Attention, Retention – What the SAT & ACT really test, and why it’s important to school counselors

The SAT and ACT serve as both gateways and gatekeepers for students seeking college admissions. As such, students the country over do their best to prepare for them by poring over content and practice exams, seeking to learn strategies and techniques in efforts to raise their scores. And rightly so: though the College Board and ACT might have us believe otherwise, their tests are both highly predictable, and are thus teachable. It’s true that certain students will never cross a certain score threshold; however, it’s also true that most students would never achieve their potential on the SAT or ACT without learning how to tackle the tests as unique exams, vastly different from the ones they’re used to seeing in school. All this, though, hides two elements of student ability that are instrumental to success on the SAT and ACT: attention to detail, and retention of material. So important are these capacities that the correct answers to many of the questions will elude students who, despite possessing the sheer intellectual capability of comprehending the material, fail to focus on minute details or to search their memories for material they covered long ago (or even content they have just read). This, in large part, leads to the struggles of students whose standardized test scores and GPAs are highly disparate, creating tough situations for guidance counselors of students whose standardized test scores are holding them back.

When it comes to testing mental focus and the ability to sift through detail in questions and answer choices, the ACT takes the cake. In fact, I joke with my students that the ACT Science test, for instance, is a bit of a misnomer, proposing that it ought to be called the “Advanced Paying Attention to Detail” section instead. Take, for example, a simulated sample question and set of four answer choices I put together:

Which of the following statements regarding the reactions inside the reaction tubes best describes the rates of reaction for Enzyme A and Enzyme B? Enzyme A’s rate of reaction was:

A. less than Enzyme B’s rate of reaction, because the rate of product formation in Tubes 1 and 3 was greater than the rate of product formation in Tubes 2 and 4.
B. less than Enzyme B’s rate of reaction, because the rate of product formation in Tubes 2 and 4 was greater than the rate of product formation in Tubes 1 and 3.
C. greater than Enzyme B’s rate of reaction, because the rate of product formation in Tubes 1 and 3 was greater than the rate of product formation in Tubes 2 and 4.
D. greater than Enzyme B’s rate of reaction, because the rate of product formation in Tubes 2 and 4 was greater than the rate of product formation in Tubes 1 and 3.

Don’t worry about the fact that the specifics mean nothing without the context of an experiment. The point is that students must pay a great deal of attention to the particulars of the wording in order to avoid making careless errors on questions like this one. First, they must find which enzyme reacted more rapidly; then, they must determine the correct rationale, ensuring that the choice they pick uses the correct evidence in the correct way to prove their answers. Doing this repeatedly and with high accuracy for forty questions in a row after having sat through the English, Mathematics, and Reading sections of the exam requires an immense degree of focus that isn’t normally tested in a typical classroom setting. It is true that in-class high school exams, especially those in the maths and sciences, can set “traps” for students who aren’t paying attention, but when the stakes are so high, the test so long, and the pressure so intense, students become exposed to a new required level of intensity. Questions on both of the exams force students to store lots of information in their short-term memories and to organize it very quickly: under stressful conditions, any student’s ability to do so can become muddled.

Even if students develop the wherewithal to sit through a four-hour exam, all the while maintaining their ability to pay careful attention to language and avoid tossing points away to careless errors, they will still come up against another factor not usually discussed in test prep circles: retention. There are two types of retention at play on the SAT and ACT.

The first is long-term retention. So much of what the ACT and SAT test is simply about raw knowledge: how much did a student absorb and remember through middle and high school? This is especially so for the mathematics sections on both exams, but applies also to grammar rules, and in the case of the ACT, some science concepts (though raw outside knowledge isn’t tested on the ACT Science section, students do have to understand general experimental concepts like controls and variables). Many of the topics tested go all the way back to 8th and 9th grades, when students learn the fundamentals of algebra and grammar––topics tested extensively by the ACT, and to be tested even more extensively by the Revised SAT. If students’ brains are libraries, and the things they learn the books, then it’s all too often the case that old volumes are cleared––rather than archived––after spending a year in circulation. This lack of long-term retention is a big contributor to the “high-GPA-low-SAT/ACT-score student” phenomenon, which baffles parents: though their children could be doing very well in the current year, that won’t mean much if all the other knowledge has slipped away and can no longer be applied at will.

There is also the issue of short-term retention. On the SAT and ACT, students must be able to store and integrate information under time constraints. This is especially relevant on the ACT Reading and New SAT Reading sections, which feature several questions that do not give line references for students to use while returning to the passage for answers. When they have difficulty with fast processing and short-term mental storage, students find it difficult to answer questions that don’t point them to specific points of the text. Many will end up essentially re-reading large segments of the passage, wasting valuable time doing what a student who does have good short-term retention skills will have to do only once. Recall in reading––even if it allows a student to remember just the approximate location of a fact or statement––is crucial if a student is to get through the Reading section on either exam efficiently.

All this is relevant to the guidance community because it sheds light on the reality of the SAT and ACT: they present challenges that test capacities beyond sheer intelligence, and present an entirely novel test-taking experience for most students who sit for the exams. What, then, can counselors do with this knowledge? The first thing is to encourage students to start working with SAT or ACT material early and often. This doesn’t mean students should be preparing in 9th grade, but it does mean that students should not be putting off thinking about the exams two weeks prior to taking them. It also means that counselors should encourage students to keep their old notes, and to review them periodically if they feel they are forgetting what they’ve learned. This last suggestion may elicit a few chuckles and eye rolls; I’ll admit that it is idealistic, but I would also say that it’s practical. The strategies and techniques that organizations like mine teach students mean little if the foundational content isn’t there; the surest way to make sure students won’t have to “re-learn” their material is to make sure it doesn’t drop away in the first place. Second, counselors should encourage conversations between administration and mathematics and English department heads to ensure everyone knows the skills students will be expected to employ. For example, an English teacher made aware of the realities of the Reading sections of the SAT and ACT could periodically administer exercises in which students must read a passage quickly and then write a paragraph or two about the main idea and the details of the passage without referencing the passage while doing so. Such exercises can help educators determine which students struggle with comprehension while giving the students a chance to expand their capacities of retention and recall. Third, guidance counselors can communicate the realities of the tests to parents of students who perform well in school but falter on standardized exams. After all, the first step to fixing a problem is to discover the root of the problem itself. Once parents and their students understand that earning a 95 in Trigonometry or AP Language by no means makes a high SAT or ACT score a given, they can seek to address the gaps in skills and knowledge that can so often lead to puzzling disparities between GPA and standardized test scores.

Counselors are uniquely positioned to help their students succeed on the SAT and ACT. As the people whose job it is to guide students through high school and their education beyond, counselors are seen as important sources of information and advice in all matters of secondary education, including the standardized exams that can be such stressful rites of passage to high school juniors and seniors. Knowledge, they say, is power, and the more counselors can help their students understand what these exams really demand of students, the less trying and frustrating the SAT and ACT can become.

Evan is VP Education, Method Test Prep. He can answer any questions you may have about the SAT or ACT by e-mailing him at or visiting their website at