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The Admissions Gap
Affluent students who can afford pricey SAT prep have an advantage when it comes to getting into college. But more educators are asking whether such exams are necessary.

By Miranda S. Spivack
Sunday, April 12, 2009

Neal Lerner is the third child in his family to apply to college. For his mom, Janet, and dad, Chris, it's a little like being on autopilot.

When Neal, 16, hit his junior year last fall, his parents already knew the drill. They dug out the phone numbers for the private math and English tutors who would help him practice equations, expand his vocabulary and improve his test-taking skills. They handed over the credit card so Neal could sign up for the SAT and the ACT, the crucial college entrance exams. And then they hunkered down for the long haul. Knowledgeable veterans of a process that has grown far more complicated than when they were in college, the Lerners, like many well-educated boomer parents, have adapted with little difficulty.

So far, they've had great success. One son is about to graduate from Northwestern University; the other is a sophomore at the University of Maryland; and Neal, the highly organized third child who charts the week ahead on a dry-erase board in his bedroom and has a 3.7 grade-point average, is managing the process quite well in spring of junior year at Montgomery County's highly regarded Thomas S. Wootton High School.

For the Lerners and their neighbors in the wealthier communities on the west side of Montgomery County, home of the high-performing "W" high schools -- Walter Johnson, Walt Whitman, Winston Churchill and Wootton -- the route to the college of their choice is well traveled. The information-sharing networks in areas such as the Lerners' Fallsmead community, on the border of Potomac and Rockville, are vast. And the outcomes are usually pretty good, perhaps partly because the local Zip code's median household income in 2007 was $172,442; several studies show a link between a family's income and a child's academic success.

More than 50 years after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, you don't have to live in the wealthiest neighborhoods to obtain a challenging public education in the Washington area. Particularly in the suburbs, high school students of all backgrounds can avail themselves of high-level honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes -- or attend specialized magnet programs.

But finding a way to vault over the next hurdle -- college admissions -- is not as easy, for reasons that are subtle and complicated. It can help if your parents are college graduates, educators say, or if they can pay for tutoring to improve your grades and scores on the SAT and ACT. If you can afford a private counselor to hold your hand through the process, you're also likely to have a better chance of moving ahead.

Across the country, the high school class of 2009 is expected to have submitted the most applications ever to institutions of higher learning. Those born in 1991 are part of a major bulge in the baby boom echo, and that has made it harder for even the most academically accomplished students to feel confident that they will get into one of their top choices. Many high school students report submitting nine, 10, 11 or more applications, with per-application fees of as much as $75; just a few years ago, five was considered a safe number.

The predicted crush of applications from current seniors has caused some juniors to speed up plans to take standardized tests, so they can retake them if need be. By this spring, the end of Neal's junior year at Wootton, he will have taken at least the two key college entrance tests: the basic SAT reasoning test and the ACT. He will have chalked up dozens of hours with private tutors and have a pretty clear idea of where he wants to apply to college. He did well enough on his first round of the testing regimen in December that he probably won't take the tests again in the spring or fall. But some of his affluent classmates will -- at $45 a pop for the SAT and $46 for the ACT -- often with expensive test preparation sessions in between.

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After years of muted criticism, there has been a growing chorus of concern about increasing inequalities in access to higher education. Much of the debate centers on how to make college more affordable for lower-income students. But some educators also argue that standardized exams are a more accurate measure of economic privilege than of the potential to succeed in college and in life. Meanwhile, more nonprofit and government programs are cropping up to give disadvantaged students test preparation and other help getting into college.

Last fall, the National Association for College Admission Counseling broke new ground by urging colleges and universities to rethink their reliance on standardized testing and switch to exams that are more closely tied to high school achievement. The counselors' report suggested using measures such as Advanced Placement exams, the SAT subject tests, and tests linked to the specialized International Baccalaureate program.

"It is nothing even remotely like a level playing field," said William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, and leader of the commission that studied the issue.

Among wealthier families, he said, "parents might be more into test prep, your peers are more likely to be into it, many of the better schools, whether they think this way or not, tend to teach to the test . . . There are at least two Americas out there, and the advantages are all in one of them."

Bob Schaeffer, co-founder and public education director for the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has long urged colleges to reconsider the entrance exam requirement, saying the tests are stacked against kids without financial resources. He cites studies that show these students can easily slip behind their more affluent peers when tackling the college admissions system.

"Our biggest concern about the SAT is that the SAT, rather than a gateway to opportunity, reinforces the factors that hold kids back from access to college," he said. SAT scores "march up -- it varies -- by about 30 to 50 points for every $20,000 in family income. Kids whose families earn less than $20,000 per year have an average combined score of 1320 on the SAT; those with income of $80,000 to $100,000 have a combined score of 1543; for those who reported family income of $200,000 or higher, the combined score is 1676." A perfect score is 2400.

More than 800 colleges have already deemphasized test scores in the admissions process, Schaeffer said, many of them "very fine schools."

Barry Mills, president of Bowdoin College, which stopped requiring standardized tests in the 1960s, said this approach has worked well for the highly selective college in Brunswick, Maine. Bowdoin receives about 6,000 applications for almost 500 spots in its freshman class, he said, and each applicant's package is read at least twice.

"When we look at the students who have done well, or moderately well, there is a huge correlation between our reader ratings, and a lesser correlation with SATs," he said. He acknowledged that such personal attention is easier to provide at smaller colleges such as Bowdoin, because the applicant pool is relatively small.

A student's overall record in high school is crucial, too, he said. "Often what we find is how a kid does in high school, even with grade inflation, is a much more accurate reflection of how they are going to do in college than SATs."

A spokeswoman for the College Board acknowledged that economic and academic inequalities affect tests scores, but says the tests themselves are not to blame. "The unfortunate reality is that underrepresented students, such as low-income students, often don't have the same access to the educational opportunities, rigorous courses and resources as other students do," said Alana Klein. "Their performance on standardized admissions tests, as well as on other educational assessments, often reflects this."

Although students who can take advantage of test preparation services usually receive a bump of just 20 or 30 points on their SAT scores, such small increases can make a big difference, especially at the top colleges, said David Hawkins, the policy chief at the National Association for College Admission Counseling's headquarters in Arlington.

"Admissions officers at some colleges are making fine distinctions based on test scores," he said. Some colleges use a mathematical index that assigns points to test scores and grades, then combines them to come up with a number. That number, Hawkins says, "is sensitive to test scores. Ten, 20, 30 points may put you in a different pile."

A record 1.52 million students in the high school class of 2008 took the SAT. Nationwide, the ACT was taken by a record 1.42 million students in the class of 2008. On the SAT, average scores for African Americans, Hispanics and some other minorities dropped for the class of 2008, while those of white and Asian students rose.

Competition has been growing between the ACT, formerly a staple for Midwestern and Southern college admissions, and the SAT, which until recently was the standard admissions test for schools on both coasts. In the past few years, many more colleges have decided to accept the ACT, helping to fuel the college prep industry, since more students are paying fees to take both tests, which measure different skills and thus require different study tactics.

This year, the College Board decided to allow students to report only their top SAT score to colleges, a policy some are criticizing as biased toward the wealthy because, as a result, college admissions officers may not be able to distinguish between students who take the test once and those who take it multiple times. (The ACT has always allowed students to report only their highest scores.)

Many top colleges already have rejected the College Board policy, known as Score Choice; the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, Stanford and Yale universities still require applicants to submit all test scores. "We believe that our policy maintains a more level playing field for low-income students who cannot afford repeated testing or the expensive test preparation that often accompanies it," Yale admissions dean Jeff Brenzel said when Yale announced its decision in January.

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The anxieties around the college application process, and standardized testing in particular, have helped fuel a thriving industry aimed at boosting scores and easing college admission. These services targeted at the upper classes generate revenues of at least $1 billion a year nationwide, and probably more than that. "That's what we can track," said Hawkins.

In the Washington area, there are dozens of costly options for test preparation. There are private tutors, many of whom charge more than $100 an hour; or individual tutors through a test prep company, where the hourly rate can be more than triple that. These companies include Kaplan, a major national tutoring firm (part of The Washington Post Co.), Sylvan, or home-grown tutoring firms such as Capital Educators, Prep Matters and many others. Many of the companies also offer help for specific subjects, advice on filling out applications and general consulting services.

Phil Pine, co-founder of Capital Educators based in Rockville, said test preparation "can have a major psychological impact on one's comfort level" on test day, significantly affecting performance.

"The tests are very long, very grueling, and, without practice, for some students it is a shock to the system," Pine says.

Many families at Wootton, and the other W high schools, spend thousands of dollars for the help of private counselors, who meet regularly with students while keeping parents in the loop. The counselors map out a tutoring and testing schedule, help with essays, suggest colleges, and in some cases offer advice on getting financial aid. This can easily cost $5,000 and often much more.

By fall of his junior year, Neal was meeting once a week with his English tutor and once a week with his math tutor to help him boost his standardized test scores. His parents were willing to pay for it -- it was about $3,000, a bit more than group sessions cost -- but only if he was willing to do the extensive homework and practice tests required by his tutors.

Insisting on Neal's commitment "was a no-brainer," said Janet Lerner, who is a speech pathologist. Neal's father, Chris, is a lawyer at the World Bank. "Basically, when he started out with the tutors, I said, 'We think this is something that will help. It's expensive. It's for you. If you aren't going to study, forget about it.' " It wasn't tough to convince Neal, Janet said. He jumped right in. "He is extremely organized and self-motivated. He really has sort of taken charge of things."

"My friends are going to tutors constantly," Neal said as the second semester began this winter.

School system data show that Wootton students' mean score for the SAT last year was 1784, the fourth-highest in Montgomery County, and well above the county mean of 1616. But principal Michael Doran says there are still many Wootton students who need guidance and don't have resources to get extra help.

"We have it all," Doran said. "We have some students who do all the things a private school would do, and some who have never thought about college or the fact that they could go to college." The school held a college application weekend in late fall during which members of the faculty and guidance department helped parents and students with the necessary paperwork. About 55 students and their families participated, he said. Wootton, like Montgomery's 24 other high schools, also offers a free, semester-long, in-school SAT test prep class.

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Such free or low-cost programs are part of a growing national effort to bridge the college prep divide, helping students with everything from getting ready for the standardized tests to charting what they need to do on a calendar, finding teachers to give recommendations and writing their application essays. College Tracks, a college prep mentoring program for students that was founded by a couple of moms at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School seven years ago, is one such program. So are Reach for College!, College Bound and College Summit, which serve students in the District and Prince George's County.

Nancy Leopold and some of her PTA friends started College Tracks after noticing how their children's less-privileged classmates were struggling with the college application process. "The difference between those who get through . . . and those who don't tends to be the grown-ups around them," said Leopold. "They have to have knowledge, have to have time, and they tend to nag when necessary. If you are the first in your family going to college, it is very unlikely that you are going to have that kind of grown-up in your life."

Last year, College Tracks expanded from B-CC, where it served 162 students in the last school year, to Wheaton High School, where it served 264 students. One of the group's goals is to get to the juniors sooner, but that's a challenge because the seniors' needs are more urgent: By fall of their senior year at Wheaton, many of them haven't taken the SAT or ACT or done much to get the college application process started, putting them almost a year behind many of their counterparts at Wootton.

Wheaton has become a higher-achieving school in recent years, though the SAT scores don't yet show it, with a mean composite score of 1314 last year. Last year, 77 percent of the seniors took the SAT, lower than Wootton (88 percent) but higher than some schools in more affluent parts of the county. At Wheaton, about 50 percent of the student body receives free or reduced-price school breakfast and lunch, compared with Wootton, where about 5 percent uses the program.

College Tracks helps those Wheaton students who can't afford pricey private tutoring. They include junior Julie Castaneda, 16, an American-born daughter of a Salvadoran-born father who is a carpenter and a Mexican-born mother who cleans houses. Julie is trying to become the first in her family to go to college. When Julie isn't doing homework at the family computer jammed in next to the dining room table in the small home her family rents in Wheaton, or cheering at a basketball game, or going to practice, or helping out at home with her three younger siblings, she has been trying to get ahead on the scholarship race, trying to cobble together the thousands of dollars in college financial aid she needs.

An accomplished student in Wheaton's engineering program, Julie has been attending some lunchtime sessions at College Tracks, where she got some tips on Web sites that can help her look for scholarships. It's always busy at College Tracks during lunch; the five computers are almost constantly in use. Julie will probably also take part in some free or reduced-price after-school tutoring offered by several private tutoring firms and the school-sponsored crash practice session held one afternoon just before the SAT and ACT dates. Julie won't take the county's free school-day prep class until next fall because she could not fit it into her schedule during her junior year.

Julie says she hopes to take the SAT for the first time in late spring but fears she won't do well, despite her 3.5 grade-point average. She expects she will need to retake the test in the fall. Like many Wheaton students, she will be able to pay a reduced fee for the tests because she is eligible for the subsidized meal program at Wheaton.

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Many of the W school kids already are in major fret mode by the end of the junior year, trying to assess the school they will target for an early decision application, which means they promise to attend if accepted. It's another benefit for more affluent students but not an option for most at Wheaton, where, in Julie's Zip code, the median income in 2007 was $65,452.

Students with limited funds who might want to attend some of the nation's top schools can't commit that early in the process because they haven't had a chance to compare financial aid packages. The statistics say that the odds of getting admitted to a top college are better if a student applies for early decision. (A move led by Harvard and the University of Virginia to end early decision a few years ago to try to make the application process more equitable has gained little traction at other elite colleges.)

Neal has no plans to apply for early decision; he says he isn't sure he can zero in on what he wants. Tuition prices won't be a deterrent, and he's hoping for a school someplace warm with good academic and sports programs. The University of Southern California is looking very attractive.

For now, Neal says he is just happy to be finished with the SAT and ACT -- most likely for good. He explained his thinking: He had done particularly well on the math -- he's a standout math student, and his combined SAT score was 1920 out of 2400. His combined ACT score was 30 out of 36. Could he improve his scores a bit more by taking the test again? Probably. But he was worried that he might not be able to get the same combination -- he might get a higher math score but lower English and writing scores, for example, which could lessen his standing. He had the same concerns about the ACT, which has separate sections for English, math, reading, science and writing.

His mother also isn't sure whether Neal should leave well enough alone or try again. "Unfortunately, it seems to be such a game," said Janet. "You feel like you have to play it. It is so difficult to get into college now. That is where I question what we are doing. Should I be pushing more? Should Neal take the tests again? You just don't know. Do you push to take it again?"

Miranda S. Spivack writes about Montgomery County growth and development for The Post. She can be reached at spivackm@washpost.com.

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