The halls of Askew on the morning of October 15 felt a great deal more frantic than usual as the members of the class of 2016 furiously flipped through flash cards and worriedly scribbled in thick textbooks. The cause of this panic? The PSAT.
“People definitely really freak out about the PSAT,” said junior Emily Pinkston, “which in my opinion is a little ridiculous because it’s just meant to be a warm-up for the actual SAT.”
Many would beg to differ with Pinkston’s assessment, however. Although Westminster freshmen and sophomores also take the nationally-administered PSAT, it is truly a cause of stress for juniors competing to score high enough to attain semifinalist status from The National Merit Scholarship Program, a scholarship-awarding program independent from PSAT and SAT creator The College Board. With finalist status comes the opportunity to win $2500 scholarships from The National Merit Scholarship Program as well as outside, corporate-sponsored scholarships.
“I really need to do well on the PSAT for scholarship money,” said junior Virginia Kuester. “My score will most likely determine my college options so of course I’m preparing for it.”
A multi-billion dollar test-prep industry has developed to prey on this very fear of students and their families. National franchises such as Kaplan and The Princeton Review along with local outfits such as Alexander Academy charge thousands of dollars for a package of classes or tutoring with lofty claims. For example, Applerouth Tutoring Services, a prep company started by a Pace Academy alumnus, promises that if its students don’t improve 150+ points on the SAT after 16 hours of tutoring, they will receive free tutoring until the score increase is accomplished.
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“I decided to take an SAT prep class because I felt it would help me learn the tricks of the SAT better than studying on my own,” said junior Laura Schramm. “The company I’m taking it through says that its students have huge score bumps after taking the class. I definitely think you can study for the SAT; it’s just another test.”
In an effort to remain competitive in the cutthroat college admissions process many other students are hiring SAT tutors.
“I think most of them [my college ‘counselees’] are doing some kind of prep although some are just prepping on their own by using books or online materials,” said upper school college counselor Nancy Beane. “With that said, most of the ones I am counseling seem to be working with outside tutors to prep for the test.”
The burgeoning test prep industry is at odds with The College Board’s claim that “the best way to get ready for the SAT is to take challenging courses, study hard, and read and write in and outside of the classroom. Studies suggest that cramming and short-term prep can’t substitute for hard work in school.”
The College Board’s claim is misleading, says former Applerouth SAT tutor and current educational consultant Maggie Wray.
“Preparing for the SAT and ACT can be very effective,” she said. “I have personally tutored numerous students whose scores on the SAT have increased by hundreds of points as a result of the hard work they put in to prepare for the test. One of my student’s scores went up by nearly 550 points, and I know of other students whose scores have increased even more. So, yes, SAT prep definitely works!”
Others suggest that although SAT prep is not a magic bullet for high scores, the insight tutors provide can be invaluable.
“I do think the SAT tends to reward students who have studied hard over the years, and who have taken the time (consciously or not) to build a rich vocabulary,” said English teacher and SAT tutor Gavin Drummond. “ You know those kids — the ones who read a lot in their spare time. However, I also think that shorter-term prep can’t hurt, especially for specific ideas that the SAT tests (e.g. certain kinds of grammar questions).”
Critics of the SAT’s importance in college admissions have castigated the test for allegedly being biased towards the affluent; family income is the single greatest predictor of SAT scores. According to The Washington Post, students from families earning more than $200,000 a year average a combined score of 1714 out of 2400, while students from families earning under $20,000 a year average a combined score of 1326.
“I’ve heard it said that lower-income kids do worse on the SAT,” said junior Dana Harvey, “simply because they can’t afford SAT tutors that can cost thousands of dollars.”
Others argue that the reason for this insidious disparity is more systematic than merely an inability to hire a tutor.
“I think the issues [of score disparities] are quite complex and often involve a lack of access to pricey test prep but also can involve many other factors for all racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups,” said Beane. “Family dynamics, educational levels of parents and other family members, daily activities, health issues, employment issues, economic differences, and strength (or lack thereof) of education can all contribute.”
Additionally, educational discrepancies are manifested in other ways, so blaming The College Board for designing a biased test is likely unjust.
“Racial and economic disparities are certainly not limited to students’ performance on the SAT,” said Wray. “There are also major differences in the ACT scores and college GPAs of students from different racial and economic backgrounds. The fact that these differences are showing up across different types of assessments — not just on the SAT — suggests that this disparity it is not the fault of the College Board, but is instead the result of differences in underlying factors such as the quality of students’ education.”
Ultimately, eliminating the socio-economic differences in SAT scores will require more than simply the College Board’s 2016 redesign of the test.
“If you want to eradicate racial and economic disparities on the SAT,” said Drummond, “you’ll have to rebuild the American education system first.”