Ting Luo, a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, had been doing poorly on the new essay question of the SAT. But his practice score shot up after he took a $900 test-preparation course and received some age-old advice on how to outfox the examiners:
Paul Ternes, who teaches an SAT-preparation course in Bethesda, strives for an enjoyable learning experience.
(Michael Dobbs -- The Washington Post)
Metro Business: Coverage of Washington area businesses and the local economy.
By increasing the size of his handwriting, Luo was able to stretch a one-page essay into a two-page essay, creating the impression of a student with plenty to say. He also made sure to sprinkle his draft with such words as "equivocal" and "esoteric," conveying the sense of a sophisticated vocabulary.
Despite sharp disagreements among educators about the effectiveness of such coaching systems, the test-preparation industry is booming as students nationwide prepare to take the revised SAT on Saturday. Parents desperate to get their children into selective schools are enrolling them in SAT-preparation courses in record numbers.
"The fear and anxiety associated with changes in the SAT are good for our business," said Andy Lutz, vice president for program development at the Princeton Review, a leading test-preparation company. "It was a boon for our business the last time the SAT changed significantly 10 years ago, and we are seeing an equivalent boost this time around."
When more than 300,000 students sit down for the new test, they will be taking an exam that has undergone some of the broadest revisions in its 80-year history. At three hours and 45 minutes, the new SAT is 45 minutes longer than its predecessor and includes a revamped math section with more difficult algebra questions, as well as an entirely new writing section. The maximum possible score has increased from 1600 to 2400.
Many of the changes were made in response to a stinging critique by Richard C. Atkinson when he was president of the University of California. In a February 2001 speech, Atkinson argued that the old SAT was unfair to minorities and a poor indicator of a student's true abilities -- points that had long been raised by less prominent critics. He noted that affluent parents were spending around $100 million on SAT-preparation courses for their children, providing an advantage that poor students could not afford.
In the four years since Atkinson's announcement, the business of preparing students to take the SAT has ballooned into a $310 million-a-year industry, said J. Mark Jackson, senior analyst at Eduventures, an education market research firm. The debate over whether SAT-preparation courses such as those offered by the Princeton Review and Kaplan Inc. (a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co.) do any good has also heated up.
"These companies are very good at raising people's anxieties," said Amy Schmidt, executive director of higher-education research at the College Board, the not-for-profit education company that owns the SAT. "The gains are modest at best." She attributed the success of the test-preparation companies to their marketing skills and a "herd mentality" among middle-class parents and their teenage children.
"That's nonsense," countered Adam Robinson, author of "The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT," one of several books that offer advice on taking the test. "Teenagers are a notoriously word-of-mouth demographic. If something is good and it works, they will tell their friends about it. If it doesn't, they will tell their friends about that, too."
The test-preparation companies offer a range of products, from online courses to one-on-one tutoring, tailored to the anxiety level of students and how much their parents can afford. Kaplan, which pioneered the test-preparation business in the 1950s, has traditionally taken a more respectful attitude to the College Board and the SAT than rival Princeton Review, which was founded in 1981.
Princeton Review officials depict the SAT as a deeply flawed test that exercises an unhealthy degree of influence over the college admissions system. But they also say it is possible to outwit the College Board by learning tricks employed by test designers to prevent students from earning a perfect score.
"We'll give you a class that's different, and we'll make sure you enjoy yourself as you learn everything there is to know about beating the SAT," promises the Princeton Review manual distributed to students at the start of the eight-week course. The "coachability" claim extends even to entirely new SAT sections such as the essay, which, according to the Princeton Review, is merely a recycled version of another College Board exam.
On a recent Saturday, the cynicism about the SAT appeared to have percolated down to the students attending a Princeton Review course in Bethesda, down the corridor from a martial arts class. "It's a big game," said Will Maroni, a junior at Whitman who hopes to increase his SAT score from 1900 to 2200 and improve his chances of being accepted to New York University. "The only thing the SAT measures is how good you are at taking the SAT."
Tutor Paul Ternes strives for a playful atmosphere in the classroom. He organizes competitions between groups of students and hands out candy to the winning team. At 24, he is not much older than they are, and he dresses informally in jeans and sneakers.
In addition to using larger handwriting on the 25-minute essays, Ternes urges his students to think of illustrative examples ahead of time, long before they have seen the questions. He cites a student in a previous class who boasted about being able to answer any question thrown at her with examples from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
"I tell the students not to use 'Harry Potter' or a book by John Grisham," he says. "These may be good books, but quoting from them isn't likely to create a good impression on the readers."
Natasha Coleman, a Montgomery Blair High School student eyeing a place at Harvard, said the class has reduced the stress she associated with the test. She said she is not sure about the Huckleberry Finn theory of answering essay questions but has nevertheless managed to boil down her responses to just two strikingly different case studies: World War II and "The Great Gatsby." "Those two examples should cover everything," she said.
Schmidt of the College Board said that members of the SAT writing committee have done "everything they can to develop a scoring guide and essay prompts to discourage coaching." She disputes the claim that essays are awarded higher scores simply on the basis of length, or that every theme can be illustrated by examples from one or two books.
That is ludicrous, she said. "The best way of preparing for the test is to read different kinds of literature. If you do that, it is going to show up in your writing."
The scientific jury is still out on whether the test-preparation companies deliver on their claims to significantly improve SAT scores. The Princeton Review says it is so confident of its coaching methods that it "guarantees" students that their scores on the new SAT will be at least 200 points higher than their practice scores. A review of the fine print reveals that this is not a money-back guarantee, however. Students merely have the right to continue attending practice courses until their scores improve.
College Board officials argue that claims of dramatic improvements in SAT scores are based on the companies' scoring systems, which may parallel those of the College Board but are not scientifically controlled. They also say it is difficult to separate the effects of coaching from the gains that come naturally as a student takes the test a few times and becomes more comfortable with it.
A 1999 study commissioned by the College Board showed an average 20-point improvement in math scores (out of 800 points) that could be attributed to coaching and an eight-point improvement in verbal scores. By contrast, a 2001 study commissioned by the Princeton Review showed a 136-point jump in the combined verbal and math scores among its students.
Nicholas Lemann, author of "The Big Test," which traces the history of the SAT, said the College Board has gradually softened its earlier insistence that the SAT could not be coached. He notes that the organization now offers a variety of its own coaching materials, including books and online courses.
Initially, Lemann said, the SAT was designed as an aptitude test, as if it could "put a dipstick in someone's brain and measure their intelligence." Over time, the SAT has moved toward becoming an achievement-based test, but it has never quite overcome its origins.
Lemann and others noted that the initials SAT no longer stand for anything. When the test was invented in 1926, SAT was an acronym for Scholastic Aptitude Test. By 1993, however, the College Board had dropped the word "aptitude" from the title and was calling the SAT a "reasoning test."
Ever willing to make fun of the SAT, the Princeton Review has come up with its own version: Stupid, Annoying Test.