The Secret to Passing the CBEST

cbest test logo

Passing the CBEST is a challenge for the majority of test-takers. When I started tutoring back in 2010, my first encounter with CBEST test prep was to help a student pass the math section. Over the years, I extended my knowledge and expertise to tutoring the CBEST reading and writing sections as well. In my experience, most of my students struggled to pass one or more sections of the test. Some were aspiring teachers or substitute teachers, while others needed to pass it for their jobs. A college-level exam was turning their dreams into nightmares!

The breakdown

The CBEST has 3 sections: math, reading, and writing. The math section covers basic math, measurement, data and statistics, probability, algebra, and logic – all applied in word problems. Similarly, the reading section focuses on all 4 key areas of reading comprehension – main idea/purpose, details, inferences, and vocabulary-in-context – while including special types of questions, like reading and interpreting indexes and tables of content. Last but not least, students must be able to deliver 2 college level essays, one analytical/argumentative and the other a personal narrative, to pass the writing section. You must score a scaled score of 41 on each section, for a total of 123 points, to pass the CBEST. For math and reading, that translates to a raw score of 35 correct questions out of the total 50 questions to reach the scaled 41 score. If you score higher on any sections, your necessary scores for the other sections can be lower (with the minimum at 37). The total points for all 3 sections must still reach 123.

Why is the CBEST hard?

Arguably, the CBEST has a lenient time limit, since test-takers have 4 unrestricted hours per exam date and can choose how many sections they want to take in one sitting (edit: As of June 1, 2021, anyone who takes the computer-based test or proctored at-home test can only take 1 section per test date; the reading and writing sections each have a new time limit of 1 hour and 30 minutes, while the math section has a time limit of 2 hours. Multiple sections per test sitting are no longer supported, unless you take the paper test. The paper-based test has the previous 4 hour time limit but will be permanently retired in 2022.). However, they still can’t pass the test! As I’ve researched the web for better practice questions and practice tests, I’ve also come across specialized articles that lament how hard the CBEST is. One such writer claims that all available prep books have erroneous practice material, with nothing imitating the actual test experience. Others are sure the concepts in each section are designed to purposely trick them. Who is right? What is the trick to passing the CBEST?

Here’s what I have learned

It’s been a long, dusty journey, but I think I have unraveled the mystery behind CBEST success or failure.
  1. Most people are poor test takers. Test taking is an unpleasant, anxiety-inducing experience for 95 percent of the world’s population. It is a skill you have to practice and perfect, and it depends on your learning needs. Process of elimination, double-checking your answers, finding a strategy to maximize your time for answering questions and to free yourself from stress and self-doubt – you need to be armed with the right tools to conquer any test, let alone the CBEST.
  2. It’s not what you study: it’s how you study. Knowledge plays a great part, but you cannot just cram for the exam and hope that all that studying will stick. Breaking down concepts and trying practice questions can happen in just 30 minutes every day, as long as you fully commit to studying the same amount of time every day. You can even figure out a practical study schedule that meets your needs. Commitment to test prep is a powerful step to reach that passing score of 41.
  3. Prep books can be your best friends or your worst enemies, depending on how you well use them. I’ve read many complaints about this, so here are my two cents. All CBEST prep books published after 2005 are helpful resources that can maximize your score. Based on my own students’ feedback and test experiences, Princeton Review has practice tests with practice questions most similar to the CBEST paper test version, while Cliff Notes imitates the computer test version. The official practice test offered by the official CBEST website is a good start if you are preparing for either the paper or computer version of the test. Are the practice questions in these books close to the actual test questions? Yes and no. A few oddballs exist, even on the official practice test (which hasn’t been updated since 2005). Since the test makers claim to update the test every so often, no practice test is created equal to an actual test. However, you will notice patterns and familiar question types that keep appearing on all the practice tests. Bookmark these and try to master them.
  4. Concept review counts more than you think. For math, you need to be a pro at solving word problems using a simple, common sense approach. Questions are designed to be solved quickly and easily. You will need to invest in a workbook or app that throws hundreds of word problems at you, separated by concept or category (for example, fraction word problems, percent word problems, etc). Figure out which concepts you struggle with and keep practicing those exclusively. On the other hand, reading relies heavily on process of elimination (all wrong answers eliminated first, until you are left with the only possible right answer) and referring back to the text for every question because the right answer must be fully supported by information in the passage. You need to understand what questions are asking you to find and where you need to look in passages.
  5. Few people know how to write a essay. In my opinion, the writing section is the hardest section for most test takers. One reason is that most people can’t write! The truth hurts, but I have seen this happen again and again. They either have never been taught how to write correctly or they are convinced they are writing correctly and being failed by the CBEST test scorers on purpose. Each essay type requires good organization, development (paragraphs and sentences), syntax, sentence structure, transitions, word usage, grammar, and punctuation. Your brainstorming and logical reasoning always have to be on point. As I always say, length is not strength! Writing a long, poorly developed essay is worse than a shorter, well formed essay. “Show, don’t tell” and “Write how you think, not how you speak” are other favorite mantras of mine when it comes to effective writing. Also remember that editing is important – you have to self-edit and proofread your essays! Test scorers expect final draft material, not rough drafts.

My summary

The facts stand: I have helped students who scored a low 20 reach 41. Students who failed the writing section 3 or 4 times finally passed after working with me. One of my most successful students raised her score from a low 30 to a high 50 for math and reading.


The CBEST can be hard, but so can any test. However, it is only as hard as you make it. Becoming a better test taker, balancing your study time, and targeting struggle areas are the keys to success. You may not be able to pass all three sections in one take, but you can take each section only once and pass the CBEST the first time!

natalie g private tutoring logo

Natalie is a great tutor. She is very nice, knowledgeable and encouraging. I had a couple of lessons with Natalie for CBEST writing. I want to thank her for helping me pass my CBEST writing!!!

Victoria, 5 lessons with Natalie

Published by Natalie Gorna

Bookworm, artist, musician. Dreamer and cynic. Writing is my everything.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: