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updated: 4/17/2013 3:36 PM

The key to a smooth test day is preparation

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Don't wait until the last minute and pull an all-nighter cramming for a test. Get a good night's sleep. Eat a healthy breakfast.

The standard advice for how to prepare for exams has become almost cliché for a reason. According to Colin Gruenwald, director of SAT and ACT programs for Kaplan Test Prep, it's all incredibly important. And parents play a major role in ensuring their kids are ready for test day.

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Gruenwald said students should get a normal amount of sleep -- if that means six hours, fine. If it means 12, also fine. And as to the healthy breakfast -- test-takers should stick as close to their normal routine there as well.

If a full plate of pancakes, eggs and bacon is a standard breakfast for your child, that should be on the menu before an exam, too. If a piece of toast and a glass of orange juice is the regular serving size for the first meal of the day, Gruenwald said not to do anything too out of the ordinary.

And that advice is true for all nerve-wracking tests from a biology midterm to college entrance exams.

But specifically when it comes to major standardized tests like the SAT or the ACT, there are two sides to test prep. First is the content -- actually learning that 2+2=4. But second is learning the test itself.

Gruenwald points to things like endurance and pacing as important skills for the hours-long test sessions.

"You don't just get up one day and say 'This is marathon day, I guess I'll put on my shoes.' You build up to it," Gruenwald said.

Students should know what to expect before the day of the exam, and especially with the national standardized tests, there's no reason not to take a practice one at home. There are plenty of free practice tests online, including from Kaplan.

But then there's the mechanics of the test itself. For example, with the ACT, it won't hurt a student at all to guess on a question. There's no penalty for a wrong answer. But with the SAT, there is. So when time is running out, bubbling in random answers on the ACT could end up helping the test-taker -- that's less likely to be the case on the SAT.

The major standardized test for younger students in Illinois, the ISAT, comes with its own quirks, especially this year.

Students across the state in grades three through eight took the test between March 4 and 15. Some may have noticed harder questions. That's because 20 percent of the test was written with the new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards in mind.

A new assessment will completely replace the ISAT during the 2014-15 school year, fully tied to the stricter standards. In the meantime, the state board of education shifted the grading scale for the ISAT, making it harder for students to be identified as "meeting" or "exceeding" standards.

Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent José Torres uses a health analogy to explain the anticipated drop in student scores.

"Imagine if the scales were changed overnight and they lowered them," Torres said. "Overnight, we haven't eaten one more piece of candy, one more slice of pizza -- we would all become obese. And we haven't done anything different."

In U-46, the number of students who are meeting or exceeding standards on the ISAT is going to decrease by 20 to 30 percentage points -- a nose-dive that will occur statewide in school districts, though not all to that degree.

The new test is expected to better gauge students' college and career readiness.

So how do parents motivate their kids for the high-stakes tests?

Gruenwald said to help them look beyond the test score, which he calls an intermediate goal. The true prize is getting into a top choice school or winning the scholarship to go there.

"Parents should be talking to their students about what they're looking for in college, what sorts of majors they're interested in," Gruenwald said. "All of those things are what a high ACT or SAT score will make more possible.

"Make it personal, make it immediate, make it internal by knowing that's the ultimate goal."

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