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A Standardized Test Primer for Parents

Whatever your feelings toward them, standardized tests are becoming more and more prevalent in our children’s education. Depending on your own educational background, you may not be up to date with your knowledge of the tests your children are taking or will take during their formal education. Here’s a primer to help you out.

State Assessment Tests

These are those pesky annual exams that are meant to measure student progress and mastery of common core standards as defined by the state. They vary from state to state; for example Massachusetts has the MCAS, Florida the FCAT and Texas the TAAS. Most states begin administering these assessments around Grade 3 and typically end by Grade 10.  

National Assessment Tests

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of students across the United States. Assessments are given in Grades 4, 8 and 12 and currently cover mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography and U.S. history.

ACT / ACT Plus Writing

The ACT is a standardized test used in college admissions.   It measures skills in four areas: English, reading, science and mathematics. Additionally, there’s an alternate version, the ACT Plus Writing, which (as the name suggests) includes a writing test. The ACT is just under three hours long (2 hours and 55 minutes) and consists of two hundred and fifteen (215) multiple-choice questions. The optional writing section adds another 30 minutes of testing time. Some colleges require applicants to take the ACT Plus Writing, while others do not. Most college bound students take the ACT in the spring of their junior year or fall of their senior year. Finally, many colleges and universities accept the ACT in place of the SAT.

ACT Plan

The ACT Plan test serves as a measure of academic progress roughly halfway through high school. Though not required for college admissions, the ACT Plan is considered a preview of the ACT and thus great practice for students who will be sitting for the exam.  Beyond ACT prep, it also purports to provide insight for college-bound and non-college-bound students alike.


The PSAT/NMSQT (or PSAT for short) is a standardized assessment test administered each October. It is considered by most  an introduction to/preview of  the SAT as it tests the same reading, math and writing skills within a similar format (though it’s shorter and scored in a slightly different manner).. While not required for college admission, most high school students take the PSAT in the fall of their junior years. However, some high schools may also provide their students with the opportunity to take it during the fall of their sophomore years as well.  The test is used as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.


Like the ACT, the SAT is a standardized test used in college admissions.  It measures your ability to solve problems in the areas of critical reading, mathematics and writing. Clocking in at nearly four hours, the exam consists of mainly multiple choice questions as well as one essay. High school juniors and seniors take the SAT as part of the college application process. Most American colleges and universities use SAT or ACT scores along with an applicant’s high school transcript, extra- and co-curricular achievements, letters of recommendation and essays to make admission decisions.

SAT Subject Tests

The SAT Subject Tests are individual, one-hour long tests focused on specific subject areas. Students choose the areas in which they want to test. Overall, there are 20 Subject Tests which fall into five general categories: English, history, languages, math and science. While some colleges require one or more Subject Test scores for admission consideration, others may use scores for placement into appropriate coursework and possible credit.


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Don Munce