What I Learned Taking the ACT (as a Teacher)

Yep - you read that right. I took the ACT at age 27.

Yesterday. Voluntarily. Legally. I put on a hoodie and a headband to blend in with the natives (ha), and I sat in a classroom and took a proctored test (with a headache and sinus infection to boot, ugh).

Some of my high school students, especially the seniors who took it one more time in the fall, have been claiming that the test has gotten "harder". There were rumors about the math and reading in particular. So, what's a teacher to do, other than take it for herself to make sure her teaching is still accurate?
I'm not the only one in my area to do this. Other local tutors have allegedly done so to ensure that their teaching was on par. Technically, any adult is allowed to take the test, as long as they are NOT employed as a "test prep provider" and have not already exceeded a total of 12 times in his or her lifetime.

Since I signed my life away in the fine print and am not allowed to discuss the test itself, here are some observations I CAN share.

Part 1: Taking the Test

1.Testing has a bigger impact on the body than I remembered.
Don't believe me? Ask my Fitbit Charge HR, which I wore the whole time. Can you tell where the 3 hours of testing fell in my day?

(The blank space is when I got home and charged it. The time after that was taking the dog on a brisk walk and then doing Christmas shopping.)

I wasn't even nervous or stressed beforehand... and I wouldn't say I felt stressed during the test, but I definitely had a DISTINCT awareness that the clock was ticking. It took more effort than usual to focus; I felt my brain clouding a little bit toward the end of the Science section in particular.

I don't know how much of this is typical for our kids, or if I just haven't maintained my "endurance" for test taking, but I will say that I have a renewed respect for this kids who claim that they "can't even understand" what they're reading... their bodies are rebelling against them. 

2. It requires MORE energy than a regular school test. 
Reading is basically what I DO for a living, and even I, two college degrees later, had to use most of the skills in my playbook to stay focused. My brain did NOT like the test at all, and it was different than a practice test. The clock does a lot to you!

I wasn't immediately exhausted afterward, but my back hurt from hunching over that little desk, and I crashed on my couch about two hours after I got home. Test taking is more "physical" than I remembered. 

If you know someone who is going to take the test, tell them to have something relaxing AND something active planned for afterward. I definitely needed to MOVE and stretch from so much sitting, and I was really in the mood for something fun or happy after. 

I would also encourage anyone to utilize the given 10-minute break well to keep up your stamina. Go walk out of the room, get a drink, go to the bathroom, and eat the snack that you packed. Your body will need it, and you will regret it during the Science and Writing sections if you don't. 

3. It was scary to be vulnerable again.
The whole time leading up to it, I felt old worry about doing something wrong, forgetting something that I needed, doing something to irritate someone else in the room, or make the proctor mad. Even though my proctor was a younger science teacher who tried to be friendly, the high stakes of the experience means that a student can't ever really "relax". I feel bad for ever judging even my middle school students for being overly anxious about a test.

4. Waiting for the test to start is hard. 
We waited 15 minutes after the report time for stragglers, then 10 extra minutes for the proctors to figure something out, and then it took 20 more minutes to get through preliminary directions... long enough for my caffeine to start to wear off. That's also a lot of time to become bored, start to worry, or feel anxious to get started!

5. The test HAS changed. 
The biggest changes are yet to come though, both to the content/question types and taking the test online... But that's public information. You can read about it here.

6. Annotating was my life-saver.
I preach this ANYWAY to all students at all age levels that I influence, but throughout the test I really felt that circling keywords in questions, crossing out wrong answers, and annotating the reading and science passages as a read them was personally really important for me. It helped me focus on a smaller scale (instead of feeling overwhelmed with the page overall, like how busy the graphs seemed), understand things better the first time, zone out less, and eliminate wrong answers better.

7. You might have to skim instead of reading normally. 
Even the mega test prep companies who used to advocate for heavy margin notes are starting to admit that skimming is necessary. Now their advice is to read topic sentences and then skim the rest of the paragraph to see if there's actually anything important/new, or if it's just supporting details. I'm a pretty fast reader, and I still occasionally had to do this, using Jedi-level annotation skills to boot. (Folks, the struggle to finish the reading and science sections on time are real. Believe your students when they say it's tough.)

8. Skip difficult questions early and often.
Time management is the biggest complaint among my tutoring students, and I used every strategy in my toolbelt at least once. Skipping hard questions - sometimes in more than one "lap" - was the biggest reason I finished all the sections.

9. Challenging grammar appears in the English section. 
There are tricks in the answer choices, my friends. The English section had some sneaky grammar that even I had to double-check, mainly things like dangling and misplaced modifiers, the hardest levels of subject/verb agreement, a subjunctive mood verb question, and a few others that your average student might not remember if they never mastered it or hadn't touched the topic in a year. There were also a lot of extreme word choices in the answers that would make a seemingly-correct answer wrong, and they were subtle!

10. Stay dependent on the texts. 
I was suspicious of some of the reading and science questions because they felt TOO easy, and I kept wondering if there was a trick to the question that I was missing. But generally, my answer was right because I could point to the right answer in the text without over-thinking it.

Part 2: Scores and Takeaways

Here were my scores (don't judge my math!)
  • Composite: 32  Rats! Where was this score when I needed it 9 years ago?
  • English: 35        Rats! What ONE question did I miss?!
  • Math: 26           No surprise. Math has always been my personal weakness. 
  • Reading: 36      Phew. I was going to BUM out if this one didn't go well.
  • Science: 30       I can't wait to get my test booklet back and analyze what I missed!

REVIEW: My Teaching Takeaways Are...
  • Give kids breaks when you can before, after, between, or during tests. 
  • Let them discuss their anxiety and what they are nervous about.
  • Let them move afterward. 
  • Try to be the soothing, positive one in the room to help them keep their heart rates down. Don't be snippy when they ask you a question.
  • Reassure them that they're ready and have what they need with them. 
  • Give them allergy-friendly snacks if possible, or let them bring their own.  
  • LISTEN when they say that they have a hard time reading, focusing, or understanding a passage. The body's physical reaction to the situation makes it harder to stay calm and use normal reading strategies. 
  • As a teacher, take a timed test every once in a while to keep your empathy sharp and come up with better strategies for your kids. 

PS - Click here to see the most updated list of test prep teaching materials, including for the ACT.

What other suggestions do you have? 
Tell me in the comments!

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