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According to The National Report of 1997 College Bound Seniors, of the 1,105,403 college-bound seniors who took the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) during their senior year, 22,441 (2.5 %) indicated on their application that they had a “learning disability,” defined as a specific, documented disability. These students’ scores on both Verbal and Math means of the SAT were significantly lower (by 59-66 points) than those of students reporting no disability. The Verbal mean for students reporting a learning disability was 450; for students reporting no disability, it was 509. The Math mean scores were 448 and 514, respectively (The College Board, 1997a) (see Figure 1). These results were consistent with those of the previous year. Historically, the SAT scores of students with learning disabilities have been considerably lower than the national mean (Braun, Ragosta, & Kaplan, 1986).

Fig. 1. 1997 SAT Scores
Student Description Verbal Mean Math Mean
No disabling condition 509 514
Disabling Condition 472 471
Learning Disability 450 448

This article explores metacognitive strategies that can help students with learning disabilities significantly raise their SAT scores.

Why the difference in SAT scores for students with learning disabilities?

The SAT scores of students with learning disabilities are significantly lower because of the characteristics inherent within the disability itself. A learning disability is a “disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an inability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations” (Federal Register, 1992). Other traits may include uneven and unpredictable test performance, perceptual impairments, and low tolerance for frustration (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1997). Because the SAT taps into every aspect of this definition and traits-with the exception of spelling-the student with a learning disability is at a high risk for a low score unless he or she is thoroughly prepared for all demands of the test, from filling out the answer sheet and coping effectively with test anxiety, to managing time and choosing which questions not to answer.

In addition, the U.S. Congress, in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (IDEA), critically reported that students with disabilities are met with low expectations and are often excluded from statewide and district wide assessments. IDEA recommended that states should have policies and procedures to ensure that students with disabilities are included in these assessment programs in general education. This legislation emphasizes high expectations and encourages students with disabilities to participate in higher level assessments like the SAT.

Although a combination of SAT score and high school grades remains the best predictor of college performance (Braun et al., 1986; College Board Online, 1997), the SAT often presents the greater academic challenge because it is beyond the control of the local school district. As a result, school districts, parents, and students are scrambling for the “perfect” approach to raising test scores for all students, including an increasing number of students with learning disabilities. In addition to higher expectations and encouragement, do students with learning disabilities require a more specialized “task analysis” approach to significantly improve their test scores? The answer is yes.

How can metacognitive strategies help?

META-TEST is a two-part SAT test-taking strategy (SAT Contract and Personal SAT Strategy), based on the principle of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. In this case, it is thinking about how one takes tests.

Students with disabilities can be inefficient in evaluating the correctness of their own responses (self-appraisals) and can evidence persistent helplessness in developing self-help strategies (self-management) (Scruggs & Brigham, 1990). Metacognition addresses these two difficulties because it emphasizes the student as an “active learner,” one who asks questions, makes decisions, and exercises control over the learning process (Mayo, 1993). Studies have shown that although all students benefit from strategy instruction, metacognition emphasizes personal appraisal and management, lending itself to the individual strengths and weaknesses of students with learning disabilities (Mastropieri & Bakken, 1990; Paris & Winograd, 1990; Scruggs & Brigham, 1990).

META-TEST differs from traditional large-group SAT instruction because, first, it is a personal approach that correlates a student’s learning strengths and weaknesses with the myriad individual tasks required during an administration of the SAT. Second, the student is accountable for developing and presenting his or her own personal test-taking strategy. The end result is tailor-made for maximum effectiveness. The school district, parent, and student can truly feel that the student is “ready” to take the test.

Fortunately, the student with a learning disability has a wealth of personal information to aid him or her in preparing for the SAT. This information emanates from the student’s psychological report and the individualized education program (IEP):

  • The psychological report identifies the exact nature of the learning disability in terms of academic strengths and weaknesses, as well as discrepancies in test scores such as vocabulary, reading, and math computation and problem solving-essential components of the SAT. In addition, it identifies personal learning styles and makes recommendations for compensatory techniques for the child to be successful. It also examines and explains other factors that may interfere with test-taking ability, such as difficulty following directions, distractibility, or processing weaknesses.
  • The student’s IEP contains important information regarding current functioning levels, academic successes, complete and incomplete annual goals, and daily physical or management needs, as well as a transition plan that may include college preparation.

Together, these two reports provide information that can be used to formulate an effective and efficient plan for meeting the challenge of the SAT, especially in developing a personal test-taking strategy.

What is a META-TEST SAT contract?

The junior year of high school should be devoted to serious test preparation, beginning with a meeting among the student, parent, guidance counselor, and special educator. Here the ground rules for the SAT Contract (Figure 2) are pre sented. This meeting should summarize the intent and process of this step-by-step approach, as well as emphasize the partnership necessary for success. Because each contract is individualized according to the nature of the student’s learning disability, the special educator should act as the coordinator because he or she knows the student’s ability and disability best. Completing the contract will enable each student to develop his or her own personal test-taking strategy.

View Figure 2: META-TEST SAT contract

Working with the coordinator

The goal of the META-TEST Contract is to establish an ongoing dialogue between coordinator and student. Paris and Winograd (1990) explained that “dialoguing” is an important aspect of “scaffolded instruction, ” the goal of which is to provide the learner with just enough support to achieve a goal that would initially y be impossible without support, as well as “cognitive coaching,” the goal of which is self-regulated learning. Students with learning disabilities need to manage their own learning by planning, evaluating, and regulating their performance on academic tasks. Once this can be achieved, as Paris and Winograd contended, students become “enabled and empowered.” This is exactly the educational mindset that a student needs to improve his or her SAT score.

Learning about SAT test format

The SAT Contract consists of a series of steps, each ending with the coordinator’s signature of approval, date, and any necessary recommendation. The first step is knowledge of the test format, a sort of overview of the test, a sense of the gestalt. The student must be able to explain and/or list the following: the number of Verbal and Math sections, the number of questions in and content of each section, and the amount of time allotted for each section. This explanation helps the student plan the pace of the SAT and is an integral part of self-regulated learning. This increasing familiarity with format will reduce test anxiety (Ornstein, 1993).

Obtaining necessary test accommodations

Knowledge of test directions is important because students may only work on one section of the test during a specific period of time. Test directions are greatly influenced by whether or not the student takes a standard timed administration or nonstandard administration with testing accommodations. The presence of an IEP or 504 Plan does not automatically mean that a student is eligible for testing accommodations. The six guidelines for documentation of a disability as well as the Eligibility Form are available through SAT Services for Students with Disabilities (College Board, 1997b) or through College Board Online (Figure 3). In general, test accommodations must parallel those used on classroom and schoolwide tests, and may include extended time, large type test book and answer sheet, Braille device, cassette test, a reader to dictate test questions, or a writer to record responses. Students who are found eligible for accommodations may register at a national test center to receive up to 50 % extended time and use a regular-type or large-type test book/answer sheet. if other accommodations are required, students may request school testing to receive more than So% extended time or other test materials (SAT Services for Students with Disabilities, 1997).

Figure 3. College Board Outline

SAT Services for Students with Disabilities (

  • Test Dates
  • Top 13 Test-Taking Tips
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Online Registration
  • SAT Program Information for Students and Parents

Learning test-taking tips

The top 13 test-taking tips for students with disabilities offered by College Board Online emphasize student ownership of the test. Here are a few:

  • Know the test directions because for every 5 minutes you spend reading directions, you will have fewer minutes to answer questions.
  • Do the easy questions first because they are equal in point value to difficult ones.
  • Know how the test is scored because you get one point for each correct answer and lose a fraction of a point for each wrong answer. You can get an average score by just answering about half the questions correctly.
  • Omit questions that you have no idea how to answer.
  • Review and complete a practice answer sheet.
  • Be careful filling in the grids.
  • Take and evaluate a Practice SAT (PSAT).

These tips affirm the credo of professional SAT preparers that knowledge of good test-taking strategies can reduce anxiety and improve test scores (Ornstein, 1993).

Taking a practice test

The most important step in completing the SAT Contract is taking a diagnostic practice exam. The exam should simulate actual testing conditions, timed or untimed. The coordinator should note off task behaviors and distractibility and discuss these with the student when the exam is reviewed to determine how to effectively use break time.

The student should learn how to score the exam and determine a Verbal and Math score. The student and the coordinator should carefully review each section of the exam to determine the student’s strengths and weaknesses. The next step is to develop a Personal SAT Strategy.

What is a personal SAT strategy?

During the evaluation of the practice exam, the student and the coordinator discuss and complete the student’s Personal SAT Strategy (Figure 4). The student should be able to explain or list his or her personal strengths and weaknesses; this evaluation will help the student examine and practice these questions at a later date during an SAT Review class where individual questions and problems are discussed. Many students use the PSAT to accomplish this goal, in addition to a practice SAT.

Outlining a Personal SAT Strategy is perhaps the most important step in this process because it brings together all information in a meaningful way. It specifies the following:

  • Exactly what aspect of the student’s learning disability from the psychological report should be the focus of the strategy.
  • What accommodations are required according to the recommendations on the student’s IEP or 504 Plan.
  • What specific strategy should be used on the Verbal and Math sections to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses.

Because the student has been an active part of this process, he or she should feel “enabled and empowered” to be successful (Paris & Winograd, 1990). Finally, the student should explain his or her Personal SAT Strategy either orally or in writing (see box, page 32, “Now That I Understand…” This is a written example of The Personal SAT Strategy presented in Figure 4).

View Figure 4. META-TEST Personal SAT Strategy

Now That I Understand: A student writes about forming a personal test-taking strategy:

My learning disability involves reading and processing information. Because of this, I intend to take the test with extended time. This will enable me to spend more time on the Verbal section of the test which is one of my weaknesses. I need more practice in analogies and sentence completion questions when I take the review course. One of my strengths will be in the reading comprehension section because many of the questions involve finding an answer in the line of a passage which I can do well. In order to do this, I must skim the introduction to the passage first, read the questions and scan the passage for the answers. I have learned that you do not have to understand a passage in order to get the correct answer. I plan to use a highlighter to help me remember important information as I read.

Now that I understand the different directions to the Math section of the test, I need to review how to use all the formulas on my calculator’ I especially need to review the rules of geometry because I did not score well in those areas of the test. I do not think I will need that much extended time for the Math section of the test. I need to doublecheck all my fill-in answers because I often make careless mistakes in this section. In general, I cannot waste time on questions I do not know.

How should students practice?

After the student has completed a Personal SAT Strategy, he or she is ready to concentrate on the types of individual questions through an SAT Review Course, Learning Center, Resource Room, or local curriculum. It is never too early to provide students with the skills necessary for the SAT. One virtue of metacognition is that the constructive, personal, strategic thinking it embraces is amenable to classroom instruction on all levels for all students (Paris and Winograd, 1990).

The curriculum of English, social studies, and science classes should include analogy and sentence-completion type questions in their weekly exams. Reading comprehension passages similar in content and format to the SAT can be provided in all content area classes. Math classes, in addition to teaching students how to problem solve, must also present questions in the varied format of the SAT. For example, because the directions and format of the Quantitative Comparison Questions of the Math section are difficult and time consuming, they should be reviewed and memorized before the student takes the exam (Figure 5).

Is META-TEST Worth the Effort?

Another virtue of metacognition is that the very process of embracing self-appraisal and self-management creates a positive, persistent mindset (for an example, see box, “Mary: A Mini-Case Study”).

Mary: A mini-case study

Mary is a senior, class of 1997, who was diagnosed with a learning disability in the third grade. Mary’s weakness is in the Verbal area in processing information. Mary’s academic record reflects a student who has worked hard and struggled with challenging courses, usually achieving a grade of C

In addition to her learning disability, Mary developed test anxiety to the degree that in the eighth grade, she failed each of five final exams. However, Mary developed strong athletic abilities; and the prospects of her at tending a Division 11 college with a scholarship were great, if she could score the 820 minimum to be eligible to ploy sports. Mary’s learning disability and test anxiety required on individualized strategy to achieve this goal.

Mary’s first attempt at the SAT was viewed as diagnostic; she attained a combined score of 680 (timed). Mary’s test protocol was analyzed to determine her strengths and weaknesses, and she planned to take the next test untimed. This score was not significantly better because, although advised not to do so, Mary attempted to answer every question. Her third attempt was timed and resulted in a combined score of 780, which was 100 points higher than her original score and only 40 points away from eligibility.

Her META-TEST strategy included a thorough review of the types of questions she should and should not answer, how to use oil of the formulas given in the math section, and how to complete the fill-in section of the math test. The fourth attempt resulted in a combined score of 960 (Verbal = 500, Moth = 460), a 280-point improvement. Mary was now NCAA eligible and would receive $11,000 to attend a Division 11 university. She could finally begin to realize her long-term goal: to become a physical education teacher and work with children with disabilities.

Administrators and local school boards may question whether METATEST is worth all the effort to improve a few scores for students with disabilities. The answer is that every score counts and a few low scores by unprepared students can significantly affect a school’s average since scores for students both with and without disabilities are reported alike in the same score report. Finally, all students could equally benefit from METATEST by taking a learning styles inventory and substituting their own strengths and weaknesses as part of the process. The student’s commitment to this program will ensure its ultimate success.

View Figure 5: Directions for Quantitative Comparison Questions (Adapted)
Gayle Bellafiore from Teaching Exceptional Children, Sept/Oct 1998 reprinted with permission
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