of getting a sense of what that sort of cadence is, you cannot learn to intuit it that way.
Mike Bergin 21:43
Especially on a speeded test, right? If we’re talking about ACT reading, for example, or ACT English, you should know how much time you have per passage. And you should feel that if you are over budget by one minute on each passage, then you’ve cut your time for the final passage dramatically. And we know that students don’t actually wear watches; most of our students have to steal watches from their parents and they’re not used to checking them. So they have to have that feeling they have to know where they are. So that, by the time the five minute warning rolls around, they don’t suddenly enter panic mode.
Amy Seeley 22:22
The other thing to remember, I would say, is if a student does a reading, and let’s say they finish or they don’t finish, the idea is that if they are panicking in those last five minutes. We all know, the minute that five minute warning hits, your brain starts to feel more stress. And that can influence how you’re thinking about questions, your ability to logically think through. So timing matters. Because, even in that last five minutes, if I’m not worrying about the time, I’m probably going to do better than if the five minutes is wrought with, okay, I need to finish because the five minutes are about to be up. So that sort of cloud hanging over those last five minutes really is important to understand what that’s like.
Mike Bergin 23:07
For sure. Now, as far as the tests that students should be taking, I’m a huge proponent for only using official practice tests, you know, official released exams from whatever the testing organization is that you’ll be laboring under. Do you guys agree? Or do you have any differences of opinion there?
Paul Pscolka 23:29
Yeah, 100%. In fact, if there were times in the past where I did not have as much, like let’s say, right after March of 2016, there were not so many practices. There were four practice tests, and you had a PSAT. So if a student, at that point, did all official College Board SATs, then, and then they switched to another company’s book, they noticed the difference. And what you also might see is a change in their score. And it’s not based on their ability; it’s based on the practice test. So, at some test prep companies, I’ve found students do a little bit better, some a little bit worse, and some maybe their reading and writing versus their math, the scores flip flop a little bit. So 100%. When they’re doing official tests, they know exactly what to do on test day. No prep test prep company could go through the process that the College Board or the ACT goes through, as far as scaling, equating, and giving your test to a quarter million students so that they know that it’s scored accurately.
Amy Seeley 24:41
Now that’s 100% true. I always find it frustrating when a student may have purchased a book prior to working with us and wants to use that unofficial book. I’ll sometimes have to say, well, our strategies actually don’t work in that book, but that’s not a testament to our strategies. It’s the fact that that book should be giving you questions where our strategies should work, and they don’t. I always find you’re arguing about the tasks as opposed to just learning what they need to learn. And that’s where official tests afford you that opportunity.
Mike Bergin 25:17
Yeah, we won’t even have that argument when someone comes to us with a third party book. And they’re like, “Well, I took a test out of this book, I thought, that’s what you meant.” We’re not reviewing it. We’re not even going to look at it. It’s a waste of your time. And we’re not going to use our time to talk about it, because we want to use our time to talk about official test material.
Amy Seeley 25:37
And that’s where the the really good conversations can occur because you’re seeing, even if you’re using a TIR for the ACT or QAS for the SAT, you don’t have to argue about the way in which the answer choices were worded, which we all know there can be very subtle things that it matters, if someone has carefully vetted each individual answer choice like an SAT or ACT official test would do.
Mike Bergin 26:01
Fantastic. Listen, Paul, I know that we could talk about practice testing with you all day. Unfortunately, we are out of time. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Paul Pscolka 26:10
Thank you so much for having me, Mike and Amy, it’s been a great pleasure.
Mike Bergin 26:14
If listeners would like to get in touch with you. What’s the best way for them to do that?
Paul Pscolka 26:18
They can visit the website: https://www.ivymasters.com. Or they could reach me at 732-485-6480.
Amy Seeley 26:31
Awesome! We hope you enjoyed this discussion as much as we did. Be sure to join us for another fascinating topic and guest on the next Tests and the Rest!
Remember, you can find the audio file and show notes for this episode at https://gettestbright.com/why-practice-tests-matter-so-much/.