Too Much Test Preparation Or Just Enough?

photo courtesy of Laurie Mankoff

photo courtesy of Laurie Mankoff

The SAT, a globally recognized standardized test, was first administered in 1901 as a universal way to determine if students were prepared for college-level work. The SAT no longer holds that same connotation. These three letters not only bring stress and apprehension to students and their parents, but they even spur controversy throughout the nation.

In recent years, the SAT has been blown out of proportion with students and parents going to extremes, like intense preparation, to ensure good test scores. This epidemic of SAT test prep has brought up many social issues and concerns regarding race and economics.

The College Board, the nonprofit that administers and writes the test has, since the very beginning, been wary of the social implications that can come up with the SAT. Thus, it has made many efforts to curb the test so that it is as fair towards all students as possible.

In 1926, the multiple-choice SAT was created to give all students equal opportunity to show their skills and knowledge regardless of their economic status or school curriculums.

During the Civil Rights Movement, the College Board was again confronted with the question of equality when many African American students were being turned away from testing centers and those who were able to take the test had to do so in subpar facilities. To curb this behavior, the officials began checking testing centers to ensure that students were being tested under equal conditions. In 1969, fee waivers were introduced to serve low-income families to increase equal access to the SAT.

The College Board has engaged in many efforts to protect equal opportunity at success on the SAT. However, these efforts have fallen into obscurity as the SAT test prep epidemic has caused the test to become more competitive, making the disparities between students who do well and students who don’t do well on the test more apparent.

In 1984, the College Board hit the bookstores with a guide to the SAT that included full length tests and strategies on how to do well. Since that point, the addiction and gravitation towards test prep has skyrocketed.

When Krista Klein, a college counselor at Lick-Wilmerding High School, went to college, “the only people who did test prep were those who had a lot of anxiety, but every couple of years, the amount of test prep escalates.” She doesn’t think excessive test prep is the right way to go, and says that a “good strategy is strong scores at a reasonable price, not maximum scores at any price.”

However, there is no doubt that excessive and costly test prep is being utilized. SAT test prep companies are shooting up faster than bean sprouts and the prep courses that they offer are not cheap. Whether the College Board meant to or not, it has created entire industries surrounding the SAT. At one instance, when I googled “SAT prep courses,” 73,300,000  results showed up. For comparison’s sake, when I googled “Ellen Degeneres,” 53,900,000 results showed up, clearly connoting the rise in the need and want for SAT prep courses. Nowadays, it seems like the norm is for students to receive formal test preparation before taking the SAT. I am part of that growing group.

Last winter, my parents personally paid over $1000 for me to attend an 8-day SAT bootcamp that was literally like a boot camp. For 8 hours a day (not including lunch), I sat at a single desk, learning about the tricks and strategies the pamphlets and instructors say you have to master in order to do well or get into your dream college.

According to these companies, those who cannot afford prep courses will not do well. Unfortunately, statistics back up these assertions.

A study conducted by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is a nonprofit dedicated to ending the misuse of standardized tests, showed that kids from wealthy families (who have the money for private tutoring and prep courses) do better than kids from poor families. In 2013, students in the income band of $0-$20,000 scored an average of 1326 points while students in the income band of $160,000-$200,000 scored an average of 1625 points.

People have recognized these disparities and are fighting to counteract them, shelling out huge sums of money and contributing to the industries built around SAT test preparation that have prices ranging from lower than $200 for online classes to higher than $2000 for formal classes. SAT prep companies boast about scores they have produced out of their students with slogans like “We guarantee your SAT score will increase significantly.”

The whole thing about an epidemic is that it is widespread and SAT test prep is exactly that.

Mark Ward, president of Kaplan’s Pre-College Testing Programs, says, “Parents know that coaching helps, whether it’s for baseball, ballet or the SAT. They want their children to have an edge over their peer group.”

As much as I would have rather spent my winter break hitting the slopes (or really just pizza-ing the whole way down), in retrospect, this course did make me more confident about taking the SAT. I did not learn anything glaringly new, but being part of the mass that takes SAT courses makes me feel secure to a certain extent about taking the real test.

Unfortunately, because of the growing competition to get into the top schools, students who cannot afford those courses generally cannot say the same. However, Krista Klein assures that colleges look at things in context and a high SAT score is not the only thing that determines your college fate.

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