Does paid prep raise SAT scores?

BIG STAKES, BIG MONEY

Here's a quiz for students and parents during SAT season. Paying for test prep:

A. Raises SAT scores, but only a little on average.

B. Helps students gain huge score increases.

C. Actually lowers scores on average.

D. Yields small or large increases, depending on whom you ask.

E. None of the above.

Answering this question is far from academic. Basic fairness and big money are at stake, many say. The College Board, which makes the test, has long maintained that paid coaching will make only a marginal change in a student's score.

But major SAT-preparation firms beg to differ, citing their own evidence of raised scores and disputing a new study by the College Board showing only "limited results" from paid, out-of-school SAT coaching.

Few of the more than 2 million students who take the test annually take it cold. With so much at stake, most at least take practice tests. By some estimates, SAT test prep alone is a $200 million market - including books, CD-ROMs, personal tutoring, online help, and weekend classes.

About 12 percent of students, however, said in a recent survey that they paid hundreds of dollars for out-of-school coaching to help pump up their scores by at least 100 points on the 1600 point exam.

The question is, will $800 for 40 hours of diagnostic exams, personalized study plans, and tips on test-taking really help?

Two of the biggest SAT coaching firms, the New York-based Kaplan Educational Centers and the Princeton Review, say those taking their courses score on average 120 points and 140 points higher, respectively.

But those numbers are significantly lower in a new study commissioned by the College Board. Donald Powers and Donald Rock of the Educational Testing Service (which administers the SAT) surveyed 4,200 students who had taken the SAT or the PSAT, a preview test. Among the 12 percent who paid for out-of-school coaching, the average point gain was only 6 to 12 points on the verbal section of the test with 13 to 26 points on the math portion. Small gains on an exam with a possible 1600 points. Then again, if coaching doesn't raise scores more than 40 points, why do so many people do it?

"Many people believe they can beat the average," says Brian O'Reilly, who directs the College Board's SAT program. "It's human nature to think 'sure - that's how it works on average - but I'm not average.' "

Don't tell that to Andrew Leeds. Now a junior majoring in computer science at Stanford (Calif.) University, Mr. Leeds credits an $800 Kaplan course taken on six or seven weekends for his 1430 score on his third time taking the SAT - a 190 point increase over the first time he took it.

"I'm a firm believer that you can learn how to take that test," he says. "The thing that was most helpful to me were the hints about when you should or shouldn't guess."

Elena Panesif, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst gained 170 points - from a 1050 to a 1220 - after taking coaching from a prep company. She credits her higher score with helping her get into the honors program at her school. "Certain problems just try to trick you into looking at it the hard way," she says. "The course I took taught me a direct way to approach these kinds of questions."

Andrew Rosen is chief operating officer of Kaplan Educational Centers, with 150 test prep centers in the United States and 70 other "basic skills" education centers. Owned by the Washington Post Co., it saw revenues last year of $117 million, but expects about $190 million this year. A little less than half its revenues come from SAT prep.

"The College Board has always sought to maintain that test preparation has limited value despite plenty of studies showing otherwise," he says. "The SAT is a test of acquired skills. Like any other test of learned skills, you can prepare for it."

Others say there is no question SAT scores can be substantially improved by careful coaching and preparation - and that the study is suspect, despite peer review, because it was commissioned by the College Board.

'This is an ongoing dispute between two groups with profound vested economic interests," says Robert Schaeffer, a testing expert at Cambridge, Mass.-based Fairtest, a longtime critic of standardized testing. "Imagine you're a 17-year old kid and the people who make the SAT ask you if you were coached on this test? Do you answer honestly?"

Mr. O'Reilly says the data, based on a mailed survey, were checked carefully, but that it is not entirely possible to make sure respondents tell the truth.

Stephen Singer, a college guidance counselor at Horace Mann School, a private school in Bronx, N.Y., doubts whether paying for coaching is necessary. Still, he acknowledges that many students, backed by their parents, shell out for it. "We do think that preparation can help a kid," he says. "But we don't necessarily think that paid preparation will help a student more than any other kind."

Accordingly, the best answer to the earlier question is: D.

* Send e-mail comments to claytonm@csps.com

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