A teacher's son just says 'no' to SAT prep classes

As a teacher, I have come to think of commercial SAT prep classes as scholastic steroids. And yet, as a parent, I still want my kid to get "juiced."

A second wave of college hopefuls just weathered the new 2400-point SAT. I pressed my 17-year-old son about his preparation for that exam, and then I immediately got on his case about the SAT II subject-matter tests he's now scheduled to take next Saturday.

He's cloistered at a boarding school so we "talk" via e-mail and, in spurts, by phone. (His calling card is depleted by calls to a girlfriend. I'm on an on-the-cheap cell plan, with a phone that even my community college students mock as prehistoric.)

Here's an amalgam of our exchanges over the past five months:

Me: Shouldn't you be taking a prep course?

Him: Costs $900.

Me: Probably worth it, don't you think?

Him: Have no time.

Me: But those courses, uh, they'd arm you with insights, techniques. And they give practice exams.

Him: Dad, if I study for the SATs I'd have to drop a course.

Me: You can't do both?

Him: No. I have a hard enough time keeping my grades where they are.

Me: You couldn't do both? Other kids do. They find the time somehow.

Him: I need a life.

Me: But....

Him: If my SATs go up 50 points and my GPA drops, what have I accomplished?

Me: You can't do both?

He laces his conversations with phrases such as "trade-offs" and "hedges."

At his school - as he never lets me forget - classes meet Saturday mornings as well, so Friday night is a school night. Thus he speaks of how the law of diminishing returns sets in well before he can complete all his homework, making SAT prep a nonstarter.

He then ventures a cost-benefit analysis of what that $900 expenditure might yield in terms of his future earning prospects, measured against the opportunity cost, i.e., lost sleep and diminished capacity for regular schoolwork.

He invokes some kind of inverse ratio that plots a projected rise in SAT scores against the forecasted decline in his GPA. Teacher recommendations have also been assigned a value that diminishes against the SAT curve. That's when he strikes the diminishing- returns note again.

Me: You could study at games, when you're not playing.

Him: So the more bench time I get, the more time I can book?

Me: How about just using the bus- ride time for ....

Him: That's when we shoot the breeze.

Me: About SATs and college?

Him: No, Dad - about life.

Me: The prep courses give you an edge so that you get into a college, which in turn may give you an edge ....

Him: Whoa, so you want to buy me an edge?

Me (defensively): I want to afford you the opportunity to do as well as possible.

Him: Why don't I just tell the colleges that I didn't take a prep course? Maybe they'd be impressed.

He gets me to thinking. Are those prep courses - while unquestionably legal and arguably worthwhile - akin nevertheless to performance-enhancing drugs?

I wrestle with this for weeks, all the while urging him to take some prep course online or at least buy the test prep manuals geared to the new tests.

He reminds me how I bristle when, out of nowhere, I get superficially profound papers from students who up until then had not demonstrated any familiarity with nouns, verbs, and punctuation marks, let alone sentence structure, paragraphs, and thesis development. He reminds me how offended and angry I become when plagiarized work comes my way.

Clearly, the work of students prepped for the SAT is not plagiarized. But is it 100 percent pure? OK, it's certainly not tainted the way recent home-run heroics seem to be, the way some Olympic performances may be. But, it is "juiced."

My son is heading into the SATs without the benefit of a Kaplan or Princeton Review prep course. There are times when I wish I had insisted that he avail himself of their offerings. He tells me that the $900 can be used for gas this summer, guitar strings, Jack Johnson CDs, a mega phone-card for next fall, and one or two textbooks at some college bookstore in September 2006. Several seniors have offered him outdated SAT prep books.

I am still pestering him to work through a practice exam or two. Just for the next few days, I want him "juiced."

Joseph H. Cooper teaches English and journalism at several Connecticut colleges. Will D. Cooper is a junior at The Taft School in Watertown, Conn.

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