The College Board is giving away test prep for free. Why that won’t change much.


The College Board announced Wednesday that along with revamping the SAT college admission test, it's teaming up with the nonprofit Khan Academy to offer test prep for free. So, will this deal a death blow to the estimated $840 million test-preparation industry?

Hardly. The test-prep industry -- which sprang up with such big names as Kaplan and Princeton Review -- has since exploded, with online offerings by start-up firms, smartphone apps and high-end boutiques with tutors charging up to $500 an hour. There are even SAT word prep shower curtains.

Many low-cost options already abound. There's the College Board's own $70 online course and an online option called Number2.com that's free.

"Parents see the college admissions game as an arms race," said Bob Schaeffer, director of public education at the standardized test watchdog group FairTest. "They are fearful that their sons and daughters’ competitors are arming themselves with the best weapons available, and you need to counter that with more of the same."

Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, is promising that his company will not be offering the usual cramming and memorizing approach but will rather tailor the course to individual students.

"We’re going to meet you where you are," said Khan. "We’ll take you as far back as you need to go or as far forward as you need to go.”

And he pledged a focus on quality. “This isn’t just a ‘Hey, since it’s free, it’s better than nothing,'" said Khan. "Our intention in this partnership is that this will be the best thing out there that happens to be free.”

Paul Kanarek, senior vice president of Princeton Review, says that Khan used to teach for the Princeton Review and was so good he was once named teacher of the year. Kanarek described him as a "remarkably gifted teacher." 

Kanarek said he's confident that Khan will produce top-notch materials for students. "What you're going to see happen in the industry is any test prep provider who is focused on teaching content is now ruined, right? Because the College Board and Khan Academy will have more and better content than any mom and pop can ever create."

Still, he said, Princeton Review and others that teach strategy will be fine. "Our philosophy has never been content-oriented," said Kanarek. "We teach people the tricks."

The SAT test prep industry began 75 years ago with Stanley Kaplan teaching immigrants  in the basement of his parents’ Brooklyn house. He then began Kaplan and expanded across the country, later selling the business to the Washington Post Co. in 1984. (The Washington Post publication used to share the same parent company with Kaplan.)  

Kaplan had a deep belief that standardized tests could widen opportunities for education. He believed that coming from a working-class Jewish family had hurt his chances at getting into medical school; he was rejected from all five in the New York area. So he thought that standardized tests could give more students from immigrant families a better chance.

Of course, the industry that he helped start eventually turned into a way for children from wealthier families to get a serious advantage over others -- the exact problem that the College Board is trying to rectify now.

Even President Obama has openly acknowledged the problem. In a recent speech to college presidents, Obama cited his own impressions as a father of two college-bound daughters who attend an elite private school in Washington.

“We know that when it comes to college advising, and preparing for tests like the ACT and the SAT, low-income kids are not on a level playing field,” Obama said in January. “We call these standardized tests. They’re not standardized. Malia and Sasha, by the time they’re in seventh grade at Sidwell School here, are already getting all kinds of advice and this and that and the other. The degree of preparation that many of our kids here are getting in advance of actually taking this test tilts the playing field. It’s not fair. And it’s gotten worse.”

Sasha DeWind, vice president of the New York-based Tutor Associates, said that her company's tutors are already using Khan Academy materials for their academic work on subjects like algebra. And so she welcomes Khan leaping in to help for SAT test prep.

"I don't see it as competition," said DeWind. "I see it as a useful tool for all of our one-on-one instructors."

Staff Writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report. 

 

 

Jia Lynn Yang is a business editor at The Washington Post.

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