Aug 1, 2011

What Test-Prep Companies Won’t Tell You

One of the more disturbing trends coming out of the “get ahead at any cost” college admissions mentality is the push to begin standardized test prep during the summer before junior year of high school.

And to prep early is to test early. After all, we want to strike while the iron is hot. Right?

So who benefits? Not the students shelling out significant sums of money so early in the game. And certainly not anyone eventually required to report multiple—sometimes embarrassing—test results.

The principal beneficiaries in the rush to prep are self-serving test-prep businesses and the two competing standardized test organizations. Each time you sit for a test, they see dollar signs.

The truth is that both the ACT and the SAT are designed to be taken by second semester

To fall into the early test-taking trap is to deprive students of important months of learning and set them up for multiple attempts supported by more and more expensive prep.

But isn’t that the point? Test prep companies are more than happy to take full credit for the learning that takes place in the classroom as well as for test-taking ability that naturally comes with growing up.

And that’s not all they don’t tell you. Here are a few more test-prep secrets based on research conducted by

  1. Improvement Rates. Test-prep companies love to boast about huge score gains. But a 2009 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that while many companies advertise average score increases of 100 points or more on the SAT, the average gains were more nearly 30 points—out of a possible score of 1,600. For the ACT, the average gain was less than one point out of a possible 36.

  2. Persistent Marketing. Once they’ve got your name and vital statistics, test-prep companies will continue their relentless marketing. Whether it’s a suggestion that you still can do better on the test or an invitation to visit college sites paying them for exposure, you can bet that the companies will be in no hurry to remove your name from their lists. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission reports that most complaints filed against the two major test-prep companies come from students being badgered after repeated requests to be removed from mailing lists.

  3. Effectiveness. There have been few studies on the relative effectiveness of different coaching services, products, and methods. In fact, most of the research conducted since the 1950’s involved studies of small groups of students “not necessarily representative of the national population,” according to NACAC. So who knows what really works?

  4. Pricing. Both Princeton Review and Kaplan say their services are often subsidized. Yet that information is not always shared with prospective clients who might qualify for discounted or even free classes. It certainly might be worth checking into, considering that companies typically charge $1,100 for a class and $100 to $200 per hour according to NACAC. Eduventures, a research and consulting firm, estimates 1.5 million students spend about $530 million per year on test prep and tutoring for the SAT alone.

  5. Do-It-Yourself. It’s possible that free practice tests, booklets, and online services perform just as well as pricey courses and tutoring. According to Consumer Reports, students using the free test-prep site posted score gains in line with those of students who used services that cost as much as $400. It takes a little self-discipline, but practice is what it’s all about.

  6. Guaranteed Refund. Many test-prep companies guarantee a refund if students don’t increase their scores. But the fine print and red tape make it really hard to collect. Improvements are often tied to PSAT scores and/or “diagnostic” tests administered by the companies which may or may not prove much. And the refunds may be tied to a retake which further reduces the dollar value of the offer.

  7. Defective Online Materials and Software. According to Eduventures, online test-prep products account for about $50 million of the $530 million test-prep products. But Consumer Reports found errors on practice tests for 6 out of 10 online services. Services offered by Barron’s Test Prep, Peterson’s Online SAT Course, and PrepMe were “particularly problematic.” Oops.

  8. What’s Really Important. The biggest influences on a student’s test score are a combination of what they’ve learned in the classroom and level of maturity. Test-prep companies have little control over either, although they’re quick to take credit when either works in their favor.

  9. Stress. Even the most dedicated students have trouble fitting test-prep courses into their schedules. Factor in class time, homework, and practice tests and you have an extracurricular activity that can pose a real drag on the already overbooked system. Although designed to reduce stress, these classes often produce anxiety that ratchets as the time commitment increases.

  10. Importance. A growing number of colleges and universities are choosing not to consider ACT or SAT scores. About 850 schools, including local favorites like American University, George Mason, Christopher Newport, Goucher, and Loyola of Maryland, have test optional or test flexible policies, according to FairTest, a nonprofit advocacy organization. Applicants to these schools who do not submit test scores will be evaluated on school performance and essays. So why spend the money?

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