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Most school systems around the country have their students participate in a "pretest" before sitting for either the SAT or ACT, which most colleges require. The ACT PLAN is offered to high school sophomores and the PSAT is administered in October to juniors.

What do the scores mean? Many families are receiving the test results and are confused about how they should be interpreted.

ACT PLAN

As part of its College Readiness System, the ACT PLAN tests students in four areas: English, mathematics, reading and science. The tests measure curriculum-related knowledge, not test-taking strategies. The test results help parents and students select future courses by identifying a student's current strengths and weaknesses.

Research on the ACT PLAN has determined that success on the PLAN is highly correlated with future success in Advanced Placement courses. The PLAN is as much a tool for parents as it is for guidance counselors and school administrators, helping them determine which courses should be offered.

The PLAN takes almost two hours (115 minutes) to complete, has 145 questions and scores are between 1 (low) and 32 (high). The composite score is an average of the four sections and is a prediction of how you are likely to score on the ACT. The score sheet also gives you a percentage of students scoring at or below your score and shows you how your scores compare with students (who took the PLAN) across the country, your state, your school district and your school.

College Board PSAT

The PSAT has three sections: math, critical reading and writing. The test takes just over two hours (130 minutes), with 125 questions and scores are reported on a scale of 20 (low) to 80 (high). Average scores for an 11th-grader will be approximately 49 in math, 48 in critical reading and 46 in writing. Add a zero at the end (52 becomes 520), and you can then compare your score with the SAT scores listed in college guidebooks. You should receive your original test booklet and a score report sheet that will show you the question number, the correct response, your answer and the level of difficulty of each question.

The PSAT is a valuable gauge to determine how you'll perform on the SAT. You may look at your score report and decide that you have some gap areas and that you want to study before you take the SAT. Students who performed very well on the PSAT may decide to take the SAT right away to capitalize on their strong scores or choose to prep and aim for an even higher score.

You'll often see the letters NMSQT following PSAT and they stand for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. About 1.5 million juniors in 22,000 high schools take the junior year October PSAT, which also serves as the National Merit qualifying test. By taking the PSAT/NMSQT, you may qualify to enter the competitions for prestigious scholarships and participate in recognition programs. This past September 16,000 semifinalists, less than 1 percent of those who took the test, were notified that they have the opportunity to continue in the competition for 8,300 National Merit Scholarships worth more than $34 million.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.