Sunday, January 06, 2019

Improving your ACT scores


Note: This was my talk to St. Michael students on Monday, January 7, 2018

Good morning! What I am talking about this morning is most relevant to freshman and sophomores, and secondarily to juniors. Seniors, see if what I am saying is consistent with your experience. 

I want to talk about improving your ACT scores. We gave back your P-ACT scores just before Christmas that reflect your performance on the tests you took here at St. Michael in October. Juniors, you took the PSAT test just before Christmas, but you have also taken two years of P-ACT tests if you’ve been here since your frosh year. 

Whatever score you made on the P-ACT, relax——these scores are not sent to, or seen by,  colleges. But the P-ACT does predict what you might make on the ACT test in your junior and senior year, which is the test that determines college admissions and scholarships.  Some of you might have been excited about that projected score. Some may have been disappointed. 

Let’s talk about how the College Board makes those projections. 

Generally speaking, for every year of high school, the College Board predicts you’ll gain about 2 points on your composite score and subtests. How do they guess that? Because that’s what the national averages show—on average, if you make a 22 in your sophomore year, you’ll make a 24 in your junior year or 26 in your senior year. Not quite that simple, but close enough. 

It’s really important, though, to understand what “national average” means: It means that a typical student, with a typical work ethic, going to a typical school, taking typical classes, with typical teachers, will typically gain 2 points/year.

But it’s entirely possible that over the course of your high school career, you can beat those national averages by not being typical. First, you don’t go to a typical school. You don’t have typical teachers, and you don’t have to be the typical student. In fact, many of our seniors have far exceeded their “projected test scores” from their P-ACT test. Here’s how you can do that, too:

1) Most importantly, challenge yourself by taking good classes and striving to do well. Best way to improve ACT scores is to dig deep into your classes. We’ll be doing course selections for next year in the next month or so, and you’re going to have to decide between AP, Honors and non-Honors courses. To AP or not AP will be the question for some of you. What should you take? You should take whatever class you can work hard in an earn at least a B. Four year effect of taking those courses and working hard in them is huge. 

And in which part of the test can you improve the most in? The section that is your weakest score. So if you’re not as good in Math, for example, see that as an opportunity instead of something to avoid at all costs. (It’s a matter of perspective, like the two shoe salesmen who were assigned to Africa to see shoes. The first guy writes home: “No chance of selling shoes here—the natives don’t wear any.” The other guy writes home: “Huge opportunity here: natives need shoes. “ Be like this second salesman when it comes to your weakest subject—see it as an opportunity to substantially improve your ACT

2) Read, Read, Read—ACT is 3/4 a reading test, even in Science. The more we do something the better we get at it. Read good books. I doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, but it should be something that interests you enough to keep doing it. Get into books again. Audio books, too, if you’re driving somewhere, help.

3) Take 4 ACT practice tests. Want to know why many of these ACT prep classes are successful? Because they make you take 4 practice tests. The evidence shows that taking these tests in a simulated testing environment give your score a significant bump. But you don’t need to pay thousands of dollars for a ACT Prep course to make you do that—you can do it yourself!  (Here’s five old ACT tests here to practice on). You’ll be more familiar with the tests and a little less stressed.  That’s why we give you the P-ACT in freshman and sophomore year—that’s twice—and why we’re going to extend that to junior year next year, which will be 3 times. Take a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and take a full practice test to simulate a testing environment.  

4) Sign up for our Analytical Reading class in junior year—We’ve created a one semester elective in the junior year that most of our juniors are taking. Mrs. Scimeca is a reading specialist, and she can help you with techniques on how to read the passages with greater comprehension and accuracy. 

5) Take the ACT three times.  I recommend once in February—juniors, you need to be signing up (January 11 is registration deadline for February 9 test)—once more in June, and one more time in either September or October in your senior year. Why 3 times? Three reasons: Practice helps you improve. Second, you’ll improve naturally with time. You’re 6 months older and smarter from February until October. And finally, some colleges allow you to “super-score” your ACT test. That means you get to choose your best scores from each of your sub-tests to create the best possible “composite" score. You can’t do that unless you’ve taken the test a few times. 

6. Easiest suggestion of all: The week of the ACT test, get 7-8 hours a sleep per night. Dr. Altermatt can tell you the physiological reasons that sleeping well improves your brain functioning, but all of us, I think, know the difference between waking up tired—almost like our brain is sluggish, filled with cobwebs—or waking up well rested, when our brain is alert, quick, aware. Being well rested could make as much a difference as 2-3 points.  

I see this difference in myself. Too bad we can't get a daily "brain scan" to see how quick witted we are. But a half a life ago, I used to play tournament chess, and even now,  I play about 20 games a week, 3 or 4 games/ day, on chess. com, usually 2 minute games. Chess.com gives you a cumulative rating each time you play: the better you play, the higher your rating. There are some weeks, that for whatever reason, I don’t sleep very well, tossing and turning in bed. During those weeks, my rating typically drops any where from 100-150 points.  But if I have a good week of sleep, I play chess much better, raising my score about the same amount. 

I wish I knew then what I knew now, because I would have been a better student in college. I did it EXACTLY the wrong way—I’d pull all nighters, studying for tests, sucking down coffee to stay alert—not knowing I was almost surely lessening the likelihood that I would do well. If that sounds like you, you’re much better off simply going to bed than pulling an all nighter. 

Get sleep, go to bed early and wake up early enough to do a little exercise before your ACT test to get the blood pumping, and you’ll be in optimum shape for the test that morning. 
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Let me end with this:  We can kill ourselves chasing for some elusive high ACT score, but God made us who we are. It’s our job to be the best possible version of ourselves we can be, but once we do so, we have to accept God’s will for our lives. Most of us are never going to score a 36 on the ACT test. Most of us will never get close. So we do our best, and then let life unfold. That’s the great adventure—not being 100% certain of our future. 

And a final word to seniors: Many of you are now making, or near making, the decision where to go to college.  Ask God to help you! Pray about it!  Don’t go to a college because that’s where your friends are going— even your girlfriend/boyfriend. Your relationship will survive different schools if a long term relationship is God’s plan for you. Ask God to show you the place which will help you become the best version of yourself. That’s where you’ll be most happy. 

Work hard, everyone! 

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Raising Teenagers: Top Ten Suggestions, part II



5) Avoid immediately “rescuing” your teen—If our children have trouble with a coach, teacher or other adult in their life--unless it's a case of their health or safety-- insist they make attempts to resolve the  issue before swooping in to save them. That doesn’t mean there’s not a proper time for us to meet with a teacher or coach, but only after our kids have stepped up to the plate and swung first.  If we are first to intervene,  we take away a growth opportunity for our child and potentially ruin a chance to favorably resolve the issue (because when we're involved, it easily becomes a power-struggle). 

A common example of this dilemma is “playing time” for our kids on an athletic team. Help your child by talking through how to talk to his or her coach, or even “role-play” the coach with him or her as prep for the meeting  (if your child allows it). I recommend the teen asks the coach for an appointment time, rather than meet randomly, and at that meeting, he or she should ask the coach “What can I do to get better to help the team more? (which is oriented to team) rather than “How come I’m not getting more playing time” (which is oriented to self). Most coaches are going to respond to that kind of meeting very favorably. Parents, this is one conversation you should stay out of--you'll need to suffer in silence!  But if you must, never, ever approach a coach immediately after a ball game—he’s not likely at his best, nor are you! 

As much as we want to, we can’t smooth all pathways out in front of our children, protecting them from bumps and rocks in their path. Working through these difficulties will help them grow up.  

4) Teenagers should “sleep in their own beds each night.” This is probably my most controversial suggestion. Yes, I mean no sleepovers. Here’s why: I’ve had countless meetings with teenagers whose lives are unravelling due to incidences outside of school, usually on weekend nights. The common denominators? They were intoxicated, and they “spent the night” at a “ friend’s house.” Teenagers often play the “shell” game with their parents: Teen A says he’s spending the night with Teen B’s family, Teen B says he’s spending the night with Teen A’s family, but both are spending the night at Teen C's home, free from adult oversight —perhaps a place where the parents are on vacation, or a place in the woods, or even a hotel. Before you say “not my kid”—I am talking about good kids from good families who play these kind of games.

If we allow kids to spend the night somewhere else, we have a lot of issues to think through.  Consider: ”Which families are the “good” families whom you’ll allow your kids to spend the night with? Which families are on the “banned” list? How will we explain that distinction to our kids? How will we navigate our social interactions with the “banned” family? Will the other parents insist their child (and yours) comes home that night? What time? Will a parent in that home be “up” when they return? In other words, will that family truly insist on that curfew time, or look the other way? How carefully will this family oversee activities within their home? In their yard? Will they allow kids to drink? On their property? Somewhere else? Who else might come over? What if the group of kids informs that family they’re going to stay at another person’s home—are you allowing that parent to make that decision on your behalf? The truth is that these kinds of questions sound intrusive, and so most of the time, we don’t ask them, meaning that our kids could be doing almost anything.  We simply don't know.   

My “fence” was simply “you gotta sleep in your own bed.” What did my kids think about it? They hated it, of course--they were teens!-- and I remember my daughter once weeping bitterly, telling us “this rule is from the stone ages,” and that we “were isolating her from her friends.” She survived, and by the way had numerous friends,  despite her neanderthal father! That same daughter, in her late twenties now, recently told us “that rule kept her away from a lot of bad things” and thanked us for holding the line. Sometimes, we have to do things to protect our teenagers, even if they don’t like it! 

3) Focus on effort in school, not grades—From the perspective of the student to whom school comes easily, but also from the perspective of a student who has difficulty, focusing on grades is the wrong metric to measure success. I’ve had many meetings with parents of a kid doing poorly who say “I’ve told him, I expect all A’s and B’s,” when in fact, an A or B might be unattainable for that student in a certain class, leading that child to frustration or despair. But I’ve also known many kids making “good grades" who could be doing much better if they worked harder.

One of my sons—whom God had blessed with talent—cruised his way through the first two years of high school, doing very little work but making good grades, despite my constant harping on him to work harder. But in his junior year, the Pre-Calculus teacher, sounding nervous, asked to meet with me (the principal) before first quarter grades were published. She was worried what I might think about her, because my son had  a “D” in her class. I smiled at her, shook her hand, and said “Thank you, you’re doing my son a great favor.” My son was shell-shocked, but he started to become a more serious student, frequently leaving the house at 6:30 a.m. to get 30 minutes of Math tutoring before school. My wife and I would high five each other as he left, pleased that our son was showing signs of growing up!

Grades are less important than people think. Because they’re so inflated nationally, and because they vary so much between schools, colleges don’t trust them. Instead, they focus on ACT or SAT scores, which helps them compare “apples to apples.”  The best way to improve ACT scores? Not an ACT prep class! Rather, I tell parents a student should take the "most demanding set of classes a child is capable of making a B in," and then he should work really hard in those classes.  Over time—there’s no quick fix here—the ACT scores will slowly creep up. 

If you have a child that does poorly in school, disregard the grades. Yes! Disregard them. Instead, tell him you expect 60-90 minutes of homework each night and that if asked, his teachers will say he’s ‘working hard’ and “paying attention.” If those things are true, I recommend you take your child to dinner to celebrate for his  “A+” effort and to tell him you’re proud of him!  He’s doing the best he can, which is all we can ask. Let the grades take care of themselves….

2) Keep Holy the Sabbath—No doubt about it, the decision whether they will practice their faith will be theirs one day, usually beginning in college.   But if they live in our home, they must live by our rules, and one of those rules is we attend Church. When they’re younger, they had to go to Church with us, as a family.  In their later teen years, we had no issue with them attending a different mass, perhaps a youth mass in our parish or some other parish. Hey, whichever liturgy or parish speaks most powerfully to them, I’m fine with that! But it’s a non-negotiable that they must go, every week and on holy days of obligation.  Why do I believe we should insist on this? If we allow our children to make that decision while they live with us, we are in effect, “sanctioning” that choice in their mind. But if they choose not to go to Church when they attend college, they do so understanding that we don’t agree with that decision—but that they have the freedom to make that choice. 

Furthermore, unless the activity were Church related, like being in a music group that played for Church on Sundays, or becoming active in youth-parish activities, Sundays were NOT a day we allowed our kids to engage in athletic practices, games or any other scheduled “activities” that pulled our kids away from the family and added to the chaos of their lives. There has to be one day a week when things slow down, for the sake of our family and our kids’ mental health. We’re all too busy. Sunday is the one day each week to take a deep breath, to watch some ball games, catch up on homework, or to take a nap. As principal, I will not allow practices to be held on Sundays for this reason.  


1) Mean what we say. How many times do we tell our teens to do something before we institute some sort of discipline for their non-compliance? Some parents might say "just once," and I wouldn't argue against that too strongly, because it insists that we mean what we say, which is the point I'm making. But my sense, having raised 3 boys who sometimes  gave a good impression of a deaf-mute, is "twice." And if I have to ask a child a second time, there's a certain "tone" in my voice--not yelling!--that is unmistakably a warning.

Good parenting is similar to good classroom management. I tell teachers that if they "shush" kids 10 times in class before there's a consequence, then the first nine "shushes" didn't matter.  Excellent teachers generally give talkative kids a certain "look" as a kind of warning,  then a verbal reprimand, then some sort of disciplinary consequence if it continues. EVERY TIME. As a result, the line is pretty firm in the students' minds. 

Parents who don't insist on this kind of "patterned consequence" will often find themselves shouting at their children, both out of exasperation, but also to emphasize that they really mean it (this time). Shouting at our children is almost never good--far better to "speak softly and carry a big stick" if kids are not responding to what we've asked them to do. 

Parents are benevolent oligarchs. If the oligarchs are wise, they'll be balanced in what they ask of kids, building fences and not micro-managing. But once the oligarch decides, it's OK to tolerate a little complaining, but ultimately, the child must do as we ask. With my lawyerly teenage daughter (who no surprise to us, actually became a lawyer), I would engage with her for a few moments, then ultimately end with "I'm sorry you disagree with me, but I expect you to do it," then walk away, thereby not allowing the argument to continue or become more heated. She'd fume a bit, but ultimately do what we asked (most of the time). 

Or what? What's the "penalty?"  Well, consequences depend on the issue, but I've found confiscating the cell phone for a length of time usually works for what I might label as "routine" disciplinary issues. Cell phones are like crack cocaine for teenagers--they'll do anything to get them back--and the break from technology isn't a bad thing for them. I don't believe in removing kids from athletic teams, because those activities are healthy for kids, and in the case of an undisciplined child, the structure and accountability that athletics provide are part of the solution, not the problem.  Doing service on the weekends, waking up early on Saturday mornings to do extra yard work, babysitting a younger sibling on a Friday night--all of these things are within our "arsenal" as parents. Be creative! 


Conclusion: When our kids were toddlers, older parents would tell us, in foreboding terms, to "enjoy the kids now, because one day they'll become teenagers." Nonsense!  Teenagers are quirky, funny, honest, maddening, mercurial,  and loads of fun to be around. It's worth remembering that we can't be perfect parents, and they can't be perfect kids. But it is awe-inspiring to be able to witness our children becoming young men and women, with their unique personalities, their unique opinions and world-view. Pray for them daily, that God helps them become the persons he has designed them to be--therein lies their happiness. Pray for your patience and wisdom, that you will lead them well. And enjoy the ride!