5 Surprising Skills Measured by Standardized Tests

A multiple choice test answer sheet

As we’ve said before, tests like the SAT, ACT, LSAT, ISEE, and SSAT are designed to differentiate. But people often mistake what they seem to test for with what they actually test for.

These exams appear to be measuring knowledge and intelligence, but they’re actually designed to test for several other – more important – things.

1. Mental Endurance

The exams are long.

Can you keep performing your best for several hours?

Why do they design them this way? Because earning a college degree involves long hours of mental labor, and the careers that come after university require mental endurance too.

An exhausted student napping at their desk

2. Persisting Through Boredom

In addition to being long, the exams are boring. (Some of the reading passages seem deliberately designed to induce yawns.)

Can you stay focused even though it’s not interesting?

Why do they make standardized tests boring? Because every major and every career involves at least some boring, tedious work, even if you’re pursuing a passionate calling.

3. Mental Flexibility

The questions aren’t always asked in the way you expect.

Can you still understand them?

The answers aren’t always presented in the way you expect.

Can you still determine the correct one?

Sometimes, your first approach fails, and a new one is needed.

Can you switch gears quickly?

Why do these exams demand mental flexibility? Because the world is a dynamic place where cognitive flexibility is an essential skill.

A thoughtful student considering how to solve a problem

4. Risk-Taking

Because the exams are difficult, you’ll be unsure about some (probably many) of the questions.

Can you engage anyway? Are you willing to try when you’re unsure if you’re doing it right?

Why do standardized exams test for risk-taking? Because life is full of uncertainty and learning requires risk.

5. True Mastery

Reading comprehension passages demand true understanding of the author’s intended meaning.

Have you been reading widely over the years? Have you been challenging yourself with difficult books and articles, both fiction and nonfiction?

a library

Math sections require that you’ve done both massed practice and interleaving, so you can quickly solve a wide variety of problems.

Have you been practicing mastery learning over the years? Or have you been faking your way through?

Why Standardized Tests Are Still Around

The fact that standardized exams measure these skills is one reason schools still use them. While they might seem outdated or irrelevant, the big-picture skills they test for are still very important for success in the modern world.

6 Tips for SAT Prep

Dear readers,

Today, I’m excited to introduce Maurice Wright, a test-prep tutor with deep experience who recently joined the NWES team. Maurice is the creator of a comprehensive SAT course (use the coupon code NWES400 to receive $400 off), and he has written us an excellent guest post detailing six tips for SAT prep.


Chris Loper

An SAT prep book on a desk

1) Start With a Full-Length Practice Test 

Students need to take numerous full-length practice tests before taking an official exam because it allows them to improve their understanding of the test and their test-taking endurance. I recommend that students use the practice tests provided by the College Board, which are available on their website here, since these tests are written by the same people who write the official tests. You can also access those tests through the Official SAT Study Guide.

So start the preparation process with a practice test, and keep the following in mind: 

  • Students should take the test in a quiet room, ideally where there will be no distractions. Consider going to the local library and using one of the study rooms. 
  • Timing is important – the amount of time students are given for each section is on the first page of that section. 
  • Students are given five-minute breaks between each section during the official exam, so feel free to do the same during the practice test. 
  • Mark the correct answers and review the explanations for the incorrect answers. Students will be better able to improve their score if they are aware of their mistakes, so remind them to read the explanations for the questions they answered incorrectly. 

There are instructions provided in the “Scoring Your SAT Test” PDF, as well as in the prep book, to help students calculate their SAT score for both the verbal and math sections. The first practice test provides students with their baseline score, and now they can begin improving their score systematically. 

2) Watch Two Khan Academy Math Videos Per Day 

The math sections on the SAT cover concepts ranging from arithmetic to geometry to trigonometry. Khan Academy has a series of videos (found here) organized by topic; in each video, the instructor reads a question, explains the concept, and solves the problem. Students should take notes on these videos, especially the videos that review complex concepts. There are a total of 82 videos in the playlist, so if students watch two videos per day, they will complete all of the videos in about six weeks.  

3) Take Two Practice Sections Per Week 

Students should take one verbal and one math section from a practice test each week. The first week they can take the Reading Test and no-calculator math section, and the second week they can take the Writing and Language Test and the calculator math section. They do not need to take both on the same day. Instead, I recommend spending 60 to 90 minutes taking one section and reading the explanations for each question as they grade it. They can then repeat this process for the second section on a different day later in the week. 

4) Take One Full-Length Practice Test Each Month 

I advise that students take a full-length practice test once a month before their first official exam because their endurance will improve, making it easier for them to stay focused during the official exam. Students will also be able to identify the concepts they need to continue reviewing. Again, students should always read the explanations to the questions they answered incorrectly. So if the students want to take the test one day and then review it the next day when they have more energy, that is completely fine.  

5) Register for Two Consecutive Exams

I recommend that parents sign their students up for two exams, ideally as close in time to one another as possible (they are offered every one to three months). Keep in mind that the June exam often coincides with students’ finals, so it’s not always a good fit. 

Leading up to the first official exam, students are reviewing many concepts. Between the first and second official exams, the students have the opportunity to focus on the handful of topics they struggled with and continue taking practice tests to stay sharp. They are usually less nervous during the second official exam, so we want students to take that exam soon after the first one. 

6) Sign Up for SAT Prep

Contact Carey if you are interested in one-on-one tutoring or an online group course for your student. If you are interested in signing up for my online group course, remember to use the code NWES400 at checkout to receive $400 off each seat you purchase. 

A Surprising Way to Improve Your SAT Reading Score

Here at Northwest Educational Services, we spend a lot of time teaching conventional strategies to improve your SAT reading score: previewing the questions, annotating, using evidence, process of elimination, and doing lots of practice. These are excellent, broadly applicable strategies, but today I want to focus on an unconventional way to do better on a particular type of reading passage.

Both the SAT and ACT reading sections begin with a passage from a story. For many students, this is the most difficult of all the reading passages. At first glance, this is surprising because most of the reading assigned in language arts classes is fiction. And most students who read for pleasure at home read novels. They have more experience reading stories than nonfiction, so it might seem odd that they do better on the SAT’s nonfiction passages than they do on the literature passage.

Sure, some of the stories are from the 1800s, so the language is difficult to comprehend, but even those written in modern prose are challenging. The reason is that they are a form of story that most students have very little experience with. An SAT fiction passage is brief – only a page or so in length – and it’s from the middle of a novel. It’s a struggle to sort out what’s happening because you have very little context to base your understanding on. Much is implied and very little is actually explained. You have to pick up on subtle clues that, if missed, will ruin your interpretation of the passage. And then, it just … ends. No climax, no resolution, no explanation.

When I first started engaging SAT fiction passages six years ago, I struggled. Actually, I continued to struggle for several years after that. But lately, I’ve noticed they’re much easier than they used to be. And instead of dreading them, I actually love them now. And I think I know why.

You see, for the last few years, I’ve been listening to short story podcasts. Prior to this, I’d had almost no experience reading short fiction. Now, I can’t get enough. And the nature of short stories is training my brain to better handle SAT fiction passages.

Short stories are a unique artform, and they have more in common with SAT reading passages than novels do. A short story doesn’t give you much time to sort out what’s going on: the setting, the characters, the plot. It’s rich in detail, but doesn’t offer much direct explanation. Instead of being explicitly told what’s going on, you have to notice and interpret little clues that the author drops here and there.

And the story will likely end right at or immediately after the climax, leaving the resolution unsaid. It might even end before the climax. You don’t get to know how the story ends; you have to imagine it. You’re often left wondering about the resolution, wishing the story would continue, as though the author had left you with a cliffhanger. But it’s not really a cliffhanger because there’s never a follow-up. There’s no next episode, no next chapter. You have to decide for yourself, based on clues from the text, what the author wants you to think happens after the ending.

Although SAT readings aren’t exactly short stories, they share many of their key features. So practicing reading or listening to short stories should improve your mental muscles for understanding this type of reading. It has certainly helped me.

The very best option for listening is, in my opinion, Levar Burton Reads. Many of you will know Levar Burton from his role in Star Trek: The Next Generation or his PBS show Reading Rainbow. The latter was all about reading stories for children. His podcast caters to an adult audience, though most of the stories are appropriate for high schoolers. Both his delivery and his selection of stories are consistently excellent, and there is musical accompaniment. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

If podcasts aren’t your thing, or if you just want to add actual reading to your short story training, search your library or Amazon for “short fiction collection” and you’ll find numerous options. The more short stories you read, the more easily you will understand them.

So, if you struggle as I did with the literature passages on the SAT, ACT, or AP Language Arts exams, here’s a new technique to add to your test-prep arsenal.