Test Prep

SAT Prep: Worth It?

Standardized college admissions tests, the SAT in particular, are the worst predictors of potential college success . . . except for all the others. There has to be some kind of quantitative benchmark, I suppose, but the reality that emerged long ago is that a high school student's SAT score has become a kind of Scarlet Letter, for better or worse (mainly worse, in my opinion). It's almost as if aspiring college applicants have this four-digit number tattooed on their foreheads and the subjective judgments rain down from that point on.

There have been whole libraries of books written about intelligence testing. I presume that there is some positive correlation between one's SAT score and college success, but even so, I strongly maintain that there is no real positive correlation between a high SAT score and high accomplishment in life, for either men or women (they say the SAT is gender-biased against women, you know). There was once an amusing article (couldn't find it, though, after a cursory Google search) about a gathering of luminaries who wouldn't reveal their SAT scores. At the same event, others who hadn't even taken the SAT wouldn't sgree to take it. The upshot here is that the SAT wields tremendously overblown psychological power to intimidate or embarrass even the most celebrated and successful personalities. Is this justified? I think not.

Anyway, regardless of what I think, the SAT (and the ACT, plus other standardized tests, such as the College Board's Subject Tests) is an unfortunate and anxious reality for most of today's college applicants. Thus, the exploding test-prep industry -- those businesses that claim to guarantee improved scores for their clients. This raises the question: Is professional test prep worth the rather considerable expense, in light of today's hard economic times? There are tons of opinion in answer to this question. One particularly fine review of the situation comes from Caralee Adams' informative blog on the Education Week site. Here are some excerpts from Caralee's findings:

Value of College-Admissions Test-Prep Classes Unclear

The anxiety of high school juniors—and their parents—over taking college-entrance exams is creating a market force for the test-prep industry.

Dozens of companies are flooding mailboxes with offers to hire tutors and enroll in classes, including online courses to make preparation for the high-stakes tests more convenient and customized.

Those in the business claim students will improve their performance, and many offer money-back guarantees. Yet outside research shows coaching has minimal positive effects, although there hasn't been a randomized, controlled experiment to isolate the impact of test prep.

No federal agency has stepped in to provide industry oversight, so experts suggest that consumers do their homework before shelling out money and make sure the prep service is the right fit for their child. For some students, one-on-one tutoring is the most cost-effective; others do best in a classroom. And for many, a $25 test-prep book or free online tests is all they need.

“Parents are sacrificing, even borrowing on their credit cards to pay these high prices for prep courses," said Dave Berry, a co-founder of and senior adviser for College Confidential, a college-admissions website. “In fact, kids—if they are dedicated, that's a big if—can get the prep books and do the exercises and most likely increase their scores to within a reasonable degree of the amount they could get through the prep courses." . . .

. . . Derek Briggs, the chairman of the research and evaluation methodology program in the school of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has examined how much SAT score increases can be attributed to the effect of test prep.

Test-prep programs generally include three elements: a review of test content, practice on test questions, and orientation to the format of the test. In 2009, in cooperation with NACAC, Mr. Briggs reviewed three national data sets and found the average effect of commercial coaching is positive, but slight. Test-score bumps were more in the neighborhood of 30 points (on a 1,600-point scale at the time), far from what some in the industry claim. He does point out that there may be specific programs that are more effective than others, but evidence to support that is weak.

Considering the results of Mr. Briggs' and earlier studies, NACAC concludes that test-prep activities and coaching have a “minimal positive effect on both the SAT and the ACT." . . .

. . . Some companies have backed off specific marketing claims. Last May,The Princeton Review, based in New York City, announced it would stop using claims about average test scores in its marketing materials. Kaplan Test Prep has ended its use of testimonials in which test-takers talk about their large score gains.

“In many ways, [claims are] misleading," said Kristen Campbell, the executive director of college-prep programs at Kaplan, also in New York City. “Instead of throwing up wild claims of points, we tell students we are committed to getting a high score." Since 2002, her company has offered students their money back or the chance to take the class again if their scores do not improve after taking the course. For competitive reasons, Kaplan won't release the number that take the company up on the offer other than to say the percentage is low. . .

. . . As an alternative to high-priced test prep, Number2.com is a free online service where students can take practice tests, get tailored feedback, and find tutorials for each section of the test. Launched in 1999 and sold in 2002 to Xap Corp., the site is an attempt to remove the price barrier, said co-founder Eric Loken, a professor who teaches research methodology at Pennsylvania State University.

His advice to students: “Don't buy the hype. Too often, people assume because something costs $500, it must be worth it." Many test-prep classes involve a series of practice tests that students can take at home for free, he said. . .

. . . Students often improve their score by merely taking the test a second time, as they gain more knowledge in school and are more comfortable with its structure. Colleges then take the best mix of scores from each sitting.

The Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc. has developed a software program and a more extensive booklet for review, but they're really not essential, said Jon Erickson, the senior vice president for education services. “We have always been a little bit offended by test prep," he said. “It's seen as a last-ditch effort and doesn't have much effect."

Others disagree, such as Robert Schaeffer, the public education director for Jamaica Plain, Mass.-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, which advocates colleges make admission tests optional. “If test-coaching didn't work, it would be the only human endeavor you can't improve," said Mr. Schaeffer. While companies may exaggerate the claims to enhance their economic self-interest, test-makers also underestimate commercial test prep to protect their product, he said.

Keeping Perspective

Test scores matter more than colleges want to admit, yet they don't trump transcripts, and parents and students need to keep perspective, said Pamela Horne, the assistant vice president for enrollment management and the dean of admissions at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

“There are companies who are in the business of ensuring that students are anxious and motivated to think this is life and death, as opposed to the idea that in the U.S. there is a place at the table of higher education for every single student," Ms. Horne said.


So, what's a stressed-out high school senior to do? My advice takes the form of the words spoken to me by one of my former bosses. Once, when I was particularly freaked out about some big project at work, I came to him for advice and comfort. He said, "Just do what you can do. That's all you can do." Good advice to ponder. I did, and everything turned out just fine. So it can for you, too.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.