Does SAT Prep Really Help?

SAT prep is a $4-billion-a-year industry. But how much does it really help improve test scores? And is it worth the cost?



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Studying is to final exams as _____ is to the SATs.

Give up? The answer is “test prep.” After all, everyone—from parents and kids to guidance counselors—is worried that the SAT will make the difference between a student’s dream college and a miserable four years. That’s why there’s test prep, a fast-growing industry of classes, tutoring, and books, all sold with the claim that they can raise a diligent high-schooler’s score on the tests. The problem is: no one knows for sure if they really can.

And test prep is costly, a $4 billion-plus-per-year industry. Kaplan Inc., the parent company of Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, the nation’s largest test-prep company, alone took in more than $2 billion in revenues in 2008. The company provides courses to more than 411,000 students worldwide, with 32 hours of personal tutoring with a Kaplanite costing $4,699 (or about $147 per hour), while 36.5 hours in a small class goes for $1,199 (or about $33 per hour). Kaplan’s rates are fairly standard among the biggest players in the field, although the company does partner with some schools—including Rye, White Plains, and Eastchester High Schools—to offer its programs at a 40-percent discount.

On one hand, it seems the tests really can be coached. Many tutors, admissions officers like Garrett Marino of SUNY Purchase, and even critics of the tests (like Fair Test, a group that opposes the use of standardized tests because they say the tests favor white, upper-class males) answer the question, “Can the test be coached?” with a simple “Yes.” Marino explains that, when students have been prepped, they often take the test multiple times, and “you see the score steadily increasing” on the transcript. Even the College Board, the company that manages the test, which had maintained that no amount of studying could boost student scores (because, it said, its test was a measure of inalterable, inherent aptitude), today advertises its own brand of study aides (which run from free tips to a $70 online course), saying that “you can improve your score” and that its aids “add up to better results.” The College Board says that its tools help students to get comfortable with the SAT—mostly through practice and some review of material. They’re different, it says, from the big test-prep companies, who it claims only promulgate test-taking strategies. The College Board characterizes these strategies as “misleading” (because, it claims, the test cannot be cracked), and it maintains that the big companies’ prep does not “increase test scores significantly.”

This raises the question, “What is prep?” Prep can include learning (or re-learning) actual material, but what many in the test-prep industry mean when they talk about prep is a “method”—or, some might say, tricks. These include taking practice tests to become comfortable with the format (and save time by dispensing with name-writing and rule-reading quickly), concentrating on early questions (which are easier but have the same point values), eliminating answers that are clear “traps” (for instance, math questions requiring multiplication to solve often have false answers that seem correct and which you could get from simple addition), and guessing rather than leaving answers blank (after omitting just one answer choice, a student is statistically better off guessing than leaving a question blank). “There’s no doubt that familiarity with the peculiarities of the test and how they can be handled can make a big difference,” says Lee Hart, a private math tutor in Purchase.

No one knows how much of the field private tutors like Hart account for, but it’s clear that the field is large. “Just go to any Westchester library on a Sunday afternoon,” says Sidney L. Hantler, an adjunct math professor at Iona College who runs Westchester Math & Physics, a tutoring company in Cortlandt Manor, and who sometimes helps students study material for the math section of the test. “You’ll see people tutoring students for the SATs.” James Sachs, the executive director at the Princeton Review Center in Scarsdale, guesses that SAT tutors number “in the tens of thousands.” In other words, it’s a really big business.

A big business with big claims. Kristen Campbell, director of college prep programs for Kaplan says that Kaplan’s program is comprehensive and “will give you the score you need to get into your dream school,” although the company’s official guarantee is only to have a higher score. “There’s no such thing as an average student,” Campbell explains. “So, for us to come up with an average score gain, the reality is that’s just going to be artificial.”

Such claims, though, may not be helpful for the student who already has a good score. “To get two-hundred points, you have to be below six hundred” to begin with, says Gail Kaufman, a math tutor in Katonah who occasionally aids her students in preparing for the SAT math section by helping them brush up on material. Kaufman says that she most often sees dramatic improvements on the SAT when good students “totally freak out” and bomb their first try at the test.

Other companies make even grander claims. My Ivy Leaguer, a national test-prep company that sends Ivy League-educated tutors to students’ homes (and charges $3,000 for 25 hours of its services), claims that its “average SAT score increase is roughly 320 points—“the difference between a first- and a third-tier college’s average admission score.” Such claims, though, are not always well supported. Various past studies have suggested that score improvements frequently hover around 50 to 100 points, but a recent study conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that the average increase might be as low as 30 points. Research shows that, if a student takes the SAT a second time, that student is likely to see a similar score increase even without additional prep or study. According to NACAC’s report, “students and families would be wise to consider whether the cost of a given test-preparation option is worth what is likely to be a small gain in test scores.” (There are no known studies on whether expensive methods work better than cheap ones.)

Alana Klein, a former representative for the College Board, says that her company’s “tools are designed to help student feel more comfortable,” which “allows students to put their best foot forward on test day.” She admits, however, that no studies have confirmed the efficacy of the College Board’s products. “It’s not accurate to say that the College Board aids result in score increases,” says Klein.

Anthony Green, founder and CEO of My Ivy Leaguer, insists that his company’s score-increase average is genuine. “We give a lot of individualized attention, which is something that a lot of programs don’t do,” says Green in explaining why My Ivy Leaguer’s average score increase is more than ten times what the NACAC’s report suggests is possible for prep. (The NACAC report studied companies in which the teaching of strategies defined prep, rather than those teaching material.)

Still, many students with reasonable or good scores feel compelled to do prep. “There’s so much pressure on every piece of getting into college,” says a former Kaplan employee who preferred not to be identified because she still works with Kaplan occasionally. “Anything that you can do to improve things, kids want to do, or they’re pressured to do by their peers or by their parents.” She says that because test prep is more structured than working on one’s own, it brings students to their goal scores more quickly than solo study, even though the results are often the same. “It may not improve your score tremendously, but I think that it will get you where you need to be in a much more pain-free sort of way.” Still, she adds, “I don’t think parents should go out and take out a loan so their kids can do test prep.”

Yet some maintain that even moderately higher SAT scores can help. They note that increasing a score by 30 points may push a student past a college’s score minimum. Alternatively, higher scores can qualify a student for scholarships that help recoup the money spent on tutoring. For example, students who scored in the 96th percentile on the PSAT (or Preliminary SAT) qualified to receive a National Merit Scholarship. In 2008, the difference between the scholarship-qualifying 96th percentile and the 95th percentile was a mere 10 points on the SAT (which is scored on a different scale than the PSAT but measures the same skills), although the Merit Scholarship is only $2,500, barely half of the $4,699 that Kaplan’s most expensive tutoring option costs.

Garrett Marino, assistant director of admissions for Purchase College (who is responsible for recruitment in Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess, and Putnam Counties), says that not only are SAT scores only part of a student’s profile, a high score may even work against a student. “We’d be thinking twice,” says Marino of a student with 700-range scores but C-range grades. “We’d be thinking they’ve just learned how to take a test.” Students with low class grades but high SATs, in other words, come off as underachievers—and underachievers are not a group that colleges often go out of their way to recruit.

Today, more than 800 colleges, including local ones like Sarah Lawrence College and Mercy College, don’t even require an SAT score as part of an application. “We do not feel that it is a good predictor of success at Sarah Lawrence College,” says Judith Schwartzstein, a representative for Sarah Lawrence.

Still, most schools still do require the test. “Solid SAT scores still matter,” says Marino. The test can be “a good barometer of certain academic skills, but not necessarily of whether or not students will be successful at your school.” Indeed, a study performed at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid ’90s found that the SAT was the weakest predictor of freshman year GPA.

Freelancer Ben Brody is a senior at Yale and editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine. He is originally from Tuckahoe.

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