How Can My A/B Student Have Low Test Scores?

by Jennifer Ledwith |
Parent: We were shocked when we checked my daughter’s scores from the June 5th SAT. She scored a 470 [out of 800] on the Evidence-based Reading and Writing and scored a 500 [out of 800] on the Math section. Jennifer, you always tell students to take the SAT and ACT, just in case they perform better on one of them. Well, her July ACT score wasn’t much better. She scored a 17 [out of 36] on the ACT. Here were her scores: English: 16 [out of 36]; Reading: 14 [out of 36]; Math: 20 [out of 36]; Science: 18 [out of 36]. According to the SAT and ACT, she’s not ready for college.
How could this be?  She is in the top 10% of her class, she passed STAAR, and her teachers have nothing but nice things to say about her.
I think she has test anxiety. Can this be overcome?
Jennifer: There are a few parts to this question:
  1. Class rank;
  2. STAAR exams;
  3. College readiness benchmarks; and
  4. Test anxiety.


She’s in the top 10% of her class. That means that her grades are higher than at least 90% of her classmates’ grades. Remember, all A’s are not earned equally.
Once, I met a Houston-area high school valedictorian who scored a 940 (out of 1600) on the SAT. Conversely, I taught a Houston-area high school senior (at another school) who was ranked in the top 10% to 25% of his class yet scored over a 1300 (out of 1600) on the SAT.
What is required of your daughter to get those A’s? Does she regularly read, write, and study for hours outside class? Or, does she regularly complete her homework in class or on the way to and from school?
Next week marks my 17th anniversary at Scholar Ready. Each cohort of teenagers is distinct; they reflect changing fashion, technological, and societal trends. Over the years, their slang, raps, beats, rants, head scarves, man buns, hair extensions, and overall teenagery have enriched our tutoring sessions. However, I am not enjoying the current trend. Never in my 17-year career have I encountered so many super-polite students who cannot understand what they read. Yes, the SAT and ACT are imperfect college-entrance exams. Yes, the data clearly demonstrate that the tests reflect the inequities of society. But they tell the truth about a student’s reading abilities. Show me a student who scores a 14 [out of 36] on the ACT reading, and I’ll show you a student who is not ready for the rigors of reading and writing in college.
And this is the problem. Your daughter has been bringing home A’s and B’s. She’s mannerable. She gets to leave high school. But does she enter college? Does she earn a college degree? And at what cost? While the SAT and ACT are test-optional for admissions, parents are hiring me to help their kids boost their test scores so that they can compete for scholarships.


The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) are basic minimum skills tests.
ExamPassing ScoreApproximate percentage of correct answers to pass
May 2021 Algebra I400061.1%
Spring 2021 Algebra II400058%
May 2021 Biology400062%
April 2021 English I400066%
April 2021 English II400066%
Spring 2021 English III400060%
May 2021 U.S. History400062%
Look at the low expectations for STAAR. A student doesn’t even have to earn a 70% or better on these exams to pass.


SAT College Readiness Benchmarks
Evidence Based-Reading and WritingMath
According to the College Board — the administrators of the SAT — students who score a 480 or better on the Reading and Writing sections of the SAT have a 75% chance of earning at least a C in first-semester, credit-bearing, college-level courses in history, literature, social science, or writing.
Moreover, the College Board asserts that students who score a 530 or better on the SAT Math sections have a 75% chance of earning at least a C in first-semester, credit-bearing, college level courses in algebra, statistics, precalculus, and calculus.
ACT College Readiness Benchmarks*
ACT Section
Corresponding College Courses
English18English Composition I
Math22College Algebra
Reading22American History, Other History, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, Economics
According to ACT Research & Policy, students who meet an ACT Benchmark have a 1 out of 2 chance of achieving a B or better and about a 75 – 80% chance of achieving a C or better in the corresponding college course or courses.
In other words, a student who earns a 22 or better on the ACT Reading has at least a 75% chance of earning a C or better in History, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, and Economics.


Anxiety disorders are real, especially for teenagers (and adults) striving to navigate the uncertainites of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because I’m not a mental health professional, I do not treat anxiety. Nevertheless, I understand that students who experience test anxiety worry about the unknown.
A few years ago, I attended a professional development workshop at Region IV Education Service Center. The educational consultant leading the writing workshop, who trains teachers across the state, made a startling admission:
For most Texas public school students, the day they take the English Language Arts STAAR is the school day that they will read the most. 
If the majority of my reading was limited to 4 hours on 1 school day, I’d be anxious about any test that requires me to read, read, read. The SAT and ACT are reading tests (even the math and science sections!).  The more your daughter practices comprehending and answering test questions in a timed environment, the more your daughter will gain test-taking familiarity and expertise.

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