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Friday, May 22, 2009

SAT/ACT Test Prep: Worth the Money?

I taught for eight months at the Coquitlam branch of Elite Educational Institute, an SAT test-prep outfit. I felt a bit hypocritical, since I had always told high school students (and continue to tell them) that special courses and tutoring for college admission tests are a waste of money. At Elite, we did some good things in our after-school, weekend, and holiday classes: practiced writing, discussed novels (Frankenstein! Pride and Prejudice!), drilled vocab (especially good for all the Korean immigrant kids), even talked about some SAT-specific test-taking strategies. Elite boasts of 40 alums who have earned perfect SAT scores, but did those scores come from our efforts, or were those smart kids to start with who would have aced the test (or come darn close) anyway? It couldn't hurt kids to read more, but did we really make that much of a positive difference on test scores?

Making $26 an hour and thus covering our $1000-a-month Vancouver rent assuaged my guilt just enough to get me to work each day.

Now Marketplace's Wednesday show highlights a study by the National Association of College Admissions Counseling that supports my lack of faith in the very test-prep services I once provided... sort of. NACAC finds that commercial test prep boosts test scores by meager averages of 30 points on the SAT and less than one point on the ACT.

I want to get excited about this study, but if you read page 1 of the full report, you see a number of caveats:
  1. NACAC looks at a lot of old data. Not much research has been done in this decade. The test prep you buy your kids this year may be much better informed than the test prep available ten years ago.
  2. There are only two published studies on ACT scores and none on the new SAT that added the writing section in 2005 (a section we coached hard on at Elite).
  3. Even if the gains are statistically small, they may still have a big impact on getting admitted and winning scholarships. A one-point boost to your ACT isn't a big deal... unless that point moves you from 23 to 24 and wins you the Jackrabbit Guarantee. NACAC also finds that, like it or not, colleges say they use cut-off scores or factor even small differences in test scores into their admissions decisions. It may be a silly game, but for now, it's the game colleges are playing.
One could argue that if the expected value of test-prep is only a small point boost, you might get a better deal just by paying more attention to your regular classroom teachers (free for most of you), searching for some extra practice online (sometimes free!), or just buying one good test study guide (new running $15 for SAT, $22 for ACT). Compare that to dumping hundreds of dollars into extra courses (try $1500 for a ten-week program from MEK in New Jersey).

Or you could beat the rush and drill vocabulary with your three-year-old. There's my plan!

1 comment:

  1. I hope you're throwing out some russian around the little one. Bilingual houses = super kids.


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